This post was originally published on the now-retired Make & Meaning blog on February 13th, 2010.

Normal curve by Greg Werker (used with permission granted while he was sitting next to me)

Kids, there is a pervasive opinion out there that in order to appeal to a massive audience, you have to be bland.

Not that anyone actually says “bland” but that’s totally the gist of it.

Folks holding this opinion say things like, “Let’s tone this down,” and “We need to make sure this appeals to our suburban and rural audiences as well as to the edgier urban types.”

But what they really mean, even if they won’t admit it, is that they think a thing will have mass appeal if it’s bland. Banal. Benign. And I’ll even ruin my alliteration by tossing in generic.

I drive myself nuts thinking about this because at the same time that I think this way of thinking doesn’t give people credit as freethinking individuals and displays a conservatism that gives me hives, I also know that the business or marketing sense behind it is somewhat sound (of course there are exceptions like, you know, Lady Gaga). In any realm you examine, benign reaches a wider audience than whatever we call not-benign in this context. Let’s call it challenging.

I don’t like to believe it, but I know most people don’t like to be challenged constantly. I mean, I don’t either. I like to feel comfortable and safe and warm and cozy. I want to look at pretty pictures and listen to pleasing music and read books that don’t give me a headache. Well, most of the time. The other part of the time, I want to encounter ugly things so I can think through why I find them so revolting. I want to read a book that requires thought in addition to escape. I want to hear opinions that are very different from my own and I want to do my best to understand them.

Lately I’ve been signing up to receive a lot of email newsletters. Some of them are awesome. Most of the crafty ones are great, and so are the ones about books. They’re written in the business owner’s own voice and that voice comes through naturally, they’re playful and fun, and they get to the point.

And then there are the ones that aren’t so great.

The ones that aren’t so great fall into the category of those three Bs and a G listed above. They might contain a headshot of the person writing, but that person’s voice lacks personality. There’s solid information, but the topics fall into the middle part of the bell curve – it’s the same stuff most people talk about, the same stuff written about in most books and blogs and magazines, without any new angles or information or humour or graphics or exploration or fun.

It bothers me that businesses put out stuff like this, mostly because I’m bothered by it working. They do it because people click and link and buy.

And so when I go down the rabbit hole thinking about this stuff, I end up depressed. Selfishly, I get depressed because so much culture out there isn’t interesting to me, and I take the time to think about why I don’t find it interesting, and that spirals into a general lament about pretty much everything. I get depressed for the state of our culture.

But my therapist once pointed out to me that I’m an optimist. I’m a kind of unflappable optimist, really. So this despair doesn’t last long. Instead, it turns into drive. Drive to do my best not to contribute to the blandness, not to get lazy when I’m tempted to just repeat the easy stuff, to put in good effort to contribute work I’m proud of to the community and larger society I love so much.

And so I’ll take this opportunity to implore you to do the same. The next time you’re tempted to make or write about something popular, make sure you add your own take. Say what you think, dig deeper, take a step back, insert something unexpected. Or simply follow the rules to the letter, but show it off extraordinarily. Make a scarf exactly how the pattern says to, but take stunning photos of it.

See? We don’t have to be constantly coming up with edgy, brand new ideas that push the fringes of culture. We just owe it to ourselves to really contribute, in whatever way we can.


Unfortunately, all comments were lost when Make & Meaning was taken down. Don’t hesitate to repeat yourself here, or to join in on the new conversation!