Kindness in Advertising: “A little dab’ll do ya”

“If you want to be a rebel, be kind.” (Pancho Ramos Stierle)

Attribution: Donna CameronDuring my career in the nonprofit world, I was privileged for a time to work with a trade association representing the floral industry in the U.S. and Canada. These were tremendous people who grew flowers and plants, and who sold them at the wholesale and retail levels. They were artists, farmers, business-people, and were extremely generous with their time, their product, and their talent. It’s an industry without a large profit margin and one very dependent on weather and growing conditions. Holidays are also an essential element of the industry’s success.

Invariably, as we approached a major floral holiday, such as Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day, the airwaves would be filled with negative advertising wherein one industry would promote itself by putting down another. Jewelry stores often encouraged sales of necklaces, bracelets, and rings by saying things like “Flowers wilt, diamonds are forever.” Or a posh resort would advertise that “Chocolates will be forgotten in a week, but memories of a romantic weekend at Lavish Lodge will last a lifetime.” Or “Give Mom something that won’t die in a week; give her {fill in any product eager for sales, from appliances to footwear}.”

As an industry, we were frustrated to be the target of negative advertising, but we were also committed to not perpetuating it. So, whenever we started to see ads that criticized our members’ products to promote alternative gifts, we countered with kindness.

We usually sent a letter saying something along the lines of: “We were sorry to see that you are promoting jewelry sales for Valentine’s Day by disparaging flowers for their impermanence. This is disappointing. Your jewelry is so lovely that you should have no need to elevate it by criticizing another product. We encourage you to reconsider your advertising strategy and focus on the beauty and desirability of your own product, not the perceived shortcomings of something outside your industry. We love jewelry and hope people will buy jewelry, as well as flowers, to express their love.”

Since many of these advertisers were local businesses, we would often accompany our letter with a beautiful plant or floral arrangement from a florist in the same city.

Often our efforts had no effect, but many times we’d see those ads pulled from TV or radio and replaced by an ad which just focused on the positive aspects of the seller’s product, not the perceived deficits of a potential competitor. We frequently received messages of thanks, also stating that henceforth advertising would take a positive, rather than negative, approach.

So What?

Why am I thinking of this, when it’s been 20 years since I worked with this fine industry? Well, Valentine’s Day is just days away and we’re already seeing and hearing advertisers who still think the best way to promote their product is by demeaning another. Often it’s not the advertiser, but an ad agency that has bought into the zero sum game philosophy that one can only win by making someone else lose.

Perhaps in the scheme of things this is a “small potatoes” issue. Who really cares what one advertiser says about another, especially in a society where choosing among jewelry, flowers, or fashionable electronics is what we might call a “first world problem”? But it’s not just in advertising that we see this pervasive attitude. Sadly, it reflects the times we’re living in. Think about much of the political speech that bombards us: are politicians making a well-reasoned and well-supported case for their position, or are they using divisive rhetoric to tear down an opposing position?

There seems to be a certain laziness involved here. It may be easier to attack and vilify than to take the time to examine information and then communicate it in a constructive manner. More and more, it seems that the media, and even our own daily conversations, are filled with choosing negative over positive, choosing to attack rather than engage or advocate.

We see it when politicians respond to questions about their policies or proposals by attacking either the questioner or another public figure with different views. I always want to say, “If you can’t defend your position logically and civilly, then maybe it’s indefensible.” I also wonder if individuals who are incapable of reasoning and formulating coherent and logical statements belong in positions of great responsibility. Whether we are voting for people to serve on a school board, town council, U.S. Senate, or President, we owe it to our nation to advance candidates who are committed to building rather than destroying, to cooperating rather than blaming.

We are living in a time when many people seem to find it easier to negate, mock, accuse, or criticize, rather than elevate, engage, discuss, or even think. Perhaps if we can listen with more discernment—whether to advertising, pundits, politicians, or our own friends and acquaintances—we might be more apt to recognize when rhetoric is weak and substance is absent.

Interestingly, there exists an Advertising Slogan Hall of Fame. It currently recognizes 125 advertising catchphrases for their memorability and effectiveness in promoting a product or service. These include such familiar lines as: Snap! Crackle! Pop! … Finger lickin’ good … Say it with flowers … Good to the last drop … Cats ask for it by name. None, you will notice, are slogans that demean or degrade another product. There’s a lesson here.

As we approach Valentine’s Day and other gift-giving holidays, pay attention to how advertisers promote their products. And as we approach another election season (sigh), pay attention to how politicians promote their positions. It takes practice, but honing our skills as astute and discerning listeners is an important step in restoring and preserving our civil society.

“The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.” (Paulo Coelho)

Kindness Requires Courage: Part 2 of an Interview with Sandra Ford Walston

“It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.” (Mark Twain)

Attribution: Donna Cameron

Wallace Falls, August 2015

Last week I posted Part 1 of my interview with Sandra Ford Walston, who is internationally known as The Courage Expert. Sandra is an author, speaker, human potential consultant, and courage coach. In this year of living kindly I’ve seen countless times that a life of kindness often requires courage. There are times when kind actions make us vulnerable, or when our kindness is rejected or even ridiculed. Sometimes kindness means standing up to a bully or acting contrary to what is expected of us. Sometimes it means speaking up, and sometimes remaining silent. Courage is required if we are to overcome all of those risks and extend the kindness that comes from our most authentic self.

If you missed last week’s introduction to Sandra Ford Walston and her work on courage, you can read it here. Now, we pick up where we left off…

YOLK: It’s clear from your work that it takes courage to live with intentionality every day, or to say or do something that may be counter to prevailing attitudes or behaviors. It takes courage to live authentically and be willing to put yourself out there. How can one claim their courage or perhaps reinforce it?

SFW: I don’t think you can ever have too much courage—and I don’t mean being foolhardy. I know when my reservoir is low. Most people will change when the pain of staying in the old pattern is greater than the pain of change. But, why go through so much suffering? There is choice: you can choose to build and draw from a reservoir of courage. This supports you to stand up for the self you know to be you. The choice is yours and it starts with whether you will choose to give yourself permission to claim your individual courage, and to be conscious about your spirit’s dignity and true essence. This is not found in Business 101! You know when you’ve stayed on a job far too long because it’s bleeding your heart, not feeding your spirit. When you choose to design new choices you limit the residual of regret. The more you exercise your courage, the more courage you will have.

YOLK: Could you talk a bit about vulnerability? I’ve seen that true kindness often requires us to reveal our most vulnerable self. You’ve expressed a similar connection between vulnerability and courage.

SFW: Self-awareness offers us opportunities for an honest assessment of our vulnerabilities. We discover that vulnerability comes in many forms, such as acknowledging our unhappiness, learning to move on through calamitous events, and learning not to deny or manipulate failures or mistakes. The more intense the circumstances, the more risky it seems to admit our vulnerabilities—especially in the context of work—but trying to manipulate these circumstances serves only the ego’s need to feel in control and generally backfires. Few people have the courage to reveal vulnerability, acknowledge it and overcome it.

Revealing vulnerability demonstrates maturity in the development of your true self and demonstrates great courage. It takes enormous courage to forego manipulation.

YOLK: What are some of the ways we can move through our vulnerability and claim our courage?

SFW: With self-awareness, we begin to notice our personal forms of manipulation—from bullying, to indifference, to passive aggressive behaviors. Facing a decisive moment provides an opportunity to reveal vulnerability. Do you confess your shortcomings and missteps? For example, if you lack knowledge about a topic, do you respond in a deceptive manner that keeps your ego intact? The honest response would be to reveal your vulnerability by admitting that you do not know the answer. Confessing is good for the spirit when done in a timely manner and with positive intent. The process helps us face the truth. We take responsibility for our lives and our actions.

Revealing vulnerability allows our best lights to shine. Where our ego mentality insists that vulnerability is a sign of weakness and must be hidden, the deeper truth is that revealing our vulnerability represents integrity and conveys our true identity. The alternative—hiding our mistakes and weaknesses and pretending to be what we are not—can only be accomplished through manipulation, which undermines our integrity, breeds distrust and stifles our true “heart and spirit” identity. As poet e.e. cummings wrote, “It takes courage to grow up and turn out to be who you really are.”

In summary, vulnerability supports self-realization, underscoring a human being’s essence—the true Self. Far from being a bad thing, vulnerability leads us to our most authentic self.

YOLK: I know you’ve interviewed hundreds of people over the years in your research about courage. Has kindness emerged for you as a courage issue?

SFW: Indirectly…. I often use a phrase that reveals a higher integral level of courage consciousness: “where courage meets grace.” I would say that this intersection of courage and grace requires an inbred kindness. I also detect kindness in courage advocacy, such as speaking up on someone’s behalf or, or saying kind words about someone to set the tone for receptivity. Kindness shows up when you’re “a word en-courager.” A word en-courager boosts people rather than busts people. If you think of a list of virtues such as compassion, grace, tolerance or humility, I feel they all fall under courage, since it means “heart and spirit” or coming from your true Self. Hence, if I am centered in my courage I will naturally display kindness.

YOLK: You’ve also written about the epidemic of incivility and discourtesy in modern society. About how the manners that were instilled in so many of us—by our parents and our teachers—seem to be disappearing. Why do you think that is, and do you see any role for courage in bringing back civility?

SFW: Courage and civility are essential to foster good citizenship. It often seems that common courtesy and simple manners have gone the way of one-speed bicycles and black-and-white TVs. Regaining those niceties could do a lot toward redefining the workplace environment as a place of willing and generous productivity. Those of us who were raised with manners have gotten lazy. In our laziness, we’ve raised a second generation of individuals who are simply and often sincerely ignorant of such values as respect for others, kindness, generosity, and common decency, such as holding the door open for the person following you. These are not dated, “old fogey” concepts. They take virtually no additional time or energy, and their returns are great.

Broadening this issue, we find ourselves at the heart of moral courage which I define as an attitude of willingness to choose differently in spite of personal hardship or prevailing attitudes. It requires a higher level of integrity than required for the easy alternative. Moral courage is like a compass. If we stay on-course, we will get to our desired destination. But if we are even one degree off-course, we will eventually find ourselves far from where we wanted to be.

YOLK: What would you say to someone who would like to increase their capacity for courage, or claim the courage that often gets stuck inside? Or to a parent who wants to help their child grow up confident in their courage?

SFW: Some of the things we’ve talked about already, such as being mindful and courage-centered, and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. Make use of the Source Wheel; place it somewhere prominent where you can see it and be reminded of the energies and actions of courage.

I also encourage people to support their courage with some form of meditation. Meditation is the protective shelter from the ego’s storms. It helps us to become more centered and more able to recognize when and how to claim our courage.

To a parent I’d say start using the word courage with your kids. Talk about what courage means and let them talk about and claim their courage. We need to help our kids grow up comfortable in their courage and able to see it in others. My nine-year-old niece and I talk about courage. She was just telling me how it takes courage to speak up and to refuse to engage in saying unkind things about other girls. She’s going to be a courageous woman.

YOLK: Any last words for us?

SFW: In my coaching I often ask my clients two questions. I’ll pose them here:

  1. Are you willing to give yourself permission to claim your courage? This is something that only you can do for yourself.
  2. What action would you do right now if you had unlimited courage?

YOLK: Those are great questions, and ones we can ask ourselves over and over. Sandra Ford Walston, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and your courage expertise with us. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” (Anaïs Nin)