What follows is one of the single most interesting passages I’ve read in my 50-some years of reading. It’s from a marvelous book called 1939: The Lost World of The Fair, by David Gerlernter.
It paints a picture of an America that no longer exists.
“Question: What is wrong with this picture? [Rhetorical; there was no actual picture in the book.] It appeared in a 1939 survey of New York City: a construction site with pedestrians walking past in front, leafy trees and apartment buildings to the rear. Painted on the fence around part of the work site are the words ‘DYNAMITE STORED HERE – DANGER EXPLOSIVES DANGER.’ It is a tall, solid board fence. But there is no barbed wire, no policeman; Women and children [walk] by a fenced-off magazine of high explosives,” the caption reads.
I find this observation amazing.
To think that there was actually a time when you could safely store dynamite in an unprotected shack in New York City; and to feel so certain of the character of your fellow Americans that a simple danger sign would be sufficient to keep people away. It’s hard to believe such a world ever existed but clearly there was some social force in play that kept this dynamite safe. This force, Gerlernter proposes, was the fact that in 1939 “people lived in an ‘Ought’ culture.”
Such a marvelous insight, and all gleaned from one photograph in a yellowing magazine – America as an “Ought culture.” We ought to eat our vegetables. We ought to doff our hats in the presence of ladies. We ought to report neighbors who we suspect of communism.
Later on Gerlernter expands the definition to what I’d describe as “Authority culture.” In fact, it’s arguable the entire period from ‘30s through the early ‘60s was all Authority culture. Citizens trusted authority entirely, wherever it was; in a corporation; in a policeman’s uniform; or just the voice over the radio. (“Hold on, ladies and gents! I’ve just received this important telegram!”)
For purposes of discussion, I tender here a few advertisements typical of the times, copied from my collection of old magazines. I regard advertisements like these as windows into the soul of the times; emotional Polaroids of ancient evenings; the zeitgeist in rotogravure.
Note how Plymouth baldly states – with neither hesitation nor proof – that big-ass cars are glamorous. Saying it’s so, makes it so. General Electric decides for us that spring has a new color. And don’t get me started on this ad for Gaylord shaving supplies ad. I will however also note that illustration seemed to be the preferred visual style of the ‘40s through the ‘60s. Screw photography; illustrations let advertisers show life the way they wanted it to be and showing it so, of course, made it so. All three also feature exclamation points. Hey, when you’re an authority, you shout your orders.
Simply running an ad in a magazine made you an authority. (“See, honey, it’s printed right here. In a magazine!”) A cigarette ad could claim there wasn’t “a cough in a car load.” The government could deny radioactive iodine 131 was in the nation’s milk supply. Facts didn’t count. Authority did.
Pick up an old magazine sometime and see if you don’t agree; almost every ad and every article feels like a pronouncement from an authority.
Sometime in the mid-‘50s, however, this omnipresent voice of authority started to lose its credibility. How this came to be is perhaps a story for another day, but it happened. Somewhere in the cultural whirlwind of the times (the dethroning of McCarthyism, the quiz show scandals, the arms build-up), Americans developed the ability to be skeptical; to doubt; to question authority.
For my generation, I’ll wager many of us date the last days of unquestioned authority with the Vietnam war – its final public humiliation, the resignation of Dick Nixon. America finally had evidence – on tape even – that authority could be more than just wrong, it could be corrupt.
FROM AUTHORITY TO AUTHENTICITY.
Let’s turn the yellowed magazine page now to the year 2014.
Imagine we were to run that Plymouth ad in next week’s Time magazine. I’ll bet that even if we updated the ad’s look and feel, its presumptuous tone (“Big is glamorous, dammit!”) would still make today’s readers snicker at its authoritarian cluelessness. We simply wouldn’t get away with it today. It is a different America now.
We’ve become a nation of eye-rollers and skeptics. We scarcely believe anything we hear in the media any more and marketers can’t make things true simply by saying they’re true.
So, what I’m wondering today is this: where people once looked to authority to tell them what was true and wasn’t true, perhaps what people look for today is authenticity.
Merriam-Webster says something is authentic when it actually is what it’s claimed to be. Which makes authenticity in advertising an especially tricky proposition given that advertising is at its heart self-promotion and driven by an agenda. And yet while Americans today are suspicious of anyone with an agenda, being authentic doesn’t always require the absence of an agenda, only transparency about it.
Admitting that your commercial is a paid message with an agenda is one way to disarm distrust. Under-promising and over-delivering is another. Even self-deprecation can help establish authenticity; VW’s “It’s ugly but it gets you there” being perhaps the most memorable example.
DDB’s early Avis work was similarly authentic whether it was admitting to shortcomings (“We’re only #2.”) or giving customers with complaints the CEO’s actual phone number.
In my opinion, Canadian Club’s masterful print series is an excellent modern example of an advertiser leveraging reality, warts-and-all, to sell its wares. An unapologetic statement of “Damn right your Dad drank it” coupled with images of ‘70s dads (somehow still cool in their bad haircuts and paneled basements) leveraged authenticity instead of authority.
So too does a marvelous campaign for Miller High Life. Here the beer truck delivery guy takes back cases of his beer from snooty people who aren’t truly appreciating the Miller High Life. Grumbling on his way out the door of some hoity-toity joint (“$11.95 for a hamburger? Y’all must be crazy.”), he is himself a spokesman for authenticity.
But even with these good examples of authentic messaging, it’s now time to question the supremacy of the format itself – that of paid messaging. It worked fine in the ‘50s when TV was new and citizens were happy to listen to the man tell them Anacin worked fast-fast-fast.
But everything is different in 2014. As Ed Boches said, “In an age when the manufacturer, publisher, broadcaster and programmer have lost power to the consumer, reader, viewer and user, … the power of controlled messages has lost its impact.”
AUTHENTICITY IS THE WALK, NOT THE TALK.
It may be getting to the point now where marketers can’t make anything happen by employing messaging alone, no matter how authentic. Doc Searles, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, agrees, stating that a brand isn’t what a brand says but what it does. What all this suggests is that perhaps the best way to influence behavior and opinion in the year 2014 is to do things as well as just say them.
Where it once served our clients to make “claims” on their behalf, it may be better now to do things that are less claim-based and more action-based, or reality-based, or more experiential – to demonstrate in the ad itself a brand’s promise or a product’s benefit.
For example, a print ad promising that VW is a fun brand, well, that’s nice. But bringing this claim to life with a subway stairwell of working piano keys was more powerful in a number of ways. Instead of making some happy claim about an emotion, it created the emotion right there on the stairs. And of course there’s the P.R. talk value of such an interesting execution.
I’m reminded also of Denny’s offer to America: a free breakfast during a recession. This is an event as much as it is paid messaging, and America took them up on it. Also from Goodby came the Hyundai Assurance Program, which allowed customers who bought a new Hyundai to return it if they lost their job within the year. These are not ads so much as they are events. They are not “claims,” they’re actions.
In the end, these musings suggest several possibilities.
• Marketers cannot simply list a product’s benefits and tell customers why they should want it. It doesn’t work very well anymore.
• Persuading a nation of eye-rollers requires a message, tone, or platform that is authentic.
• No matter how authentic your message, you cannot become X by saying you are X. You must actually be X. So, after you figure out what your brand needs to say, figure out what it needs to do.
• Same thing with customers: after you figure out what you want customers to think, what is it you want them to do?
• Similarly, don’t try to tell customers how they’re going to feel. Help them actually experience the emotion.
The bottom line:
Brand actions speak louder than words.
Brand experiences speak louder than ads.
Walk beats talk.
BIG PHILOSOPHICAL CLOSING
My college psychology professor once wrote on the board, “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” It means the life of the individual organism is often reflected in the life of the species.
I confess I see in my own life a similar pattern of authority-to-authenticity. As a child, I blindly ascribed authority to many things (first was my parents; second, the Beatles) and in so doing came to know the world. But as I grew up, black-and-white authority became nuanced with the greys of authenticity.
Perhaps the nation grew up the same way.
We don’t need Dad-Brands anymore, wagging their fingers at us with nothing by way of proof beyond “Because I said so.”
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I got some much-needed advice on this essay from the delightful and brainy Nicole McKinney here at GSD&M.Plus I updated the title from 2010 customer to 2014. Sue me.