Opinion

Communications is all about context

In the communications business, we can’t judge a thing from our own context, we have to judge it from the context it belongs in – writes Dave Trott

I was at the Tate Modern looking at an artwork by Susan Hiller.

It was a series of photographs of Victorian memorial stones.

Each one commemorated someone who died while performing an act of heroism.

One in particular struck me:  “Elizabeth Boxall aged 17 of Bethnal Green, who died of injuries received in trying to save a child from a runaway horse, June 20 1888”.

The reason this struck me was my dad always saved a newspaper clipping from the 1930s, about his big brother, Tom.

Dad and Uncle Tom were both policemen.

Dad was really proud that Uncle Tom had been on point duty, directing traffic, when a runaway horse came tearing down the street.

Everyone scattered because they were terrified.

But Uncle Tom threw his arms round the horse’s neck and hung on, dragging his boots along the road.

The weight began to turn the horse until it ran straight into a plate glass window.

Uncle Tom and the horse ended up covered in glass inside the shop.

But no one else was hurt at all.

Dad always saved this newspaper clipping, he was very proud of it.

I never could understand why he thought it was such a big deal, or why the papers even reported it.

When I was young there were hardly any horses around, so I never saw a runaway horse just gentle old nags.

But that memorial stone at the Tate Modern made me think of what horses were like in a different time.

Before cars or lorries, every vehicle was powered by horses.

In 1894 for instance, London buses alone used fifty thousand horses and there were eleven thousand horse-drawn cabs.

Each horse created up to thirty-five pounds of manure a day.

That meant a quarter of a million tons of manure on the streets every year.

That’s what happens when every vehicle is horse-drawn.

In 1909 eighteen people were killed by runaway horses.

In 1913 Emily Davison, the suffragette, died when she threw herself in front of the King’s horse at Epsom.

The purpose of the cavalry in war was to crush the enemy.

Ranks of armed men would break and run rather than be trampled.

A runaway horse was a ton of muscle moving at thirty miles an hour.

And once that amount of muscle was moving it was very hard to stop it.

But Uncle Tom, a young east end copper, thought he could.

That was why he threw his arms round the horse’s neck and held on.

That’s how he stopped it killing anyone.

And that’s why Dad always kept that clipping from the newspaper.

And it suddenly made sense to me in the Tate Modern.

I realised we can’t judge things by our own standards.

From my perspective throwing your arms round a horse made no sense.

Why not just let the horse run until it’s worn itself out?

But many years earlier that wasn’t the way it worked

If it was left to run it would almost certainly plough into a crowd of people and kill someone.

Their world wasn’t my world.

That’s a good lesson for anyone in the communications business.

We can’t judge a thing from our context, we have to judge it from the context it belongs in.

Dave Trott is a consultant, author and former ad agency creative director. This article was first published on his blog

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