Category Archives: Behaviour Change

Responsible for Reality

Been very much off the radar recently as I’ve been putting the finishing touches to my Masters paper, but as part of this, had what I think is a good thought.  Well, I like it.  It goes something like this:

‘What is reality?’ is a question that’s come up ALOT on the course for me, but I’ve come to realise something quite important about it.  ‘Reality’ is what I experience in the moment.  It is what is happening right now as I’m tying this and right now as you’re reading it.  What happened a minute ago is not reality as it’s the past.  What’s going to happen in a minutes time is not reality as that’s the future.  The only definite thing I can be sure about; the only reality that is certain is what is happening in this lived moment.  This precise moment and only this moment is true and real.  As a result I have a responsibility to decide what I want that reality to be.  Do I want it be full of interesting things or boring things?  Do I want it to be relaxing or stressful?  I have to take that responsibility for myself.  A large part of the reality I experience is what I can see and what I can hear – what I get from my senses.  As a result, my surroundings count for a lot when it comes to my reality.  Therefore, what stimulus do I want to be receiving?  Do I want to spend more time seeing, hearing, smelling and tasting things that make me feel good, whether they be things of beauty, uplifting people and good food?  Is that the reality that I want?  Or do I want to spend more time seeing, hearing, smelling and tasting things that make me feel bad?  Like ugly things, people that bring me down or poor food?  Is that the reality that I want?  This is my responsibility.

But more than this, because others affect my reality it is of course true that I affect theirs.  So, what reality do I want to create for them and myself?  I have that responsibility as well.  I believe that everyone has that responsibility.  If I am in people’s lives then I am affect their lived experience.  So, what way do I want to affect their reality?  Do I want to try and make it a more positive experience?  Do I want to say things that I think that they will like and appreciate?  Or do I want to make it an average experience?  Or a negative experience?  Every act has an impact so I need to decide what I want to do.  This isn’t about buying gifts to make things better, this is about how I converse and ‘am’ in the moment.  About being someone I’d want to be around, or someone I might be indifferent to, someone who moans alot or someone that isn’t very pleasant?  It’s pretty simple really.

The interesting thing about this comes to TV and advertising.  People are exposed to lots of TV and advertising – upwards of 4 hours a day.  As a TV company or an advertiser, what is the reality you want to create for people?  What is your point of view on what that experience should be?  Is it about creating content which presents the viewer with someone you know they will compare themselves to?  Is that a good thing?  Is it about watching people trying to beat each other in a reality show?  Is that a good thing?  Is it about people working together to achieve something?  Is that a good thing?  No content is neutral.  Everything affects the nature of people’s reality and so if you’re in the content business you should have an editorial point of view on the nature of reality that you are trying to create.  That is the reality.

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Changing the world is the only fit work for a grown man

That’s a quote from an ad man called Howard Luck Gossage (great name; great quote) and is the title of a new biography about him.

He ran his own agency in San Francisco back the 1960s when all the action was taking place in New York (Bill Bernback, David Ogilvy, Rosser Reeves).  He had, what seemed at the time and perhaps still now, some pretty crazy ideas about the way advertising should work, which now that I no longer work in an agency, seem exceedingly sensible.  From the book, they include:

Didn’t believe that it was all about growth and the money.  It was about maintaining the quality of the creative work and the culture of the agency.  The agency never grew to be more than 15 people.

He thought about the point of advertising.  As he put it “there is precious little awareness, and no real enquiry into the economic, sociologic or philosophic bases of advertising”.  I would say that this is still the case. I was raised to believe that the point of advertising is to make money for the agency and make money for the client.  No sociologic or philosophic enquiry there.

He believed that pumping out advertising with no real sense of who was receiving it and how it was being received was not only wasteful but unethical.  He said: “I will go further and say that it is not only wrong to attempt to influence an audience without involving it but it is unethical and dishonest”.  Strong words, but this kind of accounts for, at a guess, more than 50% of advertising these days.

He had a theory of the way things work (cybernetics, via Norbert Weiner) which could be applied to advertising.  Cybernetics (roughly) is about recognising that there are feedback loops in the natural world.  So for Gossage, he saw the creation of information loops as beneficial and indeed a life-enhancing way of making people respect others and accept responsibility for their actions.  So, his ads featured ways to engage the audience so that they could help create the next round of work.  No feedback, change the ads.  By involving the consumer and getting their input into the campaign, it was evident that they were enjoying the work and more work would evolve that encouraged further feedback.

In this “he viewed advertising less as a commercial bludgeon and more as a conversation between equals”.  And “people like to be treated as human beings rather than consumers and they react very well to it”.  ‘Go Compare’ anyone?

He was, perhaps unsurprisingly, anti-billboards because he believed that no media owner had the right to sell that media because a billboard interrupted a view that belonged to the people.

One of Gossage’s ads that stopped the Grand Canyon getting flooded

He ended up working on saving the Grand Canyon from getting flooded (via an ad campaign), then helped make the Sierra Club famous before using his skills to launch Friends of the Earth.  To him, this is what advertising should be for: “advertising was too valuable an instrument to waste on commercial products…it justified its existence only when it was used for social purposes”.

So, he said all this, but was also well ahead of his time in terms of thinking about social media, PR-generated stunts and interactive.  What’s interesting is that the back cover of the book is full of modern-day advertising greats talking about how great Gossage was.  For example, Jeff Goodby says “The best of Gossage is the best of advertising ever done, and what’s really amazing is the the work he did foretold what’s happening on the internet and social media right now”.   To me, it’s more interesting to take his thinking in the round – to consider the points that I’ve highlighted above, not just the interactive/social media bit.  It would make for a very different, more purposeful industry, where that purpose is beyond just trying to make money and sell stuff.  Maybe one day more of his ideas will come to pass.  I hope so.

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Free to go shopping?

Been thinking about this a lot recently and finding it very hard to describe and articulate, but here’s a go:

When it comes to what’s actually important and what makes us happy, do we really know?  I’m not entirely sure that we do.  I’ve decided this as a result of thinking about shopping and consumerism.  It seems to me that integral part of what Western society deems as important is to shop and buy things.  Either more things than you’ve currently got or better things that you’ve currently got.  And in buying those things you will be happier.  Having stuff – more stuff or better stuff – is a way to feel better.

To buy that new shirt to continue to be fashionable and feel good when you’re in the pub, or a magazine to know what’s fashionable or a new phone because it’s better at letting you stay in touch with your friends and feel connected.  It’s even called Retail Therapy because therapy is a way (apparently) to feel better about yourself.

So, buying things is correlated to feeling better.  I would suggest that we accept, blindly, that having more stuff is the natural thing.  It’s not even talked about.  It’s an unspoken narrative in our society.  It doesn’t need to be said or even discussed because everyone understands it and believes it.  Like the sun coming up in the morning.

And to a degree that is, of course, true.  Having a new thing can be great.  You go to the shop, you get to choose what you want, pay for it, take it home and use it.

But, what happens if you don’t buy anything new?  You don’t buy more or better stuff?  Typically this means you don’t have the means.  So, you’re either poor or unemployed.  Both of which are socially undesirable.  Or if you have got money and don’t buy more and better stuff then you’re a bit weird for not doing what everyone else does.

So, putting myself in the unemployed and ‘have the money to buy not buying category’, I currently haven’t bought any new clothes (except for some socks) or electronic equipment or just basically ‘stuff’ for about a year.  Still buy food, drink, travel and some second hand things, but no ‘more or better’ new stuff.

How does that feel?  Well, pretty good.  Which isn’t supposed to be the case.  Right?  If the narrative of shopping is that if I buy more and better stuff then I’ll feel happier, then the converse – not buying any new or better stuff should be that I feel worse.  Right?  I should, in some way, feel deprived, or left out, or somehow ‘lesser’ shouldn’t I?

Absolutely not.

Weird.

So, what do I feel about not buying stuff?  Unburdened by the need to.  Not having to spend (waste?) time engaging in deciding what to buy and then buying it.  Getting to enjoy, use and appreciate the stuff that I have got.  Finding interesting ways to use the stuff I have got to do new and different jobs that I might have previously bought something new to do.  Glad that I don’t have that occasional moment when I look at something and say ‘why did I buy that?’

But, perhaps the most interesting feeling that’s come up as a result of not buying more stuff is around freedom.

 Yes, I’m lucky enough to live in a democracy, get to vote and speak my mind, but when it comes to shopping, am I free?  The easy answer to that is ‘of course!’  I can go to any shop that I want and buy whatever I want (as long as I have the money).  However, the freedom that I feel is about the choice as to whether I want to shop or not, rather than the freedom to buy what I want when I go shopping.

This is vitally important distinction.

So, there is absolutely freedom around shopping.  But the freedom is around which of the many products that are available, is the one that I want?  I am free to choose the blue one or the red one.  Nike or adidas.  Apple or Sony.  Toyota or Honda.  And it takes a lot of tine energy to decide which is the best one to go for.

Buy to make you happy.  I’m free to choose which one I do buy.

However, I’m not free to decide whether or not I want to buy in the first place.  Will buying more stuff or better stuff make me happier?

This is not a question that is posed by our society.  At all.  Consider the evidence.  All the advertising and marketing spend, all the packaging, all the window displays.  They all are suggesting that we should buy them and in many instances, that what they are offering is in someway superior or different from the other available options.  The Ultimate Driving Machine.  Washes Whiter.  Refreshes the Parts Other Beers can not Reach.  They are all pushing the same thing.  That buying them is a good thing and will make you happier.

Where is any communication, from anyone, as to whether either buying more or better stuff or not buying more or better stuff is going to make you happier?

I can’t think of any.

So, I’m talking about a different sort of freedom.  If we were really free then we would be free to make that decision. Wouldn’t we?

I would contend that because there is no debate on this – one that stimulates a discussion so people can weigh up whether buying more and better stuff or not buying more or better stuff makes them happy – means that we are not free.  We don’t have the freedom to choose because we are only ever presented with one option.  Buy to make you happy.

I’m not saying that buying nothing makes you happiest.  That would be stupid.  Maybe a smart phone really does make you happier.  But does that sixth pair of jeans?  It’s not about absolutes, it’s about having a conversation about the principle and people deciding for themselves.

I think this is really fascinating.  We spend so much time shopping, talking about buying more or better stuff and spending money in the process in the belief that it makes us happier and we don’t even discuss whether it actually does.

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When the world’s richest met the world’s poorest

There’s this website where you can put in your salary and compare how much you earn not just to the rest of the UK, but to the rest of the world.  It tells you that if you earn the average wage in the UK or above (>c.£25k) then you’re in the top 1% of global earners.  To be in the top 1% doesn’t require you to drive a Ferrari or own a yacht.  It requires you to work at M&S.

I only remembered the above when I was on the plane back from Ethiopia, where I’ve been for two weeks, doing some work for the Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA) into what they need to say to farmers to encourage them to adopt new farming practices.  Beyond the specifics of the project, which was fascinating, there was one incident that has had a significant impact on me.  It’s an incident that highlighted the differences between the world’s richest (me) and the world’s poorest (Ethiopian farmers).

We were just outside a town called Soro, about 4 hours south of Addis Ababa.  We had been interviewing farmers all day on their attitudes and uptake of new farming technologies and practices.  We learnt that the farmers grow their crops which, typically, provided them with enough food for their family to eat as well as enough to sell to provide the money to buy seeds and fertiliser for the next season.  If they were lucky, then they had enough excess crop to buy things like clothes or send their children to school.  So, this is ‘less than a dollar a day’ living.  These are some of the poorest people in the world.

At the end of the day two of us, an Addis local and myself, wanted to know if it would be okay to take a peak in one of the farmers huts that we’d seen so many of on the journey to Soro and indeed on other travels around the country.  Indeed, there are 80 million people in Ethiopia and about 85% of them are farmers and I understand that the majority of those live in these type of huts.  That’s a lot of people.

The government Development Agent said that was fine and walked us down the track and introduced us to the family living in a beautiful hut with a painted exterior.

We went inside.

The first thing that stuck me was how dark and cool it was.  It was nearly 6pm, so the sun was going down but inside it was a refreshing change from the heat of the day.  However, if they didn’t light a fire soon, there was going to be no light.  There was no electricity, no gas, no solar lights, no kerosene lamp.  Indeed, there seemed to be nothing that wasn’t made of grass, mud or wood, other than farming implements.

The circular hut had a mud floor with a central pillar (like a mast on a ship).   It had a diameter of about 4 metres so the total floor space was like a studio flat in London.  Similar to a studio flat, there was a space for eating (table and bench seating), cooking (a fire pit) and sleeping (a double bed).  However, this was all in front half of the hut (i.e. half the space).  There was a partition down the centre behind which was an empty floor.

The reason for this became clear when I realised how many people lived in the hut.  There were the two parents with baby twins, three boys under the age of 10 and two elder daughters and a grandfather.  So, that’s ten people.  I guess that the parents slept on the bed with the twins.  This would mean that everybody else slept on the mud floor behind the partition.    However, there was also another slightly sectioned off area inside.  What was this for?  It was for their two oxen that slept in the hut with the family every night.

What to think about all this?  Sad?  Lucky?  Guilty?   Not sure.

My confusion over what to think was compounded when we conducted a focus group of village elders.  These included the mayor of the village and the local judge.  At the end of the group, the judge stood up, made a speech and blessed the meeting.  Someone then bought in a huge round of freshly made bread and some honey as means to close the session and for us to share a meal.

Interestingly, the honey tasted smokey.  “Why does the honey taste smokey?”  I asked.  “Because they had to smoke the bees out of the hive this morning in order to get the honey for us to eat” was the answer.

I have never been thanked by anyone for asking questions before.  Let alone a judge and a mayor.  And never been given a gift for being a guest in someone’s place.  I would always take a gift as the guest, not expect to receive a gift for being the guest.

So, what to think?  What it’s like to meet and spend at least a little time with those at polar opposite of the income spectrum?

I guess my response to that is ‘balance’ in that both lifestyles represent an imbalance.  They have too little and that I have too much.  That I live in a society that’s gone for ‘stuff’, individualism and consumerism and places a reduced emphasis on community.  That they haven’t got enough ‘stuff’ but have a remarkable sense of community and family (by circumstance rather than choice perhaps).

However, I do understand that it’s possible to romanticise that life of a farmer and I would not want to do that.  From the stories that we heard and what we saw, it’s back-breaking, grinding work, generation after generation.  However, I believe it’s equally incorrect to romanticise the Western way of life.  Who says that being in the top 1% of earners is the best place to be?  Just because this is what qualifies as ‘success’ by our Western culture, doesn’t necessarily mean that you have the richest life.  Study after study about the deteriorating mental and physical health of those in the West is testament to that.  Now maybe I’m being naïve in saying this.  I’m coming from a position of financial security and I’m making these grand statements as a result of being in Ethiopia for a couple of weeks.  Perhaps that’s a fair point.  However, equally, it could be arrogant thinking of the rich to believe that it’s naïve?  To believe that being financially rich is a key (if not the key) definition of success – GDP growth us the only measure in town – seems remarkably narrow-minded to me.

What does it all mean?  Am I going to try and do more work in Ethiopia?  Perhaps.  Am I going to donate money to the country?  I doubt it.  Have I had my perspective altered about what I should consider important in life?  Definitely.

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