Tuesday, February 27, 2018

A good walk

         When you sit down to tackle an assignment, what is it that makes it so hard sometimes to determine which direction to take? A long time ago I learned a lesson by walking: Walking can be perfectly symbolical of the path that we travel in those interior regions. Considering the constant barrage of bad advertising, we could learn something from a good walk.
         This assumes, of course, that we don’t want to travel the well-worn path, or even, for that matter, the lawns and gardens to somewhere predictable. Presumably, we want to break new ground, and we find it difficult to choose our direction because the way forward does not yet exist. For that, it takes a special kind of walking. Thoreau called it sauntering.
         He theorized that “saunter” could be derived from those people who roved the country side in the Middle Ages, asking for charity under the pretext of going a la Sainte Terre, or to the Holy Land. Okay, that works. In the metaphoric sense, it’s nice to refer to our ultimate destination, that beautiful idea, as the Holy Land. Thoreau admits it may also have come from sans terre, as in the walker who is without land or home, but equally at home everywhere. That works, too.
         Thoreau had only one condition. “If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again — if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man — then you are ready for a walk.” For our purposes, it means severing the ties of expectations, forgetting about being productive or filling your billable hours. Sauntering is about presence, being totally free and at home outside the margins to be on an adventure. 
         Look for the darkest place, the thickest, densest spot. There, you have the least idea where you will be going so that any detail can be transcended, any twig or leaf or weed a symbol. I wonder what’s over therebreak away… keep going…a tree...left or right… whatever...step over the big branch…barrel through the thorn bush…don’t step on the deer pellets…make a right…ugh...burrs sticking to your pants… what a grip… they’re so clingy… is that a bad thing...I wonder…maybe they’re seeking an attachment of a different sort… maybe they’re not a nuisance…maybe they need you… aren’t you dispersing their seeds... you’re picking up their future….hmmm…I wonder about the consumers’ future…what seed do you need to plant for them?      
         When you saunter, you strengthen the muscles of wondering. And in the state of wondering, you’re in what Thoreau called the Wild.  At your desk or in the woods, trust those muscles to carry you, as if drawn by a magnetic force to a thought, a revelation, a creative breakthrough. Thoreau promised, “The most alive is the wildest.”
         For some time now, much of the work I see travels familiar roads and there’s a long-term danger with that. I believe, as Thoreau wrote in “Life Without Principle,“ that the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things, so that all our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality.” Let’s not live in a Facebook world. This is the way to a more creative life.
         Thoreau wrote, “He who sits in his house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all.” I say, “He who sits at his computer all the time Google-searching, iSpotting and Getty-scouring, may be the greatest vagrant of all.”
         Now, go! “So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bank-side in autumn.” Thoreau said that.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Trust issues

            Trust can be a fragile thing. We heard the other day that the campaign to discredit the FBI and Department of Justice successfully compromised some people’s faith in those institutions. It didn’t take much. I mean, have you read that Nunes memo?
            In the last 4 months of 2017, I was given 3 briefs that identified trust as the ultimate goal. More recently, the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer indicated that trust in US institutions is imploding. Some would say folks already gave up on trust by electing a president who is impossible to trust. It’s a problem.
            Unfortunately, trust isn’t something that can be implanted. You don’t even notice it until it blooms. But when someone has come through repeatedly, or continually been upfront with you, or regularly kept their word and made good on their promises, we tend to reciprocate.  Same with clients. So we can work on promoting their dependability, or their constant transparency, or their unceasing ability to do the right thing, or their unwavering gratitude for every customer.
            And, we can develop a voice, a human voice that people recognize as trustworthy, you know, a Tom Hanks kind of voice. “Persuasion,” wrote Aristotle, “is achieved by the speaker’s personal character…when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible.” So find some inspiration. Read some great essayists and memoirists. There’s an art to sincerity. Then craft that voice and stay true to it, because if you break character, resort to expediency and suddenly affect the Oxy Clean guy to spike sales, you undermine your efforts. And it’s really hard to win back someone once they’ve felt betrayed.
            Just don’t let this dip in confidence go to waste. We have an opportunity not to add to people’s fears and distrust. Find the appropriate place to talk about efforts that both increase profits and improve people’s lives. Let it be known, at least on a website, that the company pays fair wages, offers better benefits and treats its people with respect. Listen to the employees, customers and stakeholders, and from there, mine real insights. Hey, if it helps, look at what the president does, then do the opposite – in that, we can trust.
            It’s won’t be easy. According to the ad press, there isn’t a lot of trust between agencies and clients. But imagine the work we could do together if there was.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The effects of propaganda on the planet

     Trump lies and distracts and spews propaganda. I’ve posted about this before, how he’s applied much of the very same techniques that Hitler laid out in Mein Kampf.  (I mean, he did keep a copy of Hitler’s book in his bedroom.) 
     Hitler wrote that propaganda “must fix its intellectual level so as not to be above the heads of the least intellectual of those to whom it is directed.” You must appeal to feelings and rile up your target, because, he stated, they are incapable of understanding anything. Their powers are restricted and “their understanding is feeble.” Hitler actually said that. And to a tee, Trump follows this most basic tenet of propaganda.
     Look at the following. It’s from a 1998 People Magazine. It's that rare quote that shows all his cards.

If I were to run, I’d run as a Republican. They’re the dumbest group of voters in the country. They believe anything on Fox News. I could lie and they’d still eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific.

It’s an insidious statement that reeks of hubris. I keep wondering, what if people knew that he believed they were feeble and stupid? What if they knew that they were played?
     As if that wasn’t enough, the consequences of propaganda are scary, because when Trump makes decisions as president, he’s pandering to people who aren’t informed. And if trouble looms, as it does via the Russian and Comey investigations, what does Trump have to do? He must pump up his pandering and enforce whatever lie it will take to solidify his base.
    Last week, Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement. It wasn’t about making the best decision given the evidence –– there was no regard for science, job trends, fellow man, the next generation or even Pittsburgh. It was an empty act of defiance meant to shore up his power. What begins with a lie can only end up missing the issue, accomplishing nothing.

Saturday, April 29, 2017


     The movie Denial may not have been a great movie, but it was an insightful movie. It’s the true story about the libel case brought by holocaust denier, David Irving, played by Timothy Spall, against the author, Deborah Lipstadt, played by Rachel Wiesz. In this age of alternative facts, it’s incredibly timely and instructive. It’s also pretty satisfying. Deborah Lipstadt wins the case and it makes you want to march down to Texas and punch Alex Jones in the mouth.
     Its lesson comes out of the title. Lipstadt’s lawyer tells her, “What feels best isn’t always what works best.” And what felt most natural to Lipstadt was to rail against the injustice, get Holocaust survivors to attest to the atrocities and express their suffering. Her legal team, however, had a different strategy –– make the argument about him, David Irving; set aside your personal feelings; mine all of Irving’s writings and speeches for discrepancies and, ultimately, find proof that his version of the Holocaust evolved and was twisted to suit his purposes. It was an exhausting amount of work that showed how labyrinthine and time-consuming the process of unearthing falsehoods is. For Deborah Lipstadt, it would be an act of self-denial. “How hard it is to hand over your conscience,” she says. 
     For us ad people, it’s a reminder that Persuasion comes by focusing on the target, by setting aside our own feelings, our own tastes and styles and media preferences to communicate that, which would be most effective to the consumer.
     For every thinking person concerned about and offended by an affront to the truth, we need to understand the facts of our target's life, the facts about the issues and the facts that support our solutions. While we may all want to vent on Facebook and blast the president –– Malignant Narcissist!, Con Man!, Angry Cheeto!, Mango Mussolini!, Human Corncob!, Hair Furher!, Putin’s Puppet!, Child-man in chief! or just, well, Douche Bag! –– it won’t accomplish much more than it would to scream into your pillow. Perhaps it will keep Resistors at a full boil for an extra week, but it won’t win an argument or change anyone’s mind.
     It's all about our target –– listening to their opinions and their previous statements, probing their point of view, digging into the history of their opinions and what history itself tells us about their policies. It takes work and discipline. Restraint is a bitch. Just this morning, Trump again called Elizabeth Warren Pocahontas and it really pissed me off. I was tempted to just rant and rage.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017


            In the ad world, there’s been an increasing amount of work designed to pull on people’s emotional strings. There’s no benefit to most of the stuff and, ironically, no real understanding about which emotional string should be struck in order to compel people to buy. Its proponents want to build big brands like Nike or Apple, but evidently lack the knowledge of how Nike and Apple got to be Nike and Apple. I keep hearing that consumers want to have a conversation with brands. Seriously? I think they want their car to run, their computer not to freeze and their vegetables to be fresh. To spout such advertising without offering up real reasons, just shows a lack of respect for consumers. I mean, do we really think people are that stupid? Sadly, the problem goes beyond Madison Avenue.
            In the wider world of politics, we now have a propagandist for a president who, as such, has no regard for facts and rouses our worst emotions. Lacking the requisite RTB’s, he, too, shows exactly what he thinks of us, presumably believing that we should give him our respect automatically because he’s president. Wrong. He works for us, remember? That said, what’s he done? He’s insulted, lied, been greedy, abused women and minorities and so on. He hasn’t shown any depth of knowledge in politics, history or command of the issues. He hasn’t revealed a deep moral core. So why should we respect him? Respect has to be earned. He must think we're stupid.
            Last year the big headline from the Cannes Ad Festival declared that there’s a lot of “crap content” out there. Well, now, as I read that Trump is running ads to draw more people to attend his inauguration, I can only conclude that there’s crap content and there’s CRAP content. I can't even bring myself to watch it on TV and contribute to positive ratings.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Emperor's Clothes

     How disappointing is it to open a bag of chips and find two thirds of it is air? What about when you buy a bottle of vitamins and it’s only a half a bottle of product? Or, when dining out, your entrée makes you want to echo Oliver Twist  –– “More, please!” Don’t you hate it when reality doesn’t live up to the advertising?
     Which makes me wonder: Why the hell does Donald Trump wear suits that are too big, with ties that are like oversized eels draped around his neck? The shoulders of his suits are too wide by at least a size, and they slump over to the side. The jackets are a solid inch too long, and billow. The baggy trousers manage to look worn out, though they are not. What’s he trying to say? He’s a big man? He’s a sloppy big man? He’s bigger than Napoleon but he still has a complex?    
     At this point, with nothing from Trump but pandering about outcomes –– without specifics, decorum, civility or even real intelligence –– our conclusion can only be: beware of big packages with small products inside.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Orange Age of Advertising

        I have great news for everyone who thinks the nation will go to the dogs if Donald Trump becomes president. At least advertising could get its next big trend.
      We should call it Rambotising. Why not? Donald Trump became a contender for the presidency by creating advertising based entirely on angry emotion rather than reason, so our business, ever keen to ride a new wave, could pick up on that and make it all the rage, literally.
      It’s really not hard to imagine. Let’s say we got briefed on Head & Shoulders shampoo. We could depict the dandruff as evil, ruthless and sadistic. We’d probably animate it, but let’s make it animated like Mortal Kombat is animated, so we could make the scumballs really look like criminals. Then, with the human scalp looking like a post-apocalyptic landscape from a Mad Max movie and the shampoo acting like a deadly chemical warfare agent, we’d let the dandruff have it – HAHAHAHAHA, MAGGOTS! It’s kind of fun, actually.
      Let’s say we had to work on Ford. In our social communities, we’d pummel home that all drivers of other cars are losers. And on film, we could show a Mustang at a red light, just minding its own business when, from the second lane, putters up a pathetic little Fiat –– an annoyance, a gnat on a hot summer night –– so the driver would send a warning. He’d rev his engine, a slow, surging and menacing snarl. The driver would then roll down his window, turn to camera and like Dirty Harry on a really bad day, he’d growl, “If any pint-sized calzone tries to cut me off, it’ll be the last car they’ll ever drive!”
      It being much more important to say whatever riles up our target, legal claims wouldn’t be much of a concern. We could lie and we could shitpost . After all, this is low, lowbrow. Remember whom we’re targeting.
      Do you remember that great ad from Bob Levenson, “Do this or die”? To quote, “There is indeed a twelve-year–old mentality in this country; every six-year-old has one. We are a nation of smart people.” Forget that. We’d be targeting Man at his basest, which, if you ask any woman, would have him swinging from tree to tree and throwing poop at all his enemies.
      Long-term, when this kind of work becomes popular, our industry would attract new talent. Creative people with issues would find this work cathartic. All those hate-ridden people in the customer service field will be naturals at this. Who knows. A few kids might give advertising a shot over professional wrestling,
      So, is it right? Is it ethical? Is it artful? Will this approach actually work? Probably not, but that’s not the point. The point is about Trumpism seeping into our world. It raises a serious question: What happens when lies and anger and extremism are normalized? I suspect more than a few ads will be affected.