Why “cool” stunts creativity: one agency offers its opinion

18 November 2015

According to Fran Docx, a strategist at London-based agency 18 Feet and Rising, the omnipresent little four-letter word beginning with “c” is being rendered meaningless. So why does it play such a huge part in creative conversations? Here she is…

The creative world is a spectacular melting pot of contradictions and complexity. Everything is open source and interface, language is evolving at such a rate it’s abandoned its own vehicle – the most popular “word” of 2014 was the heart emoji. It’s unsurprising then, that identity itself has become a frenetic concept.

Pronouns are outdated; Facebook offers a choice of 57 gender options; you’ll soon be able to replace your boss with an app. It’s beautiful, it’s gorgeous; the world is twinkling right now. Creatives have never had such a varied palette from which to draw inspiration. There is something I’ve noticed that worries me though. Something that seems to have slipped into the creative vernacular unremarkably; the word “cool” #cool.

In an advertising brief meeting a few weeks ago I counted the number of times I heard the word “cool”; fifteen million three hundred and twenty four times. Yes, you heard me correctly, fifteen million three hundred and twenty four. I said it at least three times myself. In a world of such complexity, why is it that we continue to work with such a blunt instrument? The word seems impenetrable and indisputable and that’s because it now means absolutely nothing.

“It just has to look cool.”
“Ah ‘kay, yeah cool.”
“Want to go on a picnic?”
“Yeah, cool.”
“Is it cool if I take a dump on your step?”
“Cool, whatever”

It is a vacuous word used in contradictory ways that pollutes marketing and stunts creativity. Where did this useless and ubiquitous word begin its insidious journey into Western culture? It began with the sturdy folk of the Middle Ages; whilst they may have been uncertain of the spelling, they knew the meaning – “cool” referred to moderate temperature, no questions. Skip on a bit to Shakespeare and he did what he did best – metaphorised it; ‘cool’, for the 16th Century, meant calmness, rationality and composure.

It’s all pretty clear at this point. Then we get to the 20th Century and things gets fuzzy. It became definitive of the 1920s jazz scenes and then bohemians, beatniks, James Dean and so on. It began to be a proxy for counterculture, for anti-establishment and for not giving a single shit.

Today, cool has become the central ideology of consumer capitalism, particularly for youth brands. With Sisyphean effort, every youth brand is chasing the spectrum of cool. There’s even a “cool brands” list even though cool is now the least counterculture word that exists, and has basically come to mean “consensus.” We have absorbed the word “cool” it into a monoculture that is draining it of its currency. If we are to use our creativity to appeal we need cynicism to be alive and well.

This is my manifesto for change:

1. Consign “cool” to the status of “okay” and cease to use it as a descriptor, value judgment or marketing objective.

2. Ban the word “cool” from marketing altogether. Also ban the word “millennial” because it’s shit (I don’t want to go into this).

3. Unpack how you really mean to use it and start there.

Determine how a company can define their “counterculture” stance in the context of their business. For instance with Uber – never own a car again. Spotify – music without limits, etc. If a company truly wants to be “cool” and produce “cool” ideas they must have a stance against establishment, they must disrupt and challenge.

To this end, Coke is not cool and never will be. How can Coke ever be counterculture? It’s basically a cultural icon, it’s the Statue of Liberty, it’s a London fucking bus. So when (and I’m sure this happens) someone issues the “cool” brief for Coke – what they really mean is “appealing” – at which point you’ve basically said nothing (return to points 1 and 2).

The new generations are too brilliant for marketing to be so obtuse and creative industries are too clever not to notice this. Words like “youth,” “millennial” and “cool” are just insultingly reductive. These blunt and shitty terms are just as good as saying “men” or “Africa” or “husband.” At the very least, we need to reframe our approach to target audiences through attitudinally defined segments and play into the values specific to them. And stop saying it’s fucking cool.

Share Article

Further Info

About the Author

Fran Docx

It's Nice That Newsletters

Fancy a bit of It's Nice That in your inbox? Sign up to our newsletters and we'll keep you in the loop with everything good going on in the creative world.