What is "it?"

8 September 2006
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Ever since Nike exhorted us to "Just do it!", the pronoun has been the vessel for a whole range of cultural suggestions. Tim Ochser finds that "It" is not all that it seems.

McDonald’s launched its “I’m lovin’ it” slogan in 2003 as part of its first ever global advertising campaign. Today, the words are still plastered on billboards all around the world. The lower-case, calculatedly colloquial message needs little interpretation: You are happy. Times are good. Now eat.

But this is not about McDonald’s. It’s about the “it” they invoke in the name of their product. It’s an attempt to understand just what “it” really is.

“It” was first elevated to the status of a noun-in-itself through US sports-shoes manufacturer Nike’s extraordinarily successful advertising campaign urging people to “Just Do It.”

This laconic imperative is surely the most famous slogan in modern advertising history. According to company legend, it came out of a meeting in 1988 between the Nike and the advertising agency Wieden and Kennedy, in which Dan Wieden reputedly said: “You Nike guys, you just do it.” Worldwide sales in Nike footwear rose from US$ 877 million to US$ 9.2 billion between 1988 and 1998, which is probably as good a definition of “it” as any I can offer.

It was a masterpiece of rhetoric at the time, transmogrifying the “what” that had been tormenting people for centuries into a succinct and self-confident little “it”. Although “it” wasn’t specified, it didn’t need to be. “It” could be construed purely from the abstract context in which it stood. “It” was the object of desire, on first reading. But “it” also symbolized the semantic subjugation of language to a new order of meaning that was so apparently self-evident that “it” didn’t even need any explanation.

At a single swish-like stroke, the inherent semantic ambiguities of “it” were transformed into a robust and unequivocal word that the tongue could sportingly bat about like a leather ball.

I only fully realized the real significance of this newly-defined “it” when Nato bombed Serbia in 1999 during the war in Kosovo.

A large crowd of protestors stood on a bridge in Belgrade after a night of heavy bombing. A member of the crowd held a sign up that said in large capital letters: “NATO – JUST DO IT!” It was a neat bit of heavy-handed Balkan humour. It showed that “it” was not merely part of a pithy little phrase that shifted millions of units of trainers made by a minimally paid-workforce in countries like Vietnam and Thailand and then sold them at extraordinary profit margins. The protestor’s sign clearly intended to reveal “it” as a symbol of political and economic imperialism, which was what really lay behind the spurious neutrality and universality of the third person pronoun the slogan employed.

It was around the same time that “it” really started to take on a life of its own. A new breed of useless female celebrity was dubbed the “it-girl” by the British media.
Although the term was originally coined in the 1920s after Clara Bow starred in a silent Hollywood film called “It”, the it-girl was very much a 1990s phenomenon.

She was famous just for being famous, the sole criterion being that she should be sexually attractive. “It” has always served as a sexual euphemism but now the word was explicitly depicting the sexual objectification of women. “It” also alluded to the vacuous nature of celebrity as a whole by tacitly acknowledging that media profiles were interchangeable spaces, able to be filled by anyone with the requisite sexual presence.

“It” was also a homonym of IT. Okay, so the two words don’t actually have anything in common: IT is an acronym for Information Technology, but IT had certainly played a key role in the conditions that contributed to the sudden rise to stardom of “it”. I am probably pushing “it” to extremes in saying this, but “it” even hinted at a religious symbol by aligning the eternally isolated “I” with the cruciform “t” (only in English, “its” language of choice) in a sort of stick figure enactment of the crucifixion. Which all goes to show that “it” was absolutely whatever you wanted it to be.

For much of the twentieth century, the Freudian idea of the id was the ultimate source of subjectivity. This idyllic cerebral cave was the home of the beast within and as such it readily assumed mythical status. Of course, the id was a purely metaphorical notion inasmuch as it was an entirely linguistic construction, but it nevertheless exerted a powerful fascination over people for many years and helped supplant the notion of sin as the enemy within.

But over the years, the id evolved, as if by a gradual process of metathesis, into the “it”. People were forced to break away from the solipsistic introspection that years of religion, philosophy and psychoanalysis had inculcated into them. They were forced instead into playing that most sporty of American pastimes: the pursuit of happiness.

“It” became burdened with the same exaggerated significance that the id had previously had to bear. In other words, where people had been obsessively excavating their “I” to find self-fulfilment, they now passionately pursued it in the form of “it”.

This was not merely a syntactic sleight of hand. It represented a real shift in meaning. “I” had been a mule for too much misery for too long. Now the onus lay on “it” in the classic carrot and stick model.

L’Oreal made particularly interesting use of “it” in its popular “Because I’m Worth It” campaign. Here the “I” and the “it” were confused to the point of being indistinguishable. By this logic, I am of equal value to “it”, although “it” is once again an unspecified entity.

So I am admonished to “just do it” while being informed that “I’m lovin’ it”. Apparently, I am even “worth it”, just in case I had any lingering doubts. This is all very reassuring, but what, I ask again, is this mysterious “it”?

“It” has always been a predicate of a distinct subject – until now. Now “it” can seemingly stand alone, a metonym for a world that is so self-evident in its aims and desires and beliefs that it needs no further justification. In this, “it” is becoming as truly a universal sign as the cross. It can abstractly dangle by itself in mid-space, so to speak, and immediately be understood.

Diverging slightly from the subject, or object, or whatever it is: my mother is a truly pragmatic woman who is very fond of the phrase “get on with it”. She has no time for abstraction and at the merest whiff of it will urge you to “just get on with it” in her sternest voice.

Whenever she advised me to do this, which she frequently did, I could only marvel at the firmness of her resolve. I thought how gladly I would get on with it, if only I knew exactly what “it” was that I should be getting on with.

Little did my mother know that her pragmatic philosophy was to be a forerunner of Nike’s gung-ho slogan.

But my mother’s desire to “get on with it” is distinctly different to Nike’s admonition to “just do it”. My mother’s “it” is a classical ellipsis for life, which has served countless generations of emotionally reticent people very well. It’s the sort of “it” that you don’t talk about at the dinner table. It’s the sort of “it” that is the stuff of so many bleak and taciturn English and Scandinavian films.

Nike would never have even considered “Just get on with it!” as a slogan precisely because such an “it” represents the unspeakable drudgery and dreariness of life. Nike’s “it”, on the other hand, is an official-sounding invitation to indulge in your greatest pleasure, whatever “it” might be.

In writing this, I am aware that I haven’t really come very close to explaining what “it” is. But that is the nature of this new and improved “it”. “It” eludes definition because it doesn’t exist except in imagination.

I was in Budapest recently when I saw a McDonald’s advertisement proclaiming “I’m lovin’ it.” It was so large and brightly coloured that it loomed over the city square where it was located, irresistibly drawing my gaze towards it. For a fleeting moment, I thought how sad “it” all was.

McDonald’s slogan is a desperate sentiment cynically aimed at a desperate demographic, if I may resort to the language of advertising. The “it” it so boldly presupposes is every bit as elusive as the “it” that L’Oreal and Nike invoke in the name of beauty and sport. “It” has been invoked in several other prominent advertising slogans as well, but I don’t wish to resort to nit picking. I simply wish to point out the danger of giving “it” a life of its own.

In the meantime, I will continue to try and think about it, perhaps while playing football on a beach, or washing my hair with anti-dandruff shampoo, or even eating a hamburger in a moment of desperate, drunken hunger.

Published 8 September 2006

Original in English
First published in Rigas Laiks 8/2006 (Latvian version)

Contributed by Rigas Laiks
© Tim Ochser/Rigas Laiks Eurozine


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