An endless round of perfectly-formed gotchas

Some people can’t tell the difference between advertising billboards and politics.

Mock-up photograph by the protest group Led By Donkeys showing a billboard with Nigel Farage's face and a quote that says "Brexit has failed - BBC Newsnight, 15th May 2023"
“We don’t have much in the way of politics but wait till you see these gotchas”

What is it that’s so contemptible about this kind of shallow, patronising bollocks?

For liberals, this kind of smart ‘gotcha’ has now almost entirely replaced politics. For these billboard warriors, if you hone your gotcha, tighten up the creative, select the perfect damning quote from your target, no politics is required.

But a gotcha, let’s be real – a clever communication of any kind, in fact, no matter how smart, witty or penetratingly devastating it is – *boom, smash, tinkle, fx of power station collapsing* – cannot stand in for politics.

Once you’ve done your amazing, super-persuasive take-down, once your killer billboard is out there in the cities and towns, it must be easy to convince yourself that you’ve done your politics and can now take the rest of the day off.

I’m not a historian or a political scientist (or anything really) so I don’t know if this is something to do with Gramsci or the cultural turn or the final triumph of the Mad Men advertising and marketing pop culture culture thing.

But I suspect it’s actually to do with a terrible lack of ambition, an almost total loss of anything even slightly utopian in our dreams. A really solid take-down or a killer clap-back is now, in the post-political era, essentially all we can hope for.

It’s not the fault, vaguely, of social media or of collapsing attention spans or, I don’t know, narcissism or influencer culture or any of that stuff. It’s the fault of the collapsing horizon of radical possiblity.

Cut off from both ends, by the progressive neutering of democratic engagement in the states we live in and by the ever darker, pre-modern urges of the authoritarian right, radicals can only now dream of winning the argument on social media.

Improving lives, changing circumstances, transcending the grim stasis of neoliberalism and marketisation and precaritisation – all off the agenda. We might win the meme wars, though.

A huge explosion from Star Wars, a spaceship in the foreground

What’s worse – perhaps the most irritating thing about these stupid ads – is that they don’t actually say anything. There’s no message at all. No proposition, no offer. No suggestion of anything better or even different – just a dumb quote from the dumb golf club demagogue himself. And the idea is that this quote, in some way sufficient unto itself, will demolish him and his whole platform – like the explosion at the end of a sci-fi invasion that neatly disposes of the entire threat in one big bang. BOOM.

There’s a perfect, hermetic circularity to this: a weakness is identified (preferably hypocricy – hypocricy is usually best); a clever ad or post or column is written (some of these geniuses are actually advertising copywriters so it’s good stuff); the ad goes into circulation and goes viral; much celebratory nodding; campaign complete. Repeat.

And, obviously, the whole thing depends on a perfect, patrician disregard for the people targeted by the ad, for the mainly working class people in whose neighbourhoods these billboards are put up (modelled, in the mock-up photo, by the two people walking their dog, staring slow-wittedly at the billboard, reaching for the truth).

These posters are a kind of happy, crowdfunded ‘fuck you’ from the metropolis – a ‘fuck you’ for the low-information leavers’ gullibility or their xenophobia. “Look, we found this quote! It proves you were taken in! Confirms you’re a mug, a retard – and probably a mouth-breathing racist! Wake up! Join us!”