by Chris Windeyer
Let nobody say government cannot move quickly when it’s properly motivated.
Yukon’s Department of Health and Social Services moved swiftly and surely to stamp out any trace of its instantly infamous “We all need the D” poster campaign. Fortunately for the juveniles among us, it is now immortal.
The purpose of this campaign was supposed to be that vitamin D is good for you, which I think is a worthwhile public venture. The Internet, as usual, promptly pounced on it, pointing out “the D” is slang for the male appendage, more particularly the male appendage doin’ sex stuff.
The whole thing followed a fairly standard order of events: Person sees poster, laughs at dick joke, posts a photo of said dick joke on Imgur. Someone posts this Imgur link to Facebook where I see it and promptly write a tweet about it to the effect that the Yukon government appears to not know what “The D” means, at least in the parlance of our times.
At the same time, other people are finding it on their own and likewise posting about it. Pretty soon, Buzzfeed Canada is phoning the Health and Social Services for comment. On a Sunday.
Initially, I thought this was your conventional public relations – ahem – boner: not unlike the time the Nova Scotia public health agency printed up hundreds of buttons extolling the importance of “pubic health.”
What’s weird is that the department claims staffers knew what “the D” is slang for. Whether that’s true or not is a matter of some conjecture. After all, public health campaigns are known to sometimes be cheeky in order to grab attention. On the other hand, bureaucracies tend to be averse to controversy, and it’s hard to imagine a departmental higher-up signing off on a campaign where D equals “dick.”
At any rate, having been busted, the department is now shifting the blame to all those meanies on the Internet. “We knew it was an innuendo for sex,” a department spokesperson told the News. “We did not realize that it was as crude as it is now being purported to be.”
In other words, the department knew it was a sex joke, but considers the whole thing ruined by the fact that people picked up on the sex joke.
Sadly, the spokesperson continued, the people who modeled for the posters are now also receiving unwanted comments about “the D.” While it isn’t clear exactly what those comments are, there’s a pretty obvious potential range here, from the merely tiresome to the completely unacceptable.
That’s unfortunate, because those poor folks were just showing up to pose for photos, and probably had no idea what was in store for them. I highly doubt the photographer discussed display copy with models ahead of time. But again, the department seems to be trying to wash its hands of responsibility here.
“They (the models) were brought in to do a job and now people are providing very personal comments. Which are completely inappropriate and I’m really disappointed, honestly, that people would take it to that level,” the spokesperson said.
Uh, you guys started this whole thing, so kindly dismount the high horse.
The News now tells us that the poster campaign shall be consigned to the government memory hole, that all the posters, pamphlets and billboards will go to the shredder or the burn barrel.
This is not a surprise. The poster is, strictly speaking, wildly inappropriate, at least in the sense bureaucracies understand the term, which is to say it could be construed as something really, really bad, but only if you follow the logic to its darkest, most absurd end. To do that, you’d have to be the kind of person who thinks your can of Zoodles is flashing you, but then, people like that really do exist.
Still, “the D” dies a hero. The campaign has generated what’s called “earned” media, coverage that amplifies the intended message for free. Indeed this very piece is doing that. It’s hard to believe that wasn’t the intention all along. And hey, it’s bloody dark out right now. Vitamin D really is our friend. It’s an easy pitch.
But all this reveals a fundamental insanity at the heart of this kind of public sector marketing: the idea that an ad campaign should be risque, but not too risque, is impossibly wishful thinking. “In practice,” writes the anthropologist David Graeber in his book about bureaucracy, The Utopia of Rules, “bureaucratic procedure invariably means ignoring all the subtleties of real social existence.”
Consider this statement the department offered to the National Post: “[W]hat was considered cheeky messaging on our Vitamin D campaign escalated to ribald humour, taking the campaign into graphic areas that were never intended.”
It is at this point one wonders if these people have ever been teenagers, smoked pot in university or even stood around a fire with friends, talking about random crap over a few beers. Things can get weird. The reality of human conversation is that it is unruly, rambunctious, sometimes gross, and often prone to get out of hand. It is inherently difficult to govern. It is the folly of bureaucrats to think they could even try.
Chris Windeyer is a freelance journalist based in Dawson City.