“You aren’t advertising to a standing army; you are advertising to a moving parade.”
“One can resist the invasion of an army but one cannot resist the invasion of ideas.”
“The pursuit of excellence is less profitable than the pursuit of bigness, but it can be more satisfying.”
Today I want to take a moment and comment on business responsibility and their choices with regard to what they say, or do not say, in advertising with regard to social issues. I believe business should take stands on social issues <thru advertising or just in general>.
I do so because in today’s heightened sense of politicism and divisive rhetoric a shitload of people are making noise about “advertising should honor the event and not use it to make a political statement” or “I don’t want to know what they think, I just want to by their product” and even some business people “I don’t want to disenfranchise my business from some good existing customers.”
Well. I am most likely in the minority within the marketing community on this issue but … that is nuts to me. It is nuts for a couple of reasons – first captures the idea that business is a fabric of society whether they like it or not &, second, choices offer clarity to people & people love clarity <as well as hate … and that is good>. The first is about accepting some society responsibility and the second is, frankly, business creating wealth thru self interest. I would also note that Peter Drucker also suggested businesses should not avoid social responsibility and that it could represent opportunities.
- Responsibility <& Fabric of Society>.
If not then … then when?
If not me … then who?
I fully understand there are consequences & repercussions for your actions. But let me take a couple minute to talk about that ‘actions’ part. Far too often this discussion devolves into a simplistic binary choice – an ‘either/or’ choice.
You stand for this therefore you hate that. In other words you cannot be pro-choice and yet respectful or understanding of pro-life … you cannot desire stronger immigration rules and still be accepting of immigrants … you cannot believe in your religion and still accept that how others worship is good & worthy.
Let’s face it.
Life, in most cases , is not some simplistic binary choice. You can, and should, believe in something and yet still can, and should, be accepting and respectful of others views. To be clear … to be successful in this endeavor we would not only need to embrace respect but also assume that most people, let’s say maybe 99% of people, do the best they can and make the best decisions they can <no matter how flawed those decisions may look in our eyes>.
Which leads me back to business and advertising. I believe advertising, in general, should always seek to highlight the opportunity for us to see the better, or best, version of who and what we are. That is responsibility. And that is where I believe business marketing and advertising should not fear speaking out. And … I would point out … what I am suggesting is not political nor is it divisive but rather it is contributing to a better society. It is not stating what you believe is wrong … but rather that standing up and speaking out for what you believe is right. Companies make statements all the time. Maybe they do more vocally internally but part of any good organization is a sense of what they believe is right, versus wrong, and how they may define integrity & values.
Frankly. We need more companies standing up and vocalizing this publicly.
This is not about saying “you are wrong for believing this” or “we do not agree with you” but rather more about normalizing what is right.
This is not about free speech or any political motivation, per se, but it is about how business, and work life, is an important part of the societal fabric of who and what we are and how and what we think.
This also means a business has to slide around the infamous ‘political correctness’ obstacle.
In my eyes … if you want to discuss how political correctness has gone awry … it would be in the business world. Political correctness scared businesses from assuming a role they had gladly played in the past. It wasn’t too long ago that business played a significant role in shaping society. As Peter Drucker pointed out, back in the early 1990’s, something he discussed called “no more salvation by society” … a time in which businesses understood that work made up a significant portion of people’s lives and therefore they had some responsibility to investing in the fabric of society. As time and views have shifted toward ‘making a dollar’ and profits … the work place became less and less an extension of society but rather simply ‘a place to work and gain a paycheck’.
What an empty thought that is.
So empty that when meetings occurred to discuss ‘risk in their advertising’, and ‘what should we say’, was discussed … ‘social responsibility’ sat in the corner and had nothing to defend it … and businesses became afraid to make a stand on what they believed was good for society <and simply focused on ‘brand differentiation’ and ‘branding’ … in other words … I am gonna just worry about me and let you worry about you>.
This is not only sad … but wrong.
It is wrong for 2 reasons:
- Our work lives, like it or not, represent a significant portion of our lives … not just in terms of sheer hours but also in terms of thinking we are exposed to, accepted behavior and general attitudes on what is right & what is wrong. For a business to avoid that ‘fabric of society’ responsibility is shameful. And … yeah … advertising is the most visible expression should they actually accept the responsibility.
- Brand differentiation rarely resides in some obtuse technical or product differentiation but rather in character & personality. Some intrinsic motivator which compels a consumer to find an emotional connection with you & your brand. Making a choice to become part of the fabric of society permits people to allow you o become part of the fabric of their Life.
Yeah. That said. I go back to the beginning … yeah … there are absolutely consequences for your actions. But that is what business positioning is really all about. Distinctness and forcing people to think … think about you as a company, think about what you are offering … and thinking about how they feel about you, your message … and themselves.
That is what business positioning and marketing and advertising, at its core, is all about. We far too often dumb it down into some ‘selling shit’ sound bite but … well … that is dumb. Dumb?
2. Choices, “edges” & Clarity <Self Interest>.
I talk with a shitload of business people … not about advertising or marketing per se … but rather about simply being successful in the marketplace.
I focus on distinction and not differentiation.
I focus on worrying about “me” and what I want to say rather than finding some elusive, and most likely nonexistent, ‘white space’ in some industry to shape what I ‘should say.’
I focus on saying the right things and doing it the right way and suggesting that if you tell people the right way to think about things that eventually people will see you as ‘right’ rather than ‘wrong.’
Yes. I know. People will debate with me and, to be fair, this whole discussion wanders along the razor thin line of inclusionary versus exclusionary. If your message is effective, concise and clear, it will absolutely be inclusionary for those who see themselves in what you have to say and offer … and potentially exclusionary to others at exactly the same time. However, when done well, a business’s advertising captures the brand’s distinctness <which is a campfire to those who want to be included> and offers a better version of people <so that people do not dislike you … they imply think ‘they are not for me’>. I would argue that IS the ultimate clarity & distinctness & differentiation.
Look. To do what I am suggesting a business has to set political correctness off to the side, not think about politics at all … and simply think about … well … people. The people who they desire to try their products and services and how they would like to showcase those people as the best version of themselves. Maybe show them the destination mentally or maybe even share the path. It doesn’t matter … it is intended to connect with some better version that resides in everyone of us. And then after thinking about all that … they have to place the burden of responsibility upon their shoulders, open the door and stride out into the world to share it with people.
In business we have a responsibility.
Yes. Even in the advertising and marketing business there is an almost overwhelming responsibility <which far too many people are not willing to accept this burden> beyond simply selling stuff.
“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 onto a higher level.”
“We are so busy measuring public opinion that we forget we can mold it. We are so busy listening to statistics we forget we can create them.”
It is a much easier burden to simply focus on profit and dollars — it is a straightforward black & white responsibility. Well. I would suggest to any business person reading this that … well … responsibility is responsibility. All responsibility is only as overwhelming or ‘whelming’ a you make it.
And if you do not accept your responsibility to tell the truth as excitingly and convincingly as you possibly can … lies will win and, worse, society will end up being shaped that way. If you choose to vulgarize the society or brutalize it … or even ignore it <all under the guise of ‘understanding what the consumer wants’> … society will lose.
To be clear.
I do not despair when I look at business in today’s world … or even marketing & advertising behavior <although it often pains me how often business passes on opportunities to be distinct out of what can only be ‘fear’>. But I do get aggravated. Ok. No. I get angry.
I get angry that we are not accepting the responsibility.
I get angry that we are not strong enough to accept the burden.
I get angry that many do not even presume the responsibility is within their purview.
Business, whether you like it or not, shapes society.
Selling stuff may matter to our bottom line and the existence of our business, but we cannot ignore that a thriving business actually contributes to a greater good — the existence of a healthy society.
I could argue that while selling stuff is important that what really matters is the shaping of attitudes <which ultimately shapes behavior>.
Far too often, by simply focusing on ‘selling stuff’, the byproduct of our ignoring the larger responsibility is that we end up brutalizing society in some form or fashion. Am I suggesting that selling stuff or being profitable isn’t important? Of course not.
All I am suggesting is that how you sell stuff and be profitable matters.
And that you have a responsibility in how you do what you do.
Because how you do things impacts society.
It shapes society. It can vulgarize or brutalize … or invigorate and instill good.
How you do things has a power way beyond simply you or what you do in that moment.
How you do things is a pebble dropping into a pond.
Accepting the responsibility assumes you are neither impotent nor harmless.
“Advertising is far from impotent or harmless; it is not a mere mirror image. Its power is real, and on the brink of a great increase. Not the power to brainwash overnight, but the power to create subtle and real change.
The power to prevail.”
Eric Clark, The Want Makers: Inside the World of Advertising, 1988
Your responsibility in business is sometimes subtle … but always real. I worry that business people everywhere, but in particular advertising & marketing, have become so focused on getting shit done and ‘attaining the bottom line’ that they have forgotten the responsibility.
I worry that business people worry so much about politics and ‘political correctness’ they have forgotten that when good people remain silent … the only one who wins is bad.
I ask everyone visiting today to think about what the thinking I offered today. This isn’t about causes. This isn’t about social responsibility <or the welfare of people>. This is about understanding that what you do impacts people. This is about whether you, as business people, accept the burden of responsibility to help shape a society which is a reflection of the best versions of who and what we are. That said. I would also ask everyone to ponder the fact silence also says something and, at some point, EVERYONE is going to be judged whether they said something or not <I. personally, would like to help my judgement by saying how I would like to be judged>.
In my eyes … if I am going to spend money on some advertisement and place my ad on some show where a gazillion people will see it … I am going to use my moment in the spotlight to aim for the best version of myself that I can. And aim to help people see the best version that they can be.
Will that piss some people off? Sure.
Does that make me wrong to try and meet that objective? No.
Silence is not an option. When you have the podium and he opportunity to speak … you accept the burden of responsibility and try and ‘lift society to a higher level.’
Originally Posted on February 6, 2017