Thursday, April 08, 2010

Advertising Bullshit

I just arrived home after a week on the road, part of it in London. At Heathrow, I was struck by two fantastically ill-conceived Accenture billboard advertisements. The first was a Photoshopped image of an elephant riding a wave on a surfboard. The caption read, "Who says you can't be both big and nimble?" The second was of a bunch of little fish swimming along in such a way that together, they formed the silhouette of a shark. "Is your business in shape to compete?" the caption asked. I gazed at these ads and wondered: how did we get to a point where a company like Accenture believes -- perhaps with reason -- that this kind of bullshit could be persuasive? Where the company quite possibly believes the bullshit itself?

Pause and consider this. Accenture wants to make you believe in the improbable proposition that their company is both big and nimble. They seek to do so not specifically, but indirectly, by persuading you that big and nimble is at least a possibility in general. And to demonstrate the existence of this general possibility, for which any example at all would suffice as proof, they had to resort to creating a fake image of an impossible event. Who says you can't be both big and nimble? The people who created this ridiculous ad, that's who. After all, they obviously couldn't come up with an actual example.

As for the fish ad, what the caption should have asked, if it was to have any logical connection to the image attached it to, was, "Are your businesses collectively mimicking the shape of some other, larger business that makes its money in a way unconnected to yours, a business whose capabilities you can never perform even if you succeed in mimicking its shape?"

(At this point, defenders of wasteful advertising will likely argue that underlying illogic doesn't matter. After all, the images are memorable -- I'm writing about them, aren't I? But this is to excuse bullshit with more bullshit. An emotional pitch that's contradicted by logic is lazy. Emotion in the service of logic is the ideal. Of course, creating a pitch that's memorable because it resonates both emotionally and logically takes hard work. Serving up bullshit is ever so much easier. And if Madison Avenue advertising companies can get the Accentures of the world to pay for easy, why should the advertising companies try harder? Innate professionalism is rare; laziness and complacency are fast growing and can take root almost anywhere.)

There's so much bullshit, we don't even notice it anymore. Every movie, no matter how trivial, is a Major Motion Picture. Every business plan ever written boasts a World Class Management Team; every alliance is a Strategic Alliance. Toys r Us calls its customers "guests." Blockbuster Video advertises movies Available Now For Preorder. Domestic prisons are called Correctional Facilities (are the prisoners "correctees"?). A detainee, on the other hand, is a prisoner we're holding indefinitely without charge, trial, or conviction (I'm waiting for the government to take its cue from Toys r Us and perform an Orwellian upgrade -- referring to detainees as guests, instead). What others do with such people, we call a gulag; here, we have only detention centers. Nasty countries assassinate; we engage in sanitary Targeted Killings. Establishment is our word for what we call an oligarchy when it happens in Russia. Only dictatorships have show trials and kangaroo courts; we employ military commissions. Where others have tribes, we have factions. And of course we don't torture, preferring enhanced interrogation, instead. Soon we will have dissidents. What will we call them?

Surrounded by this miasma, what can be done? I don't know for sure. But I like to think that over time, if enough people call the government on its bullshit and the Accentures of the world on theirs, bullshit might gradually become less fashionable, as well as less effective. This post is my humble contribution to the cause.