Throwing open the Overton window


Agency News

Published by

Charles Vallance



For his latest column in Campaign, Charles Vallance, chairman and founding partner, VCCP delves into the thinking of an an American policy analyst can increasingly find relevance in the contemporary environs of adland.

The Overton window is getting a run for its money at the moment. Also known as the window of discourse, it was given its name in honour of Joseph Overton, an American political scientist who developed the theory in the mid-1990s. 

Thirty years on, the reason his theory retains such relevance is the value it can offer in helping us understand the dominant social and attitudinal forces at play in the information age. In particular, it is immensely useful when applied to the social phenomenon of cultural polarisation. 

This meta-trend extends far beyond, and often cuts across, conventional party politics (which is where Overton applied his theory). It includes the polarisation of views around many aspects of culture, particularly those involving identity (national, sexual, religious, race, gender, even age). 

According to Overton's theory, the validity of an idea depends mainly on where it falls within a range of views. The centre of the range is what constitutes generally accepted policy or opinion. For instance, the widely held belief (in democracies) that every adult should have the right to vote would be at the centre of the window. 

Beyond this central point of accepted policy, there are then five further degrees of viability, which get progressively weaker as we move up or down the scale (Overton deliberately avoided any left or right political implications). These five other tiers move from Popular then Sensible, through to Acceptable, followed by Radical and, finally, Unthinkable. 

The key point about this spectrum is that it is rarely fixed. The Overton window continually moves depending on any number of intentional or arbitrary inputs. 

If we go back to the example of the universal right to vote, this would have been at the radical, if not unthinkable edge of the window before the First World War. No women, and only property-owning men, were allowed to vote. It was only due to the efforts of the disenfranchised, particularly the suffragettes, that the window moved and 8.5 million women and 5.2 million men were given the vote in The Representation of the People Act of 1918. 

The window moved, and it did so emphatically, but still with some additional movement in subsequent decades (for instance, only women over the age of 30, and men over the age of 21, were enfranchised in 1918). What is unthinkable in one era becomes thought leadership in the next. 

One of the fascinating things about the Overton window is that it can be applied to almost all aspects of life. That's because most things in life involve a constantly-changing discourse. 

And so, without wishing to sound unduly parochial, I'd like to apply it to two aspects of our own industry. I'm going to start with media. 

In the 1980s, it would have been almost unthinkable to separate the creative product from the media product. Virtually no one did it. Then the window moved and, by the turn of the millennium, everyone was doing it. Looking back through the window, we may well already have seen the zenith of the media independent as a business model.

The key point about this spectrum is that it is rarely fixed. The Overton window continually moves depending on any number of intentional or arbitrary inputs.

Already we are beginning to see the return of integrated rather than dislocated creative and media services, with over a quarter of the pitches we're asked to enter these days requiring a combined creative and media response. 

Another emerging shift in the fenestrational lens involves creative awards. Although this hypothesis is yet to be fully proven, I think it would be to everyone's benefit if it was. For perhaps the last 10 years, the window has moved away from awarding big, successful, long-running campaigns seen frequently in the real world (eg, “The cream of Manchester”, “The future's bright”, “Dirt is good”, “You're not you”, “The campaign for real beauty”) to rather more curated, one-off and, on occasion, obscure set pieces. 

Sometimes you get the feeling that the work is being produced more with “Cannesumers” (not my pun) than end users in mind. Ironically, in case we forget, it is this latter group of people who ultimately foot the bill for all those awards entries. 

The danger, of course, is that if awards get too esoteric, we can no longer learn from them. At which point the Overton window will inevitably move elsewhere. 

Awards need to celebrate best creative practice, as opposed to creative opportunism, if they are to be sustainable. And it is to the great credit of Cannes Lions that they have introduced a humour category to help recognise the importance of popularity in the commercial art of advertising. 

The fact that this move was necessary, however, is a sign in itself that the window was getting fidgety. Let us hope we get back to awarding the creative work that is celebrated not just inside, but also outside the ad village. 

Work that, when we mention it in the pub or at an aunt's 50th, gets the response we all crave. Recognition.