Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The bridge to nowhere.

About two decades ago and in short order, I read two books by Malcolm Gladwell. The first book was “The Tipping Point.” The second was “Blink.”

After reading those, I quickly gave up on Gladwell.

To me, his books contain one sentence of clarifying idea surrounded by 300 pages of padding. Sorry, Malcolm.

Right now, about 150 days into the global pandemic, I am listening once again to the news on National Public Radio. It’s early August and almost the exact same news broadcast could have run back in April or March.

Sure, there are temporal stories—the latest hurricane, the death of some K-List celebrity like Regis Philbin that we will never recover from—but about 99% of the stories—150 days into the global pandemic are about the need to wear a mask and keep six feet away from people.

It’s driving me more than a little bit crazy, to tell you the truth.

For five months, sonorous newscasters and raspy public officials and intemperate “persons on the street,” are all screaming about the global pandemic and the need to wear a mask and keep six feet from people.

Here, with both hands on my metaphorical leather-wrapped steering wheel, I turn quickly away from the absolute banality of the world and screech to the even greater absolute banality of the advertising industry.

This humble blog has gained a lot of C-suite readers of late, so I’ll keep things simple. Very simple.

There are three things that work in communication.

1.    You have to be interesting, unusual and startling with your message or you won’t be noticed.
2.    You have to have a concise, simple and clear message.
3.    You have to repeat it and repeat it and repeat it and repeat it some more.

There’s a probably apocryphal story about the old Ted Bates agency—one of the giant, boring package goods agencies until it was subsumed and destroyed by the Saatchis' back in the mid-80s.

The story goes that some senior exec was showing a senior client around the agency. There are hundreds and hundreds of employees in hundreds and hundreds of offices.

The client says to the Ted Bates’ executive, “We’ve haven’t changed our ad campaign for 15 years. What do all these people do?”

The Bates’ executive replied, “They keep you from changing it.”

Today, in the modern always on, let’s-inundate-the-consumer-with-99-messages-a-minute-every-day-from-here-to-the-end-of-time-ad-industry there’s no one to keep clients from changing messages.

In part because the financial structure of ad agencies (they get paid when they make new things) gives ad agencies an incentive to actually hurt the health of their clients. So we change messages every two microseconds.

As a result, we have 40% of the nation not believing that when you cough on someone you can spread an illness.

And we have 40% of the nation not believing that vaccines work. Though major diseases have been eradicated by vaccines.

Sure there’s Trump and Fox that have worked to destroy facts and logic. But even in the civilized world there’s not been a consistent, insistent and persistent effort to propagate information about either the virulence of the coronavirus or the efficacy of masks, lockdowns and social distance.

It’s worse than that.

Liberal government has forgotten to tell people that liberal government works. Whereas starve-the-beast-ers have been consistent and unrelenting in telling us government doesn’t work.

There was a time when every road, every bridge, every school, every hospital, every sewer system under construction was heralded with a giant sign proclaiming “This government effort to build a new ________ is putting one-thousand of your neighbors to work.”

The neglect of our primary jobs as communicators: to be interesting, to be simple, to be consistent, has huge ramifications in our business. Formerly package goods companies dominated the airwaves. Then they decided to do things on the cheap—running Facebook ads rather than TV commercials.

No longer do I as a consumer recognize any brand value in buying Listerine for $6 vs. buying Walgreen mouthwash for $5. They have the same packaging, the same colors, the same ingredients, the same shelf-space. Listerine stopped telling me—over and over—why they were better.

People rarely remember their loved one’s birthdays. Why would I remember anything about Listerine unless I’m told 20 times a week in an interesting way?

This is all really another case of our societal cheapness and our social lack of attention span.

In the Listerine example above, it might cost Listerine 50-cents to get that extra dollar of revenue. But that’s a pretty good bargain in my book.

Three views of a bridge that wasn't built.

Back after World War II, New York’s power broker, Robert Moses, wanted to build another connection between Brooklyn and Manhattan. Roughly where the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel is today, Moses had planned to build a giant, soaring and gleaming bridge. A tribute to the power of government to get things done—and a tribute to himself and his power.

The tunnel which was eventually built was hundreds of millions of dollars cheaper, caused less environmental damage and displaced many thousands fewer New Yorkers. But Moses wanted his bridge.

Bridges communicate. There would be no mythic San Francisco with instead the “Golden Gate Tunnel.”

Moses, and the dying vestiges of our industry, understood the power of consistent, big and powerful ideas on display.

You can call it what you will.
Propaganda. Brain-washing. Soviet.

The fact remains, if you want something, you have to tell people so they hear you.

Then tell them again.

Then tell them again again.

Back to mouthwash. I don’t really care if my customer wants to have a conversation with me.

So long as they buy my product.

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