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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Marketers: That Phoniness Will Cost You

This season on "Desperate Housewives," Susan is wracked with guilt because she helped her friends commit a crime. She tries to run away from the guilt by taking an art class and trying to win the teacher's approval there - except that the teacher is more than she bargained for. He won't let her simply get an "A" in the class and go home. Instead he sees her talent, and pushes her to cut through her own b.s. and paint the truth she is hiding inside.

The great thing about popular culture is that it helps us to see and confront serious issues that are often too upsetting to deal with in reality. Because just like Susan, a lot of us go around in a kind of hiding. We compensate for the inability to speak freely, to tell the truth as we see it, by trying to win the approval of others. Except that the satisfaction from this approval is necessarily superficial and meaningless - because it isn't really what we're looking for. The praise, the promotions, the money, and all the other markers of exterior success can't permanently mask or stifle the need to live in truth.

Fear of honest self-expression is why so much corporate, commercial or organizational writing is (let's be kind) disappointing. Conversely, great art - including great commercials - are uplifting despite their commercial nature. People respond well to honesty; they can sniff an exercise in approval-seeking and will ignore it utterly, and worse, they will think badly of the person doing the fake expression.

Writing and art are similar in how good quality is determined. Essentially there are two ingredients: basic technique and raw honesty. The first one you don't necessarily need - you can have lousy grammar or purposely use bad spelling and still be a great writer. Similarly, a self-taught artist or photographer can be a genius. What matters most is unflagging, unflinching, raw honesty.

Many people admire the seemingly carefree lives of great artists and writers. They are mistaken. Creativity is as much a burden as a choice. You don't know where it comes from, but it forces you on a lifelong hike-on-foot to try and find a perfection that can never truly exist. There is no ultimate inside to the layers of the onion. Just when you think you are doing the best you can - you could have done better. Because the only being who is truly omniscient, objective, and has no bias is God.

Phoniness is what keep marketing from being good. When brand people start talking social media - and reality shows are the epitome of trying to mix these - very often the result is horrible (except maybe in the early days before the show catches on when the characters have no choice but to be honest to get people interested in them).

A couple of examples:

* A couple of weeks ago on reality show "Kendra," husband Hank went off to a meeting with some brand folks. They were trying to decide if he and Kendra should promote their product. The conversation was full of reference to "organic" social media and "monetizing" celebrity and "perfect for the brand." Hank's head bobbled this way and that until finally he told the camera something like, "I didn't know what they were talking about." And of course then off he went to buy his wife some expensive earrings, likely in an act of product placement.

* On the now-infamous E! special, "Kim's Fairytale Wedding," stepfather Bruce Jenner has a heart-to-heart talk with Kim during which she breaks down about missing her deceased father. She also says that she feels like the whole wedding thing is out of control, and like they've lost touch with what really matters. About two seconds later on the show, Bruce enters "momager" Kris Jenner's study to talk about the situation. As he attempts to describe Kim's emotional state, Kris interrupts him with an act of product placement, saying, "look at this great deal on LivingSocial!" 

I read somewhere a comment that Steve Jobs, with Apple, gave back more value than the money he took, because the joy his products add to people's lives is well-worth the money they are paying for them. Another thing marketers can do, if they want to give something back AND win customers at the same time, is speak in voices that are honest and true. By contributing real art, they win the hearts and minds of people who can't speak freely in their own lives - making them want to buy and building up a culture where honesty is valued, while phony people are automatically excluded from the conversation.