Increasingly, global advertising agencies are beginning to capitalize on growing revolutionary sentiments within society. Their manipulation is bound to fail.
I was recently contacted for an interview by Scott Goodson, founder and CEO of the successful marketing company Strawberry Frog. Scott is the widely published author of articles on marketing in leading publications like Forbes, the Harvard Business Review and the Huffington Post. He runs a blog on “cultural movements” and is currently writing a book on the same subject.
His company calls itself “the world’s first Cultural Movement agency,” having “proven many times over that if you can uncover a powerful idea on the rise in culture, then join, fuel, and add real, tangible value to that culture through innovative marketing and social media, you can create a sustainable movement on behalf of your brand that consumers want to belong to.”
I initially did not have time to screen Scott and so I agreed to an interview with him. When I finally did a background check, read some of his articles, checked out his Facebook Page (with the Orwellian title ‘Uprising‘) and saw some of his advertising campaigns, I wrote the following message back to him, which I thought would be of interest to the readers of this blog as well.
So I did some background research on you and your organization, and while I found that you are clearly a very successful man, and you probably made your career choices with the best of intentions, I’m afraid that our approaches to social movements differ wildly — to the point where I actually feel deeply uncomfortable lending assistance to your project. Having taken a look at your FB page, I’m afraid we’re simply speaking different languages when it comes to “uprisings” and “movements”.
This is nothing personal, but I have to be fiercely critical of your work in this respect: our movement cannot be commercialized, commodified or co-opted by those who wish to reduce and flatten it into some superficial advertising campaign. I read about “purpose-inspired approaches to branding” in one of your articles. But if branding is about profit, then what is purpose reduced to? What is inspiration reduced to? What are the underlying ideals reduced to? To salable goods? Is that really the type of society we want to live in? Taking the best out of humanity and trying to make money out of it? Money for what? More of the same? That’s not a movement, that’s stagnation wrapped in the thinly veiled illusion of change.
If the underlying premise, as you put it in that Proctor & Gamble article, is that successful brands combine big ideas with digital media to create “movements” behind their products, then what is the raison d’être of these movements? Aren’t you just turning them into empty signifiers, deprived of meaning, mindlessly serving the quasi-mechanical purpose of enhancing the profitability of this or that company? I’m very sorry to break the news, Scott, but a genuine movement is not a marketing opportunity — it is precisely the type of paradigmatic shift that moves beyond the conceptualization of all human action as a market transaction; it is precisely the reclamation of our common humanity in the face of widespread alienation and reification within this horribly misguided consumerist society of ours.
What you are talking about is “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses,” (these are not my words, they’re Bernays‘, with whom you are surely familiar, given your own extremely clever marketing strategies). When you write about “targeting the youngsters — who let’s not forget will be the buyers of tomorrow”, you are engaging in conscious and intelligent manipulation, pure and simple. In fact, you are seducing our only hope for a better future — a socially-conscious youth capable of moving beyond the consumerist/materialist dogma that sustains our profoundly unjust and unsustainable world order — to give up their still-developing ideals in exchange for artificial, short-lived gratification through entirely unnecessary material accumulation. Is that your definition of an “uprising”? Or is that just tapping into an immature zeitgeist for personal profit?
In fact, your approach to young people is profoundly dehumanizing. When you talk about “targeting the youngsters,” you are essentially referring to them as objects, “consumers”, statistics on the cold and lifeless balance sheet of some anonymous firm. It deeply worries me to see an undoubtedly smart and affable person like yourself literally exploring ways to manipulate the malleable consciousness of these young and insecure human beings in the hope that they may spend their money on the ridiculous products that you and your colleagues keep peddling and pushing onto them. I’m sure you guys can’t be serious when you say that “it hasn’t been possible to truly appreciate the amazing journey of a young child growing inside a mother’s belly”, until the iPad and the Pampers Baby Pregnancy Calender came along. That’s just sick. As if people never fully appreciated new life before P&G and Apple arrived to deliver us from the grave and unbearable toil of the Great Unknown.
I am worried that these type of campaigns undermine the healthy psychological development of individuals and the cultural richness of our communities. I’m also worried about the fact that the type of manipulative, Bernayesque behavior that has come to dominate our society very closely mirrors the psychological definition of psychopathy:
… a mental disorder characterized primarily by a lack of empathy and remorse, egocentricity, and deceptiveness. Psychopaths are highly prone to antisocial behavior and abusive treatment of others, but often manage to pass themselves off as normal people … Psychopaths can have a superficial charm about them, enabled by a willingness to say anything to anyone without concern for accuracy or truth … What is missing, in other words, are the very qualities that allow a human being to live in social harmony.
So I apologize, but I have to cancel my previous agreement to an interview. Instead, you might want to ponder what I wrote above, which is really all I have to say on this subject. Or inform yourself about the backlash to Levi’s Go Forth campaign and the fate that probably awaits your firm if you persist in your futile attempts to colonize the territories of the real youth movements of today (rather than the artificial ones you claim to “invent” for marketing purposes). By the way, Anna Hazare or the Chilean students didn’t need anyone to “invent” a movement for their purpose — they just saw something was profoundly wrong, so they took action. Would you and your colleagues be willing to slowly starve yourselves to death for profit? You see, that’s the difference Scott.
It’s quite fascinating, by the way, to see that your FB page was founded on May 16, the day after the 15-M movement was born in Spain. Unwittingly, you created the perfect real-world laboratory for students of revolution: I see you have a little over 300 followers now — not bad for a start-up project, congratulations! But did you ever wonder how the Spanish Revolution FB page managed to get 180,000+ followers in the same amount of time? Or how Democracia Real YA got over 400,000? In just three and half months! Non-profit, entirely run by volunteers, for a real and genuine uprising. No marketing bullshit, no PR textbooks, no good-looking bearded dudes running around the forest wearing fancy trail shoes, no quasi-intellectual, jet-setting, thick-rimmed-glasses-wearing CEOs writing books with catchy titles — just real people caring about their world. You can’t manufacture that. Indignation grows organically.
Either way, whether this critical perspective interests you or not, I wish you the best of luck with your book and future projects. You’re extremely good at what you’re doing, and if it feels right for you, I strongly urge you to continue. But if you ever fancy giving some substance to your empty usage of laden terms like “movement”, “uprising” and “revolution”, I think there’s one thing you can learn from the 15-M movement in Spain, which was also the major inspiration for my own blog: stop chasing this fictitious money of yours and start worrying about the real shit that’s going down in this world. The world belongs not to those who manipulate the present, but to those who anticipate the future.
With love and respect,