Does culture care about advertising?

photo: Roger Stonehouse — cover of Fall Out Boy album “Save Rock and Roll”

“The most dangerous ideas in a society are not the ones that are being argued, but the ones that are assumed.” C.S. Lewis

A study in the Journal of Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts mapped the changes in pop songs from the Billboard charts spanning five decades. What they found, songs seem to have gotten sadder. The study shows that more than 50% of songs today are written in minor keys and decrease in average tempo, this translates to what most people hear as sadder or more complex compositions.

In a 2012 Studio 360 episode (Why is Pop Music So Sad?) the author, Chuck Klosterman and rocker Alice Cooper discussed the study and postulated that the reason for this change is the rise in consumption of reality media. Weather its an intentional shift in artist’s direction or simply a reaction to our surrounding and collective consciousness is not clear. What is clear is that we’ve become more emotional as a culture, what we are attracted to in our entertainment is the visceral and “real”.

Advertising follows a parallel path in consumer consumption and behaviour. From Lucy to Seinfeld to Louie we see the evolution of high spirited effervescent comedy to the gritty, almost shocking, narratives of today. Films transformed from Mr. Deeds to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, to Pulp Fiction and Moonlight.

As culture’s tastes evolve it conforms to the new trend, “reality” has taken over our common narrative. In 2005 Crispin Porter and the Barbarian Group launched the “Subservient Chicken” for Burger King. In this early example of viral campaign the user interact with a man dressed in a chicken outfit, the tech allowed the illusion that it was reacting to your every request. Further extending the company’s “Have it your way” strategy by putting the user in control of the experience.

The evolution of “reality” content paralleled that of the“maker” movement. They both tap into our desire for the real, the authentic. Weather its good, bad, abrasive, insulting, infuriating, politically incorrect, etc. Our culture is an ever evolving organism, what we consume as a shared experience is now fractured into a million variations of what we want it to mean personally.

Directly connecting the consumer to a brand’s message or value and putting them in control of its consumption has become the default experience, controlling what, when, and how, we consume media. We take it for granted that we no longer need to print out MapQuests before we head out on a road trip or call 411 for a restaurant close by. We consume by interacting and respond to values that extend our social influence and enhance my personal experience. The things that have always made us listen to advertising are the same things that can lead to greater individual well being vs social good.

In the Mad Men episode, A Tale of Two Cities, Don Draper is faced with a decision, should Avon go groovy for the hippies or nostalgic for existing clients? does it matter that Hippies don’t even wear makeup? This of course is a trite example of choices we as marketers make every day in order to create opportunity and demand.

So how does advertising remain objective in its values yet reflect the society it intends to affect? Given the amount of messaging the average consumer views every day its easy to understand the power advertising wields. Ogilvy’s own Rory Sutherland stipulated: “I am much keener that we should accept the vast moral implications of what we all do and debate them openly rather that fudge the issue.”

For years advertising has defended its place in society by a handful of arguments that distill to the following three statements:

  • It reflects the cultural values
  • Promotes choice
  • Redistributes existing consumer consumption.

On the flip side detractors like the WWF in its report, “Think of Me as Evil? Opening the Ethical Debates in Advertising”, assert that there is evidence to counteract each of these statements;

  • It promotes and normalises behaviours, attitudes and values, many of which are damaging to society and the environment.
  • That it manipulates individuals subconsciously
  • It promotes consumption.

It can be argued that since the financial crisis of 2008 the needs and desire for more wealth and material gains have only been partially abated. In this climate can we, as advertisers, identify the connections in social popular culture, its changes, and the collective desire for more wealth and “reality”?

This excludes obvious fringe and contentious moral campaigns like those conducted by American Apparel or GoDaddy that push sexual tensions and moral compass issues with a large sector of the buying public. We contain this argument to the majority of advertising rather than its fringe.

Let’s focus on direct responsibility and accountability for the consequences based on our actions. Do we purely focus on changing the conversation, shift perception that financial institutions cares for its customers? Or do we face it head on and acknowledge its moral ambiguity? Some come close, like Heineken’s “Worlds Apart” campaign that has individuals hash-out opposite political points of view over a beer.

The world keeps shifting in this direction, Brexit and the election of Trump are but the exclamation points in the ever evolving shift towards personal cultural context and its need for simplification. The advertising community has been as blind to these trends as the ever expanding row of pundits.

We have a responsibility to face these challenges, help our brands speak directly to what people care about within their social and cultural references. Whether the product is a lotion or a credit card, the consumer motivation and our ability to create demand should align with the value of the individual. It’s Bill Aulet’s mantra that i find summarises it all best “culture eats strategy for breakfast, technology for lunch, and products for dinner, and soon thereafter everything else too!”

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