Don’t tell my mother I work in an advertising agency – she thinks I play piano in a whorehouse. - Jacques Seguela
Every mother wants their child to grow up to change the world for the better. According to digital visionary Jaron Lanier, that dream can be realized with a career in advertising. But only by staying true to certain principals.
Jaron inspired us at the SAY: Create conference to think of advertising as an art that romanticizes human production, that encourages our appetites for the things we don’t have, and so is a driving evolutionary force for civilization.
Lanier is not the only one who believes in advertising’s noble purpose. Here’s Calvin Coolidge in 1926: "Advertising ministers to the spiritual side of trade. It is great power that has been entrusted to your keeping which charges you with the high responsibility of inspiring and ennobling the commercial world. It is all part of the greater work of the regeneration and redemption of mankind."
But there is advertising that is capable of moving our emotions and there is advertising that simply reduces the distance between commercial interests and people. Lanier puts it plainly: "Google's thing is not advertising because it's not a romanticizing operation. It doesn't involve expression. It's a link. What they're doing is selling access." Selling access rather than emotion is the way you drive revenue within earshot of Seguela’s piano.
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Everyone says they hate advertising, but it’s more likely that they hate bad advertising. If all advertising were hated, advertising wouldn’t be so successful at moving people to take action. What makes us recoil are ads that prey on our fears, that yell at us about things that we don’t care about. We respond to ads that give us gifts, that provide access not to links but to hopes, dreams, entertainment, information. Cynics will say this is a bad thing; but how else can we be introduced us to the next great addition to our lives.
The obvious question is what form and substance would modern digital advertising be if it functioned in a way that "romanticized human production," as Lanier suggests it should.
You would certainly have to start with a far better canvas for romance: spacious, uncontested, clutter-free and frictionless. When you’ve cleared space to communicate, then the nature of the communication takes over. That is best done when the advertiser thinks about – cares about – their customer and understands realistically how they fit into the customer’s life. So when this poem shows up in this ad, it means a broader audience; more people who are moved. The ad then becomes the content people welcome, not the shouting that we try, with increasing success, to shut out of our lives.
If anything, modern advertising is less about the romance of a single product benefit and more about connecting the people, ideas and community behind a brand. This is a complex undertaking. It is content. It is social. It is useful and inspiring or it is worthless.
If you’ve read this far, it’s because you care about what we have to say. Perhaps you look forward to our weekly Venn, you know someone who works at SAY, or you’re a client. You’ve given us your attention because, we hope, we reward that attention with an interesting perspective, an insight you can develop, even just a quick chuckle at our diagrams. Make no mistake – we are advertising to you. But we’re doing it in the way that comes most naturally to us, by having a conversation with you. When advertising looks like (is) a conversation, it ceases to be manipulative and starts being human. When it pleases, the pleasure is real.
You care about advertising. Now go make the world a better place.