Killing the Messenger by Christopher Wallace

killing the messengerAdland Politics

Killing the Messenger is the latest offering from Christopher Wallace. A political conspiracy based around the idea of “an extraordinary formula, one that could truly change attitudes, behaviours and buying habits, all that and more. Oh yes, things changed in adland when governments realised they could sell policy like any product, change social behaviours by creating the craving for change.” In a Mad Men meets In the Loop political satire, the power of governments and methods of communication are explored.

Set in the final days of the Labour government the ‘wellbeing’ of the nation becomes the new priority for the government. With striking parallels between the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition’s Big Society and the theory of ‘Broken Britain’ it is the job of rising star Greig Hynd to implement and market the new policy. A policy of ‘togetherness’. A cohesive, happy society which can share its problems with the government and work towards improving the wellbeing of its members. The benefits? Less crime, more productive industry, happier people and less strain on the health system. Can anyone really stand to lose?

The only way to achieve such an ambitious policy is to call on the services of the admen. And advertising executive Calum Begg has the solution; “the formula… Accidental alchemy, magicking up the stuff of dreams. Ads that have the audience salivating with an unbearable yearning, yet serve up the meal to be devoured then and there, all in the same communication… Together Now!” And so ensues the unorthodox subliminal programming of society though the channels of the mass media.

But who is working for who? In Kafkaesque style the characters embark on endless meetings, encounter endless middlemen and endless struggles for power. The government needs the admen to achieve more power, and the admen need the government to bring in the work. Together they are a machine, ready to fix the problem no matter what the cost. Yet just like Cameron’s ‘Big Society’,‘wellbeing’ is hard to fix because no one can say exactly what the problem is. A solution is offered, but a solution to what? The flagship policy is an airy-fairy confusing cloud that keeps expanding and contorting until it eventually bursts.

In the age of the mass media and the Facebook generation the power of advertising is clear to see. The tangled web the government weaves with campaigns and spin doctors, super-injunctions – the fictional conspiracy in this book can be seen as a critique of today’s government and certainly does beg the question: who has the power? According to the admen all you need to do is “show people coming together and you’ve got something powerful. Show it fast with all kinds of colour-coding, background noise and ambient cues and you add an exponential element of force. Put it together; test it, finetune it so you know where it kicks hardest, and you can sell anything. Happiness. Compliance. Anything.” Yet the enormity of the situation, the struggles and the confusion – all integral themes of the book – do not make the first few chapters easy reading. It is only as the campaign launch approaches that the situation is revealed to both reader and characters.

Despite this, Killing the Messenger is very of the moment. Wallace creates a plausible conspiracy with all the farce, stress, powerchasing and scandal that is part and parcel of government. The novel questions the motives of those who seek power and those who advocate change. The issue of mental health and who knows best is also raised in an interesting context. But the message surrounding the control of society through the media is clear – “it comes with its sideeffects, many as yet unknown.”


Killing the Messenger
Christopher Wallace
Freight Books, rrp £12•99, 272pp