Watch one of the 1980s UK TV advertisements for British Pork (‘Lean on British Pork’). You will see three boys presented with a hot plate of pork by their mum. They lean, Michael Jackson-style, towards the steamy aroma. Behind them, on the wall of their dining room is a framed photograph of the three children. The power of the pork stench is so attractive that the children in the photograph also lean towards it.
I am the child on the right in the photograph. You can’t really make out that it’s me; you can’t even find the video on YouTube. There’s no way to verify that what I’m revealing to you is true. But it is. So there.
This series of adverts was made by a collective body representing the interests of the British Pork industry. To me, there’s something ever so slightly wonky about an interest group resorting to advertising the benefits of their wares en masse. It smacks (your chops) of desperation: there is something wrong with the product, something deficient, for it to have to be promoted in such a way. I feel the same way about public information videos and ‘special days’ to promote socially-beneficial initiatives (I smoked my first cigarette on ‘No Smoking Day’ in 1986, aged 13).
I don’t mean to appear iconoclastic and imply that it is cool to go against the grain of these spirited efforts to collectively promote good things (pork aside). It’s just that there are many of us who do respond to such messages with an aloof scepticism. And many people (children, too) do intuit a kind of desperation when we promote ‘good things’ collectively.
I think we sometimes fall into the trap of doing that with reading. A walk around any school will reveal displays with messages of this nature:
“Reading is thinking”
“Pick up a book and delve into a new world”
“Open a book; open a mind”
In assemblies, in Book Weeks, we bombard students with simile and metaphor and analogy to get across a good message: that reading is personal, empowering, educational and transcendent. It is the only way we have to genuinely experience the thoughts of another human over an extended period of time.
However, we risk ignoring a lesson that we teach our students every day: that of planning our message with purpose and audience at the outset. We want children to read – and we are aiming our message at children. So perhaps, whilst there is a place for motivational messages around the periphery of our initiatives, these messages abstract the benefits of reading, they talk about them, but at best they are a polite reminder. At worst, they are a banal admonishment from adults whose opinion-leadership is in decline.
I’m giving an assembly during our forthcoming book week, in which I will do one thing: I’m going to read the opening paragraphs of stories with a strong hook. That’s all.
Keep it lean.