Enemies of Creativity

Why are we falling behind in understanding the consumer?

When ads are great they’re not only great ads, they’re tiny, uplifting “codes” inserted into the bloodstream of culture that change both culture and our lives: they cure the status quo. But great ads, for the most part, are hard to come by. While most industry professionals know the reasons, they don’t know how to do things differently. Or, in a few cases, they just don’t want to rock the boat.

In general, by changing just one word (and following through on its meaning) this quagmire can be filled in by something that provides a firmer industry footing: The word “consumer” needs to be banished (in practice) and replaced by “people.” 

We put people into too small of a box — the box labeled “consumer.” Consumers have “hot buttons,” can be shouted at by spin meisters and a priori are relegated to the bin of less-than-intelligent impulse buyers.

It’s similar to the D.C.-Beltway phenomenon — all the politicos talking to themselves and whipping each other up into a frenzy with theories that are completely at odds with what real people “think-feel” (neuroscience now tells us those two things are really one thing). 

People are artful image gatherers. They’re smarter and more human than we give them credit for. They buy into things that fit their own brand of emotional logic. And they’re all living what John Updike called, “the gallant, battered ongoingness of life.” Attention and respect must be paid. Life embodies a delicate complexity of feeling.

That we don’t give people their due is largely because our methods of inquiry are so self-limiting they produce nothing more than what we decry: an endless litany of superficial, top-of-mind opinions. To begin with, before anyone walks into an interview or focus group, clients ask for a “discussion guide.” Does life have a discussion guide?

Next, forget a “moderator.” The questioner should be a “loving interrogator.” Why ask what people like or dislike about a product? Instead, people should be given the time and leeway to spin their tale about their own behavior and experience, and how they account and justify for that in the context of how they view life in general and their life in particular. 

Only then can you get to the mundane eloquence in and on peoples’ minds. An example: A 36-year-old woman from Kansas City, referring to the current context of the high-tech world, said, “Things are always advancing, getting better, sometimes for the worse.”

In another vain, why do we keep measuring brand the way we do?  Here is how brand operates: A 25-year-old New York male talking about his love for the Pittsburgh Steelers (three months before winning this year’s Super Bowl), said, “I love the Pittsburgh Steelers. Mean Joe Green was so cool in that Coke ad. He was tough and kind. Not like the L.A. Raiders who are just mean and play dirty. Steelers are blue-collar, hardworking, smash-mouth, know the score and get right to the point. Just like me. I was born a Steeler fan.” (My emphasis added.)

To understand people you have to understand their narratives — about self, their world and the world. Subtexts in this over-arching story concern feeling structures such as time, causality, familiarity, security, participation, power and hope. These stories virtually always display paradox, inconsistency and irony. These are not to be eliminated or averaged out by statistical number crunching. 

Armed with these stories and seeing how each can be indexed against a “grand narrative,” the task of a creative brief is to translate this into a deep-seated metaphor that can link the story of the product to peoples’ self-story. Such a metaphor can drop creatives into a landing zone that gives them a greater probability of working their magic and producing something that has such intrinsic force it can do battle against all the downward vectors that thwart great work.

If we commit to people, not consumers, this force would be with us more.

The deep eros of memory and belief, displaying the zigzag of emotion, is not balanced. Balance sheets are. The irony is, to tilt our numbers on the side of profits and sales, agencies and clients alike must recognize that life as lived by people is not a rational, straight, numeric calculation.

Bob Deutsch is a cognitive anthropologist and founder of the consulting firm Brain Sells, part of Havas. He can be reached at dr.bob@brain-sells.com.