Of all the reactions to the super bowl ads, the most interesting to me by far was the backlash to the Martin Luther King Jr Ram spot.

Putting my cards on the table: the backlash delighted me.

Brands do this kind of nonsense all the time, using altruism as window dressing for their wares. What’s curious to me is why audiences haven’t objected to all the other equally ham-fisted attempts at this same ploy as much as they did this one.

It’s certainly partly because of the particular heightened racial complexity of this moment in the NFL, so the audience’s dissonance detectors may well be more sensitive right now.

But I think it’s more than that. The more we advertisers use tired tools, the wiser the audience gets to them. Today’s audience is so much better at detecting disingenuousness than the audience of even a couple years ago. And man was this ad disingenuous.

brands do this kind of nonsense

The saddest part is that it would have taken two very minor changes to turn this ad from disingenuous to sincere.

First: lose the giant Ram grill beauty shot that mars the sentiment before the spot even gets going. That clichéd truck fording mud porn comes as such a damn disappointment in the middle of an historic sermon like this. You can feel the collective groan. If you want to make this kind of advertising work, your branding has to take a distant back seat to the message. Save it to the very end. Anything else is a huge fail.

Second: imagine Ram had ended the spot with a simple line like, “To further Dr. King’s legacy, Ram is donating 100 trucks this year to service organizations doing important work.”

There. Now Ram means it. Spot fixed.

Elevating the least loved category in all of advertising – Free Big Idea #3

Over my 18 years of somehow making a living off of nothing but ideas, only a small fraction of those ideas have ever seen the light of day. Generally in this business it’s not good self-care to spend so much as a second mourning the death of particular favorite children. But one dead sweet-idea-child-o-mine is so far and away my all-time favorite, I still find myself shedding the occasional tear. In the cold November rain (self-imposed GNR-reference moratorium from here on out). And also poke my toe at its motionless body now and then to, you know, be sure.

This is the idea that made Kickstand Kickstand.

I'm thinking it's overdue for a toe-poke.

So honestly, this is the idea that made Kickstand Kickstand. It’s the one we launched with, the one we used as our own first non-actual-case-study case-study, the one that felt big enough and new enough that going into business with the goal of making ideas like this one come to life felt just plausible enough.

I even auditioned for a TEDx talk with this idea (which I lost to a banjo player. In my defense, he was a fairly above-average banjo player).

Anyway, on to the idea.

Femcare Marketing Imagery!

But first, restrain yourselves, cause a man is about to get all sincere and stuff about menstrual pads. I'm not clear whether that's strictly allowed or not.

This idea came out of our work with A Drop In the Bucket, a water well charity working in East Africa. One of the many, many interesting things about Drop is they don’t think of themselves as a water charity, but as an education charity. Their ultimate goal is to get more kids to complete school and use their education help improve their own communities. Water, they found, was the quickest way to improve school attendance. (Gathering water is often a full-family, all-day affair). So Drop started going in to villages and putting wells at every school and watching attendance skyrocket.

Side note: my daughter’s school raised enough money to dig a well in Uganda, which now has their school’s name on it: here’s a picture of it in action.

Drop In the Bucket - Apopong Primary School - William B Travis well photo


Anyway, the next attendance challenge is disease, which can spread quickly and knock out a whole school for weeks at a time. So to prevent that, Drop adds sanitation and hygiene facilities. Oh, and they make the priming system for the toilets a merry go round, so the kids have something to play on and the system becomes self-sustaining. Brilliant stuff, and when it’s all in place, once again, attendance goes up and stays up. Until …

the well breaks.

Turns out something like 80% of all wells in Africa fail the first year from overuse.

Which no other water well charity is in any hurry to admit. Drop, though, makes it a point of pride. When they dig a well, they also start a community microfinance fund that the whole village pays in to for things like buying replacement pump parts. They also train the locals in repair, so their wells stay in action far, far longer than the NGO average.

When they do all this, school attendance goes up and it stays up.


Girls hit puberty.

(Full disclosure: there’s some argument in the aid world as to why this is, and to whether it’s even a real phenomenon. There’s an interesting analysis here, if you’re interested. But, for my money, while Drop’s evidence is still anecdotal, their systemic, one-step-at-a-time approach deals with the variables raised in that article, and nevertheless, the effect appears to remain. And there are enough other players (SHE being the big one) in East Africa seeing the same issue, intervening, and tracking the results that I’m inclined to go with a where-there’s-smoke-there’s-fire approach, personally, but YMMV).

According to the people on the ground, what’s going on is this: girls in that part of the world do not have access to or cultural examples around feminine hygiene products. So they reach puberty and just stay home a week out of every month. Falling further and further behind, until they give up and drop out.

This is a problem with an obvious and simple solution, in comparison to most developing world interventions. There are already charities and for-profit companies on the ground making reusable, low-cost, locally produced products that work, and that girls actually use. What’s missing is the power to scale the solutions up to meet the size of the need.

So here’s the idea.

A major US femcare brand steps up and does just that. Scales up the local solution to fit the size of the problem.


I'm so glad you asked.

PadPalsPad Pals.

Here, we even did a down and dirty placeholder logo for a presentation a while back. (A real logo would look way better, but this is, I remind you, a free idea).

Imagine a brand like Always adopts this (it’s yours if you want it, Always), and takes it to every middle school in the US.

Imagine that when a teenaged US girl sits through the usual, gender-segregated health class, she gets a branded care package from Always. Inside are a survival kit with pads and tampons, and a small booklet explaining the situation in sub-saharan Africa, and the serious importance of a simple product that most American girls take so for granted, they’d prefer not even think about it.

The booklet ends with an invitation to adopt not a pen pal, but a pad pal. A commitment, for a few dollars a month, to keep a girl her own age in school with a simple gift.

That’s marketing dream territory.

This is the kind of bold good brands can do when they let their own self interest and their altruism hang out meaningfully and get to be best buddies. That's our whole pitch, right there, no matter who you are. Imagine the brand loyalty this would engender in American girls. Imagine the feel-good power they could package into every product, in a crowded, parity ridden category no less. Girls with an emotional connection to their pad brand? That’s marketing dream territory. And not just an emotional connection, but a deeper understanding, even gratitude, for a product has always seemed as much a nuisance as anything?

Girls standing up for girls to stand together and say that a simple fact of biology shouldn’t get to say who gets ahead and who gets behind.

That’s Pad Pals.

My favorite idea ever. And now we’re making it anybody’s idea who wants it. If you know someone at a femcare brand interested in trying something new and brave and memorable, please share it with her.


Drones and Sharks – Free Big Idea #2

Last week’s post got shared way beyond our expectations (thanks for that), which means it’s time to squander our momentum by scaling our ambitions way, way back.

Not really. But we do want to show that not every cause campaign has to be on a multimillion dollar, planet-altering scale to be interesting.

It just has to be smart.

For your consideration: a ridiculously simple, cheap, and so-obvious-we-have-to-assume-someone’s-already-doing-it-without-getting-credit-for-it idea for DJI, the largest manufacturer of consumer quad copter drones in the world.

First let’s talk about drones.

DJI Phantom Drones

If all you knew about drones came from the popular media, you’d think the entire industry was held afloat by fascists and creepy guys with trench coats and restraining orders.

What doesn’t get reported is all the good that drones are doing right now.

The press narrative about mass-market drones manages to stoke alarmism in equal amounts from both ends of the political spectrum, privacy advocates and government haters alike. Add to that the slowness of the FAA in deciding what’s an OK commercial use of drones and what’s not (see if you can even begin to make sense of their guidelines here ), and you have an artificially stagnant category.

What doesn’t get reported is all the good that drones are doing right now. But considering the biggest drone-related PR stories so far have been things like wide-spectrum crop analysis and wind turbine inspection, that’s not entirely surprising. Crop monitoring is hardly a large enough good to overcome the undeniable terror of being watched from the sky.

What the drone market needs is to unite people over an enemy everyone can agree on.

badass great white sharkSharks.

Nothing produces more outsized fear as compared to its actual gross carnage output than a shark. Perfect opportunity for a smart brand to step up, do a lot of good for a little money, and be a hero.

shark attacks on local beachesOur idea: DJI picks a beach in shark heavy waters, maybe in the Carolinas or Northeast Florida, and brings it under their watchful, constant protection.

They donate four Phantom 3 drones (two in the regular flight rotation, two emergency backups) plus a couple dozen backup batteries and chargers to a single beach, ensuring that (with a flying time of 25 minutes per battery) one drone is in a stable hover over the water with an eye on the entire beach for every hour of daylight.

They’ll also need to put a little effort into some shark-specific image recognition. The drone’s camera will upload continuously to a server running real-time image analysis to spot shark shapes. The server will then send alert texts with flagged images to an active lifeguard’s mobile phone, who can then shut down the beach at a moment’s notice.

guy racing a sharkIf this were an actual paying client exploration, we’d do a full-scale naming study for this, and land on something catchy, domain-available, and trademark free. But since this is a free idea, we’ll call it the first thing I think of. Which is SharkScan.

Ok, meh. Sometimes you get what you pay for.

While I was waiting on Bo to proofread this, I sketched up a quick logo for SharkScan, too. It’s horrible and you can’t see it.

Anyway, so you walk up to a beach, and a sign there has a nice DJI logo and reassuringly declares that This Beach is Protected By SharkScan. Think how great that would make you feel. I don’t even worry about sharks at beaches, but I’d still feel, like, three-mai-tai-level placid if I saw that sign.

Great. Sell it. Just be sure to keep giving it away, too.

Let’s go ahead and admit that this could easily prove to be as much of a potential revenue stream as a strict charitable endeavor. And we’re OK with that, as long as DJI commits (and scales up) their charity component as this effort grows. They should begin by establishing, for instance, an endowment for victims of shark attacks (at non-shark-scan beaches, obv) to help offset medical expenses, and the endowment should grow as the program grows. And it will grow. Once it’s proven to work, every tourism-dependent beach in the world will want the SharkScan package. Great. Sell it. Just be sure to keep giving it away, too. The point isn’t to turn coastal municipalities into a new drone revenue stream. The point is even bigger: to let the halo effect of doing good rub off on the entire category, to start to shift attitudes in the press, the public, and (perhaps most importantly) the FAA.

This is the kind of self-interested charity we want to see more of. Charity that sells is charity that changes the world. No 501(c)3 on the planet, no matter how great their fundraiser dinners are, could ever hope to wipe out shark attacks planet-wide once and for all. But a single profit-minded drone manufacturer looking for a great PR opportunity? Absolutely they could. And they damn well should.

Consider this idea now yours, DJI. Or any drone company that wants to run with it. Happy shark scanning. (If you want a better name than that – and yes, you want a better name than that – we know some guys that would be happy to help.)

Come back next week for something more, I dunno, heartwarming? Unless you’re uncomfortable with feminine hygiene conversations, in which case, get over it and come back anyway.

Hey Orkin – Free Big Idea #1

An idea of how to end malaria in Haiti

So if you’ve poked around on our site much, you may have noticed a small disconnect. Actually, it’s a big disconnect. There is a sizable gap between the work we talk about being interested in and the type of work we’ve actually done.

We’ve done some great work for nonprofits, one in particular we’re especially proud of. And we’ve done great work for for-profits and are doing more every day. But our hope from the beginning has been to bridge those two domains in meaningful, sustainable ways. That, it turns out, has been harder to do than we expected. To be fair, we’re in development on a few things that we’re excited about, campaigns that hit that sweet spot pretty damn well. And we’ll report back as they come to life.

But the big brand committing to a big Good … that’s been a hard sell.

We could talk at length about all the subtle reasons why – the psychology of charity in tension with the logic of commerce, the balkanization of intracorporate disciplines, etc etc – but one of the most difficult obstacles is also the most glaringly obvious: the brands with the resources to try something big enough to matter are unlikely to engage in a costly experiment with a three-person shop in Oak Cliff. You don’t get to be a Fortune 500 company by being reckless.

… we’re going to give our thinking away.

So, here’s what we’re gonna do. Instead of holding on to our best ideas and guarding our IP in hopes of landing a big fish, we’re going to give our thinking away. Let’s use this space to show those big brands the kind of good they could be doing, if they would just allow themselves to think bigger.

We’ll start with an idea we had for Orkin, the pest control company.

Orkin manTo be clear, as far as we know, Orkin has never heard this idea. Despite connections (and interest) at their agency of record, we’ve been unable to land a real meeting with them. So when you hear this idea and think “Those assholes! How dare they pass this up,” just know they haven’t actually passed it up. But this is now public domain, it’s theirs to take and run with if they want it. So if this post were somehow to end up on the desk of, say, Glen Rollins, Orkin’s CEO, (or the desk of Bill Derwin, president of Orkin’s biggest competitor, Terminix) we would not complain.

Anyway here’s the idea.

Orkin. Given that pest-control is a fear-based industry (probably a reactionary purchase decision more often than not) it’s safe to assume that brands in this space, even at their best, don’t engender a lot of warm fuzzies. Coupled with the growing cultural trend toward so-called natural products and general suspicion toward whatever people think they mean when they use the word “chemicals” as an epithet, and you might imagine it’s time for brands here to take some big risks to get firmly into consumers’ good graces.

We may have just the risk for them.

Something so ridiculously idealistic and implausible that even failure would make a great story.

Orkin spends $15 million a year on media alone. Imagine if they took that money and tried something stupid. Something so ridiculously idealistic and implausible that even failure would make a great story.

What if they picked an island in the Caribbean or the Indian Ocean, an island where people still die regularly from malaria, and adopted it? It could be Hispaniola (Haiti/DR). It could be any number of small African islands still plagued by the mosquito-borne parasite. Orkin could commit to ending malaria for one island once and for all. A whole developing nation island where parents would be afforded the same luxury that we in every western nation have been for generations: not having to worry about a mosquito taking the life of a child.

Countries with ongoing transmission of malaria 2013


Might they fail? Of course. But is it doable? Absolutely.

… $18 million a year over 5 years to end malaria in Haiti and the DR.

The Clinton Health Access Initiative has estimated that it would take $18 million a year over 5 years to end malaria in Haiti and the DR. That’s roughly Orkin’s total ad spend, so OK, it’s not like it wouldn’t hurt. But. Choosing a smaller island than Hispaniola would bring that number way down. And that estimate is also based entirely on conventional measures, not new experimental techniques like sterile male mosquito introduction, which could cost a fraction of that. Hell, the Chinese government nearly wiped out malaria from the Comoros islands in a single blow in 2014 by giving an experimental, untested drug to every single native there. Which is a total super-villain move, except it also happened to work. But definitely don’t do that, Orkin. We’re just saying, you could make this work for a fraction of your ad spend if you were willing to entertain some untraditional thinking.

Bear in mind that this isn’t money taken out of Orkin’s ad budget and thrown away. Far from it. The press value alone of a stunt like this could well equal the cost. But there’s more value here than PR. I mean, branded content opportunities out the thorax. Orkin could partner with the WHO, sending their top pest experts to brainstorm with ecologists and international health experts on the best strategies for mosquito intervention, and document the entire process. While most of the effort would be focused on non-“chemical,” ecologically-sensitive interventions, Orkin could still demonstrate the safety and efficacy of their mosquito control projects as a major component of the campaign. They could make full-out retail ads based on the effort. They could attach their own sales funnel to it, “every home pest treatment provides four families in the Caribbean with antimalarial protection.”

… brands can do more and make their good more sustainable if they connect the dots between commerce and charity more audaciously.

Some brands don’t like attaching sales to charitable efforts, and we get that. But the point is brands can do more and make their good more sustainable if they connect the dots between commerce and charity more audaciously. If this works, if Orkin wipes out malaria on a whole island, they can follow it up with a bigger island. They could go city by city through sub-Saharan Africa in a careful campaign to end the number one killer of people for most countries on the globe.

As pie-in-the-sky as it sounds, audaciousness like this is entirely doable. Not just for Orkin, who isn’t even a fortune 500 company, but for so many even better equipped brands.

In the history of advertising, billions of dollars have been wasted creating and running ad campaigns that consumers ended up hating so much they actually harmed sales. Every ad spend is a big risk. The risk I’m asking for is one that in the worst case scenario saves hundreds of lives. And however consumers respond to that, I’m pretty damn confident they won’t hate it.

More free ridiculous ideas coming here soon.

The subtext of targeting.

This is one of our favorite articles on advertising of all time. We’ve long preached that the subtext of every message is as important if not more important than the message itself. You can do effective micro targeting campaigns, but you have to be aware of the subconscious baggage the medium carries with it it order to compensate for it.

We’d argue that a great cause is a fantastic (and relatively cheap) way to overcome that baggage. Anyway, read the article.



When good goes bad.

By now it should be clear that doing good is good business.

But if something about the whole thing strikes you as a bit fishy, you’re not alone. It should sound fishy. Marketers interested in doing good are caught in an odd kind of double bind. Admitting that social good campaigns are really about the bottom line smacks of inauthenticity. The problem is, so does denying it. The fact that you recognize this tension is a pretty good indication that you have what it takes to think like your audience, and to ultimately rise above the noise.

If you don’t tackle the mistrust directly, it will tackle you. Led in large part by the young adults, audiences today are far more suspicious of marketing than any audience before it. This is, we freely admit, our own fault. Advertisers (wea culpa) have brought this on ourselves. Turns out when you spend several decades manipulating people’s desires, they start to resent you for it. They also assume every piece of communication is manipulation. Oops.

For our current all-time favorite example of this effect, see this insightful and delightfully cynically spectacular takedown of the NFL’s “partnership” with No More. It’s long, but worth it, we swear. Favorite bit (if you’re too rushed at the moment):

Imagine your girlfriend saying, “I love that color,” and you being able to respond with, “Yeah, it’s my anti-domestic violence polish.” It’s what we’ve been missing all this time.

It gets better than that, we swear, seriously read it. Anyway, this is what you’re up against. Your audience’s bullshit meter is at an all time high. And, paradoxically, so is their hunger-for-good meter. The least we can do is to try to help you navigate this terrain.

If you’re a business thinking of using your resources for some higher good, you may read articles like that one and go, “Well shoot, we’ll just support who we support and not bother telling anyone.” Or worse, you’ll just decide to avoid doing good all together.

Option one is certainly a safe and viable one, but misses an opportunity. We started this business to help good-hearted businesses navigate this exact atmospheric soup of competing pressure fronts – the cynical front in perpetual collision with the idealism front. (Apparently, the metaphor was terrain before, and now it’s weather systems. Go with it.) Because if you can do good and get credit for it, well, you can do even more good. Good done well feeds itself and builds, amplifying its work by giving your audience a reason to join you. Good pays for itself. And then some.

There will always be skeptics. And they’ll usually have an important point, one worth listening hard to. But if you do this right, if you engage with a real problem in an authentic and meaningful way, even the skeptics will begin to support you, regardless of whether or not they trust you.

But earning their trust in the long run is possible. And, we’d argue, essential. You get it right with the skeptics, the others will follow (and the biggest immediate impact may well be internal – motivating and rallying your employees). Regardless of the demographic, there’s never been a better chance to connect with your audience on a deeper level than you ever imagined was possible. The question is: how do you overcome their suspicions?

You start by recognizing inauthenticity in your own motivations.

Then you do some good, motivations be damned. The bigger the better.

But there’s no getting around this next part.

Eventually, you’re going to have to start meaning it.

Start by giving something meaningful. Make it hurt. It’s remarkable how much having real skin in the game will make you care about that game.

And then you’re going to have to ask for something meaningful from your audience. The ask has to be bigger than “Please drink out of your be-logoed, over-priced coffee cup!” Respect them enough to ask for their help, their passions, their skills and their time. Give them something to care about, and a way to turn their care into change.

That’s what authenticity looks like.

And that’s where you have to start to make sure Good stays good.

Is Good good?

The confounding – maybe even terrifying – rise of cause marketing.

This is kind of a weird time for advertising. I realize I’m not exactly challenging the seaworthiness of the Good Ship Conventional Wisdom with that anti-linkbait of a thesis. But if I start with understatement, that gives me permission to devolve into overblown, unhinged bombast later. At least, that’s my strategy. Which I’m only telling you now because I respect you too much to treat you the way all those other think-piece writers do.

Anyway, weird times, though, for real.

I mean, even by the standards of the protracted death-of-print and rise-of-social upheavals of the past decade or so, this latest shift feels different. Weirder. Weirdest ever, maybe. Maybe even weirdest theoretically possible. OK, too far. But let’s at least agree that the only thing weirder than the weirdness itself (which we’ve already established is weird) is that hardly anyone seems to be calling out the actual level of this current weirdness for being so particularly weird. It’s almost like waking up in an airplane cabin filled with smoke and finding your fellow passengers calmly working Sudoku puzzles.

A hell of a lot of ink has already been spilled on this peculiar moment, I know, but what no one seems to have captured in print so far is the subjective texture of how thoroughly strange one particular subset of this current weird soup is. The subset we’ve collectively decided to call “cause marketing” (terrible, terrible name, that, but that’s a topic for another article). Sure, we generally recognize that something kinda new is happening, but if any of us ad industry types were to stop and really look the thing in the face, I suspect we’d be left either packing provisions and heading for the hills or waiting on the roof for the crystal spaceships.

So it’s worth saying it one more time, if only to compensate for the collective disregard up till now: This. Is. Weird.

Somehow, after generations of unfettered corporate greed, after an age where we elevated mass-manipulation to an art form, suddenly now everyone cares about corporate social responsibility? About helping the helpless and solving the insoluble? One day the sun goes down and the next it’s glittering over a world where Capitalism contends with Cosmic Justice? And we’re just supposed to shrug and accept it?

In the blink of an eye, corporate Good has become big. Two-billion-dollars-a-year-and-growing big.

I’ll tell you this much, no one writing 20th century dystopian Sci Fi saw that one coming.

How does the ad industry respond to that? At the risk of unfair generalization, we as a group are not exactly emotionally equipped for dealing with this kind of earnest sincerity, are we? So we can adopt our default change-posture of black-clad cynicism, we can be suspicious, we can call it a flash in the pan, this generation’s brief flirtation with Free Love: Corporation Edition. We can question the motives of everyone involved. I certainly have. Or we can do what most of us are already doing: ignore it entirely. The one thing we can’t do: pretend that this is anything but a very good thing.

Putting aside how we feel about it, and I’m still deeply conflicted on that point myself, who has more power to change the world for the better than corporations? The non-profit sector? Too under-resourced. The volunteer corps? Too disorganized. The church? Too preoccupied with stadium-seating multi-media immersion-worship arena design. The government? Too busy with finger kissing and baby pointing. (Notable exceptions to all four notably noted).

Face it. The only power structure in which 100% of the populace engages and participates with 100% of their attention is the corporate state.

If anyone can end illiteracy, inequality, the spread of disease, the relentless choreography of gross, systemic injustice, it can.

I can’t even believe I just wrote that sentence. But there it is.

A cynic would point out that the corporate state can (and has) also fueled each one of those things when it was convenient to do so. And that cynic would be right.

But this bravish new future hinges on a strange kind of tension. It asks the consumer to shed one cloak of cynicism and don another. To silence the inner Idealist Cynic and pass the microphone to the inner-Pragmatist Cynic.

Whether consumers can successfully shoulder the cognitive dissonance required to do so remains to be seen. And whether the ad industry at large can figure out how to cautiously participate in this transition without triggering a massive, cynical counter-reaction is an even bigger open question. But the corporate state is forging ahead with us or without us.

And, by all accounts, it is doing some real good. Or, at least, it’s beginning to. Water is being drawn for the thirsty. The naked are being clothed. The curious taught.

Why, though, is the corporate state doing this in the first place? For the only reason it does anything. People are demanding it. They are voting with their debit cards. Consumers have successfully convinced (or conned, depending on your point of view) the most powerful entities on the planet that what they most want to buy is a brand that helps.

How did this happen? How did the great manipulated learn to manipulate the great manipulators? And why, suddenly, are people concerned with mass, social good in the first place? The same consumers who for generations have been preoccupied with the latest luster of the utterly trivial?

We’ll leave the final word on those questions for Marketing History, should that ever turn out to be a thing that undergrads willingly sign up for, shudder.

But I have a theory. OK, theory is much too generous a word. Let’s call it a proto-hunch. A proto-hunch with an excellent chance of being dead wrong. But maybe it’ll prove to be just true enough to be useful.

It goes like this:

For decades, we advertisers have operated under the auspices of The One Great and Powerful Lie. TOGAPL. It has been the chief driving principle of every ad we’ve ever produced, the last unmentionable secret of the craft. TOGAPL is the ad industry’s golden goose, the blessed lie that keeps on giving. And it is this: that when you, the consumer, buy a product, you aren’t really buying a product. You’re buying an image.

Want to look successful? Buy a german car. Want to appear sexually competent? Buy a lite beer. Want to look sophisticated and independent? Buy a Mac.

The thing about this lie is, it works. Or, it has worked, anyway, and it has worked like a charm. (Unrelated, but when did charms become the barometer by which the efficacy of all other items is judged? Do charms really themselves work like charms? If so, why aren’t we hearing more about it?)

An inexpressibly large chunk of the entire western economy has been directly fueled by this one technique: the selling of image. But now its power, by all indications, is waning. The charm is uncharming.

You don’t have to look far to see the evidence. You still see image marketing, mind you, but with every passing year it seems to be more confined to ads aimed at older demographics. Hey you, middle-income, 50-something man: wanna seem tough? Buy a pickup. Hey mid-life-crisis-denying cubicle cog, wanna remind yourself and everyone around you of your raw virility? Buy an American sports car. For those who grew up in the golden age of TOGAPL, it works as well as it always did, no one bats an eye.

But below that middle-aged ceiling, it’s another story entirely. With millennials, the reliable old con shows signs of serious strain, for reasons I’m about to speculate wildly on. In this demographic, we’ve even recently begun to see TOGAPL’s near-exact inverse: the ad directly mocking image ads. Old Spice comes to mind, as do recent Newcastle, Skittles, Burger King and Keystone Light campaigns. The decidedly ironic reincarnation of the Brawny man. “Far less attractive Rob Lowe.” Etc etc and etc.

There’s still image marketing at work in all these examples, mind you, it’s just that the image being sold is now one of seeming not to care about image. Which is interesting (and I suspect will get more interesting as this territory becomes over trodden and tiresome). It’s also a clue as to what’s really happening in the psyches of modern young adults.

What’s really happening, and this is the even more speculative part, is that this new generation has been so oversteeped in such a preposterous volume of messaging that they’ve unwittingly assimilated the entire advertising project and now see straight through it. Like they were L Ron to advertising’s Xenu. Or Johnny 5 to advertising’s …. um, advertising.

Forget it. What I’m saying is, you take the entire mass of image marketing noise the rest of us encounter in a lifetime and stack it up? It’s trivial compared to how these kids have grown up; the millennials devoured more messaging while they were still in diapers than I have in my whole life. Ads to them are the city street-stink you never notice until you’re sitting in the middle of nowhere and find it missing.

Dialing the speculation potentiometer up another notch, maybe what’s going in is that millennials have developed an exposure immunity (level: sewer rat) to image marketing. Maybe they bought the lie hook line and sinker for the first decade or so of their lives, maybe we marketers fooled them the first few thousand times. But now, after buying their 1,287th Coca Cola and realizing that, once again, it has not in fact provided lasting happiness to themselves much less the whole world, they’re finally onto us.

Maybe now their immunity to image salesmanship is so beyond what we can guess that they recoil at every one of our hackneyed attempts to manipulate their desires, and at the un-self-awareness we betray by even attempting to sell image in the first place.

There could be a pornography analog (I know, Beavis) here, too, probably. Maybe more than just an analog. Who knows, maybe it’s part of the same feedback loop above. What I mean is that these kids have grown up as the first group in history with unfettered access to whatever flavor of sexual intrigue they could ever dream up. So what happens when these kids grow up, sexually speaking? Now the data here is a little contradictory, and we may be guilty of cherry picking the parts that support our slick narrative, but if you look into it, sure enough, there issome evidence that while millennials aren’t getting married as much, they may in fact be more monogamous than the generation before them, less sexually risky. How is this relevant? Maybe when you grow up in the vomitorium, gluttony is no longer cool.

We’ve raised a generation surrounded by funhouse mirrors. Should we be surprised that their relationship to image is complicated and contradictory? Is it really that much of a shock to see the selfie-generation leading the charge against image manipulation?

The point here is just that this group of young adults, the most coveted demographic in all of marketing, wants none of what we’re good at selling. They don’t want ego validation by purchase. What they want, and this is as well-validated in the research as it is shocking, is meaning. This is preposterous, so much so that if it hadn’t been for the publicity these studies have gotten, you’d assume we were making this up, or joking. Millennials want meaning in their careers (more than they want better compensation). They want meaning in their free time. They even want meaning in their purchases. And they’re rewarding brands that give them so much as a taste of it.

Think about it. This is not supposed to happen until one’s 40s. How jaded and world weary, how let down with the entire American consumption project at the delicate age of 22 do you have to be to put “meaning” at the top of your priority list, ahead of “fast car” and “fun friends”? This is, we think, a much bigger story than anyone has told yet. It’s potentially, if you’re the panicky type, the story of the collapse of the entire western way of life. (And if brands don’t quickly respond to this by radically rethinking how they engage in the world, that hypothetical panic may prove to be merited.)

And all of this is on us. Advertisers. We’ve pushed them here. We have pushed them so far so fast that they had to grow up. It was their only viable option. A mass awakening. A media maturation so startling that it’s left us media manipulators entirely behind. We have, through overplaying our image hand, caused the audience to develop psychologically at a rate we ourselves are incapable of matching. (I’m speaking for myself here, at least – part of my brain, despite knowing better, is always going to think of purchasing an Audi as a courageous act of corporate rebellion).

So this is what we’re dealing with. This is why this cause marketing explosion thing may not be just a temporary fad. The current flavors and tactics of cause marketing will undoubtedly prove temporary and fad-like, but the category itself is here to stay.

The audience has grown up. They want the one thing in their purchasing that we advertisers don’t know how to offer. They want a story that’s bigger than themselves. They want meaning.

If we’re going to catch up with the audience, we’re going to have to be smarter. We’re going to have to move past our clumsy early attempts to deal with this cause thing. We have to stop painting a veneer of meaning over the same basic image-selling project.

Now let me admit, I could well be wrong. This is not settled science. You could even argue that millennials don’t truly want anything new. That all they’re asking is for brands to sell them a new image: an image of social usefulness. According to this camp, millennials are less concerned with actually doing good than with feeling like they’re doing good. Or, more to the point, with proving their moral mettle to their peers with TOM’s logos and product (RED) gear. It’s a compelling argument. Both marketing history and human psychology would probably lean this way.

But my partners and I are putting our own money, literally, in the other camp. Given that this camp is the naïve and earnest one, it might be a mistake. We’re willing to risk it. Because we’re betting that that’s not how this will play out.

We believe that we’re witnessing a fundamental change in the market. That what we see stirring first in Millennials is a bona fide mass awakening, an audience rubbing the sleep out of its collective eyes and mumbling, “but I’m not sure I want to obey my thirst.” Our money says that this early morning mumble turns into a roar well before lunch time. That this is not just a quick hiccup in advertising’s oldest project. That this may in fact be the beginning of the end of that project.

Sure, maybe these two camps don’t line up quite as neatly as we’re saying. And maybe the battle line demarcated here is one that runs down, to paraphrase Solzhenitsyn, the center of every sternum. Fair enough. If we have to hew to a side of our own hearts, we want to pick the sincere side.

And the sincere side of our own hearts tells us to believe in consumers. To hold to the possibility that this generation no longer cares mainly about satisfying their own desires. Or said slightly less idealistically, that maybe they’ve elevated a new desire to compete on equal footing with their other desires: the desire to make the world a little better for everyone.

Where it goes from here is anyone’s guess, but we have a strong suspicion that consumers aren’t going to continue supporting just any brand that pays lip service to doing good. That they will get savvier and more involved, and they will reward the companies doing the best, most sustained good. And they’ll do it even if no one knows they’re helping, even if they don’t get a logo to wear proving they’re involved.

If you’re going to bet against this new desire taking root and becoming more and more important in the American marketing landscape, that’s your prerogative. But there’s something you should know first, and it’s this: the old slope was built on self-indulgence, and it was trending downwards from the day the first ad ran. This new curve, it’s sketchy and erratic right now, granted, but it could well be different. It might very well be that unlike the old desires of American consumerism, the ones that wither under the frustrating inefficacy of their feeding, the ones that slowly deaden with every iteration of their own trivial fulfillment, this new desire gets stronger the more it’s fed. Helping is, in a word, habit forming. Crap, that’s two words. Helping is, in two words, habit forming.

Good, we believe, is here to stay. Not because good looks good. But because good is good. And if this new union between consumerism and corporate, self-interested selflessness proves to be sustainable, the biggest irony will be that it took the same generation that invented the selfie to lead the way.

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