It’s 2016 and everyone wants you to be their friend. Or at least like them. Or connect with them. Or download their freaking app. And then rate it every time you use it. Honestly, who’s got the time?
First off, I debated whether to use freaking or its coarser synonym. I asked myself, what would Sister Kevin do? I don’t pretend to have a direct line to Jesus, so I never ask what he would do. But I did go to a parochial grade school and for reasons that still escape me, the nuns there all had men’s names. Well, I sort of know, the church being a patriarchy and all. I don’t channel Sister Kevin either, but I’m guessing she’d go for “freaking” and would probably have qualms about even that.
Anyway, Wikipedia tells me that there are oodles of social networking sites. Its list of major active social sites has 211 of them! Of course it includes the ones we all know — Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Snapchat, Tumblr, etc. But you also find Vampirefreaks.com (guess what that’s for), VK (Facebook for Russia so Putin can purge all the imperialist dogma from the site that isn’t Russian imperialist dogma), and Makeoutclub (online smooching? Who knows—I didn’t sign up so couldn’t say). Of course the Wiki list is a bit off, as it lists Facebook as #2 but doesn’t list #1. Maybe Snowden knows why.
At the end of the day, most of these sites work because they offer anyone with internet access a way to do something — whether it’s posting cat videos, finding a spouse or a job, or recruiting disaffected youth to join ISIS and go kill infidels.
But what interests me about social sites is how they make money, for without money they won’t draw the traffic they need to draw advertisers, advertising being the subject at hand. Digital advertising either has or will soon surpass TV advertising in terms of dollars. That shift is a pretty big deal for people who make ads. Will that shift change ads? Well, yes and no. We all see banners but happily, we will see fewer of them because nobody clicks on them unless their headline is something like WIN FREE SEX, surely the best headline ever written since it contains three of the most potent words used by advertisers everywhere. But maybe our exposure to this sort of thing is changing the go-to clickbait words. Would you click on WIN FREE SEX?
Like everyone, I spend lots of time online. Too much, probably. So I see lots of ads, mostly those that align with my recent searches or site visits — reflecting all that big data being used in algorithms purporting to know what I give a damn about. I’m still seeing ads for sandals even though I bought the sandals I wanted two months ago. This sort of targeting works for a brief time, but I wish they’d get better at turning the damn thing off. And what about plain old talk-to-guys-where-they-are advertising, you know, like ESPN? It’s surprising how little advertising shows up on the ESPN site given its popularity. Maybe the big data crunching feedback loop and ad posting machine sees me as terrible spender so decided talking to this guy isn’t worth it. Don’t I wish! What’s really interesting about more and more online ads is this tiny, tiny little flag that shows up on so many banners like this one for AT&T:
See it there, at the top right? AdChoices? What the hell! You mean I can choose what sort of ads I can see? When I clicked on it I got this:
Wow, Ghostery Enterprise? How’d they come up with that name? And when will the lawyers at Snapchat decide it’s time to sue for logo infringement?
And what’s with “no-opt out provided”? That must cost somebody extra. Ya think? Ah, internet trolling — what’s not to love? But I digress. I clicked on the “opt out all” and then was told:
“Your browser is currently blocking 3rd party cookies. Many companies use 3rd party cookies to remember that you have opted out, so you will need to enable them if you want all of the opt-outs on this page to work.”
In red! How clever! If I turn off the cookie blocker for the handful of ad companies on the list, I’ll open myself up to all the ones who aren’t on the list. Sounds suspicious to me. But what do I know? At least with channel surfing before my trusty old TV, I could just go somewhere else, mostly to the ads on the other channel that seemed to appear at about the same time as the ones on the channel I just left.
How much circumventing are most people willing to undergo just to NOT SEE ads? Some I suppose. But this would be akin to not seeing cars on the way to the work. You could reasonably do so if you rode the bus and just stared at your smart phone. But come on, how many folks are doing that? And even those who do are looking at the ads on their phone and on the bus’s interior.
ESPN is pretty unobtrusive with its ads. Seems to have fewer of them than the New York Times, which I also visit daily. The Times has take-over ads that you have to turn off, but which don’t really turn off —they just get smaller or show up again below the fold, and there’s always two adjacent postage stamp ads to the left and right of the masthead for that day’s featured ad buyer, which is often the Times itself. Apparently the media placement sales team has off days.
And let’s not forget the “FROM OUR ADVERTISERS” pile, which looks a lot like the story pile just above it that links you to editorial content — a charming expression for what we used to call actual news (or in this case NYT-generated content):
The sponsored content guys, whoever they are (sometimes they’re me), have a really tough job. They get to show a jpeg, a headline, and tiny bit of copy to pull you into their sponsored content. And if you go for it, holy smoke, you’ll see some pretty damn rich information and eye candy — but for me, the first thing I noticed was something I could only view as a warning, or at least a suggestion:
I’ve heard lots of complaining about “native” or “sponsored” content. How it’s taking advantage of site visitors’ sensibilities, tricking them into thinking that the NYT (or whoever) is the source of this content. Bah! Anyone who thinks that, well, who’s to blame for their credulity? Of course, some internet sites don’t have the conscience of the Times, so there’s more egregious dodging of the difference between editorial and advertiser content. Salon.com is a good example. It loads a page take-over immediately when you link to it with automatic sound ready to wreck your day. But then it’s got bigger problems — mostly talking to its own echo chamber like its counterparts on the right.
Not long ago, and still to this day in many instances, we accepted advertising not because we like it but because we know it keeps the content we care about coming our way. If the ad intrudes, turn the page, scroll on. If the ad agency is doing its job, readers stop and look at it. Plus ads tell us what’s on sale, alert us to something we might enjoy owning or doing, and help keep the system we have, like it or not, working. Even with the Times, which has one of the largest paid subscription bases in its category, the amount of intrusion is minimal and asks only that viewers PAY ATTENTION. If you can’t tell the difference between editorial and sponsored content, who’s at fault? Hard to say when we find so many people willing to support the likes of Donald Trump. But that’s a subject of a different post altogether.
So friending and linking and liking will continue to connect us to those we wish to stay in touch with for whatever reason. This boon to our social interchange and ready connection to new and old friends and family is all made possible because someone, somewhere wants to sell us something. I’m good with that. Our list of friends and connections will grow, however tenuous our relationship to them may be. Along the way, who we think of as a friend or connection won’t change much, for we all unconsciously or otherwise, construct a Ven diagram of who our friends really are:
Calling everyone who’s a friend on Facebook a friend seems a bit of a sham, if by friend you mean someone who might help you move, hold the ladder while you clean the gutters, or come over for the Super Bowl gathering you’re notoriously famous for. Maybe we need a new name for this special class of friends. Some languages have formal and informal versions of “you” — maybe we need an expression for our informal, true friends. Acquaintances is okay, but sounds too hoity-toity. BFF comes to mind, but that sounds like a sandwich at Arby’s or Burger King. What do you suggest? Send along your ideas to email@example.com and I’ll share them in a future post open to everyone. Everyone being what advertisers really want from us, not just our friends.
©2016 John Hofmeister
Well, here we are. Donald Trump is the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee for President of the United States. No one thought it would come to this. Not the inside-the-beltway crowd, the punditocracy, RINOs, the odds makers. Nobody.
And now everyone is offering their reasons as to how and why they could have been so wrong. You can find answers both exculpatory and ridiculous. But the overriding sentiment on display appears to be that Trump was and is a different kind of candidate, in different era, and wooing a body politic quite different from what pollsters once used to vet their projections.
Whether you hate or love the guy, you must admit to his unquestioned ability to speak to a considerable swath of the population — the angry, disaffected, left-behind voter scarred by the considerable downsides of modernity, that being a global economy that pits workers in the US with those in Dubai or Beijing or Mumbai or Kuala Lumpur. The flattening of salaries for unskilled, even semi-skilled labor that has come with globalization won’t change. Or it seems unlikely to regardless of who becomes president, whether we build walls or impose tariffs or deport the millions of illegal aliens currently doing jobs no one else is willing to perform at current market rates. Doing those things may have other consequences, but it won’t revive the declining prospects of the working middle class.
What interests me in this discussion is Trump’s branding and how readily it speaks to the many who feel disenfranchised by the system in one way or another. Make America Great Again says a great deal without saying anything at all. It presupposes a golden age, a decidedly brief period of time when the middle class in America was expanding, American hegemony was unquestioned, unions wielded considerable negotiating power that improved salaries of many beyond their membership rolls, and the overall tax rates were about double or nearly triple what they are today. Basically, somewhere between 1950 and 1970 or thereabouts. We’ve been wanting to go back there for quite some time. Since then it’s been pretty downhill for many working and middle class Americans in terms of salaries, opportunity, and the like. The internet has only exacerbated the pace of change, making it simpler to outsource everything, whether it’s manufacturing smart phones, reading X-rays, proofing legal documents, or everyone’s favorite, customer support whereby someone in India tries to help you make sense of your billing nightmare or shipping snafu.
Trump promises to do things differently. Make deals. Get on the phone with Putin. Tell Ford to quit making trucks in Foreignville or else. Whether this is credible or not is beside the point. His brand, his celebrity, his wealth, his unbridled willingness to do it his way, a truly different way, is the source of his appeal. And with that, I give you (knowing full well anyone drinking a double latte cappuccino will be spewing it out of their nose upon seeing it) a Trump poster that captures what HE says he is and what his supporters believe him to be: Outsider. Difference Maker. Change Agent. Rebel. Iconoclast.
This adulteration of Apple’s powerful ad campaign grew out of my reading of George Orwell’s Collected Essays, a great read by any standard. But more to the point, Orwell understood that words matter and that propaganda only serves the interests of those who proffer it. Advertising, indeed perhaps all art, is nothing but propaganda. And in the right (or wrong) hands, any tagline attached to a positive can be readily expropriated for its opposite and drive many to discover their darker angels.
People in the ad business, perhaps very few, have the wherewithal to say no to opportunities to put food on the table and shirts on our backs. But how carefully do we assess the impact of our efforts? In a ridiculously connected and interdependent world filled with ridiculously disparate and independent belief systems, how much faith can anyone have in the planet’s future when anyone can exploit the emotive force that all advertisers seek to tap, understand, and transform into enticements for purchase?
I don’t know the answer. But I do at times consider that the many creative souls in the advertising business once found employment extolling the merits of their God and are now at the beck and call of the marketplace (they used to call this mammon). Does this keep me from writing copy for a client? Well, so long as the client isn’t the Klu Klux Klan, the American Nazi Party, or the Tobacco Institute, then no, it doesn’t. Yet I don’t spend time peeking behind the curtain to see if every potential client’s business practices align with my sense of what’s right or wrong. What I learned from Orwell is that in some measure the comfort of the 1st world relies on the dreary existence of those laboring in the 3rd world. And as the global economy expands, you will continue to find residents of the 3rd world living in the 1st and vice versa. I can only hope that the differences between the two will diminish over time. I’m not too optimistic.
Perhaps knowing what’s right or wrong has become increasingly difficult to discern. Who honestly has time to evaluate the facts behind the curtain of any politico’s campaign platform? Each has a wealth of data and argument to support his view. The torrent of information hasn’t made it easier for anyone to evaluate the truthfulness of what this or that candidate claims. And so this is where we find ourselves: everyone firmly convinced that their facts are the right ones and the other guy’s facts are just wrong.
Can Trump Make America Great Again? No. Not because he can’t but because the phrase has no meaning without context, definition, or specificity — traits his campaign cannot share because doing so would be to rise above slogans, offer facts, and present a vision that by its very nature will not fit on the front of a ball cap. But in an era beset by a bewildering amount of data, conflict, despair, income disparity, and raw anger — the simplicity, promise, and emotive force of a ball cap slogan will find heads to adorn everywhere.
©2016 John Hofmeister
About a week ago I was diagnosed with labyrinthitis, a disorder I had never heard of and which my word processor doesn’t recognize either so it shows up underlined in red whenever I type it. My experience of it, I have since learned, has been fairly benign, if by benign you mean living in a dryer spin cycle for a few days.
It all started when I did my usual hop out of bed. I’m a quick riser and so I GET Up when I get up. But yesterday I got up and was immediately greeted by a whirling, twirling, you-drank-too-much-last-night sensation. The room, my lower body, my dresser, and nightstand were wheeling and drifting in and out of focus. It felt like those last moments of drunkenness right before you pass out, but without the fun part that precedes it — the laughing, jabbering, goofing, and believing you’re really good looking part that accounts for the widespread love of liquor. I staggered, reached for the dresser, and then fell backwards onto my bed. The ceiled fan gyrated above me, and the ceiling itself slanted right to left and up and down as if on some sort of loop-de-loop plane operated by a maniacal carney. I was terrified.
Lying on my back, watching the carney do his work, wasn’t making things better. Closing my eyes only encouraged me to believe I was a blind bobblehead on the dash of a pick-up being driven down a road littered with rocks and potholes. After a few minutes, I slowly raised my eyelids and tried to focus at far. That seemed to help some, either that or the carney was losing interest in me. The tilt-a-whirl slowed and I sat up like a near hit-and-run from a ditch. My terror gave way to what-the-fuckedness — a mixed state of confusion, fear, raw wonder, and anger that comes with getting sucker punched, being pulled over by the cops for no apparent reason, or learning your boss wants to meet with you and the head of HR.
I elbowed my way upward, trying to keep from rocking from side to side, got my legs over the edge of the bed, and took account of my situation. It was not good. I was on deadline with several writing projects — and being a freelancer, my only sick days are the days I can afford to not be freelancing and which I have to write off whenever life decides to screw with me. In a perfect world, such days are few. The way forward, that being my bedroom doorway, loomed in the corner of the room as a funhouse mirror in the distance, about eight feet away. Breakfast, exercising, a shower, and sitting down to work all beckoned — and being the truculent soul that I am, I persisted in believing that none of these tasks would be left undone. I was coursing through the usual state of denial anyone greeted with unaccountable disaster succumbs to. Even if it means ending sentences with prepositions.
Breakfast, I thought, should be easy enough, but the damn tile pattern on the kitchen floor made walking around tricky since it wouldn’t stay still for shit. Getting around was a bit like making my way across a gigantic rotating New York Times crossword puzzle looking to trip me up. I always start my day with coffee and our French press was in the dishwasher. Pulling out the dishwasher drawer and replacing the crossword puzzle below me with a cavernous silver tub filled with shiny china, sparkling glassware, and glinting cutlery made my head roll, sending a bit of spit-up to the back of my mouth and my torso tumbling toward the counter which I grabbed and held, thinking, maybe I wouldn’t be exercising this morning after all, the first sign that I was acclimating myself to my new spin-cycle life.
I spent the next hour lurching about the kitchen, rocking back and forth like Rain Man, burnishing my vision on ONE thing to steady myself — pouring coffee, putting Eggo’s in the toaster, spreading peanut butter, looking down at the waffles coming toward my face at alarming speed as their size grew exponentially the closer they got to my mouth. It might be the most important meal of the day, but I never thought it could be a 3D movie.
Having crossed exercise off my to-do list, I moved on to the shower. It’s in a narrow bathroom with a huge mirror over a double sink. Every time I turned my head, the walls zoomed in and out as I alternately clutched and pushed at them depending on whether I was falling toward or reaching for them. And the fricking mirror seemed intent on crushing my efforts to cleanse my already aseptic first-world hygienic derma. The shower itself, an even narrower space, was a bit less baffling once I got in and managed to stand perfectly still. But standing still while showering is impractical since it involves reaching for shampoo, soap, the showerhead, turning your head from side to side, twisting this way and that to reach the middle of your back, your thighs, and feet — ever think about how much you move around in a shower? I didn’t till then. Trust me, it’s a daunting undertaking for anyone with a vestibular disorder — yet another term I never heard of but which at least my word processor recognizes. I usually shave in the shower but decided doing so would be unwise given my current circumstances. I was lucky not to end up like Janet Lee yanking down the shower curtain in Psycho, face down on the porcelain, staring vacantly, blood streaming from the gash I could have gotten from the faucet handle. Stepping out of the shower, reaching for a towel, bending this way and that to dry myself came with its own learning curve — sort of an Orientation 101 for doing everyday things while dancing like Elaine Benes at the same time. Quite the feat if I do say so myself.
The spin cycle slowed down as the morning tumbled on, but still left me thinking, yeah, you might want to go to the emergency room. And do what? Tell them I was drunk but hadn’t been drinking? My wife tried calling an ask-a-doc, one of those services (though who is served is unclear) that lets you call and talk to someone about your symptoms but only after you tell them what medications you take, if you’ve had any surgeries, your family tree’s encounters with cancer, heart problems, mental health issues, and disorders too numerous to list here, your pharmacy, and of course your insurance carrier and a credit card just in case insurance didn’t pick up the tab for talking to a doctor you never met and who could be in Istanbul for all I knew. I terminated the call and got in to see someone at the local family practice where I usually go instead.
My wife and I decided she should drive since I was still having trouble navigating the crossword puzzle in the kitchen. The ride was yet another 3D movie that didn’t require those funny glasses. Closing my eyes only revisited my quality time as a blind bobble head. Eventually we arrived and as time passed, my stuporific state gave way to moments of clarity and balance. Moments being the optimum word here. I lurched from the car to the building, rode the elevator without hurling the ginormous waffles I had earlier, and got into to see a doctor.
First they took my stats. Of course I was reminded yet again that I should lose about 15 pounds. But my heart rate was 56 and my blood pressure a surprising 123 over 82. So given my current panic, these were facts I was pretty happy to hear, all things considered.
The doc came in, and having read the symptoms dutifully recorded by the nurse, set about calmly asking me questions, looking in my mouth and nose and ears, asking me to follow the tiny light he passed before me, left to right and up and down.
Given my history and current vitals, he was pretty sure I had an inner-ear infection. He talked a bit about what the inner ear consists of and how it works to help our bodies orient us to time and space as we move though life. I had what was probably labyrinthitis, named for the shape and structure of the inner ear. It turned out that he himself had an episode just like mine. While driving! And another time while walking the streets of Pittsburgh, a disorienting and hilly terrain no matter who you are. Why he was not dead encouraged me.
So I got a prescription — basically the stuff they give people for motion sickness. I went home, slept a lot, and slowly managed to solve the crossword puzzle in my kitchen. I was really lucky to have such a mild case. Those who don’t live in a carnival hell house to be wished on no one.
And so now I am waiting till my what-the-fuckedness recedes completely and I can once more ride my bicycle, which being an avid rider I do either on rollers or along trails and country roads, testing my endurance and balance while meditating on the contents of my next post.
Coming of age in the Mad Men era offered me exposure to what many call the Golden Age of Advertising. And well it may have been. It was then that Bill Bernbach hit on the idea of pairing a writer and an art director and sending them off to think about a product and return with words and pictures to pique the public’s interest in it. Writer-art-director teams inform almost all the advertising you see today and gave us what became the most iconic ad ever, the Think Small ad for Volkswagen — art directed by Helmut Krone and written by Julian Koenig. That was 1959, and since then, ad guys have been trying to capture our interest, occasionally breaking through the clutter of the marketplace and catching fire to become the next 1984 Apple, Where’s the Beef, or Whassup ad. These days they all want to go viral.
What was different back then is that hardly anyone — not the ad guys or the product managers or the advertisers — used the word brand. They talked about products (sometimes a service which is just a product but it doesn’t have packaging or physical properties, you know something you can actually kick or throw out or pick off a shelf or drive off a lot). Procter & Gamble is probably the most likely candidate for establishing our current concept of brands and branding, mostly because they have so many of them and was among the first to use research to help its product managers understand their products and discover why and how and when some sold better than others. It is a science I suppose. But that’s a different story for a different post. What I’m most interested in here is the term brand.
When I got into the ad business in the ’80s, everyone talked about and produced advertising for products. Things. Stuff you buy. Use up. Throw away. And if you like or need them, buy again. But over time the term brandsteadily overtook what we used to call products.
If you leaf through the Communication Arts Advertising Annual from 1987, the word brand appears NOT ONCE. In the Interactive Annual from 2014, the term appears 7 times in the editor’s column alone. Communications Arts, for those not familiar with it, is among the premier publications in the advertising trade. Getting into its Annuals is a huge deal for creative types and their agencies. It’s got columns by people whose life blood and incomes derive from succeeding in advertising. And hate them or love them, they are immersed in trying to separate you from your money on behalf of advertisers everywhere. They are brand junkies. They’re forever trying to help their clients and their brands. Hey, it’s a living. People don’t like car salesman either, but someone’s got to do it. Thing is though, they, like everyone, bought into the displacement of the term product with the word brand. But in the end, all that chatter about brands and branding comes down to selling stuff. Things.
I don’t know why the term brand supplanted the term product (or service), but it has. It has become so commonplace that you could probably ask 100 random souls what their favorite brand is and they’d have an answer. Of course, it might take some coaching. You might have to say, what’s your favorite beverage or beer or car or wireless provider (though favorite wireless provider seems like an oxymoron). In other words, you’d have to alert them to a category of things. Basically, you’d have to ask, what’s your favorite peanut butter or car or shampoo or computer or whatever. In short, you’d be asking about a thing. Not a human being. And this is where my feelings about branding drift from the norm.
Of late, we’ve all been encouraged to build or monitor or shape or revise our personal brand. It’s a saddening thought when you think about it because it asks you to think of yourself as a thing, a product, something to be purchased. People as products — things to be purchased — can have only one meaning: slavery.
You can find dozens of books and essays about building your personal brand and how important it is to have one. I’m sure some of them are helpful. The term brand, rightfully affixed to products, isn’t one I want to extinguish. But I do want everyone to remember that words matter. How we define ourselves matters. The metaphors we use to explain our identity matters. People have personalities and character and beliefs. But more importantly they have mothers and fathers and children. They live and die. They are struck with cancer. Win the lottery. Graduate college. Get addicted to drugs. Know joy and grief. Get jobs. Get fired. Go on the dole. Run for office. They constitute the big, baffling collection of mammals we call humankind. They aren’t brands. If they were, we would put Ghandi and Hitler and Beyoncé and Shakespeare in the same category as Nike and Subaru and Coke and Prada.
Some would argue that this confusion of human beings with brands isn’t confusion at all but a simple metaphor for how we describe ourselves, our habits, our predilections. And so it is that we are encouraged to have conversations with brands, think of brands as having personalities, and by all means connecting with them on Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr. But you can’t have a conversation with a thing. Well you could but it would be pretty one-sided. You can connect with a brand. You can buy it or ignore it or loathe it or put up with it. But you can’t have a human connection to it. That’s reserved for something you have with another person or a dog or cat or some living thing. Oh sure, you can read a manufacturer’s posts or tweets or pins, etc. But behind all that, there’s a person making decisions, typing away, being clever, playing a role, doing a job. Or worse, you could just be chatting away with a chatbot that’s just yanking your chain.
In his seminal essay, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell wrote: “It [the English Language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
Let’s use the right words to the right things. Pretending we are brands, acting like we are brands, confusing our identities with product characteristics are foolish habits that diminish our souls, our responsibility to see each other as human. It allows us to see politicians as products. Workers as commodities. Our friends, colleagues, and mates as so many interchangeable parts.
Don’t ask me about my personal brand. Ask me who I am. What I’ve done. Where I’ve come from. How I can help you fix something, build something, make something, sell something. But don’t confuse me with a brand, a thing. Because, like you, I’m not a thing. I’m a human being.
©John Hofmeister. Find me at jhofmeister.com. @jwhirred. And LinkedIn.
When I'm not writing for clients, I write about things that interest me.