Share our content with your network.
Follow us. linkedinrsslinkedinrssby feather

‘Tis the season for corporate halos

It is perhaps the only time of the year when proclitic words briefly enter the mainstream. When else can one encounter ‘tis, ‘twas, ‘twill and ‘twere in such abundance, especially in the phrase ‘tis the season for giving?

From a corporate perspective, ‘tis also the season for donning halos.

As soon as December turns the corner, many companies try to publicize their image as good corporate citizens. On the bandwagon of charity, they churn out charming stories on their websites and Intranets, in employee magazines; and (when the corporate coffers are brimming) print and television commercials, touting how they are helping the destitute.

Engulfed by such a sappy seasonal clutter in corporate and mass media, one sometimes wonders if the sound of trumpets cannot be discerned – being blown flamboyantly and perhaps a little vaingloriously?

 

The root motive

The motive for, and the process and manner in which charitable work is done, are worth examining. If either is driven by selfishness and a desire for self-aggrandizement, then the spirit of the act is no longer altruistic but exhibitionistic. The fact that money may flow to a needy cause is but a side-effect not the main effect.

True altruism does not require publicity, nor is publicity a reason for it. An organization works in the community because it is the right thing to do and because it is part of their organizational character.

Now, a PR practitioner would argue that communicating the good actions of the company is required to maintain its image in the community. And that would be true. It is indeed important for a business to nurture goodwill in the communities where it operates. It is one of the primary thrusts of public relations – communicating to develop and sustain good relations with an organization’s various publics, of which the community is one.

But building good relations need not always entail a bullhorn.

We are not carping at the community work that companies perform; rather we are curious about the swaggering affectation with which some of them try to extract mileage from it — the patting themselves on the back and labeling themselves good corporate citizens.

And so, in this post, we examine common organizational practices during December and raise some questions for discussion.

 

Humility endears

Most marketing and PR departments consider it the correct and accepted practice to call up radio stations, television crews, bloggers, and social media boosters, to raise a hue and cry about any charitable work they do.

The idea of doing something with no publicity may be revolting and illogical to them. Conditioned by many a bottom-line-fixated corporate culture, they cogitate incredulously: Why do something when there is no return on investment?

Our answer: Because it is the right thing to do. Because you are first and foremost a human being and a member of an interconnected society, before you are a cog in a corporation or a dropdown tertiary line item in the overhead cost statement.

The funny thing about a good deed done with noble intentions without strutting and clamouring for attention, is that it is talked about anyway. It ends up getting publicity which is led by third-parties who appreciate good work for the community.

Even viewed from a staid marketing perspective, earned publicity is far more credible for reputation than paid or owned publicity.

We just learned in the course of a casual conversation that three generations of a family, that owns a major telecommunications provider, volunteer together at a charity every year. Without pomp or ceremony, they serve food to the homeless and those whose fortunes have withered lately. It is not listed on the business’ website. We were told (not by the business, but by someone in the community) that they do this every year and shirk publicity for it. The experience reportedly grounds them and gives them a spiritual contentment that materialism cannot.

Yet here we are, talking about it appreciatively. And maybe one of our readers will share it in their networks.

This is the power of a good deed done with a true heart in a humble unpretentious manner.

 

The benevolent ‘forum’ provider

Many a company organizes drives – donations for food banks, charities, shelters and other social causes – in its offices. They believe they are being gracious enough to provide a forum for their employees to open their wallets. Some match employee donations, others don’t. But the company takes the credit for the aggregate donation. After all, isn’t it usually the senior executives who appear in photos holding the unnaturally-oversized facsimile of the corporate-branded cheque?

Does this not sound a tad unethical – to appropriate credit for the donations of individuals — especially when many companies boast the (cut-and-pasted) value of “integrity”?

Contrary to the doctrine that upholds this corporate Christmas practice, do individuals really require an organization’s umbrella under which alone they can be charitable?

Could they not just as easily go directly to the food bank; or even better offer a food hamper to a homeless person they meet on the streets?

People have lives outside their workplaces. They are perfectly capable of volunteering with and donating to causes close to their heart, without being part of a company. There are nonprofits whose aim is to enable such charitable donations. Why cannot employees go straight to them instead of dealing with the middleman?

Dropping items in a donation bin or money in a fundraising jar is convenient. Some can rest satisfied that they have done their bit for the season.

Performing kindnesses firsthand is not as convenient; but it is far more enriching. Serving soup and food at the local kitchen and seeing the guests savour every last bit of warm victuals on a cold wintry night, or gently winning the trust of a trembling rescue dog enough for him or her (they are beings with gender) to creep closer to you, are far more meaningful on a human level – both to the recipient and the giver.

Companies could find a more meaningful way of being of service to the community than providing donation bins and jars for employees and arranging transportation for such donations to charities under the corporate banner.

 

Divert the ‘bragging’ resources

If a corporation wants to do something good, let that alone be the guiding motivation. Much money, effort and resources are invested in corporate social responsibility (CSR) advertising. Why not divert them to the actual cause? Instead of bragging about what they did, they would actually be doing more for the cause.

Pray forgive the amplified figures, but honestly, where is the logic in spending half a million in advertising a company’s CSR image when it has donated a hundred thousand (of which a significant portion may have come from employees’ personal funds)? Why not donate the 600,000 directly to the cause?

 

The seasonal guilt trip

When examining corporate practices related to Yuletide philanthropy, one cannot help but observe certain habitudes on the other side of the equation – on the part of nonprofits seeking to raise funds.

Few television-watching eyeballs would have missed those advertisements with wretched images – usually of third-world nations. Are we the only ones who find it exploitative on two fronts – first, making a spectacle of someone’s grief and heartache; second, using that to make people feel guilty about their own better fortune and to compensate by donating money?

We are not advocating ignoring the real anguish and need in many parts of the world. It is the melodramatic crafty parading of such portraits that we find distasteful. Could they not use words to convey the dire circumstances? Or if they subscribe to the mildewed phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words”, could they not use drawings, illustrations or images that preserve the self-respect and privacy of people in distress?

(By the way, we don’t always agree with the expression “a picture is worth a thousand words”. For those without sight, words are priceless, and a million pictures are worthless).

Instead of negative images and emotional blackmail, could they not talk of the positive impact that people’s donations would have – as many nonprofits do in their fundraising advertisements? Why not have messages of positivity instead of abject negativity?

Why always portray people as forlorn victims instead of individuals capable of determining their future if given a leg up?

We are not the only ones who hold this viewpoint. Several nonprofit leaders, advertisers, communicators and just decent citizens have voiced the same concern.

Linda Raftree, co-founder of Regarding Humanity observes that advertisements depicting “hopeless people in poverty” are ineffective in solving the actual issues that charities are seeking to address.

In her own astute words: “They don’t empower or create sustainable change”.

Empowerment of beneficiaries is the vital element for creating meaningful and impactful charity advertisements.

Tom Gibson’s well-crafted article on the subject remarks that people have had enough of guilt-trip advertising. He also notes a turnaround  in that “charity advertising is starting to focus on ideas of pride, of love, of growth – all the positive aspects that charitable work can bring.”

Perhaps something for communication professionals in such organizations to consider.

 

The Verafluenti aperçu

Obsession with metrics

Many business scholars have propagated the viewpoint that if something cannot be measured, it does not merit inclusion as a performance indicator of any sort. This opinion has been applied to corporate citizenship as well.

So some companies count the number of hours that their employees have spent in CSR activities. The aggregate figure is announced in the CSR report, annual report, and other collateral.

Our stance is that the quality of service is far more relevant. Counting the number of hours feverishly may serve as a metric of some sort, but it is meaningless in capturing or getting a sense of the spirit and quality of service rendered. Someone may have loitered around at a charity, playing games on the smartphone and chatting on FaceTime. What meaning would the hours spent by such a character have in the context of service?

This is what is termed a measure of implementation  not impact. It tells only what was put out, not whether it had an impact for the cause. And in the aforementioned scenario, the very quality of the implementation is unacceptable.

Why the corporate obsession to convert everything and anything into numbers?

And how do you quantify the unquantifiable?

There are qualities in nature – and hopefully in some humans – that cannot and must not be quantified. Kindness, compassion, love for instance. Would managers tally the number of times the word “love” is said, regardless of whether it is said sarcastically, ironically, deridingly, disinterestedly, or menacingly by vicious sociopaths with silky tongues (for details, one could always pick up a copy of “Snakes in Suits”)?

 

A foundation of social service

So what can an organization do in terms of charity? We have some thoughts.

  • First, let corporate citizenship be a guiding value instead of a nice-to-have. This will have the domino effect of generating a positive effect on society in almost everything that is done. Many companies do this. It would be good for society if more organizations were encompassed by this principle.
  • The greatest value that a profit-making establishment can offer charities is the green life blood that flows through its corporate veins – money. Companies have the option of donating independently without egging on their employees to part with their funds. What individuals do with their money – whether they donate it or not – is their personal matter, not the company management’s. And who is to say that the corporate choice of charity to support is aligned with an individual’s preference?
  • Companies also can invite applications from employees to support charities or causes close to their hearts. After transparent evaluation based on published criteria, management would decide to donate money to some (or all or as many as reasonably possible) of them.

 

Why is it seasonal?

It has perpetually confounded us why December alone is considered the season for giving (the media and pop culture are largely responsible for cementing this in the public psyche). The inference is that the other months are not seasons for giving. Come January, and there is no talk of giving. That must be the season of resolutions (most of which are broken by the succeeding month, by when it is the season for Valentines).

Why does there have to be a season for being kind and compassionate? Human goodness must be for all seasons. Imagine the state of society and the world if this were indeed the norm.

Let compassion and helping not be confined to the Christmas spirit; let it be part of the human spirit; and, in the case of this post, the corporate spirit.

Happy Christmas, Hanukkah Sameach and a good new year to our readers, clients, friends and fellow human beings across the world.

* * *

This post was written by Raaj Chandran, executive director and chief consultant for Verafluenti Communication Inc.

We solicit your feedback to this post. Please use the “Leave a Reply” form at the end of this (or any other post) to make a public comment, in adherence to our blog etiquette. Or if you prefer, you can email us in private at contact@verafluenti.com.

Print-ready versions of several blog posts are available in our store for a small fee.

Share our content with your network.
Follow us. linkedinrsslinkedinrssby feather
Share our content with your network.
Follow us. linkedinrsslinkedinrssby feather

“100 Ideas That Changed Advertising”

100_advertising_cover_3d_1[1]

Advertising is always of interest to any PR or communication management practitioner. The discipline allows for immense creativity which has manifested itself in several memorable advertisements over the decades. The creative allure apart, from a PR or communication management perspective, there has always been some overlap with advertising and marketing.

This is little wonder as PR is often referred to as the boundary spanning function, meaning it has to maintain contact, work closely and align its efforts with several other business departments including marketing, people and legal counsel.

PR and advertising campaigns involve similar elements of creativity, graphic design, visual appeal, and a call-to-action, the main difference being that PR aims to build relations and not just make a sale. Both tend to be persuasive in nature, but with different goals. The good relations and goodwill that PR is capable of building can often create a conducive environment for a commercial transaction to take place. But sales are not the main thrust of PR. For more background, please read our post titled “PR, marketing, advertising: Making sense of the confusing mélange”.

This interest is what led us to “100 Ideas That Changed Advertising” by Simon Veksner, Creative Director at DDB Sydney, published in 2015 by Lawrence King, London.

It lists, in chronological sequence, the development of commercials through the ages:

  • The humble poster used by ancient Egyptians and found on walls in the volcanic-ash-preserved ruins of Pompeii; and which continue to this day. In fact in many parts of India, entire walls are sprayed with campaign propaganda during election season.
  • William Caxton printing one of the first leaflets in 1477 offering “Pyes of Salisbury … to any man spiritual or temporal to buy”. The “pyes” referred to clerical rules rather than savoury pastries. Leaflets, handbills or flyers endure due to their directness and immediacy.
  • The Boston News-Letter in 1704 being the first newspaper to carry advertising – the first ad offered a reward for the capture of a thief!
  • James Gordon Bennett’s (publisher of the New York Herald from 1835 to 1867) innovation to change ads every day just like the news, prior to which companies often ran the same ad for a year.
  • The 1842 opening of the first American ad agency Volney B. Palmer in Philadelphia.
  • The founding of the first full service agencies by James White in London in 1800; with N. W. Ayer & Son being the first in the United States in 1869.
  • Catalogues which can be traced back to 1498 when publisher Aldus Manutius released a catalogue of books for sale in Venice.
  • Topical ads that relate to a current event or time of the year. One of the longest-running topical ad campaigns is the association of Coke with Christmas. Starting in 1931, magazine ads for Coca-Cola appeared at Christmastime, featuring Santa as a kind, jolly, rotund man in a red suit drinking a Coke. Before this, there had been no set depiction of St. Nick – he was sometimes tall, thin or elf-life. Today when people think of Santa, they think of the image created for him in Coca-Cola’s advertising.
  • Product placement, which began with paid mention for products in 19th century novels, the Lever Brothers placing their soap products in some of the earliest movies in the 1890s, its growing popularity in the 1980s, such as Ray Ban sunglasses featured in Tom Cruise’s Top Gun (1986), which generated a 40 per cent increase in sales.
  • The growth of slogans, called endlines or straplines in the UK, or taglines in the United States. The earliest advertising slogan may have been for Ivory soap in 1879: “99 and 4/100% pure”. It is revealing to learn that McDonald’s “I’m lovin’ it” slogan, was in fact created by a German ad agency, Heye & Partner, as “ich liebe es”.
  • Cinema advertising starting as early as 1897. The first known cinema ad featured men in kilts dancing in front of a banner advertising Dewar’s Scotch whisky. Advertisers soon got leading directors to produce visceral atmospheric ads such as Michael Mann helming Lucky Star, the 2002 slick cinema ad for Mercedes, that also innovated by screening during the movie trailer sequence and not the ads.
  • Creative and memorable copy, some of which was written by people who later achieved fame, such as the slogan for a TV ad for cream cakes: “Naughty. But nice.” which was written by Salman Rushdie.
  • The rise of stock photography as an industry in its own right, from Robertstock, founded in 1920, to the now-merged Corbis and Getty Images, which between them have 180 million images, 500,000 video clips, and 50,000 hours of film footage.
  • The infamous and misguided 1921 prediction by a group of investors: “The wireless body has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to no one in particular?” And yet, today, 95 per cent of the world’s population listens to the radio.
  • The first radio advertisement broadcast in 1921 by WEAF in New York – a ten-minute talk for a real-estate firm, for which the station charged $50.
  • The birth of jingles in the 1920s during the early years of commercial radio. They used simple repetitive nursery-rhyme-like messages that not only communicated a product’s name and message, but also stuck in people’s heads. When they became clichéd, agencies turned to pop music in the 1980s such as Pepsi’s use of Michael Jackson, Nike’s licensing of The Beatles’ song “Revolution” in 1987, Microsoft’s licensing of the Rolling Stones “Start Me Up”, Chevrolet’s use of Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock”. Today brands like Intel, Audi and Philips (or an old favourite, Nokia) are using “sonic brand triggers” to bookend their communication.
  • The airing of the first TV commercial in the United States on July 1, 1941, during a baseball game, for Bulova watches (“America runs on Bulova time”), which cost $9. Compare this with Superbowl ads which in 2012 cost $3.5 million apiece.
  • The special event ads produced for Superbowl in the United States and the X-Factor finals in the UK to avail of their unnaturally high viewership. The trend-setter for event ads was the legendary Apple “1984” commercial directed by Ridley Scott.
  • The development for advertising of creative effects later used in mainstream cinema. E.g. Michel Gondry’s “bullet time” effect for a 1998 Smirnoff commercial was used in The Matrix.
  • The ad industry’s Creative Revolution of the 1960s, highlighted by DDB founder Bill Bernbach’s essay titled “Manifesto for the Creative Revolution” urging that “good taste, good art, and good writing can be good selling”. DDB’s ads used humour, honesty, wit and a daringly self-deprecating tone as in the Avis campaign: “Avis is only No. 2 … so we try harder”.
  • The political attack ad, which rose to prominence in the 1960s and have continued to become a staple and controversial tool of modern political campaigning. The most famous of these, the “Daisy Girl”, was produced for Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 campaigning.
  • The increase in ads people are exposed to from 500 a day in the 1970s to 5000 a day today, the resultant fatigue and marketers’ efforts to stand out by being more creative or outrageous. E.g. Red Bull spending $30 million to fund Felix Baumgartner’s jump from the edge of space, which was watched live by 8 million viewers on YouTube.
  • Ghost ads made for awards not clients. The most notorious example concerns a Kia campaign by Moma Propaganda of São Paulo, Brazil, which won two 2011 Cannes Lions. The ads had never run and were created by the agency without the client’s knowledge.
  • Online advertising overtaking print advertising in 2012, with an estimated annual U.S. revenue of $39.5 billion.
  • Interactive advertising, which allows audiences to control the commercial in some way. Examples include the 2001 interactive “Subservient Chicken” ad by Crispin, Porter + Bogusky for Burger King; and Lynx’s use of augmented reality to let consumers “interact with angels” in London’s Victoria Station.

 

Pertinent remarks

The book makes some poignant observations:

  • As a service industry to business, advertising has changed in response to changes in the business vista – globalization, increasing technological sophistication and professionalization among the influential trends.
  • Advertising reflects society. It usually does not change it (although we would beg to differ in the influence that advertising can wield on expected social norms). This is why social historians find old ads so interesting. As an example, the wave of liberation of the 1960s was reflected in advertising as it opened up to every race, class and gender.
  • For the most part, advertising is a mass-market exercise in terms of exposure. Although marketers try to isolate media and vehicles frequented by their target market, they cannot prevent the possibility of exposure to people outside this primary target group. So commercials have to appeal to a mass audience. For this reason, advertising cannot run too far ahead of the popular taste: “It is an enthusiastic co-opter rather than initiator of artistic styles.” While art movements like surrealism have deeply influenced the industry, advertising has not of its own influenced art.

 

The Verafluenti aperçu

By the author’s own admission, the book is American and British centric, arguing that while advertising exists in other parts of the world, the epicenter is still New York.

We would observe that, while the headquarters of most major advertising companies may be in New York or London, advertising itself has no nationality. Advertising may have achieved world prominence from its American and European strongholds. But surely it cannot be forgotten that advertising is a marketing tool. Marketing is a business discipline with the purpose of selling a product or service for an exchange of value. Such a transaction is the basis of commerce, which has happened everywhere humans have existed. Therefore we may safely surmise that advertising in some shape or form has existed in all societies.

As a general thought (unrelated to this book), to assume that advertising, PR and communication management all originated in the 240-year-old (as of this writing) United States, and were non-existent in 5000-year-old cultures is erroneous and myopic.

 

Invasiveness

Advertising is also becoming increasingly invasive, such as the unwelcome ads placed – repeatedly — in the middle of YouTube videos. Watching Katy Perry’s perfume ad in the middle of a Buddhist discourse can be both jarring and incongruous.

When considering Internet content, one cannot but help wonder how many gigabytes are taken up by advertising versus actual programming.

In most media, viewers have no choice but to sit through commercials. Of course one can skip channels or hit the mute button – but that does little to recapture the time spent (wasted, some would say) on commercials. According to TV Week, a one-hour segment on broadcast television had about 14:30 minutes of commercials, with the figure even higher for cable channels.

YouTube allows viewers to skip most ads after five seconds, but non-skippable in-stream ads force viewers to endure the whole ad (ironically, these ads have higher recorded abandonment rates).

The wealthy have the option of paying more for commercial-free premium channels.

All this comes across a bit like a hostage and ransom situation.

 

Plummeting quality

Compared to the 1980s and 1990s, at least in North America, the overall quality of advertisements seems to have dropped, to the point of treating audiences like morons who have to be spoonfed the buying decision.

There are still awe-inspiring commercials, but in our humble opinion, the proportion of poor commercials far outweighs the good ones.

For every British Airways campaign — from the 1989 epic Face ad to its more recent emotive short-filmesque Fuelled by Love — there is HTC’s Hold the Crown rap video farce, PS3’s creepy Baby commercial, Dodd’s Furniture’s pathetic take on Star Trek with its poor graphics and even worse make-up, Quiznos’ grating Spongemonkeys fiasco, and Canada’s very own Oliver Jewellery disaster.

 

Recall and reject

This also highlights the process where an ad is so bad that it is memorable enough for the audience to associate the ad with the brand; but leads to the audience actively rejecting purchase of that brand out of disgust and irritation. 

The Ohio Ricart car dealership ads from the mid 1990s are still rancid in memory as are the more recent TV commercials for Advertising Standards Canada (ASC) Truth in Advertising, and Dollarsdirect.ca.

 

Manipulating societal norms

The stereotypes of men and women in commercials are also cause for concern. If ads are to be believed, then all men are Neanderthals who constantly barbecue, swim in tankards of beer, eat unhealthy food, watch video games and sports, and have low IQs; while women are obsessed with furniture, perfumes, chocolates, clothes and shoes and constantly act selfishly expecting to (and, in the ads, usually do) get away with devilish acts wearing the most angelic smiles.

Advertisers may argue this is just creative license. But this could also be viewed under the microscope of agenda-setting theory at which point such depictions may have the power to influence how people expect they should behave, and soon such behaviour becomes the accepted cultural norms.

In fact, today companies like McDonald’s, Unliver and Volkswagen are reportedly using neuromarketing – originally developed for medical purposes – to scan consumers’ brains to see what they are feeling and thinking when viewing ads. Marketers use this information to refine advertising messages to best affect consumers to behave in their desired way. This veers into the dangerous territory of manipulation.

One cannot help wonder whether the right use (from a human viewpoint) for such brain imaging technology is to enable advertising – with its object of selling.

 

The hard questions

A harder examination – an uncomfortable one for such a cash cow – is whether the goal of advertising itself is beneficial for humanity, and whether this has changed for the better or the worse with time. Does advertising have volition of its own, independent of manufacturers of products, services and positions? Advertising can be creative and strategic, but can it do so outside the confines of sales targets and marketing dictates?

Can it be truly ethical — in its choice of clients, companies and products it represents; in walking the fine line between entertainment and distortion of product features and benefits?

Merely some thoughts and questions that effervesced after reading this very interesting and visually well-laid out book.

* * * 

This post was written by Raaj Chandran, executive director and chief consultant for Verafluenti Communication Inc.

We solicit your feedback to this post. Please use the “Leave a Reply” form at the end of this (or any other post) to make a public comment, in adherence to our blog etiquette. Or if you prefer, you can email us in private at contact@verafluenti.com.

Print-ready versions of several blog posts are available in our store for a small fee.

 


Share our content with your network.
Follow us. linkedinrsslinkedinrssby feather