“In theory, everybody buys the best and cheapest commodities offered him on the market.
In practice, if everyone went around pricing, and chemically testing before purchasing, the dozens of soaps or fabrics or brands of bread which are for sale, economic life would become hopelessly jammed.
To avoid such confusion, society consents to have its choice narrowed to ideas and objects brought to its attention through propaganda of all kinds. There is consequently a vast and continuous effort going on to capture our minds in the interest of some policy or commodity or idea.”
“All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society.
We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it.
Or we can help lift it to a higher level.”
I wrote about this for two reasons:
- Awhile back the Guardian had a small editorial on plain packaging <because Great Britain is thinking about having plain packaging for cigarettes>. Within the short thought piece it poses the question of “what if there were only plain packaging … for everything?”
- I have been thinking about the moral responsibility of people in advertising & marketing communications
Both topics are relevant to anyone in the professional communications industry not just from a true business perspective but rather a philosophical ‘what do I really do for a living’ type perspective.
Why? One of the hot topics among young people when I speak to them is “the moral depravity of capitalism” and its flag bearer “the morally corrupt advertising.”
Regardless. A discussion about plain packaging for everything spans capitalism, brands & branding and people themselves <how much they can actually be influenced to do something they don’t really desire doing>.
I remain steadfast in this discussion.
Capitalism, in and of itself, is not morally corrupt. Only people can be moral or immoral.
Advertising, in and of itself, is not morally corrupt. Only people can be moral or immoral.
Regardless of my steadfastness, plain packaging for everything sparks an interesting discussion about not only the morality of marketing & advertising but the role, and importance, of brands in people’s lives.
I will begin with the Guardian editorial:
== The Guardian ==
Unthinkable? Plain packets for everything.
Brands allow us to choose, but they also sometimes stop us choosing wisely – perhaps everything should carry a warning
Could the plain wrappers, which the government has said it will introduce for cigarettes, be usefully extended, to other potentially harmful products?
Alcopop could be divested of its deceiving glamour, fatty food could be labelled as just that, sugar could be generically dispensed. Whisky would just be a brown liquid in a bottle without pictures of terriers or a chap striding along. Marmalade would just be a brown substance in a jar (after all, when you buy oranges they often put them in a plain brown paper bag). Ice cream would no longer carry names reminding you of heavy handguns or novels by Mark Twain. Except, of course, in very tiny letters at the bottom of the pack. High heeled shoes could be stripped of their fashion names and carry a warning about muscle strain and bunions to come.
Fast cars could have their badges pruned.
The more we extend the list the sillier it becomes.
Yet we know how many designs for marijuana packets were patented in the hope that it would be legalised: the magic wand of branding could then be waved over them to bring big profits to these far-sighted entrepreneurs.
Brands allow us to choose, but they also sometimes stop us choosing wisely.
Perhaps the problem could be tackled more directly by simply attaching a label to everything saying that branding should be taken with a pinch of salt. Naturally a label like that on an actual packet of salt could cause confusion, so that one might have to say in that case that branding could be a snare and a delusion.
I imagine beginning the discussion you have to use the end of the editorial – branding could be a snare and a delusion. Those words give this conversation a lot to grapple with.
Brand <and branding>.
Information and disinformation.
Now. The issue of morality & responsibility has been discussed for decades.
The most famous public discussion may have occurred sometime in the 1950’s. Printer’s Ink <a magazine I believe> published an editorial Toynbee Vs. Bernbach on Advertising <oddly, in this day & age where you can find almost everything online … I can’t find a copy of it … therefore I am dependent upon a sole bad hard copy I made years ago>.
Advertising is moral mis-education.
Advertising is an instrument of moral, as well as intellectual, mis – education. Insofar as it succeeds in influencing people’s minds, it conditions them not to think for themselves and not to choose for themselves.
It is intentionally hypnotic in its effect it makes people suggestible and docile. In fact, it prepares them for submitting to a totalitarian regime.
Only people are moral or immoral.
Advertising, like so many technologies available to man, is neither moral nor immoral. Is eloquence immoral because it persuades? Is music immoral because it awakens emotions? Is the gift of writing immoral because it can arouse people to action?
Yet eloquence, music and writing have been used for evil purpose.
No, advertising is not moral or immoral.
Only people are.
Are people sheep … or smart enough to make decisions on their own?
Are all people who do marketing & advertising immoral?
Well. After all those questions you realize that plain packaging isn’t the issue and that the topic is complex.
Suffice it to say, selling shit <marketing or manufacturing>, is always about balancing sales & ethics & values. The moment you lose sight of that is the moment your moral compass, or business, goes off the tracks. And you have to pay attention to your moral compass if you are in the communications business because there is gobs of research showing that the degree of brand loyalty increases sharply from the age of ten, and peaks around the age of 30. There is gobs of research showing that the degree of emotional involvement a person invests with a brand increases their irrationality.
Why the hell did I include those factoids? Because that means if you are in the communications business <this includes packaging by the way> you have a responsibility. That responsibility is being ethical & being truthful and not being deceitful.
Basically people know and love brands.
People know the names of brands, remember what they see and hear about them and form opinions of them.
And people actually do NOT like plain packaging — they like all the wrappings around the shit they buy. And, I would note, the trappings are important because brand value <which creates a version of a relationship> don’t form in a vacuum. To create real brand value you have to create strong attitudinal foundations. Some suggest an attitudinal foundation is a ‘bond’ <I do not but it makes the point>.
I cannot remember who built this “brand loyalty pyramid” but , in general, it says pretty much the same thing as every ‘loyalty pyramid’ you will see when you walk thru the door of any credible communications company:
• Presence: does the consumer know anything about the product or service?
• Relevance: does it cater for their needs?
• Performance: does it deliver?
• Advantage: is it better than others in some way?
• Bonding: nothing else can beat it.
All consumers, whether kids or adults, form brand relationships in this way.On a side note, interestingly, research shows that among kids, around half of all brands change their typology every two years, highlighting an extremely rapid ‘migration’ of attitudes. But, in general, Millward Brown research shows that brand allegiance changes very little across the generations. In two out of three categories, adults and kids are bonded to the same brands. Many brands manage to tap into needs and desires that transcend the age of the consumer, and many do this through careful product segmentation.
I included a lot of this stuff because we use the word ‘brand’ often in a very simplistic way and it is a very non simplistic concept. It has to do with perceptions, attitude and expectations which inevitably lead to specific behaviors.
All this gets me back to plain packaging and, conversely, discussing ‘brand.’ Plain packaging suggests everything is equal. Toynbee would like that. Everything equally good and equally bad. Unfortunately for Toynbee, whether you believe it or not, the shit we buy varies in quality.
Could we exist, or subsist, on the lowest quality? I am fairly sure we could.
But our everyday existence is made up of more than simply existing. What I mean is … how dull would life be if that is all there was?
To be clear, even within the lowest income purchasers, those who have a heightened sense of survival, there remains hope for something better and the occasional indulgence of something better. Non-plain packaging permits a manufacturer to showcase ‘better’ or ‘different’ so we, the people, can make choices.
Ah. Making choices. People make choices. Non-plain packaging helps them make choices.
Professional communicators also make choices. This leads me to something called … “Do this or die.”
Do this or Die is a manifesto written by Bill Bernbach <one of the founders of the advertising agency Doyle, Dane & Bernbach – DDB> and it is written to those who CREATE advertising and messaging — the professional communicators in the world. It is a directive ‘the creators of messaging’ to create inspiring truthful meaningful messaging. He suggests in his manifesto to the ‘creators’, those who should bear the burden of ‘non deceitful messaging,’ that the people are not a nation, or world, of stupid people.
People are smart. And maybe ‘the people’ can be tricked once, but very very rarely twice.
“DO THIS OR DIE” is a warning, a promise, a call-out to the lazier advertising and marketing and communications professionals.
A warning to the ones who accept and produce mediocrity.
A warning to the ones who don’t understand the power of truth and the ones who compromise ‘truth’ in the interest of sale or ‘false differentiation.’
Do this or Die. What we professionals communicate must be truth:
“… the messages we put on those pages and on those television screens must be the truth. For if we play tricks with the truth, we die.
Now. The other side of the coin. Telling the truth about a product demands a product that’s worth telling the truth about. Sadly, so many products aren’t. So many products don’t do anything better. Or anything different. So many don’t work quite right.
Or don’t last.
Or simply don’t matter.
If we also play this trick, we also die.”
This means, to me, discussing plain packaging is discussing the symptom of a larger problem. It becomes not a discussion of marketing or communications or even capitalism; it becomes a discussion about people and doing what is right versus what is wrong and choices.
I love this discussion with young people.
It is a hard discussion in which they may approach it with some naiveté but they also approach it with truth in hand. Truth that while there are moral and immoral people in the world and that even moral people will slide down the slippery slope of mediocre ethical behavior under the guise of either <a> not knowledgeable enough to do anything better, or <b> everyone else is doing it.
In the end.
Let me say I despise what Arnold Toynbee suggests with regard to people.
I refuse to believe people aren’t smart enough to make knowledgeable decisions.
I refuse to believe people can be influenced to such an extent they desire things they shouldn’t desire.
I refuse to believe people can be manipulated to do wrong things <but certainly can be inspired to take positive actions>.
I do believe communications can influence attitudes.
I do believe communications, done well, can affect behavior.
But I don’t believe communications can make someone do something they don’t want to do … nor convince them in any consistent way to do wrong things.
Just as you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink, communications can lead someone somewhere <immorally or morally>, but inevitably a person makes the moral or immoral choice.
Now. Here is something I am emphatic with when talking with young people <and as often as I can with older people>.
I do believe professional communicators have a higher responsibility than other folks.
I do believe … all of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society.
We can vulgarize that society.
We can brutalize it.
Or we can help lift it to a higher level.
Plain packaging? Why am I against it?
Well. I would lose an opportunity to help lift society to a higher level.
That’s what I tell people.
And that is what I believe.
This old post is not about communicators … but business responsibility to shaping society.