June 7, 2016
Context, nuance, sensitivity… useless words! An ad campaign doesn’t need them
by Chad Felix
An advertising campaign for Penguin Random House UK’s “Pocket Penguins” series—which promotes books like The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, O Pioneers! by Willa Cather, and The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad—has become a source of controversy after some perceived a poster in the London Underground as anti-Russian, RT reports.
Against a blank background, the red text of the poster reads: “Aristocracy, liberalism, progress, principles… Useless words! A Russian doesn’t need them.”
It seems fair not to understand on a first glance why this particular sentiment is adorning the walls of the Underground. The text of the ad is completely unattributed, which seems meant as a provocation: “What is this fantastic line? I must read that book!” The poster reflects the format of the entire ad campaign—unattributed lines from the various books in the series, clearly meant to pique curiosity. But in this case, it’s hard to get much from the quote besides an assertion that Russians oppose progress and principles.
It might be helpful to know that the quote comes from Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, one of Russia’s most beloved novels. But that book, originally published in 1863, is hardly as well-known to the average book-savvy Londoner as, say, Walden, or Heart of Darkness, some of the other titles advertised in the campaign.
Context—which this particular campaign willfully eschews—is the biggest problem. There are plenty of more famous lines in the novel that seem better suited to such a campaign: “We sit in the mud, my friend, and reach for the stars,” for example, or “Go on, into the water with you, my young philosophers!” But the line in the ad is more obscure. It reflects the opinion of a single character, one of the narrator’s sons who belongs to the “nihilist” movement, which by the 1860’s had Russia’s radical youth in an uproar. In that context, it powerfully expresses the feelings of a social movement that was sweeping Russia at the time it was written. But here, critics have found that context so glaringly absent that the ad seems to reflect a desire to benefit from—or worse, incite—anti-Russian sentiment in the UK.
Compare this with Thoreau’s contribution to the ad campaign for contrast. From Walden: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Thoreau’s line is famous, famously harmless, and doesn’t require all that much context to understand: it’s a successful Tumblr post, a postcard, an overpriced rosewood bookmark you bought once at the Yosemite National Park giftshop. It works.
Negative response to the Turgenev ad was brought to social media light by Tanya Solovyeva, a Russian expat living in London. She addressed Penguin Random House UK publicly via Facebook: “You perfectly know that these words, twisted and taken out of the context, will sink in as a dogma ‘Russians = barbarians.’ It’s an absolute low for the publishing house presenting itself as one of the oldest and trustworthy in this country, it is an absolute disgrace, cheap and ethnic hatred inducing propaganda.”
Response to the post, according to RT, has been sympathetic:
Some proposed a thought experiment where a similar quote would substitute Russians for “Muslims”—and wondered whether that ad campaign would still be allowed. Others suggested filing a complaint with UK regulators, and yet another said that “Russians can reply to words with punches.” Many claimed this was an orchestrated undercover plan to sow distrust between the two nations that deserved a response from the foreign ministry.
A change.org petition entitled “Remove ‘Penguin Publishing’ Anti-Russian poster promoting hatred between the nations” is accepting signatures now.
To which Penguin Random House responded: “Our poster campaign is designed to intrigue people to find out more and introduce them to books we believe they will treasure. The campaign is intended as a celebration of these wonderful books.”
One question is left hanging, though: what’s so “intriguing” about Turgenev’s line? Offensive or not, it is surely taken completely out of context. And context, it seems, is one thing we do need.
Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.