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Our thoughts on the purpose-led economy


The Semiotics of Purpose:

Meaning Is The Message

Jared Elms

Executive Creative Director, Matter Unlimited

It’s a casual Saturday. You’re all layered up, braving the frosty temps of late stage winter in your questionably-sourced Canada Goose jacket with your questionably-produced almond milk latte in hand, maybe even walking your designer dogs among the commercialized Brooklyn enclave you call home. Just minding your Millennial business. And then it hits you like a suckerpunch.  


It comes in the form of graffiti art tagged in white across the facade of another luxury apartment complex about to shoot up next to your favorite high-end juice shop.

It convicts you straight away. Stops you dead in your tracks. It’s not just speaking about “You,” it’s speaking to YOU.


And there’s no unseeing it. Forget the bold, simple font. The extreme legibility of the almost style-less graffiti style. It’s the message that jolts you like a cattle prod. Or rather, the meaning at the heart of the message. You race to answer the double-question, replies ranging from defensive to guilt-ridden.


You step back and reassess. Not just the situation, but EVERYTHING.


Am I helping or am I hurting what, exactly?!?


Is it a comment on the need for conscientious consumption? A pissed-off anarchist bemoaning the lack of affordable housing in the area? A critique of how our modern lifestyles are incompatible with the health of our planet? A guerilla style campaign by A.O.C. to drum up street cred for her Green New Deal legislation? WHAT?


Suddenly you’re self-conscious of the coyote-sourced fur lining your jacket. The incredible amounts of water waste it took to produce the almond milk in your latte. Even the existence of the luxury housing it’s scrawled on seems linked to the inflated rent you’re able to afford in this very block. All converge and almost become your fault, since, let’s be honest, this neighborhood having the highest ratio of specialty coffee per capita did indeed factor into your decision to live here. So yes, you had a hand in all this.


That’s what makes it such a brilliant piece of communication. It refuses easy answers and invites you to dig deeper, really analyzing all the ways you impact the planet and fellow humankind. And the anxiety it produces in the viewer as we survey all the ways we might be hurting the world around us at least as much as we’re helping it only adds to its genius.


Perhaps the graffiti in question not ending in a question mark is what makes it so perfectly open-ended. Either the artist is uninterested in punctuation (fair enough), or they mean it more as a statement. A confrontational question that’s turducken’d inside a forceful directive. As if to say, there’s no question that the answer is Yes, you are helping and hurting. At best, both in equal measure.


Some might bristle at how in-your-face the tone is. It’s like: Bro, chill. My friend’s InstaStory captured this reaction perfectly: I’m just walking, Jesus.

Whether you take it as an opportunity for soul searching or shut down and keep walking isn’t the point. You saw it. And it will now foment in your brain until you answer its fundamental line of inquiry.


Ignore its existential question(s) at your peril. Because if you live in NYC, this graffiti art is coming for you. Reviving the same provocative spirit that Baudelaire and Rimbaud used to tear into the French decadence of their day with the refrain: Shock the Bourgeoisie!


Like all the best art, this artfully expressed line resists easy conclusions. Viewers bring with them the meaning they see in the art. The artist’s job is just to create a work that lends itself to a multitude of meanings.


But (SPOILER ALERT), there was one meaning more intended than the others. Turns out, the artist behind it -- Toni, a 27 year-old playwright, poet, photographer and street artist who identifies as “they” -- meant the words to speak to “morality and self-love.” Going further, they say that it’s a way to talk to their broken selves (and ours by proxy). “What hurts you or helps you feel okay?” is the way the artist answers their own question. Amazing that such few words can house a conversation about mental health as easily as our impact on a warming planet (my personal take, among others).


But whatever your take, make no mistake: in a media landscape inundated with lazy headlines and relentless product porn, this is one of the most potent and convicting pieces of copy NYC has seen in years.


And the target is wide: anybody and everybody. Every pair of eyeballs that sees it coming up with their own guilty interpretation of how they aren’t measuring up.

For those of us who traffic in purpose and create platforms, programs and communications that aim to solve real world problems (otherwise known as “social impact”), this headline is the new gold standard for copy.


It functions as one of the most powerful purpose-driven calls to action I’ve ever seen.


It transcends that and operates on the level of socially-conscious street art. A dialogue steeped in cultural critique that’s sorely missing from public spaces these days.


And it’s been awhile since I’ve come across a piece of graffiti art that made me want to be a better man, a better citizen, a better steward of the planet. Yet, it does all of that in spades.


So let’s take a cue from the streets. Let’s be more meaningful in our communications. More compelling and provocative in our dialogue with audiences. More convicting and revelatory in our calls to action.


The first step is going beyond McLuhan’s new media adage “The medium is the message” and seeing meaning as the very message. From a meaningful Kaepernick Nike headline in a social post to unexpectedly meaningful copy found in the streets.


The ability to inspire and make people rethink their role and behavior in the world is a pretty powerful platform. Stopping people in their tracks to ponder the sustainability of their very existence shouldn’t just be the purvey of graffiti art. We’re the keepers of the billboards, bus shelters, and building-sized wallscapes. Our clients entrust us with the keys to those sacred, monied places. And what we do with them is an enormous opportunity for a real exchange with our audience so long as we say it like we mean it.


For those of us in the impact space, it’s also time we turn the looking-glass back on ourselves and apply the same line of questioning. If the answer is that we’re helping our business even more than we’re helping the cause it’s supposedly for, then we’re probably hurting more than we’re helping said cause, aren’t we?


None of us get a free pass just because our expressed mission is to help more than hurt. The proof is in the doing, not in the posturing. The causes and brands we support in this purpose-led economy deserve nothing less.