Exploring uncomfortable thoughts to find insights

Should we ban advertising products that harm people? Marc Stoiber says discussing ideas like this can keep the industry fresh.

By Marc Stoiber

Not so long ago, social media was lauded as a game changer. It would forever alter the relationship between consumers and brands.

Not so much.

Social media is an executional tactic.

It has much in common with websites, ambient media, guerrilla media and product placements. When they were new, each of these tactics were hailed as game changers. Why? I believe it’s because communications folk have an insatiable hunger for incremental innovation. That is, stuff-that’s-new-but-not-so-new-it-might-upset-the-apple-cart innovation.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the way social lets you DIY research, asking consumers what they want from your company. If nothing else, it loosens the chokehold research companies have put on agencies for so long.

I also love that you can turn your fans into your media channel via social, empowering them to tell all their friends about your company. I don’t see TV, print or billboard ads going away anytime soon, but isn’t it nice to play the social card when you’re negotiating with TV or newspaper media reps? You may get a better deal, and perhaps even a few freebie hockey tickets to make nice.

My point is, the fundamental bit hasn’t really changed at all: Client goes to agency with product, and tells agency what they want to say about it. Agency takes money, and communicates using all the creativity and tools at its disposal. Insert latest tactic here.

However, very few (if any) agency people ask the client if the world needs this product, if this product will improve the human condition, if there is any real burning belief in the product. That would be the sort of communications innovation that would build massive credibility for our industry, give clients pause and send agency bean-counters into heart palpitations.

That, my friends, would be a game changer for the industry.

“Arrogant bastard,” you’re saying. “What gives you the right to decide what is and isn’t a worthy product?”

Nothing. I’m just one voice. But if my experience connecting dots is anything to heed, big changes often start with uncomfortable thoughts.

So here’s a thought to start us off: products that hurt or kill people shouldn’t be advertised.

I hear the howls of derision rising. Does that include fast food and pharma? Don’t consumers need to take personal responsibility? What if a product helps some, but hurts others? What if a company makes good, and not-so-good, products? How will all the makers of “bad” products survive?

Beats me.

But what if we could put together a few thousand bright minds and pose these questions to them? Then try out a few of their solutions, learn from the experience, and repeat the exercise again and again?

We may never see products that hurt people banned from advertising. But pushing ourselves to think – and pursue – uncomfortable thoughts would certainly keep the business fresh.

Companies like IBM, with its Jam events, are already doing just that. If you aren’t familiar with the concept, IBM invites thousands of people around the world to “jam” on an idea over the course of 48 hours. (I participated in one on sustainable work.) They link together – demonstrating IBM’s power to connect – and come up with, blend and build on ideas. You can sign in over your morning coffee, see an idea that was shaped the night before in a different part of the world, add your two cents, then send the idea off to be bashed about by other folks. Good fun.

When the exercise wraps, IBM has reams of controversial, uncomfortable new ideas, and all of us feel warm and fuzzy about participating.

Sure, it’s just a tactic to get bright, off-the-wall thoughts into the company coffers. The difference is, it’s a way of generating ideas to guide strategy – not simply to create a fun, new type of communications execution. Big change, not stuff-that’s-new-but-not-so-new-it-might-upset-the-apple-cart innovation.

Marc Stoiber is a creative strategist and former CD currently taking six months off in Bali to write a book on future-proofing brands. This column is an edited excerpt from that book.

Above image via Shutterstock