A BBH LA POV on Trump’s America and the post-truth media world.
If you’ve read Paul Feldwick’s latest book retracing the history of our industry, you’ll know that the debate on whether logic or magic is best at building successful brands has been raging ever since the lights were turned on on Madison Avenue.
The hard cold facts or the emotional bond? Cold or warm? Speak to the head, or charm the heart? USP or ESP? System 1 or System 2?
But until recently, outside of the advertising world, it was quite clear who was in charge of logic (journalist and news outlets) and who in charge of magic (novelists and film directors). And it was also quite clear than on most important subjects, logic would win. After all, both free market capitalism and democracy are based on the premise that citizen-consumers are all rational individuals that make informed decisions on the basis of their self-interest, right?
Well, think again, because:
MAGIC IS WINNING (even on the grown-up stuff)
Magic trumps logic, pretty much all the time. We always knew that rational discourse alone wasn’t enough to build a brand. But now it looks as if rational superiority amounts to nothing, unless it isn’t powered up by emotion, even on the most critical topics.
Brexit officialized and legitimized the triumph of feeling over fact (for more on the subject, read this). And as of this year, we live in a world where editors and politicians openly admit that they care more about affecting opinions than realities. And then of course, there is the fact that a man whose business smarts couldn’t outperform an index mutual fund just beat history’s best prepared candidate to the top job.
But hey – we’re the creative guys! We like to tell stories and impact culture! So surely this is great news?
(IT’S THE WRONG KIND OF MAGIC THAT’S WINNING)
It’s not all sweetness and light in the world of emotions. Fear, anger, and jealousy lurk in the shadows.
Obama gave us Hope, but since then Farage, Le Pen and many more have given us Fear, and Trump is getting ready to give us back segregation, isolationism, and patriarchy. Sadly, recent history has proven Yoda right (not that it needed to): ‘the Dark side is more seductive. It is the quick and easy path’.
WE NEED TO TAKE A COLD, HARD LOOK AT HOW WE DO OUR JOBS
Why is this all happening? In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes about our species’ unique ability to generate affiliation, commitment and action on a large scale through powerful imagined cultural constructs (faith, nation, even family, have no biological basis or equivalent in the animal world). He identifies it as the single most important factor in our success: our capacity for collective fantasies is what allows us to get shit done. It could also be what destroys us.
But the media industry has a lot to answer for. This excellent long read from the Guardian does an outstanding job at explaining how social media has blurred the lines between truth and fantasy, by effectively devaluing the expertise of journalists in favour of a click-bait economy. In the words of Hossein Derakhshan and as written in the article, ‘the diversity that the world wide web had originally envisaged’ has given way to the ‘centralization of information’ inside a select few social networks, and the outcome is ‘making us all less powerful in relation to government and corporations.’
When we focus on share-ability, when we talk about being user-centered, are we implicitly creating a world where knowledge and truth weigh nothing against the sensational? By signing up to emotion, have we effectively signed away the value of fact?
NOW IS THE GREATEST TIME TO BE CREATIVE
If your agency is like mine, then the last weeks have been particularly tough. The results of this election have many of us asking “Why?” and “How?” What’s been so hard for many people who work here is, they’ve been very involved in process – taking buses to Phoenix to get the vote early, volunteering time to phone bank, or hitting the streets in protest.
And now we find ourselves at the end of 2016, and our world has been flipped upside down once again. Not unlike the “Upside Down World” in Stranger Things, we find ourselves in a dangerous place. But it offers you an opportunity, to wipe the blood from your nose and get back to work.
If something positive can come out of this, it’s the fact that we can’t ignore the issue any more. There’s not ‘back to normal’. More people, young and old, will now know what happens when you don’t take responsibility. They will be compelled to roll up their sleeves. We have the opportunity to create an age of mass awakening. People are listening: so what will we choose to talk about? Race, gender, walls, bullying, privacy, media, police, guns, pussies, weiners, age, tic tacs, the environment and tanning booths… It’s up to us.
You have the most powerful, creative tools this world has ever known at your disposal. In your hands and at your desks. Use them. They can be more powerful than any bomb and more piercing than any bullet. If the revolution won’t be televized, it must be mobilized by you.
Your voice, your ideas and your actions can be the change this world so desperately needs.
Bring in ideas that start with profound human insights, sharp points of view and teeth. Gnarly f***ing teeth that cut through anything in its way. Craft like your life depends on it, because life as you know it will never be the same. Sweat over every detail, every syllable and every thought. Because the world needs your art, words and vision more than ever. To say what we are feeling, make sense of what we are living and heal what we’ve been through.
AND IN PRACTICAL TERMS… HOW WILL WE MAKE THE GOOD MAGIC WIN?
Strategists: come back to the roots of your craft, to be the voice of the people. What can you do to ensure you genuinely understand your audience? If you ‘didn’t see Trump coming’, then you fundamentally don’t. Work harder to ensure you are truly getting insight from real people – not just the real people of the Lower East Side of NYC and Santa Monica, California.
Creatives: you have the power to shape representations in a subtle, and yet insanely powerful way. Big ideas won this year’s elections, powerful emotive ideas capitalizing on the appeal of nostalgia, fear and conservativeness in the context of a tumultuous globalized world. How can you tap into collective emotions to create momentum towards progress, generosity and optimism?
Producers: Casting, location, choice of directors… Your decisions have the power to challenge stereotypes. Could this mum be a dad? Why couldn’t the CEO be black? How about shooting in Arizona? Could a female director shoot this comedy script? (I hear some women are funny)
Agency leaders: are you actively creating a culture that’s ‘open-hearted and inclusive’? What are you doing about diversity? Are you creating space and time for your teams to embody the values they believe in?
Media buyers: what future of journalism and media are you creating through your investment decisions? How much are you spending with Facebook, and can you use this lever to talk to them about their responsibility as the new gatekeepers? Do you spend money with titles that spread hatred or untruths?
Commit to fighting for truth. Do not let this crisis go to waste. It won’t be easy. Nothing great ever is. Progress is never perfect. But it’s the only way forward.