Christmas advertising, and the death of sincerity

It’s Christmas. I should be feeling charitable. But “Coca Cola – Top of the Christmas wish list.” Really? Who approved that Christmas advertising campaign? Do they really, really believe people are wishing for a Coke for Christmas? And no, don’t pontificate about hapless folks who are so poverty-stricken they actually are wishing for a Coke. This ad isn’t meant for them.

Do we really want to be wishing for a Coke for Christmas? Really?

There’s been enough talk surrounding the death of the ad game. When I see Christmas advertising messages like this, shilling with the sincerity and charm of a televangelist, I say bring on the end. Because surely, there has to be something better to replace it.

But why the shock? Advertising has always been superficial.

My reaction has less to do with the status quo of bad advertising, and more to do with our evolution. Which brings me to the merry bit.

Speak for yourself

First off, in the spirit of Christmas, I’m thankful for the democratization and demonetization of the selling game. Because of technology, things like design, film production, media buying and product placement have been wrested from ad agencies and given to product creators and entrepreneurs. In other words, instead of someone speaking for your product, you now have the power to speak for yourself.

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No, this hasn’t made ads better. But even the bad ones get more of a sympathetic nod. Hey look, the guy who made the widget is selling it. Man, he’s terrible. But hats off for trying, buddy.

At its best, though, the democratization of marketing allows the entrepreneur’s real, authentic spirit to shine through. Yes, I can feel sincerity through my computer youtube window. And I know the gent from the Dollar Shave Club actually does believe his blades are f**king great.

Did I mention the democratization of data? If the entrepreneur’s spirit is, well, not the sort of spirit people warm up to, there are approximately a million points at which to collect and analyze data about the selling message. Easy to collect and analyze means easy to troubleshoot and fix.

The upside of speaking for yourself is, of course, that all of us consumers are wired to hear personal stories. I want to know the person who invented that mop, rototiller, or wedgie-free underwear. And I want to hear about his or her trials and tribulations. It brings us closer together and lets me in on the impact that person hopes to make on the world. A spiritual, or human, benefit, not just a monetary one. Even though a lack of wedgies is great on its own.

Courage in advertising

I grew up in an advertising world dominated by big brands. It was a world devoid of brand courage.

Instead of taking risks, the big brands would defer their opinions to endless rounds of consumer research, trying to be all things to all people. Their ads ended up looking like the Coke billboard we started this conversation with. Well-produced, shiny milquetoast.

I believe ad agencies, famous for berating clients about not having the cojones to take risks, are similarly risk-averse. True, they have ventured into new media to promote products. Some of them have dabbled as incubators for business ideas. But relatively few of them have made big, risky jumps, like successfully launching their own products. Especially not cereal that makes you poop. Hats off, Spring Advertising.

Not surprisingly, the risk-averse gravy train couldn’t last forever. Today, companies are shedding jobs like dogs shed hair in the spring. Risk-averse marketers are finding their risk-averse butts out on the street. The world is filling with accidental entrepreneurs. Which brings me to my final point.

Innovation at the grown-up’s table

I want to say thank you this Christmas for all the incubators, accelerators, and other idea-developers that have sprung up like mushrooms across our continent, helping newly minted entrepreneurs find their voice and grow their business courage.

I was fortunate enough to get mixed up with a terrific group at Viatec. I’ve never met a more enthusiastic, positive, supportive bunch. About as far from the cynical world of advertising as one could imagine.

I’m constantly reminded of Steve Jobs’ words to Pepsi executive John Sculley as he was trying to lure him to Apple: “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?”

Innovation has replaced marketing at the grown-up’s table. Or perhaps more accurately, marketing amazing ideas you create has replaced ‘agency for hire’ communication. Creating truly great things that change the world. That has a nice ring to it. Add it to my list of New Year’s resolutions.

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