Being Good

Today’s essay from our book, comes from Johnny Vulkan, Co-founder and Partner, Anomaly – New York:

“Pass the milk please, dear,” replied the woman while deftly sidestepping the seemingly easy question being posed to her. “So, remind us again what exactly is it that your son does?”

It was slightly disturbing to discover that someone’s mother (OK, my mother) would actually be slightly embarrassed that her child worked in advertising, but upon even the most cursory examination she does have a point. Advertising and marketing, in all its forms, doesn’t have a particularly good reputation (a moment’s pause for irony, please). It’s sadly not a new thing, nor is it one that has escaped the attention and occasional amusement of authors, film-makers, and the popular media.

We can start back in 1957, where the American journalist and social critic Vance Packard wrote the million-selling pop psychology book The Hidden Persuaders. With it he raised several moral questions by lifting the lid on motivational research and the ways in which it was being applied to “manipulate” people.

Skip forward to 1978 and the BBC radio and TV comedy series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Fans will recall the planet Golgafrinchan – an advanced and philosophical society apart from the one-third of their population that they realize served no real purpose – hairdressers, management consultants, telephone sanitizers, and yup, of course, us marketing people.

Another decade on and in 1990 Dudley Moore stars in Truth in Advertising, where his patently ludicrous idea that advertising should be straightforward and honest sees him incarcerated in an asylum. Then 2001 sees Tim Hamilton’s witty video shorts of the same title expose what we all secretly thought. Its endlessly quotable script is maybe best summed in a line delivered by an agency producer: “I can’t wait to make this blight on humanity.”

The year 2007 saw an appropriately brief release for the critically panned Perfect Stranger. It starred a sharp-suited Bruce Willis as Madison Avenue’s most powerful advertising executive who also just happens to be a murderer. At least today we have Mad Men. Chisel-jawed Don Draper, building bonds with clients, fiercely defending his creativity while working his way through the women of the series. Oh dear. Ah well, the suits and setting look great, and like most of the above, it does make for great entertainment. But it’s hardly the stuff of heroes and role models, and we have only ourselves to blame.

Somewhere along the way our industry’s brief to present products and services in a compelling way to people became subverted into a game to convince people that real men smoke and if you occasionally can’t sleep at night you should ask your doctor about prescription Hypochondriax™.
And it was a fun game for many ad folks while it lasted, but that game has run its course and rightly so. It’s been replaced by a new, improved digital version. The question is, are the rules the same? I suspect, but more importantly hope, that they’re not.

The generations born digital have a unique opportunity compared with those that preceded them because of a very simple shift: the world of commercial communication is no longer one way. This is not the place to wax lyrical about the pros and cons of social media, citizen journalism, crowd sourcing, or any other descriptor inclined to cause venture capitalists to salivate, but this is the place to talk about an important side effect of our new emerging digital dialog world. It’s called “the truth,” and you’ll be pleased to learn that a lot of good things come with it.

The detractors out there may cry foul here. “Truth, you say – it’s just a lot of people whining through their keyboards.” I beg to differ. Sure, a few belligerent mudslingers exist, but that’s democracy for you and you need them to make the rest of us look sane.

For the first time in human history, an unprecedented number of people have the ability to give constant feedback to any company on any topic at any time, whether those companies would like us to or not. It is this dynamic – the ability to research and question, to publish and provoke – that leads to the truth, because lying, skimping, shirking a responsibility, or denying a truthful allegation is simply no longer an option. You’ll be found out. Just ask the makers of the Krypton bicycle lock.

And this is all great news for society. The result should be good products made by good companies who offer them at fair prices to people and communicate them in a decent and honest way. Gone should be the days of mediocre, “me-too” items wrapped in a thin veneer of communication metaphors and analogies. Replacing them will be a market for innovative products and services, clearly differentiated and offering real value.

That’s great news for the marketing industry too. While technology has created a whole new set of tools for marketers and birthed some of the most exciting new companies our industry has seen, it’s actually also made our jobs easier. Better products and services require us to simply connect people to them rather than batter them into submission or worry them into purchases. Technology has very kindly taken “good” from a moral “nice to have” to a business imperative.

An oversimplistic prognosis? Of course, but optimism is another splendid side effect of the digital age, so let’s run with it.

But being good in the digital age isn’t going to be just about making better products and marketing processes that stand up to interrogation. It’s also about how we’re going to behave as individuals going forward, and that’s going to be a little harder.

We’re only at the second bend of the dot-com roller coaster, and I imagine there are as many dips as climbs on the rails ahead. The issues we face are as much about society as they are about marketing; our fates are intertwined. Data permeates almost every aspect of first-world life, and as data-driven companies look to give their services for free – from music to phone calls to email and search – they’re still looking to the same people to foot the bill: advertisers. And in return for that funding, advertisers expect to get that data.

There are potentially big positives to this. It should mean fewer, better messages coming our way as potential customers, but the question does remain: will it? The fact is that I really do know what you did last summer; your data vapor trail will tell me. I can increasingly find out what you did in the last few minutes. But just because I know, does that mean I have a right to use it?

The debates around privacy and data are nothing new, but they have certainly accelerated and are become more pointed. New advertising models from Facebook to Google skirt the blurred edges of what many people think is acceptable. On top of this, the impact of rapidly increasing levels of mobile and location data will push these questions even further.

So what will we do? Our industry has a choice. But far more importantly, we as individual practitioners have a choice.

Being good in the digital age is not going to be about one single big idea. It’s going to be about a long tail of goodness. It’s about the everyday cumulative little moments and decisions made by each and everyone of us – the “pleases” and “thank-yous,” the moments of reflection and invention and increasingly the moments of restraint.

It’s about realizing that we’re all allowed to think and act beyond our job descriptions. It’s about asking questions and interrogating long and hard enough to make sure we’re comfortable with the answers we get back. That’s not somebody else’s responsibility; it’s ours.

I can’t make those choices for you, and neither can your company, college, or school. We each have to make our own, but I hope that when you do it’s one you make while thinking about your mother because we’ve got all the data on her too. Maybe the decision will be different from the one you’d make if you didn’t.

Excerpt from Digital Advertising: Past, Present and Future

About Johnny Vulkan
Starting his career in London, Johnny has lived and worked in New York since 1999 and is one of the architects of Anomaly, rated by Fast Company as one of the most innovative companies in the world. His role covers digital and media innovation as well as emerging commercial philosophies. Johnny never has less than three cameras with him and is the proud mayor of twelve venues on Foursquare…this week. You can follow him @johnnyvulkan.

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