Posts tagged ‘advertising’
The Associated Press is reporting that as much as two-thirds of some of the grants given out by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria–the charity supported in part by Bono’s (Product) Red initiative–is being pocketed by corrupt government officials. So bad is the situation that Sweden, one of the fund’s largest contributors, is suspending its $85 million annual contribution until the problem is addressed.
The news is unsurprising to anyone who has followed the history of celebrity-backed efforts to ease the misery of Africa. We know, for instance, that the Ethiopian thug Mengistu Haile Mariam swiped millions of dollars donated by western do-gooders at Live Aid and used it to finance the army that was inflicting harm on precisely the people the charity was intended to help. Other examples are legion.
This raises a moral dilemma for brands that participate in (Product) Red. Do they ignore the breathtaking corruption and accept it as the cost of doing business in Africa’s kleptocracies? Can they in good conscience urge consumers to buy products with the promise that part of the profits will go to charity without disclosing that an even larger part of the profits may go to purchasing cars, motorcycles and other playthings for dishonest bureaucrats, as it did in Djibouti (to name but one example)?
There is no doubt that some people have been helped by (Product) Red. Nor is there any question that all decent men and women wish to alleviate the suffering caused by AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. The thorny issue is this: Does the charity, by allowing billions of dollars to be stolen, actually prop up the bad governments that are largely responsible for the plight of their people in the first place? How many hospitals have not been built, how many pharmacists have no drugs to dispense because a crooked health minister wanted a Mercedes-Benz, because a dictator wanted his own Versailles?
Within advertising agencies on five continents, statisticians and data jockeys have made significant progress in their attempts to swathe themselves in the garments of infallibility. Even so, anything more than a cursory glance reveals that their backsides are, just like ours, hanging out and exposed to the same vicissitudes of climate and circumstance.
Occasionally this space is given over to those who have deftly humbled the hubristic ad men of the globe with sharp words. This thrashing we all should endure from time to time as penance for having chosen to worship at so disreputable an altar. Today the space is given over to those who would puncture the brightly colored balloons of statistics and data. I give you ten charmingly mean-spirited quotations that will–it is to be hoped–restore a modicum of–skepticism to the thinking of marketers everywhere:
“An unsophisticated forecaster uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts–for support rather than for illumination.” – Andrew Lang
“If your experiment needs statistics, you ought to have done a better experiment.” -Ernest Rutherford
“In ancient times they had no statistics so they had to fall back on lies.” – Stephen Leacock
“Not everything that can be counted counts; and not everything that counts can be counted.” – George Gallup
“Don’t be buffaloed by experts and elites. Experts often possess more data than judgment. Elites can become so inbred that they produce hemophiliacs who bleed to death as soon as they are nicked by the real world.” – Colin Powell
“A statistician is a man who comes to the rescue of figures that cannot lie for themselves.” -Abraham Maslow
“Satan delights equally in statistics and in quoting scripture….” -H.G. Wells
“The average human has one breast and one testicle.” -Des McHale
“Statistics are human beings with the tears wiped off.” – Paul Brodeur
“When I told Jerry that eighty percent of all accidents happen within a mile of the home, he said, “that settles it, we’re moving.” – Barth Gimbel (Martin Mull) recounting a conversation with his sidekick Jerry Hubbard (Fred Willard) on Fernwood 2 Night.
Last week as I watched one news report after another showing hundreds of people lined up outside Apple stores across America, all of whom hoped – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say needed – to be among the first to get the new iPhone in their pink, sweaty hands, it occurred to me that this, at least from a corporate standpoint, is what love looks like. These people were willing to suffer for a product in a way that few people in the twenty-first century are willing to suffer for a cause. For a brand, it really doesn’t get any better.*
Very few brands will ever sniff the thin air that surrounds this mountaintop. Nonetheless, it’s important to know it exists because it reminds those of us who toil within advertising’s smoky factories of what what we’re supposed to be trying to achieve. As agencies focus more and more on the arcane sciences of data analysis, ROI measurement and predictive modeling, it’s easy for advertising to begin to feel like something that’s akin to strip-mining. Don’t let it. If you’re doing it right, it’s about love. It’s about generating passion for the brands you work on. It’s about tapping into visceral desire.
So how do you get there? How do you “ladder up” (an odious bit of corporate English) to a more emotional connection between the consumer and the brand? With apologies to the great American philosopher Frank Zappa, I have borrowed and altered slightly a few phrases from a song called “Packard Goose”** (it should be noted that the lyrics owe no small debt to a T.S. Eliot poem called “The Rock”–seriously) to remind us of our obligation to elevate the brand grist we are given and turn it into something that arouses passion:
Data is not information.
Information is not knowledge.
Knowledge is not wisdom.
Wisdom is not truth.
Truth is not beauty.
Beauty is not love.
Love is the only thing that matters.
When one ponders these words, it’s apparent that they’re a pretty good re-telling of the Apple story. The company has taken a bunch of ones and zeros and through a bit of sorcery transformed them into products that do extraordinary things – things for which people will leave their loved ones and the comfort of their overstuffed sofas to stand sweating with the faithful in the heat of summer. May the rest of us one day be so lucky.
* For causes, I grant you, it is a bit disheartening.
** You may find Mr. Zappa’s original lyrics here.
Via the miracle of YouTube, I spent the last hour or so watching a lecture the late Neil Postman gave in 1998 at Calvin College in Michigan. In it he brought up a compelling idea (actually dozens of them, but here I’ll just focus on one) about how technology has changed our definition of community. Traditionally, communities have been united by broad commonalities (e.g., geography, culture, history, etc.) even as the individual members of the communities differed on many particulars. Indeed, the trick of making a community function was for the individual members to find a way to work around their differences and disagreements to create a socially cohesive unit. Take away the negotiation and compromise on the points of difference and the points of commonality would not be strong enough to hold the community together.
Yet when we talk about communities in the age of interactivity, we often mean something very different. More often that not we are referring to a group of people who are in near total agreement on a particular topic. Because technology makes it easy–indeed almost effortless–to create new communities, people who find themselves in any sort of disagreement in an existing community need not work through their differences. They can simply start their own community where they do not have to put up with the annoyance of dissent. This may seem like a dream for a marketer who will benefit from gathering together a group of people who are deeply loyal to a brand, but a community it is not. It is a fan club. (Indeed, in its political incarnation it can become something much more troubling–a walled compound of people who would rather enter into an infinite loop of mutual affirmation than engage in honest and thoughtful debate. Insert your favorite–or least favorite–cable news network here.) Remember that the word fan comes from “fanatic”–a person with extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal.
But my purpose here is not to talk politics; I leave that for a different time and a different blog. In the age of social media, marketers throw around phrases like “online community” as if we all agree on what they mean. I submit to you than we don’t. As more and more brands venture into the interactive space, the ones who succeed will be the ones who are honest with themselves about whether they are looking to create a community or a fan club. Uncritical enthusiasm may seem appealing, but ultimately stronger brands are built on the support of those who see our warts and want to help us heal them.
One of the warnings I give clients (as well as bright-eyed creatives) who wish to produce “branded content” for the interactive space–they typically have in mind some sort of video that they hope will catch fire and become part of the popular culture–is that they must understand they’re not simply competing with other branded content for the attention of consumers. They’re also competing with every amateur video on YouTube that shows a guy stepping on a rake and accidentally hitting himself in the nuts.
Clay Shirky’s recent post, “The Collapse of Complex Business Models,” does a nice job of explaining why big organizations struggle to react to the threat posed by cheap, low-quality competition:
In the mid-90s, I got a call from some friends at ATT, asking me to help them research the nascent web-hosting business. They thought ATT’s famous “five 9’s” reliability (services that work 99.999% of the time) would be valuable, but they couldn’t figure out how anyone could offer good web hosting for $20 a month, then the going rate. No matter how many eventual users they assumed, $20 didn’t even seem to cover the monthly costs, much less leave a profit.
I started describing the web hosting I’d used, including the process of developing web sites locally, uploading them to the server, and then checking to see if anything had broken.
“But if you don’t have a staging server, you’d be changing things on the live site!” They explained this to me in the tone you’d use to explain to a small child why you don’t want to drink bleach. “Oh yeah, it was horrible”, I said. “Sometimes the servers would crash, and we’d just have to re-boot and start from scratch.” There was a long silence on the other end, the silence peculiar to conference calls when an entire group stops to think.
The ATT guys, part of a company so committed to the sacred dial tone it ran its own power grid, had correctly understood that the income from $20-a-month customers wouldn’t pay for good web hosting. What they hadn’t understood, were in fact professionally incapable of understanding, was that the industry solution, circa 1996, was to offer hosting that wasn’t very good.
The world of content creation is facing a similar shift. YouTube sensation “Charlie Bit My Finger” is the most viewed minute of video in the last five years (175 million views and counting). It’s an amateur production–too grand a word really, for something so simple–with no budget, yet more people watched it than all the so-called “viral” videos that agencies spent millions of dollars making. How will big advertising compete against such bottom-dollar threats? Emulating “Charlie Bit My Finger” is not the path. The video was dumb luck, and the people who captured the moment are unlikely ever to capture anything as interesting again.
Offhand, I think there are a couple of models that could work. First, agencies could set up something like a content greenhouse in which they try to grow their own low-cost solutions. Assignments could be given simultaneously to dozens of film students (for example). (Perhaps for a different product the assignment could be given to dozens of moms.) They’d be asked to come up with branded content on a budget of essentially zero. (Think of this as the logical conclusion of Adam Morgan’s argument that if you are having trouble coming up with a great creative idea, you should cut the budget in half and start over.) Sometimes you’ll get nothing of value, but that’s OK, because you haven’t bet a million-dollar production budget on the outcome. The key to the concept is low risk, high reward. For the film students in the greenhouse, their compensation would be the popularity of the work itself, and perhaps some sort of promise of future employment. That may not be a compelling proposition for a grizzled forty-something creative director, but it could be quite appealing to an ambitious, young hoodie-wearer trying to make his way in the world.
Another possibility is that something analogous to the early days of silent film could emerge in advertising. Think about what happened in the second decade of the 20th century: Using rather crude technology, a few auteurs emerged who were able to consistently capture magic on film. No complicated special effects, no $100 million budgets. Just whatever they were able to make happen in front of the camera’s aperture. It came down to the genius of one man. Could something similar happen in advertising? Perhaps some of the agency world’s creative superstars will shed their cumbersome organizations and set up shop with a $300 camera and a couple of tungsten lights. They may even offer to produce branded content for free and be paid by the view. For the people who are really good at it, it could be the smartest business deal they ever make.