This past summer I sent my 16 year old son Luke on a “teen tour”. On the second to the last day, he called (we were to meet the next day in LA) to tell me that he had gotten a tattoo. I knew he was trying to play a practical joke. He insisted he was not. So, as any supportive parent would, I played along.
Doing his best Daniel Day-Lewis, Luke was "freaking out" and was "pretty sure it was infected". He sent a picture (clearly a hena, clearly not infected), and insisted that the pain from the infection was getting worse. He and his friend even got his mother in on it. Parents are double agents. I don’t know why kids don’t know this. She of course turned on them. So I decided to "see" his prank and "raise" him.
A few hours later, I texted him to say that I had set up doctors and tattoo removal appointments in LA (4 sessions, over the upcoming week of our vacation) and I told him it would cost about 1,000 dollars, that he was paying and he most likely would have to sell his golf clubs to cover the cost. He looooves his clubs…apparently a lot more than a good practical joke. My phone rang immediately and I think he was saying “there’s no tattoo! there’s no tattoo!! Please don’t sell my clubs!”. I said “ok”, but, wanting to make sure he really learned his lesson (although at this point the lesson had become “Dad is enjoying a little payback for you being an obnoxious 15 year old”), I said we still had a problem since it was now too late to call the NY attorney I had hired to sue the teen tour. (I am Jewish and I do know how to stay in character). I also told him he may be ushered out, most likely in the next hour. His panic over the clubs now shifted to one over the embarrassment of bringing down the entire teen tour operation. In front of 50 other teenagers. Including girls.
I waited for a moment of silence and I said “Luke, never, ever bullshit a bullshitter”.
“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share ” wrote Princeton professor of emeritus, Harry G. Frankfurt in his book “On Bullshit” (It’s short, worth a read and would make a great addition to any guest bathroom, ba dum bum)
I am in advertising, and along with religion, politics and, recently, business (see: financial crisis), we create the lion’s share of the bullshit layer (taurus fecalsphere) that surrounds our earth.
Bullshitting has been our industry’s bread and butter for a looong time.
Just watch the the first 30 seconds of this (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AtK_YsVInw8)
Sound familiar? Good bullshitting requires imagination and creativity. So, it’s no surprise that ”we”, the agencies, clients and brands, are very, very good at it. (note: not ALL advertising is bullshit-in fact most of your favorite ads are probably not.)
Frankfurt’s points out that “Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.” We bullshit because we need to let others know that we know what we are talking about. (another note: lying is not bullshitting. Lying is a deliberate attempt to mislead while bullshitting is a deliberate attempt to come off as knowing what one is talking about.).
It would then follow that, the less we know, the more we bullshit.
Right now, there’s more we don’t know than ever before, especially when it comes to media, digital, mobile, social. Which means we are bullshitting at incredibly high levels.
We are desperate to get back to proving to our clients that what we do works. Clients like proof. Enter the “media guru”. Behold! the infographics.
A recent story on Forbes.com is just one of many that highlights the death of the expert. (http://www.forbes.com/sites/dorieclark/2012/11/11/the-end-of-the-expert-why-no-one-in-marketing-knows-what-theyre-doing/?utm_campaign=techtwittersf&utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social)
This is where it’s getting interesting..
While we try to bullshit at historic levels, there is an inverse relationship between the amount of bullshit and the bullshitters ability to get away with it.
Thanks to Google, thanks to Twitter, thanks to Facebook, there’s no hiding anymore.
When Frankfurt wrote that ”Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it.” I don’t think even he realized the power of the interwebs.
We have all witnessed this happening.
Bullshitting is trending down.
No more faking it, no more lying.
This is awesome for consumers (aka people) but a nightmare for brands and agencies full of people who have been trained to bullshit.
Now, hardcore honesty works. Vulnerability is good. Faults are gold.
The idea that a brand is perfect, sacred and always right is a very bad idea.
Truth is the future.
Or for those of who who speak “business”, truth creates value.
So as bullshitting trends down, and truth trends up, here are some things brands might want to keep in mind. There’s nothing earth shattering here. We learned most of this as kids, before the bullshitting chromosome kicked in.
Treat people the way you want to be treated. There’s a lot of discussion around brands being like people. I’m not sure how I feel about that analogy. However, brands are made up of people and vision and heart. They do shift and change and hopefully grow. So it’s helpful in this discussion.
“Never bullshit a bullshitter” is only part of the expression I shared with Luke. The whole expression is “Never bullshit a bullshitter because the bullshitter will bullshit you right back”. We all know that never before have people had such means to let you know that they know what you are doing, or not doing, and how they feel about it. What used to be a letter or a phone call dismissed by brands and agencies as coming from people “who had nothing better to do”, is now an avalanche of tweets and postings and hashtags calling us out. And more importantly, letting others know.
If you want loyalty (i.e. repeat business) and advocates (i.e. free advertising) then you are going to have to treat people the way you want to be treated-with honesty, humility and transparency. Think about how much more you like someone who can admit when they are wrong and takes responsibility for mistakes. If brands ARE like people, then the most liked and most respected (i.e. valued and valuable) brands are going to be the ones that act like decent people.
If you get caught-and you will-apologize AND do it with sincerity. Ever gotten a heartless apology? It can actually be more insulting and infurating than no apology. A few months ago, the GoDaddy server went down, as did the Mac mail server. (GoDaddy fixed the problem in 24 hours, it took Apple at least twice that). I received apologetic emails from both. The GoDaddy email came from the president of GoDaddy, was very sincere, humble and honest and came with a small credit (amends). The Apple email came from a logo with nothing except bullshit corporate speak (doing nothing to disuade me the growing concern over Apple’s ability to stay Apple). I rely heavily on these services for my business. GoDaddy seemed to understand that. Apple seemed to not give a shit. Who’d have thunk it.
Stop it immediately. If you are in advertising or brand building, you have been trained to bullshit. You are good at it. You have been rewarded for it. You are a “bullshit artist”. It’s not your fault. It’s been our bread and butter, our jump shot for decades. But if you want to be good now, you need to stop. You need to develop other parts of your game. Don’t make this part of your “forward plan”. Don’t say “starting in third quarter of ‘13 we are going to strive to be more honest”. That already sounds like bullshit. To quote the turtle sensei in Kung Fu Panda, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today a gift. That is why it is called a present”. You don’t want a present filled with bullshit.
We all are more than aware of what we are in the middle of. Some of us are sick of hearing about and talking about it, however true and altering it is. Honestly, humility and transparency are values and behavior that are going to need to be a part of our business lives as well as our personal lives. That’s just one way brands are going to create value.
That’s what I believe.
Of course, I could just be bullshitting myself.