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Ads Adding Up

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People want to be told what to do so badly that they will listen to anyone.

     – Don Draper

In a presentation last week, the speaker brought up Coke to illustrate branding. He said the marketing goal was more than saying Coke was the drink for America. The goal was to say it was America: community, love, and happiness. He turned to the audience: “Name a brand that is you.” They readily complied: Ferrari, Apple, Red Bull, and Trader Joe’s. Everyone had an answer at the tip of the tongue.

But I was flabbergasted. What brand identified me? Really? Everyone in the room was a working professional. Hadn’t we left that kind of reductive thinking behind in junior high? How could an entire human being be expressed in a brand? How did advertising gain such prominence in our imagination that products are more vivid than people? Are the marketers that good?

People, each individual—you, as a matter of fact, and I—are the ones who can create art and discover knowledge. Unfortunately that very power is terrifying to us. I myself am uncomfortable when I have to make a statement that is new or contrary to the prevailing opinions. I’ll get sweaty and lightheaded if I am not fully confident about what I’m saying.

That tension is what advertising exploits to make lots of money. Marketing wonks can appeal to people’s intrinsic uniqueness, seducing us with affirmation.  After they recognize the truth of each person’s value, advertisements invite that person to join the in-crowd. ‘Come be part of the exceptional people who all agree our product is wonderful!’

It is a sleight of hand to get us to sign away our own opinions and join the prefabricated one. It soothes away the fear, because you don’t need to stand out. Accepting the message is joining the crowd! The risk of forming and honing one’s own preferences and opinions is thus avoided.

Marketers have started breaking it down to even simpler terms—a single word. Happiness is the word Coke uses to buy loyalty. Have a Coke. Be Happy. Is that all it takes? And why should Coke care at all if I am happy? The truth is, brands do not care at all about you. Their marketing is a placebo that tricks you into passivity and out of your money.

What’s wrong with that? What’s the harm? I say easy answers block the true ones. It’s hard to be the author of your own happiness. It is tough to wrestle with your soul and produce those things that are your unique contribution.

So many birthrights are sold for a mess of pottage. No company anywhere cares what happens to you or me. So why hitch your wagon to that train? People are capable of being their own locomotive.

Sure, have a Coke if you want one, but not because it brings you happiness. Do it just because it tastes good to you.

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