"Many of the battles we fought were over issues of 'representation'- a loosely defined set of grievances mostly lodged against the media, the curriculum and the English language...ours was a politics of mirrors and metaphors."
Naomi Klein, "No Logo".
At the Media Action Group for Mental Health, part of our stated aim is to "promote positive, accurate and realistic images of mental health and people who live with mental distress." The key word here, perhaps, is "images", for at our charity, we are mostly concerned with what is sometimes termed "identity politics". That is to say, we do not promote actual, concrete reforms in law, for example, but rather, seek to better the "representation" of mental illness and those with experience of it. Our hope is that by doing this, some social change will take place- knowledge, attitudes and behaviour will somehow transmogrify.
As Naomi Klein (above) points out in her book, "No Logo", the politics of representation became the raison d'etre of many rights movements in the late '80s and 90s. In what she calls the "political correctness wars", the feminist, gay and racial equality movements largely became about how such classes of the oppressed were represented in the media, literature and language. As she states, this became a case of veritably altering people's consciousness, that "for real progress to take place, imaginations...had to be decolonized."
But, as she goes on to point out, it wasn't long before advertising and marketing executives became savvy to this trend. If diversity was what this generation wanted, then it would be sold back to them with added interest. So, Klein states, "a P.C. marketing craze" ensued in which the ideas and political beliefs of a generation were appropriated by the corporations, essentially selling their own ideas back to them. And, this was no social, cultural or political revolution, but one based on the pure economic sense of the branded world. Meanwhile, the corporations would go on in their unethical fashion, increasingly occupying our cultural and even mental "space", limiting our choices, and changing the face of our economies.
I feel this is something for us to think about at the Media Action Group. As we are in the business of representation, our latest campaign, "Local People, Local Lives" perhaps owes more to advertising than it does to real political, social, cultural or legal change. Using "social marketing" techniques, therefore, we seek to change the views of our local populace concerning mental illness, still hoping to bring about a real change in society. But, as we argue about what strategy to adopt in attempting to get our message across, are we missing the point? Would we do better trying to change legislation, or lobbying for better social care and mental health services? An approach referred to by one of my colleagues as "the iron fist in the velvet glove."
But, perhaps, mental illness is different from other rights movements, as it appears to inherently lack the sexiness or cool of those particular political campaigns. Our ideas have yet to be swallowed and spewed back to us by the corporate world. Indeed, just how would you go about "marketing madness" in a society which views it so negatively? If there were money in it, it would have already been done. I still go to McDonald's to buy a "Big Mac", not a "Big Mad". So, in the end, as our movement against stigma still seems to be in its infancy, all we can do is continue to attempt to erode that stigma in any way we can.
However, although the days of "mad chic" have yet to come to pass, one wonders how long it will be before the same process which Klein describes happens to our fledgling movement? If anti-stigma campaigns actually took off and were assessed as actually having a concrete effect on society, would the corporations even hesitate in marketing madness themselves? Indeed, as the list of celebrity sufferers grows, I wonder just how many Stephen Frys, Charlie Sheens, Catherine Zeta-Joneses and Patsy Palmers it will take to spark the eventual interest of the corporate machine?
Meanwhile, we at the Media Action Group are already in the process of attempting to market madness; to "re-brand" it, as it were. In some kind of strange loop, we now borrow from the marketing world in an attempt to "sell" our beliefs to the public, much in the same way as the advertisers and corporations appropriated ideas for the content of their marketing tools from real political movements to sell their products. In this world of representations we hope to occupy a small, but important space in your consciousness. We hope you're taking notice. Maybe you're not. One thing is certain, though, and that is, when the big corporations start reflecting that new mental space, when our movement is big enough to make a buck out of, that's when we'll really know, in this strange, inverted, post-modern world, we've made an impact.