What Happens When Privacy Disappears & We Have Nothing Left to Hide?

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Some people feel like society has taken a turn for the worse recently. Particularly when it comes to the issue of privacy.

Take a look at the headlines from the past couple of years. NSA security probes. Digital espionage. Identity theft. Catfishing.

Rogue individuals, whether perceived as shameful traitors or courageous whistleblowers, have exposed omnipotent governments. Glenn Greenwald. Edward Snowden. Julian Assange.

Multi-national corporations have fallen victim to epic security breaches. From Bank of America to Apple to Target to Sony to Disney to LinkedIn to eHarmony.

Even major news organizations — like News of the World, which shuttered its doors after 168 years of operation due to an egregious phone hacking scandal — continue to evaporate our faith in this passé thing called ‘privacy’.

It may also explain how a service like Snapchat, which essentially offers the same functionality as traditional SMS but with a twist of temporariness, can attract over 500 million people around the world and a $3 billion buyout from Facebook. Then of course, there’s Pluto and Wickr and Cyber Dust and a slew of other self-destructing communication services. All for the sake of covering up our digital footprints.

We waltzed into the digital age like a child stumbling upon an unguarded cookie jar, with wide-eyed amazement and a seemingly endless appetite. It was exhilarating. Consume ’til your heart’s content. Now, the nausea is starting set in. Slowly.

Horst Feistel wrote in Scientific American, “there is growing concern that computers now constitute, or will soon constitute, a dangerous threat to individual privacy.” The year was 1973. Yet that sentiment hasn’t shifted much since then. If anything, it has only emboldened.

Today, 74% of internet users said they were more concerned about privacy this year than they were a year go [1]. That number has grown nearly 52% in the past 5 years alone [2]. But what’s more interesting is how internet users have begun safeguarding some of their online behaviors. A recent survey from Pew Research found that 86% of internet users have actively taken steps online to remove or mask their digital footprints — anything from clearing cookies to encrypting email to protecting name displays on social networks [3].

As is the case with most things, a healthy dosage of perspective is helpful. After all, privacy has always been a fervently defended issue. Puritan rule in the 1600s decreed keeping an eye on your neighbor as a civic duty and in many towns it was forbidden to live alone. The national Census, as originally established by the U.S. Constitution, was regarded by many at the time as a flagrant infringement of privacy and personal information. And how could we forget the fury that had bubbled over when law enforcement agencies began wiretapping early telephone networks in the 1890s? In other words, losing our collective shit over privacy is sort of an American pastime.

But perhaps there is something greater afoot here today. Something with much wider implications. Something that will not only change the way we interact with technology, but something that may change the way we interact with each other. On a human level.

As Aldous Huxley once said, “technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards.”

So here’s my optimism for an otherwise very troubling trend:

A few years ago, Carnegie Melon University professor Jesse Schell gave a TED-like talk at the Dice Summit 2010 where he imaged a future when new technology could have transformative affects on human behavior — namely, a future when the gamification of everything things could potentially enable companies, governments and other institutions to reward people for completing or excelling at routine, everyday tasks.

For instance, he dreamt up technology that could intuitively know each time you take public transportation, providing people with instantaneous tax incentives. Or, eye sensors that could track the completion rates of the novels that you’ve read so that Amazon could provide more accurate book reviews. Or, mechanisms that could reward school children with incremental scholarship funding from the Art Council each time they practice the piano, even more if they performed particularly well on a given day. It’s futuristic, but not far-fetched. A bit Big Brother-ish. But utterly astounding.

The most important point of Schell’s talk was the realization that in a not-so-distant future, when these types of technologies can track, watch and reward our everyday behaviors, wouldn’t we instinctively become more aware — and more conscious — of our behaviors? Wouldn’t we become a bit more sensitive to the fact that our every behavior carries consequence? Wouldn’t these gamified-track-reward-whatever-you-want-to-call-them systems provide a better mirror into the way we live our lives? A real-time, unavoidable reflection for how we behave? As Schell concludes, “it could be that these systems are all just crass commercializations and they’re terrible. But it’s possible, that they’ll inspire us to be better people.”

Schell’s thesis for the gamification of objects may also bear some analogies to the issue of privacy. Despite all the outrage today — the increase of information gathering, the dissipation of personal boundaries, the countless spying scandals, the notion that nothing ever dies once it lives online — isn’t it possible that our evolving relationship with privacy may impact our evolving relationship with the world in which we live? Isn’t it at least possible that the evaporation of privacy could — in some unforeseen, round-about, possibly tyrannical but potentially convalescent way — actually contribute to a profoundly positive change in how we conduct our lives? In a world where it becomes harder and harder to hide things, wouldn’t we become less and less motivated to have things worth hiding?

It’s hard to say for certain. But what is certain is that we’re inevitably heading toward this future whether we like it or not. One where our secrets are more susceptible. One where our indiscretions are more exposable. One where our carefully constructed reputations, the images of ourselves that we want the world to see, are less of a byproduct of painstaking production and more of an honest representation for who we really are. Our benevolence and our wickedness. And everything in between.

We can continue to run around in outrage over privacy. And maybe we should. But maybe our best hope for the future is just as much about changing technology as it is about changing ourselves.

Let’s start by being good.

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[1] Harris Interactive, 2013

[2] Pew Research Center, 2013

[3] Pew Research Center, 2013

Finding Beauty In Unlikely Places

Beautiful-Graffiti-Art_05There was a powerful story printed in the Washington Post years ago about how Joshua Bell, one of the world’s premier virtuoso violinists, descended into a crowded Metro subway station to perform a few classical pieces on one of the world’s finest handcrafted violins. Despite having just performed to a sold-out crowd at one of the most prestigious concert halls in the country a mere three days earlier, Bell was now busking for spare change amidst a backdrop of early morning commuters. The most shocking thing about it was that nearly nobody — save a curious child or the occasional passerby — had stopped, or had even passed a glance at Bell as he played some of the most beautiful compositions of music in the world.

The story, which became known as Pearls Before Breakfast, was an experiment on how context can alter perception. It’s an important story because it demonstrates just how susceptible human beings are to overlook beauty in everyday situations.

Artist Brendan O’Connell created a collection of portraits highlighting the subtle beauty inside of one of the most least likely of places: Walmart Supercenters. His paintings feature stores shelves, stocked with JIF peanut butter and UTZ potato chips, crowded check-out counters, boxes of Farfalle pasta, a package of frozen Bubba Burgers. It’s a powerful meditation on minutiae. He says, “trying to find beauty in the least-likely environment is a kind of spiritual practice.”

German-born photographer Michael Wolf recently launched his latest photo project, capturing the living conditions in mega cities throughout Asia. It’s what you might’ve expected: claustrophobic dwellings made of everything from concrete to cardboard. But Wolf’s photos capture it in a way that outline an aesthetic behind it all. There’s a strange beauty to it, a hidden geometry, not by intent or by architectural design, but by the realization that humanity is capable of existing even within structures built to suppress it.

There is something soul-stirring about the emergence of beauty from unlikely places. It’s why I’ve always gravitated toward artists with more raw reflections of the world. Like when Tom Waits writes a love song from the perspective of a prostitute recently released from prison or when the Coen Brothers produce a film where the villain ultimately succeeds or when Charles Bukowski, once referred to as ‘the Poet Laureate of American Lowlife,’ pens a poem about drug-induced fornication in a roach-infested hotel room. There’s an unshakable truth woven into these stories, untarnished by the pretense of perfection, a portrayal of human life so realistic that it’s a thing of beauty in and of itself. By disavowing our dictionary definitions of what beauty is, we are able to find beauty in places we never thought it could be.

Confucious once famously said, “everything has beauty, but not everyone can see it.” Or maybe we’re just not looking close enough.

An Interview with Doug Kleeman

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Yes, I just wrote the title of this post in the third person. It felt awkward. But as you’ll see in the following transcript, awkward is sort of my schtick. I was recently contacted by a local North Carolina undergraduate student about an interview on account planning, the culture at Baldwin& and some questions surrounding media. And while I probably utterly confused this bright young student with my incoherent ramblings, I figured I would share our conversation in its entirety.

Q: What is your job title and what do you do?

At Baldwin&, we don’t really have official titles (backstory: every employee gets to choose their own title once they get hired, within reason of course). My business card reads “Recon Op”… which probably deserves some explanation. Right before I joined Baldwin& a few years ago, I went through this short period of reading war novels. Books like Matterhorn and In Pharoah’s Army and The Things They Carried. Stuff like that. I don’t know why, to be honest. But there was one brief passage that really stood out to me. It was describing the reconnaissance operators in Vietnam –  how they were this stealthy, special unit force that would sneak into unfamiliar territory, survey the landscape and gather intelligence so that the army could then plan their next mission. There seemed to be, to me at least, some interesting parallels to the function of strategic planning in ad agencies. It’s the mentality to always be observing the stuff around you and piecing all that information together in a way that leads toward a successful path forward. Granted, it’s much less glamorous within the context of advertising. But it’s a very important role. It keeps great ideas from getting ambushed.

That’s a really roundabout way of saying that I am a strategist. Or account planner, communications planner, brand planner. Any will do. A lot of people in the industry are set on drawing distinctions among these but I’ve had to force fit myself into all of them, in some capacity, at some point in the past few years.

Q: How did you get involved with Baldwin&?

I had made some connections with one of Baldwin&’s founders and creative directors, David Baldwin, years ago. If I remember correctly, it all started with me sending him a tweet. Imagine that. I didn’t immediately inquire about job openings or ask for an interview right off the bat. It was mostly just small talk and it sort of just evolved from there. We corresponded over email and had a few phone calls and, eventually, I made the trip to Raleigh to meet the rest of the team. I remember there were only a few people in a half-occupied office space at the time, but there was a spirit to the place that I wanted to be a part of. They offered me a job and ten days later I was living in North Carolina.

Q: I notice that your company doesn’t out right want to be labeled as any one thing. What do you see the company as?

That’s probably by design. Personally, I sometimes think that the need to constantly define something is the best way to destroy it. I can only speak on behalf of myself but I see Baldwin& as a shop full of creative chameleons. We make films, we produce ads, we launch events, we invent products, we create digital media / social media / new media / any type of media. We never claim to be a full-service agency (hence the “&” at the end of our name) so we sometimes partner with other vendors or agencies to help plan or execute certain ideas. At the end of the day, we’re an ideas shop and we’re focused on finding the most powerful, most effective, most intriguing ways of bringing these ideas to life.

Q: What motivated your decision to work with Baldwin&? 

Prior to joining Baldwin&, most of my experience was within large advertising agencies. I was ready for a new experience within the setting of a smaller shop. At that time, I was really struggling to find a small-sized agency that was consistently churning out great creative work, matched my values and felt like a good overall fit. Then one day I was reading an advertising book and I stumbled on this spotlight of an agency in North Carolina that I had never heard of before. I started looking in to the agency and I was impressed with what I saw. I loved the work but, really, it was the philosophy that had sold me. There used to be this manifesto-type-thingy on the Baldwin& website with the agency’s POV on brands, creativity and life in general. Other agencies simply weren’t saying this type of stuff. And it made an impact on me. We have this saying at Baldwin& that has sort of become our unofficial mantra: “Give A Damn.” So, the way I see it, Baldwin& is a place that gives a damn about the work it produces, the clients they work with, the employees they hire and the overall cultural impact that comes along with having a multimillion dollar media bullhorn broadcasting messages to the world.

Q: What is a day in the life for you at your job?

The thing I enjoy most about my job is that there isn’t a typical routine. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a variety of clients — beauty brands, tech companies, apparel lines, beverages and spirits, among others — and the output of work changes drastically depending on the assignment at hand. I’ve really enjoyed getting to work on new business opportunities. It really forces you to approach a prospective client’s business holistically and to try to uncover opportunities that they may have been overlooking. On the other hand, there’s also more tactical work — analyzing digital metrics across social media pages, mobile platforms or brand websites, evaluating an advertisement’s effectiveness with brand tracker surveys, stuff like that. Here’s the truth though: most talented people in great ad agencies are naturally inclined to think very strategically — creative directors, media buyers, account managers. They are all strategists in some form. The difference is that I’m one of the few people at Baldwin& tasked solely with strategic work, meaning it’s my job to think about things that others may not have time to do — why are we running this ad on television as opposed to radio? Will this target even use coupons for this campaign? How can this piece of communications capitalize on a current cultural trend? It took me a little while to figure out that it’s up to you as a strategic planner to shape your assignments. You’ll always have to write a creative brief and you’ll always be required to report on media impact, for example, but the difference between a good planner and a great planner is being able to find unique opportunities beyond the fringes of the assignment at hand.

Q: Seeing that this is a very competitive industry, how is Baldwin& able to stay relevant?

This is a great question, probably one that I’m not entirely qualified to answer. I’d say the credit goes to our agency’s partners who have been around this industry for a really long time and know a hell of a lot more than I do about this topic. Personally, I think the notion of staying relevant in a creative industry requires you to be able to see what’s around the bend, without driving yourself straight off of a cliff. It’s so easy to get distracted by passing fads today that you forget what actually matters or what makes a difference. There’s a lot of hype out there. It seems like everyday there is a new article in some trade journal declaring the death of television or social media or some other advertising topic. So a big part of staying relevant is making sure your bullshit barometer is properly calibrated and not deviating from what it is you excel at. The other part, I’d say, is finding great talent and being able to retain them. There are so many bright people at Baldwin&. It amazes me. There’s a saying that you never want to be the smartest person in the room. And I never am.

Q: What has been the most rewarding project that you have worked on or that your company has worked on?

The project that has been most rewarding for me personally is one that’s still in the pipeline right now, which means I’m not able to disclose too much, unfortunately. But the reason that this project is particularly rewarding is because it’s one of those ideas that can truly change the world for the better. My personal involvement with the project required me to interview real people out in the world and spend time with them, talking about some truly personal life experiences. It was pretty powerful stuff, very moving. And that’s what makes this job worth it, to me. You know, advertising gets a bad rap for being coercive and deceitful and pushing people to spend money on things that they don’t need. And there’s probably a decent amount of that stuff out there. But I believe there’s more to it than that. For example, Honey Maid just launched a television campaign around ‘wholesome families’ and it featured a same-sex couple. Cadillac recently produced a spot celebrating American exceptionalism, scorning other countries for their leisurely lifestyles and lazy work ethics. I don’t think everyone necessarily needs to agree with the messages behind these advertisements, but you can’t deny that it at least starts a worthy conversation. Just look at the comments thread on YouTube or the reactions on Twitter. Debate is good. Advertising, when done right, can be a force. It reflects culture. It gets people talking about issues of the day. It makes us evaluate what is important and what is not. It makes us feel emotions. And people don’t feel enough these days. So while winning awards and seeing your work in publications is nice, it’s that other stuff that makes you feel like your work is contributing something to the world and making a positive impact.

Q: How would you describe marketing and advertising?

To me, some of the most interesting things in marketing and advertising right now are things that don’t actually feel like marketing and advertising. GoPro is producing an incredible online video vault of footage from their helmet cameras. IBM is devising new ways to improve and transform public city spaces. A few years ago, Carhartt worked with an online school to teach unemployed people in downtrodden Detroit with basic trade skills so they could find jobs during the recession. It’s incredible. And it doesn’t feel like ‘an ad campaign’. It’s important to recognize that people today have greater media literacy than ever before. And they can sniff out marketing ploys like drug dogs living in Charlie Sheen’s backyard. The solution isn’t to become more subversive. Well, I suppose some people may think so. But really it’s about being more entertaining, more useful and finding ways to relate to whatever it is people actually care about. One of my favorite radio hosts, Colin Cowherd, said on one of his shows, “kids don’t remember the firetruck… they remember the trip to the fire station.” I love that. Because at the end of the day, it’s less about the product or brand that you’re trying to sell, and more about why that product or brand matters in people’s lives. This is a business. Numbers need to be hit. Sales need to grow. But the real role of advertising and marketing is to drive one of the single-most difficult things there is to achieve: overcome ambivalence and make people care.

Q: What is the best way for an individual to market themselves or their ideas?

Great question. But I’m probably the last person you would want to ask for this (just take a quick look at how I constantly embarrass myself on social media). There are some super talented people in this industry who have mastered the art of creating a personal brand. I’m not one of them. Not sure I ever will be, to be honest. But a few things I’ve noticed in some of the people I respect: (1) enthusiasm… no matter how great your ideas may be, it doesn’t mean a damn thing if you don’t get excited by them. A lot of the people I look up to get fired up over ideas! Not just their own, either. That type of stuff is contagious. And it makes people want to go into battle with you (2) have an opinion… there’s a difference between being opinionated (everyone tries to avoid you) and having an opinion (you’re an interesting person that people actually want to be around). This isn’t the journalism industry. We don’t approach work unbiased. But that also means knowing when to abandon preconceived notions. Challenge your opinions. Seek truth. The title of my blog is called “All Things Reconsidered.” I’m a pretty opinionated person and this is just one way I try to pressure test my impulses and to see beyond obvious explanations (3) speaking of that, write a blog. Or make a website. Start a photography project. Record an album. Write poetry. It’s important to be creative outside of work. It’s also hugely important to simply… make something. I always say, show me something other than an ad. Personally, I like to see how people think and sometimes that can extend beyond a traditional portfolio of work and (4) don’t assume there’s a simple checklist to follow for getting noticed and landing a job. If it was easy to do, everyone would do it.

Q: What has been your greatest success / failure? 

A few weeks ago, I sent out an anonymous survey to the creative teams at Baldwin& to gauge some of their honest feedback on, among other things, the creative briefs I had written, the assignments they had worked on and their opinion on how our strategic approach could improve moving forward. It certainly stung a bit. And I became very away of my many failures. But it may have been the best piece of research I’ve done so far at Baldwin&. It gave me a better idea as to how my colleagues work, how they think, and it will certainly improve the way we collaborate moving forward. In creative industries, you definitely need to stick your head out the car window from time to time. You may get smacked in the face with some slimy bugs every once in a while, but it is that breath of fresh air that keeps you energized and excited. Enjoy the ride.

My greatest success to date is not getting fired.

Q: What innovative tools have you used over the last couple of years?

I’ve had the opportunity to tinker around with some tools that were very helpful, especially from a research standpoint. We recently finished up a project for a beverage company and used mobile ethnographies as a way to capture people’s immediate attitudes throughout the day, and how that beverage brand fit into different parts of their daily routines. It was all done through a user-friendly mobile app which allowed our participants to upload quick photos, record audio or send texts messages directly to our research team whenever we prompted them. There are also a ton of social media aggregation tools today that are great for uncovering attitudes or themes around what people are talking about online. Some of these are very expensive packages that come with a steep learning curve but there are a handful of free tools available online, too. Then again, there are also ways of using really simple tools in interesting ways. A few months ago I held an impromptu focus group with people online through Google Hangouts. Admittedly, it was very scrappy, but having a face-to-face, roundtable discussion with some of these people in our target proved to be very beneficial piece of last-minute research.

Q: What is your favorite source of advertising: radio, magazine, outdoor, television, or newspaper?

I don’t have a favorite channel per se. Each of them has advantages and disadvantages. All of them are capable of breakthrough work. I think the great campaigns find a way to work across a handful of these channels and integrate really beautifully with each other. For instance, there are efficiencies that a YouTube channel can offer that a traditional print ad in a magazine cannot, and vice versa. But it’s really powerful when these channels work together and make the message feel seamless.

 

A Web of Deception

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Early this year Veritasium released a rather scathing YouTube video exposing the pervasiveness of Facebook ‘Likes’ coming from fake people. Click farms. Spambots. Duplicate accounts. That sort of thing. Even Facebook estimates that fake users represent somewhere between 5.5% and 11.2% of its total user base, which could account for up to 137.76 million users across their network [1].

But this phenomenon isn’t exclusive to Facebook. The same could be (and has been) said of Twitter. And Instagram. And any other popular online social network. And even just the world wide web, in general. A recent report from Incapsula found that actual humans account for less than 40% of all web traffic [2].

This is no revelation. There has been a handful of similar reports with similar findings in recent years, all with varying degrees of “really, are you kidding me?”. At the very least, it should cause some contemplation from companies that advertise online, where metrics like page views, clicks, search and visitor flow impact the pricing, testing and optimizing of online ad units.

It’s sort of like the first time you realized that the laughter from your favorite television sitcom was actually coming from a pre-programmed soundboard in some studio somewhere. It doesn’t necessarily make the punchline any less funny. It just makes you reconsider the uproar behind it all.

 

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[1] The Next Web, 2014

[2] Incapsula, What Google Doesn’t Show You, 2014

The Lust For Loyalty

© Tom Fishburne

© Tom Fishburne

A recent study from the National Opinions Research Center found that almost 15% of married women and 21% of married men admitted to having extramarital affairs at some point throughout their marriages [1].

Let that sink in for a second.

Now, consider how most brands today believe that these same people are unwaveringly loyal when it comes to the brand name of shampoo in their shower. Or the logo on their sneakers. Or even the insignia on their automobile. Point is, our assumptions of how loyalty works is often incongruent with the reality of what loyalty is.

In his book How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know, market researcher Byron Sharp builds on a wealth of empirical evidence to suggest that, despite all the pontification from marketing professionals, customer loyalty is largely a myth. His findings underline the important (and often overlooked) Duplication of Purchase Law which states that all brands within a category share their customer base with other brands of similar size. This explains why 72% of Coke drinkers in the UK say they also drink Pepsi, for example [2]. It also explains why even the most ardent brand advocates aren’t always brand exclusive.

Martin Weigel articulated this masterfully in his essay The Liberation of Magic:

“Loyalty is much more like an open marriage than one characterized by unwavering monogamy and devotion… Irrespective of the category we examine, we see that the vast majority of buyers are in fact not loyal to a single brand. Devoted loyalty – borne of the belief that other brands just aren’t as good, or just aren’t the same – does not exist. Instead, consumers are perfectly happy to buy from a repertoire of brands.”

There are plenty of marketers out there today that have built bonafide businesses by throwing around language like fansambassadors, brand activists, and loyalty. And there are just as many B-school whitepapers saying things like, 1.5% of shoppers drive 80% of sales for the average new CPG product; or, the top brand buyers are almost 6 times more likely to try a brand’s new products than average shoppers [3]. And those aren’t entirely moot points.

But fandom is fool’s gold. As Karen Nelson-Field of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute cautions, too many brands are “putting a disproportionate amount of effort into engagement and strategies to get people to talk about a brand, when [they] should be spending more time getting more light buyers.” True talk. The lust for loyalty is a siren song for companies needing to address actual business problems. Fans may give brands reassurance but rarely do they increase revenue or market share or household penetration or any other real, bottom-line business metrics.
* * *
The Institute of Practioners in Advertising (IPA) has been mining marketing effectiveness measures from more than 1,000 brand case studies over the past 25 years. Their research shows that loyalty campaigns underperform on almost every business metric. They also found that only 9% of loyalty campaigns increased loyalty significantly — not much higher than non-loyalty campaigns in fact [4]. And this actually makes quite a bit of sense. As Les Binet and Peter Field explain in Marketing In the Era of Accountability, talking to existing customers is fundamentally less rewarding because:
    1. there are usually fewer of them than non-customers, and
    2. they are typically more influenced by product experience than by communications.

Binet and Field use this IPA data to demonstrate that across nearly every category, “superfans” represent such a small segment of potential customers that it doesn’t even come close to reaching a critical mass for communications. You know, the majority of Nike owners don’t have a logo tattooed across their chests. And even among those select “passion brands” that seemingly have an unyielding consumer allegiance, communications are less likely to influence purchase behavior — which may explain why a brand like Apple has deliberately ignored ambassador outreach, centralized CRM or even social media engagement in general.

So while building brand loyalty has become one of the more popular marketing mantras of recent years, it’s important to at least acknowledge its limitations. It’s not quite the marketing panacea that keynote speakers and best-selling authors lead us to believe it is — at least not when it comes to delivering against hard business goals. Loyalty may be valuable as a marketing output but it tends to be pretty poor as a marketing objective.

David Ogilvy once famously said, “the consumer is not a moron… she’s your wife.” And for some, there may be an uncomfortable amount of truth to that now.


[1] National Opinions Research Center, 2013

[2] How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know, 2010

[3] Catalina Marketing Corp., 2012

[4] Marketing In The Era of Accountability, 2007

The Data of Disillusionment

There was a moment this time last year following the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre when the U.S. government contemplated passing stricter legislation for gun background checks. Public sentiment was surging. It seemed inevitable. At least that’s what the data showed. One ABC poll, for example, found that 91% of Americans would support a law requiring background checks on people buying guns at gun shows [1].

But nothing happened.

Nothing.

The U.S. Congress did what the U.S. Congress does best: nothing.

I wasn’t necessarily upset by this. I wasn’t happy either. I wasn’t pissed nor pleased nor particularly fearful. I was, more than anything, confused. Because as the the word ‘democracy’ — which comes from the Greek dēmo meaning ‘people’ and kratía meaning ‘rule’ — so clearly suggests, there should be some relatively quantifiable relationship between the things that the citizens demand and the things that the government delivers.

To be clear, I work in advertising. I know very little about the culture of federal politics. Partisan posturing. Legal lexicons. Too much of it makes too little sense to me. But I don’t think you necessarily need to work in a creative industry to feel this lost. You just need to be a normal, everyday American citizen.

Consider this: at the end of 2013, the approval rating of Congress slumped to 9% — the lowest Congressional approval rating on record [2]. Which, to me, is all the more confusing considering that over 90% of these Congressional representatives got re-elected that same year [3]. Maybe I should stick to coming up with ideas for ads.

One of the (few) job requirements of mine that may bear some relevance is the study of consumer attitudes and demographic segmentation. I spend hours upon hours exploring trends, conducting interviews and combing through nationally-syndicated consumer research databases where I can explore, for example, how often Asian American homeowners in Southern California with a median income range over $100,000 tend to purchase organic produce at mass merchandisers like, say, Walmart. There’s obviously much more to it than this but you get the point. Now while I caution my colleagues and clients ad nauseum on the dangers of overextrapolating specific data points, some things are just too peculiar not to poke holes in. Especially when it all starts stacking up like this:

  • In the 113th United States Congress, there are still only 102 women — less than one-fifth (19%) of all representatives and delegates [4].
  • Despite accounting for 17% of the American population, Hispanics only represent 8.5% of Congress [5].
  • There are only 42 African Americans out of 535 Congressional seats [4].
  • More than 9 in 10 members of Congress hold a Bachelor’s degree (as high as 99% in the Senate) although that number is a little less than 3 in 10 of all Americans over the age of 25 [4].
  • For the first time ever, members of Congress had an average net worth of $1 million or more, whereas nearly 50 million Americans today still live below the poverty line [6].
  • No one on the Supreme Court has ever been a blue-collar worker and the average member of Congress spent less than 2% of his or her pre-congressional career in working class jobs [7].
  • And the average age of House lawmakers and Senators is 57 and 62, respectively, which may help explain why there’s so much CSPAN footage of guys like Robert Byrd (RIP) in mid-snore during Senate hearings [4].

So color me a cynic but I just can’t seem to rationalize, given such vast disparities in demographic (and, consequentially, psychographic) data, how these members of Congress could ever be considered ‘representatives’. Not in the way that word suggests. Not for me at least. But then again maybe that’s just the unmarried, middle-class, under thirty-years-old Millennial with a household income sub $100,000 in me talking. What do I know?

In the end, we’re all just numbers.

 


[2] Pew Research Center, 2014

[3] Center for Responsive Politics, 2013

[4] Congressional Research Service, 2014

[5] U.S. National Census, 2013

[6] U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services, 2014

[7] Nicholas Carnes, White Collar Government: the Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policy Making 2013

A Different Game Plan for Super Bowl Advertising

Every year tends to elicit the same reaction from me: the only thing worse than this year’s Super Bowl commercials are the people who love to shit all over this year’s Super Bowl commercials.

As Benjamin Disraeli once said, “It is much easier to be critical than to be correct.”

And while I share the public’s general disappointment in Super Bowl advertisements every year, I find it more helpful to focus on the really clever advertising that all too often gets overlooked amidst all the animals and the babies and the patriotic platitudes.

A couple of years ago, television’s most recognizable investment guru Jim Cramer gave Apple glowing reviews for their advertisement during Super Bowl XLVI. But the most interesting thing about this particular spot was that it wasn’t actually a spot at all. As Cramer explains:

“There was one ad that struck me as the most honest, most riveting and most compelling of all. You see, the game had just ended, and Colts great Raymond Berry ran the Giant gantlet with the Lombardi Trophy. Suddenly it seemed like every other Giant pulled out an Apple (AAPL) iPhone to snap pictures of the moment. One after another after another. Of course, it wasn’t an ad. It was just a collection of the most cool, most idolized competitors in the world whipping out their favorite device, which they had on the field, ready for action.”

Cramer’s observation was especially astute given the fact that one of the iPhone’s main rivals at the time, Samsung, ran a 90-second in-game television commercial chastising iPhone owners, estimated at upwards of $10 million for air-time alone.

A few years ago, Old Milwaukee tapped comedian Will Ferrell for a celebrity endorsement during the Super Bowl. But instead of purchasing a full-price television spot like Budweiser or Miller or Coors, Old Milwaukee instead opted to run a low-budget commercial limited to a local affiliate in North Platte, Nebraska, the second smallest TV market in America. It went viral. TIME magazine called it “one of the best and weirdest Super Bowl ads around.”

In other words, brands don’t necessarily need to chuck up $4 million for a 30-second slot (forget all the other astronomical costs) in order to make an impact during the Super Bowl. Just ask Newcastle.

That’s why Esurance’s “Save 30″ is such a smart strategic approach. The thing that made this commercial particularly powerful was that the message was also the tactic. Esurance transformed a traditional, one-dimensional product benefit (saving customers 30% on insurance) into an actual media strategy (saving 30% by advertising after the game). Brilliant.

Of course, the cantankerous creative savants within the advertising industry may bemoan that lack of creativity required to produce what was essentially a social media sweepstakes. I get it. After all, this type of “social engagement” can be cheap. And, yes, the full #EsuranceSave30 campaign is certainly a glorified gimmick, making audiences everywhere believe that it’s easy to cash in big for doing little more than being in the right place at the right time.

But one could just as easily say the same thing for all those big budget brands aiming to buy some highly coveted television airtime during the Super Bowl every year.

This was just too good not to include. And it's Gino Bona, so there's that.

This was just too good not to include. And it’s Gino Bona, so there’s that. Can’t say I don’t disagree.

We Are What We Search For

Bill Tancer wrote a book back in 2008 called Click. The general premise was that the way in which we search and browse the Internet can actually reveal a lot about ourselves — both as individuals and as society at large. It notes how “we tell Google what we want, who we’re interested in, how we are feeling” and makes the salient point that “we are what we search for.”[1]

This is why Google’s annual Zeitgeist, a review of the world’s most popular searches and trends of the previous year, makes for such an intriguing cross-section of cultural examination. In the digital age, our online searches — not unlike like the cave paintings, city ruins or ancient scrolls of bygone eras — become valuable artifacts of our fleeting life and times on Earth.

Which brings me to Miley Cyrus. Naturally.  Because of the 5,992,000,000 Google searches done around the world each day (yes, that’s over 2.16 trillion in 2013 alone), it is truly a wonder to see how global interests concentrate around certain people, places and events throughout the year – particularly the popularity of people like Miley [2].

Granted, certain search queries are deservedly predictable. Nelson Mandela was the most searched field in 2013 — all the more impressive given the majority of these searches came on the heels of his death toward the very end of the calendar year. Global news events such as the 2014 FIFA World Cup (12th most popular search) and intense human interests stories such as the Trayvon Martin case (40th most popular search) had understandably captivated widespread attention. And, really, how could heartwarming stories like The Make-A-Wish Foundation’s Batkid (100th most popular search) not go viral?

But then you consider things like this:

Robin Thicke was the 33rd most searched item in 2013 — a whopping 64 spots ahead of Edward Snowden, a man who the New York Times recently praised as a whistleblower of historic proportions and one who “has done his country a great service.”

There were more web searches for Grand Theft Auto 5 cheat codes than there was for news, information or backstory on the Syrian Conflict, a devastating geopolitical crisis that recently topped a death toll of 115,000 this past October (35th most popular search versus 65th most popular search, respectively).

The ‘New Pope’ (81st most popular search) was merely a blip compared to ‘Kim Kardashian’s Baby’ (44th most popular search). The ‘Government Shutdown’ couldn’t match the release of ‘Playstation 4′. And even the tragedy of the ‘Boston Marathon’ got nudged out by, yes, you guessed it, the ‘Harlem Shake’ (6th most popular search versus the 5th most popular search, respectively).

Now, it would be much too easy to insert some snide cultural commentary here — to lambaste the seemingly lowbrow brain waste of contemporary 21st century civilization. But I am no pundit. I am just a person. Just like you. One who deploys countless online searches every single day. One who has his browser homepage set to a blank Google search bar with a blinking cursor, waiting ever so patiently at virtually any moment to span the world for whatever nugget of information may be needed at the click of a button.

So, yes, we certainly are what we search for. Even if that means, as Robin Thicke so beautifully supplicates in his most recent musical masterpiece: we’re all just animals, it’s in our nature and we can be liberated because we’re all the hottest bitches in this place.

 


[1] Click, Bill Tancer, 2008

[2] Google Official History, comScore, 2014

Stepping Outside Of Comfort Zones

A shot from my latest trip to Vienna, Austria, where everything was a different language... even the language

A shot from my latest trip to Vienna, Austria, where everything was a different language… even the language

 

The Dalai Lama recommends that everyone should, once a year, go some place they’ve never been before. It’s a lovely idea.  The context behind his advice is mostly physical, in geographical terms, but I suspect the implication is that travel can be the doorway to much more transcendent personal experiences.

French novelist Gustave Flaubert once wrote, “travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” That one stings a bit. But it’s the necessary nudge away from our inner motivations and our grossly overinflated sense of self-importance that makes life remarkable in the first place. We are, after all, merely specs of space stuff.

And that’s important because in outer space, nothing is familiar. U.S. Navy psychologists have even coined the term ‘capsule philosophy’ as a way to describe how the psychological effects of space flight cannot be truly known until a man is actually in space. It’s a useful metaphor for how we exist whenever we travel to far off countries or uncharted lands or a new local restaurant that we’ve never eaten at before. Everything is new and captivating and terrifying and exhilarating.

It is easy to hypothesize and it is easy to assume and it is easy to judge from the comfortable vantage point of your couch where the imprint of your own butt cheeks have worn the cushions flat from years of committed stagnation. But it’s much more effective to actually experience the world first hand like the impressionable, vulnerable and curious creature you were designed to be.

You don’t necessarily need a plane ticket. Just an occasional retreat. Because it’s not just about what you may gain from occasionally stepping outside of your comfort zone… it’s also about what you may compromise if you don’t.

Beyond the Era of Big Bullshit

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Have you ever noticed how “Big Data” (along with the “Growth of Mobile”) has been unanimously crowned the “Biggest Trend of the Year” for the past 8 years now?

Big data is a big idea to wrap your head around. But as I often find, sometimes the most massive, momentous, monumental things in life are the products of surprisingly simple realizations. Which is why I resisted writing a long, rambling synthesis of my own personal experiences and opinions on big data and opted to let these two simple quotations spit some truth instead.

“The era of “big data” is quickly becoming the era of “big bullshit” — bullshit on a grander scale than ever before. We’ve always had ability to bullshit with words. Now we have the ability to bullshit with math. We’ve always had bullshit artists. Now we have bullshit scientists.” – Bob Hoffman, the Ad Contrarian