“We’re speaking to the unconscious. We don’t need the customer to believe our over-the-top promise,” writes Roy H. Williams today.
Thus, Williams deals in one deft stroke with any ethical concerns about writing ads that appeal to the irrational mind.
Really. Let me explain.
Isn’t human irrationality to blame for causing wars, racism, global warming, and the housing crisis?
Yearning for a rational world is an impossible dream as old as the ancient Greeks. But history shows that humans are not wired for 100% logical thought. That’s what Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock is for. By contrast, Captain Kirk and all the rest of us are wired to think more like Homer Simpson. Scary but true.
So, if we’re realists, we can accept that people are predictably irrational, as behavioral economist Dan Ariely says. But if we’re idealists, we don’t have to like it. And if we really don’t like it, then we can refuse to manipulate people’s irrational emotions by using tropes such as the bandwagon effect (it’s the best selling brand, so you should buy it too) or appeals to authority (doctors say Lucky Strikes are less irritating) — even if these appeals work.
Boring is not necessarily more ethical
I would argue that this is misplaced ethics. Plenty of campaigns for good causes have been killed by boring communications filled with appeals to the rational, left brain — lots of statistics, arguments for eating your spinach instead of candy, and lectures on how massive a problem is according to scientists. Think global warming — statistics show that it’s big and it’s scary; yes, we can stop it; but to have any chance of success, we, along with the Chinese, the Indians, and everyone else on Earth will pretty much have to change almost everything about the way we live. And FYI, our changes won’t make much difference if they don’t change too. Not very motivating.
Roy Williams says we can appeal to the emotional, right brain, and we can have success if we combine the fun of open, unashamed exaggeration with the credibility of real information. Here’s an example, from a flyer Williams did for a fundraiser held by a fish market:
You got questions? We got Answers,
and much better fish than you’ll find at the grocery store.
No pesticides, No growth hormones, No color added.
Fish so healthy you’ll live forever.
The line about “no pesticides” is all fact, and satisfies the left brain, which then opens the customer’s mind up to the pure fun of the ridiculous final claim. That’s why it works.
But is it ethical? I think so. There is no attempt to deceive here. Everybody knows that this flyer is just having fun. And that, as Williams explains, makes it more fun for the customers too, who like to have their own fun with the ad copy, ordering the fish that “helps you live forever.”
Of course, because it’s so effective, mixing fact and fun has been used by everyone from Gandhi to Goebbels.
What separated the two?
Gandhi used fun to liberate people from oppression and to make enemies into friends. Goebbels used strong emotion to do the opposite.
And so, it seems to me that the ethics is only partially in the technique — if you’re going to exaggerate, then do so openly, as a joke. That makes it honest, even though you’re harnessing the desires of the subconscious mind. But the other part of ethics here is in the intent. If you’re doing something that’s good for people and for the Earth, then it’s OK to appeal to emotion. Indeed, if you’re doing something good for the world with your business, then I’d argue that you have a moral responsibility to be an effective communicator.