How Agencies and Brands Feed Each Frenzy
A curious and somewhat troubling inertia is pressing upon the advertising industry today. It represents a conflict as primary and epic as Milton’s Paradise Lost and Genesis 3. The conflict is, essentially and literally, Good v. Evil. In the beginning, God didn’t really want us to know the difference — He omnisciently wanted to wait on that one for another 4,000 years or so. But, the low-hanging Forbidden Fruit dangled seductively from a particular tree. That sacred, yet grasp-able tree, according to the Bible, was The Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil. Its nectar produced Godliness, Godly knowledge. The knowledge of… good and evil.
We look to our institutions for leadership, to provide valuable knowledge. We award degrees for levels of knowledge — various degrees in various degrees. Institutions: universities, churches, hospitals, banks and the like don’t reflect society. It is their purpose to lead it. They must remain as constant as the northern star. They are our true compass. Institutions tell us things and we believe them, sometimes as gospel. If our governing institutions tell us that Osama bin Laden was assassinated, for example, we believe them. Even if a body or photographic evidence do not exist. We believe them. They lead us and they don’t stoop to our level by providing proof. (As an aside, did you ever notice that assassinate has two asses?)
This is also the way other institutions, like churches, work. They insist that God is a mystery. There’s no physical proof of a god. There doesn’t need to be. Oh, I know there were a bunch of miracles in Italy — and a shroud exists. But, religious institutions demand that we maintain this sort of blind faith. Medical institutions claim there is no known cure for cancer. We believe them. Academic institutions deem what is and isn’t valid and useful knowledge by their curricula — nobody questions that. It’s mono-cultural and flat — this is this and it is what it is: your education. Now go out into the world and make something of yourself. You are cast east of Eden.
Advertising agency people don’t consider their industry institutional. They’re too maverick, too iconoclastic. Conversely, people outside of our industry view us as if we ARE an institution. They talk about us as if we’re really important — like we actually do have an institutional effect on society. Or at least they blame us when we are negligent in our messaging. Our clients get class-action lawsuits when the beef we advertise as real beef is just 38%, uh, beef. Some women blame anorexia on advertising. Yes, we have that kind of institutional control over society. This is how we deal with it: we reflect society instead of leading it. We insist on proof. We claim knowledge — intimate and insightful knowledge. We reflect society — we take it and give it right back.
Except this is how it all really works in advertising: some brilliant creative mind sifts through all the crap from research and focus groups (anything can be proven with statistics and then immediately disproved, as well) and creates something somewhat magical — an idea. Then everyone goes back and rewrites revisionist history — building a bullet-proof case for that idea that even Columbo couldn’t crack.
How else could today’s advertising be so violent? I got whiplash watching the Super Bowl spots this year. Has advertising ever been so gruesome? How about the new Alec Baldwin ads for New Era caps? That’s supposed to be funny? A Red Sox fan getting punched in the face by a Yankee fan is funny? We are reflecting society — not leading it. Agencies would like us to believe that they tested a modern 3 Stooges routine with the target dummies in focus groups and they came out with the insightful knowledge that Betty White and Abe Vigoda getting smacked down into the mud is funny. Our knowledge told us that violence is funny. Unexpected violence is REALLY funny. Shame on us for reflecting society in such a self-serving and evil way. No wonder some women blame us for anorexia. How do brands allow it? I liked us better when we airbrushed naked women on the ice cubes in liquor ads. When sex and violence was subliminal, it was cool. It’s just way too obvious today.
On the other side of the fulcrum of this inertia is the trendy way brands and agencies are hopping on the “cause” and “purpose” bandwagon. I mean, even Gucci is into cause marketing. Give me a break. How many alligators do they kill per year? I suppose their customers want to feel good about themselves despite their conspicuously narcissistic species-endangering consumption. And I suppose brands also realize how disingenuous and mindless their advertising appears so they may be trying to overcompensate with cause initiatives. But even those initiatives reflect society rather than lead it. Agencies always brag that they can change or motivate certain behaviors. What if they actually did this for good instead of evil?
Let’s look at the Volkswagen brand as an example:
A few years ago, VW hired Crispin and unleashed a new mascot upon the great autobahn of life. He was named, “FAST”. I can only imagine how this happened — Crispin told VW that they understood how to connect with young people (the Truth campaign) and they understood how to sell them cars (Mini). They probably told them there was a huge, untapped youth market for VW and they knew just how to suck them in. Young people want to go FAST. Hence, this creepy mascot named FAST was born. They probably went into focus groups and came out with the precious insight that young people like to drive fast. This is neither responsible or institutional. It reflects what’s bad in society instead of leading it. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t imagine a greater disconnect than that of the Volkswagen brand and the concept of FAST.
Fast forward to this year’s Super Bowl. A wonderful and humane Volkswagen commercial produced by Deutsch entitled “Darth Vader” (who ironically looks strikingly similar to the FAST mascot). It made VW owners and prospective owners feel good about their car and themselves. So how does that lead society? Just the other day I was driving on a crowded midtown street. Suddenly, my lane was blocked by a DPW truck filling a pothole. I had 20 yards to stop or change lanes. In my rear view mirror I saw the driver of the car in the left lane motioning me to cut in front of him. He slowed down and allowed me to change lanes without incident. It was a Volkswagen. He didn’t care about FAST. He just wanted to do good. Do you think it’s possible that VW’s advertising might have influenced that random act of good? I wonder.