As conventional wisdom would have it, one of the most legendary advertising campaigns of all time was Apple’s 1997 “Think Different”. Around the same time, as a teenager, I used to binge-watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus (on VHS). Most Python fans will remember the segue, or indeed complete lack thereof, between sketches picturing the announcer in an unusual or ridiculous setting who simply said, “And now for something completely different.”
Who knew that different can be done so differently?
So what, exactly, is the difference?
Let’s start with the Apple campaign. This one is an advertising campaign, so they don’t want to be so different that they appeal to a negligible niche within society. A segment of one person is an advertiser’s nightmare.
But leaving the pinch of salt aside, the people they cited in the campaign gives you an idea of what they were getting at – and if they weren’t “getting at” something, it wouldn’t have struck a chord with enough people.
What unites people like Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., Richard Branson and Pablo Picasso? Yes, they all thought differently but I would argue their thought was directed: built on conviction, and with a purpose in mind. Like the advert, they were “thinking different”: not simply out of contrarianism or obstinance, but with a particular goal in mind and with the intention to unite people behind them.
So two things to note:
- This approach is not about being the only person to think something, and keeping it to oneself. It’s about thinking the same thing as a smaller group of people.
- The ultimate aim is not necessarily to stay different but to determine the new normal.
“And Now For Something Completely Different”
Monty Python’s legendary transition between sketches – an example of which you can see below – is emblematic of Python’s complete break with anything that had gone before (okay, discounting The Goons perhaps). While usually amusing, a lot of their material, in my opinion, did indeed appear entirely random. Retrospectively, there are situations in real life that remind me of a Python sketch in one way or another, whether directly or in some abstruse parallel, but there is no way of telling whether that is how they intended it. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the point behind much of Python was its very pioneering “randomness”. Indeed, from the late 90s until now, being “random” has been taken as a complement.
One of my absolute favourite pieces of Python is the scene in The Life of Brian, where Brian is trying to extricate himself from an awkward situation in which a hoard of followers thinks he’s the new messiah. He tries to shake them off, telling them, “You’re all individuals!”
To which they reply, in unison, “Yes, we’re all individuals!” This itself is a shrewd comment on the trend, even then, towards styling oneself as an individual with the same zeal as those who follow any other religion. The parody is perfectly rounded off with a single doubter, who shouts, “I’m not!”
Indeed, in today’s world, 20 years after “the end of history”, liberalism’s doubters are – mind-bendingly – making a claim to being the true independent thinkers who dare to question received wisdom.
So to come back to the phenomenon of “something completely different”, I’d argue that Python at its best was funny because it sent up and questioned an establishment in desperate need of critical examination. The idea of being different for difference’s sake was, then as now, subversive and (maybe then but not now) amusing in itself because it was so new.
Now, however, being “random” is utterly unspectacular.
This brings me to the conclusion that being different for difference’s sake is not itself a virtue. Take a look at Cleese, the Python-in-chief: perhaps it his instinctive contrarianism that somehow allows him to embrace Brexit and to leave the UK, blaming the press while rather aggressively laughing his way through an interview on Newsnight as a way of ignoring perfectly legitimate questions.
Conclusion: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should
“And now for something completely different” could describe Britain’s reasoning for leaving the EU: reduced to a country of double negatives, it doesn’t want “no deal”, it doesn’t have “no confidence” in Theresa May, and it doesn’t have “no confidence” in May’s government. What does it want? This is where knee-jerk contrarianism gets you: on the run, with nowhere to go. The Trump phenomenon is probably a further case in point.
So by all means, “Think Different” if taking a different perspective allows you to shape a better future. But once your new idea is the new normal, you might actually have to defend it: if self-styled pirates think it’s time for change, you may find yourself begging to differ.
Featured image: John Heaven