Advertising Creating Positive Social Change

Advertising often gets a bad rap. It promotes over consumption, It promotes negative stereotypes. It makes us dumber. And while there’s some truth in all of this, there’s an argument to be made that advertising, in all its many forms, has also worked for the betterment of humanity. Advertising over the last two decades has created an environment where inclusive portrayals of society have actually benefited our culture, not only a company’s bottom line. 

Early in the history of advertising, the message was almost exclusively on the product. Features, benefits, and promises defined the messaging – get whiter teeth, have a greener lawn in half the time, etc. Those messages are still there, but there’s been a shift. As the battle for consumer dollars and attention have intensified, advertising has become more focused on brand. Michael Phelps pushes us to be not just a better athlete but a better human being.  Google shows us how inspirational we are through our communal search. Features and benefits don’t even factor in, as the message hones in on what it means to be caught up in this mortal coil.

Companies have shifted from delivering monologues to engaging in conversations and this dynamic has made brands more human in the process. Take Always’ #LikeAGirl campaign. Never referencing feminine hygiene, Always focuses purely on the issue of female empowerment, using the ad to begin “an epic battle” for young girls everywhere by “showing them that doing it #LikeAGirl is an awesome thing.” But Always goes beyond what a brand says about you; it’s about identifying shared goals and contributing to a higher purpose – for everyone. You care about empowering girls? Great! You can tweet the “amazing things you do” with #LikeAGirl, and “stand up for girls” confidence at Always.com. Now it’s a conversation, and that’s exactly what Always, and the other companies joining in this form of values-based advertising, are looking for. Very few people care about tampons, but equality and female empowerment? Now that’s topic people get excited about. And this isn’t just about the target audience. It’s about grandmothers, dads, everyone. It help drive a conversation that has resulted in helping break down gender-biases and shifting cultural perceptions.

Cheerios is another great example. The brand didn’t realize what it was getting itself into when it  first featured an interracial family to promote the heart-healthy cereal during the summer of 2013. A topic we take largely for granted now sparked a great deal of discussion then. The racist backlash to the ad was so intense that Cheerios disabled the comments section on their YouTube channel. And this offered the public a glimpse into the prejudice mixed race families have to contend with, sparking a national conversation. Cheerios also saw an outpouring of support from consumers applauding the commercial, and a passionate defense against the backlash with people standing up for interracial families everywhere. What began as a simple cereal commercial ended up leading to a national discussion on race relations.

When advertising focuses on empowering people and accepting groups that are less accepted, it doesn’t just reflect culture, it shapes it. When brands paint a different picture of society, they play a role in redefining what is considered mainstream. They play a role is redefining our collective worldview and thus reshape culture. This isn’t to over-inflate the role of advertising in cultural evolution. Advertising will never act as the central agent of change. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t an important part of the process. We consume massive amounts of advertising every day. When this content promotes an inclusive picture of society and positive cultural change, it can work as an accelerator for social progress. It’s value is not in starting the fire, but in fanning the flames.

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AI Marketing: Can the Matrix Buy Milk?

AI is the continued topic of discussion in 2017 and will no doubt remain so for the foreseeable future.220px-HAL9000.svg.png Enabling machines to learn, make decisions, and adapt to circumstances without input from people (rather than simply obeying pre-programmed instructions) is the reality of the post-modern world. And while it presents tremendous advantages to society and businesses, there are just as many disadvantages. Being a product of a certain generation, I can’t help but conjure up memories of Terminator and The Matrix with self-aware, self-programming machines running amok.

But there are probably more people who subscribe to the more optimistic view that applying a more restrictive, less autonomous form of machine learning to the wealth of data could help identify correlations and patterns that were impossible for humans to see before. And the potential advantages are limitless – new ways of treating illness, quicker response times for emergency services, etc. From a business standpoint, offers will become more personalized, more relevant, and potentially involve less direct interaction (imagine your home being able to order groceries based on what it has learned about your tastes, habits, or medical needs). Imagine HAL 2000 with a heart of gold.

That said, there was quite a stir last year about customer service chatbots last year, but most of these were actually very limited, merely guessing the most likely answer to fit the question. Impressive to a point, but hardly the breakthrough we’ve all come to expect from SiFi. Real AI, underpinned by natural language processing, neural networks and machine learning, will understand how humans think, talk, and categorize concepts, making it smarter and easier to interact with. It’s simply a matter of time and processing power. And the more we use it, to depend on it, the better it will become. So we will no doubt see a proliferation AI buddies in the year to come, such as Alexa, Google Assistant, Cortana, etc. .

With AI, we have the opportunity to build decision-support systems that see, hear, understand and collaborate with us to help make decisions faster, more relevant and better informed. Which brings up an interesting idea: to whom do we market? Human beings are the obvious, unchanging element in the process, but are we on the verge of having to think about how to market to the machine? And if so, what does that look like?

If AI has the potential to act without our involvement and on our behalf, then we need to be ready to “sell” to the machine. And if AI can learn to make judgements about our personalities and those things to which we have an emotional or culturally grounded response, then our virtual assistants will be targets for marketing. For example, milk is more than a commodity. My assistant will be able to discern that I have a taste preference for glass-bottled, clover-fed milk. But it will also know that consumption aligns with my workout schedule, that I need to reduce my fat intake due to my age, and that I have a dinner party coming up where milk is likely to be used in cooking. It will have to weigh all of these variables, just like I would, and make decisions about what to buy. And that’s just milk. Now apply that to a car, a medication, or a vacation. The implication is that we will need to consider the possibility of marketing to a device that is weighing the same sorts of variables a human being would way, but which has a very different way of conceptualizing, categorizing, and responding to the world. Welcome to the brave new world of marketing to machines.

 

Musing on Reactive Art

What your consumer remembers, talks about, and ultimately acts upon is defined by the experience they’ve had with your brand. barrymcgee.jpgKnowing this, the industry is always angling for something new to catch the eye of the potential fan, and if all goes well, leaving a lasting impression that also drives them to take an action (sharing, buying, etc.). However, with the level of mass media and technology at our fingertips coupled with the explosive growth of information today, our consumers are experiencing sensory overload. Knowing this phenomenon is not going away anytime soon, how do you and I overcome it?

There is no silver bullet other than always be cognizant of what your message is and how it’s delivered. And that is, obviously, what we are paid to help a brand figure out. But one approach that streamlines the process is generative design and creative coding.

Generative art refers to any art PRACTICE where the artist creates a process with is then set in motion with a degree of autonomy resulting in a completed work of art. Imagine, for instance, entering a hotel lobby and seeing a large piece of art being projected on a wall. You notice, as people pass by, the colors and shapes shift places. Upon closer inspection, you notice that the artwork is made up of tiny historical images of the hotel that create their own piece of artwork from further away. Only a foot from the artwork you notice its aesthetic responding to your motion. You wave your hands and the colors pulsate. You brush your hands across the projected artwork and it breaks apart only to come back together creating a new piece of artwork that responds to information about you stored in the hotel’s database. You tap one of the images and all the images break apart again, reforming to create information tailored to your visit.

That is generative design. Using creative coding, defining a set of rules and providing input devices, you’ve managed to produce a marketing ecosystem that is entertaining, responsive, and adaptable. More importantly, you’ve created something people want to view, touch and interact with.

Smoke Signals: Information in an Age of Selective Bias

In the quest to connect every citizen of earth and expand the ideal of the Renaissance Man that we’ve held so dear since time immemorial, (which was allegedly sometime in the 1500’s) we’ve instead reverted to a tribal method of information consumption that shrinks our individual perspective and is creating a fragmented and myopic population.

Think of information consumption as a parallel to food consumption. On an individual level, we crave sugars, salt and fats. For most of human history, these were difficult to obtain, so when these are available our instinct is to gorge. Now, while all three are difficult to avoid, we still have an urge to consume as much as we can, leading to obesity.

On a macro scale, we learn to love certain foods. We typically are conditioned to prefer local or regional cuisine and ingredients. It’s why everyone thinks their mom has the best pot roast or the best spaghetti. It’s also why if you’re a Texan in China and see BBQ on the menu, you’ll linger over the menu even if you know it won’t be the same.  The behavior that informs media consumption is remarkably similar to these same concepts, now more than ever.

Why? Choice and availability. Instead of allowing media and information to broaden our perspective we are instead picking our  sources for information a la’ cart that already conform to our worldview. Think Fox News pundits for conservatives or Air America for those left of center. One can also compare media sites in America to sites based in the U.K. (BBC) or Saudi Arabia (Al Jazeera) to see how the culture reflects in the presentation of news. An individual’s worldview can be described as the fundamental cognitive orientation of an individual that includes normative postulates, philosophy, values, emotions and ethics. It is the framework through which an individual interprets and interacts with the world.

How does one develop their worldview? As with your palate, familial, social and cultural factors play a large role in shaping a worldview during development. As one gets older, the sphere of influence expands from family to family friends to peer groups and trusted informants.The twist is, with greater interconnectivity and communication than ever before, it appears that worldviews are shrinking. The amount of information an average American ingests daily has increased exponentially, while the range of information has decreased; evolving us into us into an arguably more myopic nation than we were 10 years ago.

Considering the fragmentation of media sources, it shouldn’t be surprising that news and information consumption is looking more like a landscape of competing tribes than a multi-channeled entity. Social media, the internet and smart phones allow us to talk to anyone at any time. They’ve also given every consenting subscriber a platform to publish or share ideas. If we’re not turning into our favorite news channel or reading our segment or demographically oriented magazine, we’re reading opinions and “journalism” from blog websites or social media figures we trust.

Why do we trust them? Is it because they’re operating as transparent entities? Do they have a track-record for accuracy? More often than not it’s because they tell us what we want to hear, or at least in language we understand. It’s the concept of subculture as applied to media. We trust and give attention to outlets or channels that conform to us.

So what? How do businesses and media outlets evolve to succeed in this rapid paradigm shift? Do we as capitalists find ways to exploit this for monetary gain, even if that means our culture is dumbed down to the lowest common denominator? Do we redact our fragmented news landscape to put action behind the words of praise we offer to the Renaissance Man ideal? In reality, the only way to do that would be censorship. Perhaps the real question is, “How do we monetize the new paradigm without compromising our culture?”