Friday, November 15, 2019

The relentless pursuit of irrelevancy.

As the world gets more and more complicated and the choices we make more and more expensive (and therefore it’s more important to get things right) I wonder if those of us in advertising need to do something different.

Explain how things work.

Not only so people understand things.

But also so that they want to learn about what you’re selling. Because you’re doing something important for them. Helping them be smart.

Robert Caro is America’s greatest historian. 

He’s won three National Book Awards and two Pulitzer Prizes.

He defines the serious writer’s role this way:  find out how things work and then explain them to people.

I suppose that sounds obvious. But it’s not.

Most people, clients among them, don’t know how things work, or why. Like everybody else we deal with today, they’re always rushing from meeting-to-meeting, always nine steps behind, always afraid they’re about to be fired, and always fearful to say “I don’t understand.”

I realize I’m hopelessly archaic.

I think people want to understand.

They want to understand what makes a $70,000 car better than a $20,000 car. Or, conversely, why a $20,000 car is every bit as good as a $70,000 car. They want to know how to “move their business to the cloud.” Or if automation/machine learning/ai is friend or foe.

As you may or may not have read, the minority-popular-vote-elected president of the United States is, as I type this, being impeached. 

This isn’t simple to understand. It’s hard to find out what’s going on, who’s who, what’s the timetable and so on.

With the kids screaming, the dog needing a walk, a bill that needs paying, a vacation that needs taking and 97 work emails waiting for you when you get home, who has the time to dig in? We barely have a moment to heat up a can of beans for dinner.

Yet, we want to know.

Just like I want to know about the car I might buy, the resort where I might spend a few nights, the new flatscreen on which I might watch the Knicks lose. 

Forget about not going gentle into that good night. 

I don’t want to go blind into that next big purchase.

I can’t be the only one.

But as an industry we seem to have abdicated from holding a functional role in helping people make purchase decisions, in helping them understand the reasons why they might prefer x over y.

There are about 219,000 rationales for this. 

Someone, somewhere mapped people’s brains, or plugged electrodes into their nether regions and then claimed that people’s decisions are based predominately on emotional grounds. Others anecdotally assert that no one reads anymore—even though the hoary New York Times has 4.8 million digital subscribers.

One bit both of these key rationales have in common is this: I think they basically hold people—that’s you and me—in very low regard. 

They posit that every purchase is based on impulse. And that no one cares enough about what they spend their money on to learn. And that people don’t have the intellectual wherewithal or motivation to read a reasoned argument.

I just don’t believe that.

And never will.

I think it’s our fault. Our industry's. Our agency's. 

We’ve stopped finding out how things work and explaining them to people. In a simple way. In an interesting and involving way. And yes, in an emotional way.

Almost five years ago, the New York Times took something very complicated and did something very creative with it.

Maybe it wouldn't cut it at Cannes. It’s too good for Cannes.

But to my mind, you couldn’t help but read it. Especially since it was topical. And scary. The Iran Nuclear Deal in 200 Words. (An average reader can read about 200 words in a minute.)

Yesterday, with the impeachment hearings in full-fury, the Times published “A Third Grader’s Guide to the Impeachment Hearings”. Helpful. Simple. Informative. Pass-along-able

How's this?

"200 words about brakes that could save your life."

"Quantum computing for third graders."

You wouldn’t care?

Our job is not to concede to normative thinking. To lowest-common-denominator-ize our work.

Our job isn’t to succumb to the dominant complacency. Our job is to shatter complacency.

Our job isn't just to capitalize and "leverage" and "amplify" things people already care about. 

Our job is to find interesting, truthful things to make people care.

But first, we have to care.

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