Burning Down the House

As I took an extra long shower the morning after the recent election, hoping to scrub off the residual slime of our latest electoral circus, I found myself pondering the role of marketers in creating this biannual spectacle. In my memory, never has so much been said, so frequently, so loudly and at such expense, that communicated so little. If a candidate is a product to be sold, what did I learn about any of these products through the swirling cloud of tv spots, snail mail flyers and email blasts?

The typical message seemed to be that “all the other candidates are liars and scoundrels, beholden to special interests, and dedicated to ruining your life. Oh, and don’t believe anything they say about me.” If the other candidate was a Democrat, then he or she apparently hoped to turn the US into a sort of Bacchanalian orgy, inviting ISIS to dinner, handing out money (stolen from the wealthy) on street corners, supporting marriage with farm animals and seizing all guns in preparation for martial law, all while spreading Ebola to keep us from paying much attention. If the other candidate was Republican, his or her alleged goals were to create a feudal caste system, replacing all science text books with bibles, putting 9mm handguns in cereal boxes, outlawing gays, Hispanics, loudmouth women, Muslims, scary black people and helping the poor die off as quickly as possible so there will be more stuff for the rest of us.

In other words, I learned nothing of actual substance. Thoughtful ideas for creating jobs, addressing American poverty, reforming healthcare, immigration, campaign finance didn’t seem to merit inclusion in the shouting…er, dialog. Nothing but fear and insinuation, threatening the collapse of civilization. On the theoretical plus side, of course, the folks that create all of this nonsense, as well as the firms that print, broadcast or otherwise distribute it all made out like bandits.

The question for me then, is whether we as marketers bear some responsibility for the toll all this vitriol takes on the collective American psyche. I find that such ethical questions are usually met with a shrug…an “I’m just the messenger, don’t kill me” kind of shrug. I’ve seen that shrug before. When I was in school, the question on all of our fresh young minds was whether we would work on a cigarette account. For those who would (whether they supported smoking or not), the mitigating factor was the feeling that the “truth” was so publicly visible at this point that one could only choose to smoke from a relatively knowledgeable place. Kids aside, I can see that rationale. We were past the “smoking is good for you” propaganda phase. You could not avoid the simple truth that smoking is, without a doubt, bad for you. In politics, the truth is complex, nuanced and more than a little elusive. Americans now have access to lots of propaganda, but little truth with which to filter it. As marketers, can we really ignore our role in this? Leni Riefenstahl played the “I’m just the messenger” card too, but I’m quite sure I don’t ever want to be compared to her.

And what about the “but it works!” defense? This one makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. In other words, “the means justify the end.” Hmmmm. If you have a termite problem and I offer to burn your house down to get rid of them, would that seem like a good idea? Despite my quite valid claim that “it works”, you might still have reservations.

As marketers, we are hired by clients to help achieve a goal…sell more widgets, win an election…whatever. But we are deluding ourselves when we choose to ignore the full consequences of what we do. We may get “our guy” elected, but at what cost to our collective well-being? Until we individually own the collateral damage of our strategies and tactics, whether pitching pesticides or politicians, we are complicit in the very things we rail against at the dinner table. 

The T-Rex of Big Data

These days, articles on Big Data targeted advertising seem to be as inescapable as, well, Big Data” targeted ads. Like most people, I’ve become pretty much oblivious to them, but they do occasionally catch my eye long enough to annoy or (occasionally) amuse me.  And so it was yesterday, as I noticed an ongoing stream of units hoping to entice me to purchase something I actually bought two weeks ago, as well as a gadget my 15 year-old found intriguing. What, I wonder, are the brand implications of all these earnest, yet imperfect attempts to guess what I might want or need?

The road to Hell, as the saying goes, is paved with good intentions. I’m reminded of the scene in Jurassic Park, in which Jeff Goldblum cautions Richard Attenborough about the dangers of cloning dinosaurs. Attenborough, of course, dismisses his concerns, emphasizing that he’s “spared no expense!” Cue the T-Rex. And so it is with Big Data. Clearly, no expense is being spared. But, as with many new technologies, there are plenty of kinks, limitations and perhaps, unintended consequences.

For me, a good example is Overstock.com. I’ve been a customer forever, long before most people had even heard of Overstock. Great service, great prices and most of the time, great merchandise. Love Overstock. That said, they flood my browser with ads for anything I’ve searched for in recent memory. And that’s the problem…they know what I’ve looked for, but not why, nor if I ultimately made a purchase. No, that dollhouse was a possible Christmas gift for a 5 year-old. It’s March now. Yes, I searched for 5’x7’ wool rugs. And bought one. From you. And no, I searched for “guns” on your site as research, to see just how appallingly available guns are to U.S. consumers. Those ads for assault rifles are really pissing me off.

So, despite all the positive feelings I have for the Overstock brand, their advertising strategy is damaging that perception. Do I buy more stuff from them because of their ads? No. In fact, I actually think twice before searching the site, as I know I’ll have to live with the results for weeks. This is the T-Rex of Big Data.

Without knowing the context of my search or the full cycle of my path to purchase, behavioral ad engines can’t really target me effectively. “We will!” cry the advocates, “and it will be great!” And there’s the rub…I don’t want them to know. They know too much already. And enough of the “we’re working to help consumers find things relevant to their needs” nonsense. You’re trying to sell me more stuff. I get it. And I’m okay with that…just quit following me around.

Since when did “Not New” become synonymous with “Bad”?

“Innovative”.

As Inigo Montoya said, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” The word has appeared in every agency creative brief I can remember. One can understand the attraction for clients, of course…the need to differentiate from competitors sits at the top of every marketer’s To Do list. Fair enough. Lately however, I’ve been seeing the dark side of the innovation mantra in creative circles, particularly when it comes to UX design.

Surprisingly often, I see otherwise sane creative people confusing an unusual execution for an innovative solution. The conversation usually goes something like this:

Me: “Hey, that’s a really clever way to talk about health insurance! I’ve never seen anything like it in the industry.”

Creative Team: (beaming with enthusiasm) “Thanks! We’re really excited about creating a cool online experience.”

Me: “Absolutely! Here’s a great example from a movie site done a few years back. This kind of interaction would tell your story really well.”

Creative Team: (despondent) “Wait…but that’s been done. It’s old. We want to innovate.”

The realization (and joy) that the “innovation” that really counts has already been achieved is completely lost on these folks. You’ve come up with a fantastically fresh take on a stagnant topic…rejoice! Instead, they are focused on making the tactical elements unique, happily discounting inspired solutions from the past that can practically guarantee a great result. That’s like saying “I have a fantastic story idea for children’s book. But I don’t want the book to have pages.”

Have you bumped against this Culture of the New in your work? I’d love to hear your stories!