I did a talk today for Susan Fournier’s Boston University conference called Brands and Brand Relationships.
It was illuminating, forcing me to see things I didn’t know I thought.
I will try to get the slides up for tomorrow. (If anyone knows the most elegant way of getting a Keynote (or Powerpoint) deck onto WordPress, please let me know. Converting them to a YouTube video just feels laborious. Because it is.)
Here’s an ad from Cadillac called Poolside.
I think Poolside is a nice piece of work and I said so here. I particularly like how provocative it is.
And, my goodness, was it provocative. Writing for the Atlantic, Rebecca Rosen recounts several reactions:
Elizabeth Weiss, writing in the New Yorker, said the character seemed “vaguely sociopathic.” In The Washington Post, Brigid Schulte condemned his celebration of a work culture that, she argued, is driving us to be “sick,” “stressed,” and “stupid.” Adam Gopnik, also in the New Yorker, called it, “the single most obnoxious television ad ever made.”
It looks for a moment that Rosen might withhold from this piling on. But no, in the event, she declares Cadillac man a “crass materialist.”
Is it just the anthropologist in me that find these criticisms distressing? No, I think it’s the liberal.
As I was laboring to say yesterday, liberals are obliged to tolerate even people they don’t much like. Shrug with asperity, if they must, but they are obliged to show even disagreeable parties a certain respect. Or at the very least forgo the scorn
A work culture that makes us “sick,” “stressed,” and “stupid”?
“The single most obnoxious television ad ever made”?
We may not like Cadillac man. But if we are liberals, this has nothing to do with it. As J.S. Mill points out, the idea is not that we should like other people. This is, he says, entirely unlikely in any case. The idea is that we respect their right to define themselves as they chose to define themselves. We must tolerate even those we find obnoxious.
Otherwise, mark you, you are not a liberal.
Thanks to Eric Nehrlich for spotting Rosen’s essay.
It is widely noted that Millennials are a tolerant bunch. They accept diversity and the rights of minorities. The younger you are the more likely you are, for instance, to take for granted a gay couple’s right to marry. Tolerance is a demographic wave. It will eventually triumph.
This is the outcome of a variety of historical and cultural influences. In the present day, the most effective players perhaps are Hollywood and the elementary-school system. These institutions took on entrenched hostility, racism, anti-semitism, homophobia, and xenophobia. And, mostly, they prevailed. A task of no small difficulty. An accomplishment of some real significance.
But there is, I think, a flaw in the Hollywood-School approach. And it’s the inclination to treat tolerance as an act of generosity, as something that fills the world with the light of human goodness. This approach is designed to show how deeply satisfying is the act of tolerance and in most cases to make us reach for our hankies. Tolerance…is…just…so…beautiful. (Snuffle, snuffle, honk.) We are not only doing the right thing, we are generously compensated for our good behavior.
But consider this second approach to tolerance:
Dutch tolerance was never “nice”. It was, as Shorto remarks, built not on admiration or even celebrating difference, but precisely on indifference, on letting others live their lives regardless of what one might think of their practices and beliefs, as long as they did not interfere with the business of society and of business itself. It was a shoulder-shrugging tolerance.
(This is Philipp Blom in his Times Literary Supplement (April 30) review of a new book by Russell Shorto called Amsterdam: A history of the world’s most liberal city. Little, Brown)
Shoulder-shrugging tolerance may be the more powerful, durable, dependable form of tolerance. And it is one promoted by J.S.Mill. (Though I’ll be damned if I can find the passage in question.) The idea, Mill says, is not that we are supposed to like the people of whom we are tolerant. The liberal idea is that we are supposed to endure even those we find dubious, difficult or repellent.
Forget the self congratulation. Stow the hankies. We are obliged to be tolerant all the time, and not just when it feels good or makes us look good. Real tolerance is not always “nice.”
Now, this might be merely a point of principle were it not for the eruption of a certain illiberality in American culture. Politics have turned into a shouting match. There are no limits to things we are prepared to call one another. Character assignation is the order of the day. And this comes from people who would insist that they are the very souls of liberal toleration.
I will use one example from my own experience. When even well educated, tender-hearted Canadians discover that my wife is American, they let fly with extended rants that drip with a bitter tongued indignation. It doesn’t seem to matter that my wife and I are standing right there. A small but apparently invisible point of courtesy. But what is also missing, and I mean utterly invisible, is the Millean idea that we are obliged to respect even those we dislike. Do these liberals understand liberalism?
And here’s perhaps the oddest twist. Even Millennials, our best and brightest accomplishment in the liberal ascendancy, can be discovered trashing the opposition…even as they insist that they are liberal to the very core. Apparently, Hollywood and the school system missed the “Dutch” part of the story.
We can guess at what happened here. Hollywood of the old fashioned kind sometimes struggled to tell a story unless it had a swelling orchestra in the background. Big emotions, yes. Shrugging, not so much. So “hanky” liberalism was bound to get on the studio “docket” while Dutch liberalism was not.
The same might be true for elementary school. Hanky liberalism is a great story to tell. It makes the teller look so very noble. The “told,” too. Hanky liberalism carries a rhetorical pay load. It says, “embrace this idea and we’ll adorn you in nobility.”
Shrugging liberalism, that’s a less pretty story. But to the extent that it delivers the more durable form of liberalism, it’s the more urgent one.
To Wodek Szemberg with whom I was talking about tolerance just a couple of weeks ago in Toronto.
The photo. showing a magnificently elaborate shrug, is an outtake from the Pharrell Williams’ Happy video here.
Buzzfeed has leaked an internal report from the New York Times.
I was struck by this passage:
“The very first step … should be a deliberate push to abandon our current metaphors of choice — ‘The Wall’ and ‘Church and State’ — which project an enduring need for division. Increased collaboration, done right, does not present any threat to our values of journalistic independence,” the report says. […]
“It’s the old world where the publisher and the editor work together,” senior editor Sam Sifton, who worked on the cooking project, told the report’s authors. “It’s not lions lying down with lambs. It’s a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship.”
I just finished working a project for Netflix and Wired, and I got to see collaboration up close.
Certainly, this project represents a repudiation of the old “church and state” distinction. The “state” called Netflix paid for content that appeared in the “church” called Wired. (And I wrote the “copy.”)
Some people will accept this as the kind of break-through that Jonah Peretti of Buzzfeed has been arguing for for some time. Others will decry it as the invasion of capital into journalism. Still others (AdAge’s Michael Sebastian, to be exact) suggested that this story might give us a glimpse of the future in some of the ways that NYT’s Snowfall did.
But there is an anthropological observation to make, and that is none of us (and by “us,” I mean Netflix, Conde Nast and me) appeared to be looking to make this content shill for the sponsor. More to the point, we were not conflating church and state. If anything we were being at least as fastidious as the old order.
None of us was looking to amp up the pitch. No one said, “Grant, can you dial up the emphasis on Netflix, please.” In fact, the only editorial intervention was the removal of the names of shows that I had used to illustrate the power of the new TV, and this was occasioned by the fact that non-Netflix properties did not want to have their shows appear in a piece sponsored by Netflix.
Why were we being so fastidious? I think there is a simple marketing answer here. Any marketing exercise that shills now actually diminishes the power of the communication. Consumers just dial that stuff out.
We have entered a new era in which viewers, consumers take intelligence and imagination as the necessary condition for their attention. Shilling is clumsy and overbearing. It disqualifies itself.
This is what happens when popular culture, driven by commerce, becomes culture plain and simple. It has to stop acting like a shilling exercise, or suffer the consequences…and these are immediately exclusion from readerly interest.
“Oh, it’s only an ad. Next!”
The new rule of marketing says you can’t buy your way into people’s lives. If you make marketing with scant regard for the way this marketing draws on and contributes to culture, you provoke an instantaneous push back from the consumer.
This must qualify as good news. Even as the “grey lady” (aka NYT) wonders whether she can risk the conflation of church and state, the world of marketing is finding that it is obliged to be fastidious. Whew.
Thanks Rick Liebling for the head’s up.
Please come have a look at my essay for Netflix in Wired HERE.
I read with interest remarks by Maurice Levy (pictured) on how he thinks about life after the failure of the Omnicom -Publicis merger.
“We have a strategy, and we will accelerate that strategy. It calls for strengthening our digital operations to reach 50% of our revenue [from 40% currently], and investing in big data and accelerating the capabilities we have in integration.”
Levy knows much more about the industry and about Publicis than I ever will and I defer to his greater knowledge. But I have to say these remarks sent a chill through me.
There’s no question that the digital revolution continues and that it will change everything we know about marketing, advertising and communications.
It is also true, as I have been laboring to show the last couple of days, that there is a revolution taking place in old media as well. TV is changing at light speed. (See posts here, here, and here.)
It looks as if Levy is concentrating more on the digital revolution than the TV revolution. To be sure, this is a bias that has swept through the advertising business. A new generation came up, insisting that it was now going to be all digital advertising all the time, that the 30 second spot was done for, and that TV was now just another victim of the technological revolution. New media fundamentalists scorn old media and especially TV.
(Just to be clear, I am no old media apologist. My book Culturematic assumes new media. No culturematic is possible without new media as a means and an end.)
The trouble with new media fundamentalism is that it misses what is perhaps the single biggest story concerning popular culture in the last 10 years. Against the odds, and in the teeth of the hostility of the chattering classes, TV got better.
And this revolution means several things. That consumers as viewers are getting steadily smarter. That they are now accustomed to and expectant of a new order of story telling. I think it’s far to say that old media is still better at telling stories than new media. This is another way of saying that old media (both TV and advertising) may have been trailing new media…but that they suddenly caught up.
I know some readers are going to take this as the voice of reaction, an attempt to return the old order to former glory. So just to be clear. I’m NOT saying that old media is better than new media. What I am saying is that those who now diminish old media because of the rise and great success of new media are missing something. And just to be really clear: as cultural creatives, as content creators, whether they like it or not, new media fundamentalists can’t afford to make this error. They are after all in the business of NOT MISSING THINGS, ESPECIALLY THINGS AS BIG AS THIS. Sorry for shouting, but there is a new media orthodoxy in place and shouting is sometimes called for.
And no, this is not an argument that says advertising was perfect just the way it was. There is work to be done in the world of old media, lots of work. Remember when the ads on a show were often better than the show? These days have mostly passed. Now the ad surrounded a show looks shouty, simple minded and a little clueless. Like it doesn’t know what is going on around it. Like a revolution took place and the brand and the advertiser didn’t notice. Oh, if there is something that is NOT ALLOWED in the branding and advertising business, it’s not noticing.
So it’s not as if anyone wants us to go back to old media circa Mad Men and the 1950s. Old media must now evolute as ferociously as new media. To catch up. To keep up. That revolution on TV tells us that our culture is changing in ways no one anticipated at speeds no one thought possible. And anyone in the communications game (using old media or new media) is going to have evolve in something like real time.
Our culture is becoming a hot house. Those who want to contribute will have to flourish to do so. It makes me think of that Wieden and Kennedy moment after a recent SuperBowl. W+K had floated that Old Spice ad and as they looked at the tidal wave of online content they have provoked, they thought, “Damn. Better get on this.”
A group of them retired to a building somewhere and just started turning stuff out. Call and response. Call and response. Real time marketing.
This may be where we are headed. There are so many things in play, and they are moving at such speed, concatenating in ways we can’t anticipated, this is perhaps not the time to up your digital bet, Mr. Levy. In this very dynamic world, we want to use all our media all the time.