Learning from the folks we love to hate.

1 April 13

One could argue that most of the problems we’re faced with solving at this moment in history have been either ignited or facilitated by advertising, through its promotion of greed, competition, instant gratification, insatiable consumption, unstoppable appetites for unhealthy food, fickleness and superficiality.

I would like to make the case that many of the skills and sensibilities that created this escalating need for too many things are the same ones we need to create a higher consciousness for humanity. This is not to suggest that marketing can be made to work in reverse or undo its damage – only that there is a methodology to advertising that has been proven to work for many of the challenges we’re busily trying to invent a way to solve – skills that are ignored – buried in the more obvious characteristics we detest about the profession.

It’s easy to hate advertising, and most of it deserves the disdain it induces. The creation of false needs and insecurities, blatant denial of the realities of global warming (you need a big car and should drive it fast through precious wetland ecosystems), collapse of seafood populations (tuna is the wonder food, eat all you can) over-consumption of everything, promotion of unhealthy eating habits (supersize that), pandering to the lowest common denominator of mean spirited humor, insulting portrayals of women dancing with their mops, a disposable product culture, insulting portrayal of men as moron couch-potatoes, fear-inducing germ paranoia leading to the consumption of toxic products, and let’s not even go there on Scott’s Lawn and Garden products.

I speak from experience. By far the three most painful years of my life, professionally speaking, were those I spent with a big glamorous title at a big glamorous New York advertising agency. The move from Boston to take the job was the first undeniable proof I’d offered myself that I was capable of making disastrous decisions. Each day that I worked toward the end of my contract was torture.

Over time, I have found that the experience and skills I suffered to acquire in advertising are  some of the most important for my work now, and in particular, relevant to the work in design for social innovation. If this news is shocking, try to think not of Einstein’s admonition that we can’t solve problems with the same level of thinking we used to create them, and instead, of needing some of the same tools to unscrew that we used to screw ourselves.

In a nutshell, advertising is the most efficient and effective way to identify the people who will influence others, understand their motivations and psyches, reach them where they “live”, and tell them something, in a few second’s time, that will inspire them to make one choice over another. It’s not so difficult to see, if you strip out insidious content, that those abilities could be very useful in helping us – say – shift men’s thinking about the way they treat women, encourage pregnant women to get pre-natal care, stop seeing other tribes or religions or countries as enemies, value nature more than money, and so forth.

Ads are based on some essential principles; the first is that time and attention are currency. Advertising sets very clear and measurable objectives, identifies the most powerful and relevant message, then distills it down to a few words without dulling its potency. Until you practice taking the 1,500 words you’d like someone to know about your cause and saying it in 10, you won’t move large numbers of people to understand or care about it. While brevity does not come naturally to scientists, engineers, academics, entrepreneurs or anyone else with a mission, this is a skill well-worth the effort to acquire. When you are communicating with someone, in person or through any medium, you are on stage. You must be brief, relevant, moving and appropriately entertaining. If you are, it’s far more likely they will be interested in the other 1,490 words.

Second, know your audience, deeply, and go beyond facts to motivation. Put yourself in their shoes, and socks and underwear. There is a story about a male account executive who wore a panty liner for a few days just to feel what it felt like for the women he was trying to sell it to. Extreme bordering on pathetic, yes, but there is no such thing as spending too much time thinking about every aspect of the audience’s lives. This is why, in advertising, there is no need to say “human centered” or “empathy research”. It’s a given, how would it be otherwise? Likewise, there is no reason to complicate the issue with nuanced expressions like stakeholder, funder, customer, partner, community member. When you are trying to move them, they are the audience.

Creativity is the product, and it rules. It is a muscle that gets exercised every single day in advertising, seen as the means for accomplishing objectives, the way to win. It has doers, directors, assisters, carriers, sellers – a whole cadre of people whose job it is to make the creative output more creative and focused. It is genuinely collaborative – with so many points of view incorporated that it sometimes feels like being pecked to death by ducks. However, despite the fact that input comes from a multitude of sources, there is no illusion that crowd-sourcing inevitably leads to brilliance. There is a structure, and gate keepers throughout the structure, whose job it is to question and make the work better. It is creativity with discipline, creativity with a very specific set of criteria for success. And the process for developing it (almost) inures the creator to criticism, which is also a good thing. When you present what you believe is your best work to the person charged with deciding if it’s good enough, and they say, “That’s the worst piece of shit I’ve ever seen” you realize after a while that creativity is more than self expression. You master the ability to create to a strategy, to forgo accepting your first effort as finished, and to acquire a kind of discipline that makes going deeper more accessible than you could have imagined possible.

It is a profession where laughter is divine, where entertainment value has been proven to win acceptance and loyalty for new ideas. Which is not to say that there is anything funny about the social problems we’re trying to address, but being funny gets you far, and it is a tool we do not use enough for helping people see themselves and their options in a new way.

Advertising loves generalists. Broad interests in culture, human nature, arts, science, technology, psychology, politics and news in general are required. Paying attention to the world outside your world is part of the job. It’s what we call understanding context, except that it still needs to be written into the brief for social innovators, whereas for advertising, like “human centered”, it goes without saying.

A profession with the ability to change massive numbers of people’s minds is a powerful one, and there is a very fine line between power used for good and used for ill. The Mattel campaign to sell Barbie dolls and the Greenpeace campaign to inspire people to boycott them shared many of the same techniques. We need to be unwavering in our values and our commitment to help the world instead of harming it. But we need to be open minded as to where we learn the best methods for doing that. If we could extract the science from the content of advertising, we might really have something.

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