Tag Archives: Media

Cultural anchors and the illusion that was Brian Williams

Unknown-2So much is changing. The digital, artisanal, and cultural revolutions, all of these transform us from the inside out.  But we have our facades and as the world gets more chaotic, we treasure them more and more. They may merely give the illusion of continuity and stability, but at this point we’ll take it.  We really like our illusions.

Which brings me to Michael Wolff’s characteristically penetrating piece on Brian Williams.   Wolff says there is something terribly old fashioned about the idea of the network anchor and a news broadcast that still matters as the primary source of news.  Wolff sees through the illusion. The mystery, he says, is that Williams managed to live the lie for so long.

This is Wolff doing what he does so well, using his formidable smarts and knowledge of media to keep an eye on the new realities that the rest of us tend to visit episodically.  We will feel the truth of one of these realities…until we move on to contemplate some other reality.  What we don’t do is let many realities all in at once.  And, really, who can blame us.  Taking stock of all our changing realities is actually pretty terrifying. I try it from time to time and spend the remainder of the day with my head between my knees, taking deep breaths. It doesn’t help at all.

Let me, if I may, say something parenthetically.  (Perhaps the most neglected intellectual practices these days is precisely this ability to entertain many realities at once.  Everyone has their competence and they may talk about being T shaped {good at one thing with a certain breadth above].  But in fact most of us build the I out of I. And it’s not hard to see why this intellectual practice should be in short supply.  We have largely abandoned or corrupted the liberal arts that were our best hope of mastering it.)

Wolff works his magic, but he comes to what I think might be the wrong conclusion.  He suggests that Williams’ scandal prevents us from seeing that Williams was, and I do not mean to be unflattering, a kind of Zombie. The role, the dignity and gravitas, all of these were effectively for show, because anchors don’t anchor anymore.   We are inclined to think Williams just lost his job. It is more useful to see that he never had one. The job has disappeared.

I think this might be the wrong conclusion, though it is an excellent one to entertain and I promise to make it one of my possible truths.  The right conclusion?  That as the world lets in more commotion, we will prize our figureheads.  By this calculation, news celebrities matter more even when they matter less.   In point of fact, they don’t “anchor” but they do smooth.  And we like our reality smoothed.

I think the real trouble here is Williams himself.  He got grander and grander.  I wrote something for PFSK that took issue with the way he dared presume to scold new media for not being real media.  “No,” I thought, “this really is too dumb.”  And then there was that promo he did for someone or something in which he went grandly on and on about the importance of “good human hands.”  In my household, you only need to hint at this phrase to get a big laugh.

Williams would not be the first celebrity to come to believe in his own majesty. It is almost impossible to be at the center of a celebrity culture and not have this go straight to your head. After all, he is constantly surrounded by people eager to bask in his reflected glory (even if they have to invent it first).

My point here is that we do still want to have “anchors” and again that they will matter more precisely they matter less.  The problem is that we need to head into the cultural laboratory and figure out who will fill this role.  Not Williams.  That much is clear.  We don’t want grand, sententious, self aggrandizing. That was then.

Happily for our laboratory, the world is its own laboratory.  There are lots of experiments running.  There are several people from whom we might cobble together to a perfect “anchor.”  A perfect anchor should be some combination of the qualities of Jon Stewart. Anthony Bourdain, Gayle King and …  Reader, help out.  Reader, sing out.

As I thought about the problem, I found myself thinking, “What about Michael Wolff?”

The mystery of the “magic moment” in advertising

Grant McCracken and Bob Scarpelli

Take a look at this recent AT&T ad.  Notice what the actress does at the 16:00 – 17:00 second mark.  That little thing she does with her hand and her eyes.

Here’s a second ad for AT&T from a couple of years ago.  Watch what happens at the very end when the neighborhood woman sends a glance to the neighborhood kid.

Here’s an ad for Volvo.  Listen to what the little girls says.

We know ads are designed to deliver information, the USP, the product proposition, the value claim.  And we can see the bones of these things in a lot of ads, especially in those agonizingly bad ones that are really just someone reading the Unique Selling Proposition.

“This product is good because [insert USP here].  You will like it.  You should buy it.”

But I have long suspected that the informational mechanics and the persuasive objectives of an ad don’t work without the little details we’ve just been looking at.   The little details, the flicker of the hand, the flash of the eyebrow, the little girl chattering on and on.  These are essential to the ad’s ability to make the sale.  I think.  Maybe.

But how?  They are so little.  So minor.  So easy to miss.  It’s a question that has rattled around in my head for a couple of years.  How do tiny details make the ad?

And today, I sat down beside Bob Scarpelli, on a flight from NYC to Chicago.  I know Bob courtesy of Rick Boyko who was kind enough to put us both on Sparkstarters, his enterprise designed to help clients or agencies rekindle their powers of creativity.

Bob and I fell into conversation.  He is one of those guys who is really easy to talk to.  I was busy gabbing about myself when it occurred to me that I really should ask him about what he was working on.  (I do this with great reluctance and some resentment but then I am an anthropologist and really it’s my job to ask people about their lives.)

It turns out that Bob is teaching a course with John Greening at Northwestern’s Medill School called Brand Content in the Social World (aka “What’s the Big Idea?”)  Bob and John spend a lot of time talking about advertising and creativity.

“Great!,” I thought, “someone who might know the answer to the question ‘Why do small gestures matter so much?’”

And hey presto, he did.

“Oh, I call those ‘Magic Moments.’”

And Bob recounted the story of Joe Pytka on the set of an ad yell at his actors, “Stop acting!  Just be yourselves.”  No magic moments come from acting.  Whatever they are, they feel like life.

Bob described a Budweiser ad that shows soldiers in an airport and the people who gather to applaud them.

There is a lot to like about this ad, but Bob says that the “magic moment” comes at the very end when one of the soldiers looks back a little disbelievingly at what just happened.  That is many things about America in the blink of an eye, the beat of a heart.  So magic moments are also revelational, suddenly revelational.  The tiny detail delivers a world of meaning.

Bob said that the magic moment is almost impossible to plan.  It is very hard to tell at the moment that strategy and creativity are being formed what the magic moment could be or should be.  Virtually impossible in fact.

You know it when it happens and in some cases not even then.  You have to wait for editing.  And there it is.   A gift from the gods of creativity,  spontaneity and the perfect telling detail.

You could call this a chasm problem.  (I borrow the term from Geoffrey Moore’s book Crossing the Chasm.)    On the one side, we can have the creativity and strategy, all the work performed by researchers, planners, strategists and creatives of every kind.  And on the other we have the spot which, if the gods of advertising are kind. is blessed with one of these magic moments.

But we can’t see the connection between the two.  We can’t figure out how things get from the left side to the right side.


So there are two mysteries.  The first is how to make a magic moment.  The second is how the magic moment does what it does.  How does it activate all the planning, strategy and creativity?  Something arcs across the chasm.  We just don’t know what it is or how it works.  How do these “hemispheres” talk to one another.

So things are a little clearer.  I now know what to call that telling detail, but I can’t say exactly what is, where it came from or how it works.  So there is some work to do.  Your comments, please.

More to come.  Watch this space.