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)

Silence Isn’t Golden. SPLC Offers a Constructive Guide to Speaking Up

“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” (Elie Wiesel)

Attribution: Donna CameronFollowing my last post on civility, I had some great conversations with friends—both via the comments section of the blog and in actual face-to-face conversations (yes, we still occasionally have those—and they’re remarkably energizing!). Some of the conversations have centered around specific instances of incivility:

  • What do you do when it’s your boss who says…?
  • I don’t know how to respond when I see someone do….
  • My father-in-law says things like….
  • I thought of just the right thing to say while I was driving home….

I’ve talked before about theoretical kindness and practical kindness, and how understanding kindness and even having kind intentions doesn’t always translate to kind actions. Stuff gets in the way. And one of the biggest barriers is our own uncertainty, clumsiness, and hesitation. It’s not that we don’t want to step in or speak out, but we want to do it right. And acting in ways that are constructive may take deliberation. There are plenty of people who speak without considering the effect their words may have. I don’t want to add to that cacophony unless my words are beneficial and healing.

I’ve found it helpful to try to anticipate comments or behaviors I may encounter and then try to envision how I might respond—not just what I hope I will say, but how I will say it and even how I will feel and carry myself as I do.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could have a resource at our fingertips to suggest how we might respond in a variety of situations, and reinforce our own skill development? As luck would have it, there is such a resource and I recommend it highly.

The Southern Poverty Law Center—a respected organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for all—has created a practical and informative guide entitled “Speak Up: Responding to Everyday Bigotry.” It provides guidance for how to respond in a variety of situations, from an ethnic slur voiced by a neighbor, to a family member’s ingrained bigotry, discrimination by a business, bullying, or a teacher’s vocal bias in the classroom. It even helps us to recognize and repair our own biases.

This practical guide includes links to three dozen potential situations we might encounter and suggests how to speak up in ways that open dialogue and don’t escalate conflict.

Some of the situations addressed:

The Guide is available as a link you can revisit over and over, and also as a PDF you can download and share with family and friends. Parents may want to use it to have some meaningful and constructive dinner table conversations.

Here’s an example of one of the situations explored:

What Can I Do About Workplace Humor?

As soon it becomes clear that a coworker is commencing to tell an inappropriate joke—one that puts down a certain group of people or uses offensive language, it’s time to speak up. You can very calmly say, “Please don’t tell it.” Similarly, if reference is made to a race, religion, or country, and someone reacts by making derogatory comments that they think are funny, you can hold up a hand and say quietly, but firmly, “Don’t, please don’t.”

If your request is ignored, and the speaker proceeds, SPLC offers some strategies for responding:

Don’t laugh. Meet a bigoted “joke” with silence, and maybe a raised eyebrow. Use body language to communicate your distaste for bigoted “humor.”

Interrupt the laughter. “Why does everyone think that’s funny?” Tell your co-workers why the “joke” offends you, that it feels demeaning and prejudicial. And don’t hesitate to interrupt a “joke” with as many additional “no” messages as needed.

Set a “not in my workspace” rule. Prohibit bigotry in your cubicle, your office or whatever other boundaries define your workspace. Be firm, and get others to join in. Allies can be invaluable in helping to curb bigoted remarks and behavior at the workplace.

Provide alternate humor. Learn and share jokes that don’t rely on bias, bigotry or stereotypes as the root of their humor.

The beautiful thing about these strategies is that they’re simple, affirming, and they can be practiced. They remind us that standing up for what’s right is both our responsibility and our privilege as world citizens.

I hope you’ll help spread the word about SPLC’s outstanding and informative guide to responding to bigotry.

 “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.)

 

Looking Forward: Will Kindness Rally in 2017?

“If you ask me what I came to this world to do, I will tell you: I came to live out loud.” (Emile Zola)

Attribution: Donna CameronI try always to spend some time in contemplation at the end of each year. I’m not big on holiday celebrations, decorations, or entertaining, but I like to use that time to find my quiet center and think about the year that is coming to a close, as well as to set intentions for the year ahead.

I’ve probably said enough about 2016, the year of the bully, the year we saw the phrase “anything is possible” come to mean “welcome to the apocalypse.” I will only say that kindness took quite a hit. But it’s not down and it’s not out. That brings me to the new year.

As I look forward to 2017, I’m noticing a complexity to my intentions. It seems like it is not so much setting goals as managing polarities—trying to find the right balance between seemingly opposite, conflicting objectives.

Kindness vs. Confrontation:

I want to be kind. I also want to stand up to injustice and bigotry with all my strength and with my full voice. These two things need not be in conflict, but sometimes it is hard to be kind when face-to-face with deliberate incivility, prejudice, and disregard for the truth. I struggle with the challenge of remaining kind while also standing up to lies and bigotry. I remind myself to call out the behavior not the person, but there are people whose behaviors speak so loudly of who they are that it is hard to separate the two. And maybe sometimes we can’t…and shouldn’t. I will be ready. I will practice standing up to bigotry without expressing similar intolerance. I will think now about what I will say if I see someone being harassed because they are a minority, or a member of the LGBTQ community, or differently-abled—be it on a plane, in a store, or online. I will not be silent.

Isolation vs. Activism:

I want to withdraw into a place where the gloom is not so constant, where I can sometimes forget for a few hours that values like honesty, integrity, and equality have been kicked to the curb. I want to lick my wounds and take care of myself and the people I love. At the same time, more than ever I want to speak out, to march, to use whatever meager talents I have to stand for what I believe to be right. I recognize that self-care must be a priority if I am to be in this fight for the long-haul, and if I am to avoid becoming perpetually angry and a hardened cynic. As something of an introvert, I know that for me self-care means residing in quiet places where I can replenish my spirit and reconnect with my deepest values. When refueled, I can cluster with like-minded people, draw strength from them, and let them draw strength from me. I will not be silent.

Optimism vs. Pessimism:

I want to be an optimist; that is my default setting (while my husband has firmly claimed the opposite position). But I also know that mindless optimism is dangerous. I have to be realistic and cognizant to the fact that there are people in positions of power who are counting on the obliviousness and optimism of their foes. If I deny the damage they can do and simply trust that “all will be well,” their greed, bigotry, and deceit will grow and take a deeper hold. So, I’m going to try for what I’m calling optimistic realism: I anticipate that the year ahead is going to introduce us to rings of hell we never imagined, and I also recognize that those of us standing up to prejudice and the misuse of power will ultimately triumph over those destructive forces by our sheer numbers and our unwavering commitment. I will not be silent.

What Remains Sacred

Even with these apparent polarities to be managed, there are still some things that brook no compromise, that stand alone as values to be upheld—no matter what:

Truth is one such absolute. Sadly, the biggest casualty of 2016 was the truth. We have seen that there are people for whom the truth is only important when it serves their interests, and who will trample on it if it gets in their way. History has shown us what happens when people allow truth to be selective and manipulated. Truth may not always be pretty, and it may not be soothing, but we must face it and act accordingly. We must not be silent.

Integrity, like truth, is not conditional. We either act with integrity or we don’t. Most of us know the difference. Those who don’t need to be enlightened and if they still disregard integrity, they need to be removed from power. We must not be silent.

Justice and equality. These two go together. There is no justice if standards apply differently depending on the ethnicity, gender, or status of the individuals. There are no groups that are inherently superior, none that are intrinsically entitled. Having said that, there may be times when justice and equality dictate that we offer an advantage to make up for decades of disadvantage. Someone once said, “At the table of peace there will be bread and justice.” That table has no place for those who measure success by wealth and who equate affluence with power. We must not be silent.

Since launching this blog, I’ve started and ended each year with one particular quote from Neil Gaiman. This year, it’s still Neil Gaiman, but it’s a different quote:

Be kind to yourself in the year ahead. Remember to forgive yourself, and to forgive others. It’s too easy to be outraged these days, so much harder to change things, to reach out, to understand. Try to make your time matter: minutes and hours and days and weeks can blow away like dead leaves, with nothing to show but time you spent not quite ever doing things, or time you spent waiting to begin. Meet new people and talk to them. Make new things and show them to people who might enjoy them. Hug too much. Smile too much. And, when you can, love.

Peace and thanks to all of you, my friends. Sharing with you the joys, sadnesses, challenges, and disappointments of 2016 has strengthened me and fed my resolve. I feel blessed to be part of a warm and embracing community. My wish for you—for all of us—in the coming year is for health, happiness, laughter, strength, voice, community, and, of course, kindness.

I’m just sayin’ … honesty isn’t always kind

“Today I bent the truth to be kind, and I have no regret, for I am far surer of what is kind than I am of what is true.” (Robert Brault)

Attribution: Donna Cameron“I’m just saying this for your own good.”

“Don’t be so thin-skinned. I’m just telling it like it is.”

“Hey, I call it like I see it.”

“Jeesh, you’re so touchy!”

These phrases are often used to justify saying hurtful things. Sometimes the speaker may really believe that the listener needs to hear his unvarnished opinion about the poor sap’s looks, abilities, opinions, or prospects.

Speaking on behalf of poor saps everywhere, we don’t. We don’t need someone to tell us all the things that are wrong with us or all the things we don’t do as well as we should. That’s what that persistent little voice in our own head does—and it doesn’t need any help.

There are things that need to be said and things that don’t need to be said. If we pause to think before we speak, we generally know the difference.

“You’d be so much prettier if you’d just lose fifteen pounds,” doesn’t need to be said—ever.

“You might want to get that spinach off your front tooth before you make your presentation,” needs to be said. Thank you!

“The other kids in your class certainly have more artistic ability than you do,” doesn’t need to be said, even if it’s abundantly clear to everyone but your eight-year-old.

I don’t advocate lying. I was raised in a home where honesty was valued and I consider honesty to be one of the most important characteristics of good people. That being said, I believe there are times when telling the truth may not be the best course of action. And being able to discern the appropriate time for truth-telling and the appropriate time for silence or even a downright lie is another important characteristic of good people…certainly of kind ones.

Some lies are obvious, some a bit more subtle.

To the question, “Honey, does this dress make me look fat?” any spouse who answers that with anything but, “You look gorgeous!” or a similarly reassuring exclamatory statement really hasn’t thought through the business of being married.

“It’s perfect! Thank you so much!” in response to an ugly, impractical, or totally preposterous gift is always a wise response, even if it’s a whopper of a lie. Would you really rather hurt the giver’s feelings and then live with the regret of having done so? Receiving graciously—even when the gift is unwanted—is one of the kindest behaviors we can learn.

“I’m fine, thanks for asking.” There are times—and we usually know when they are—when telling an acquaintance about our persistent rash, impending colonoscopy, or chronic foot fungus is entirely unnecessary. The depth of the relationship is a good gauge of how much detail to provide when someone asks the innocuous and automatic question, “How are you?”

If you’re contemplating telling a lie, think about your motive behind it:

Are you lying to make yourself appear to be something that you are not—smarter, stronger, more successful or more interesting? Think again, and exercise your courage muscles. You’re fine exactly as you are—why pretend to be something that you’re not? Would you rather be authentic or an imposter? Would you rather people liked and respected you for who you really are, or because they think you’re something that you’re not? Besides, when you deceive others you must remember the story you fabricated—otherwise you are likely to get caught in your lie later—and you’ll either feel foolish or have to come up with more lies. It’s not worth it.

Are you lying to make a sale, deflect blame, get recognized, or advance your career? No matter how innocuous the lie may seem, your trustworthiness and integrity are at stake here—even if you’re the only one who knows that. Are they worth tarnishing for anything?  I recently came upon a quote by Ryan Freitas that sums it up pretty well: “Your reputation is more important than your paycheck, and your integrity is worth more than your career.”

Are you lying to spare someone’s feelings? Under these circumstances, lying may be both acceptable and desirable. Add another question: is anyone harmed … if I tell my work colleague that her new hair style is great when, in fact, my first thought was that she looks like a radish on a stick?

Other questions to consider:

  • If I were in his/her position, would I want the truth or a gentle lie? or
  • Which response best serves kindness: the truth, a considerate lie, or silence?

My sister and I still commiserate (it’s cheaper than therapy) over our mother’s “truth-telling” to us as children: to Kim that her smile showed too much of her teeth and gums—causing my sister for decades to cover her mouth when she smiled or laughed, rather than display her genuine delight; and to me that I could always have a nose-job if my nose got any bigger. Until my mother mentioned it, I had been totally unaware that my proboscis was anything less than perfect. Thanks, Mom! Fortunately, my husband thinks my patrician nose is beautiful.

It seems to me that another consideration of whether to tell the truth or to dissemble is whether you can make a contribution to the outcome.

If your colleague has already gotten the haircut, or your spouse has already bought and worn the loud Hawaiian shirt, then little is served by telling them what you really think. But if they ask you in advance how you think they would look with a radical ‘do, or wearing a bright yellow shirt with orange and purple parrots, a diplomatic truth might help them make a different decision.

Similarly, we don’t need to be the people who point out the typo, criticize the amount of cumin in the soup, or correct a stranger’s mispronunciation. If someone asks for my input, I’ll gladly give it—unless it appears that they really just want support and kudos—then I’ll give those. I’ve found as I’ve gotten older that I’ve also gotten quieter. I don’t need to point out somebody else’s foibles and failures. I’ve got plenty of my own.

But my nose, fortunately, is quite perfect.

“If you have to choose between being kind and being right, choose being kind and you will always be right.” (Anonymous)

Kindness in the Workplace

“The common mistake that bullies make is assuming that because someone is nice that he or she is weak. Those traits have nothing to do with each other. In fact, it takes considerable strength and character to be a good person.”  (Mary Elizabeth Williams)

Cloudy Sunrise at Storm LakeOver the years, I’ve accumulated a lot of books about business, management, and leadership.  A lot.  Probably enough to fill a good-sized bookcase.  Many I purchased; many were given to me by authors who wanted to introduce me to their ideas in hopes that I would hire them to speak at a client conference.  I haven’t read them all, but I’ve read quite a few, and I’ve started many more but never gotten past the first few chapters.

I’ve been leafing through them over the last few weeks and have been disappointed—though though not surprised—to see that words like kindness and compassion are mostly absent.  Even the books that approach leadership in refreshing and enlightened ways: The Art of Supportive Leadership, Love and Profit—The Art of Caring Leadership, Leadership Jazz, Leading Change, Leading with Soul….  They’re all good books with good ideas, and good intentions, but the authors don’t seem to see kindness as an important element of leadership.  It baffles me.

It’s as if kindness is too weak and nebulous a concept to be put forth in a serious book about business.  There were a few exceptions and those books happened to be not only the ones that I read all the way through, but often they were the ones that I have read several times and highlighted extensively.  Notable among these were Lance Secretan’s excellent books, Reclaiming Higher Ground and Inspirational Leadership.

I can’t think of many places more in need of kindness than the business world and the American workplace.  Or many places where kindness would make such a difference.  I have to assume that there are business books that address the importance of kindness in the workplace, and I just haven’t come across them yet.  I hope someone will point them out to me.

Several years ago, one of our company’s long-time employees retired.  At the retirement party we held for her, she said the word she would use to describe the company if she were asked was “kind.” I remember thinking at the time that I could think of no word I would rather hear used to describe our company.

Oh, sure, I want us to be daringly innovative and wildly profitable, but even above these qualities, I want us to be kind.  Since that day when Margaret labeled our company’s defining trait, I think we have been more conscious of that value and more committed to it.  Kindness was always modeled by our company’s founder, Lynn Melby, and as each subsequent partner joined the ownership team, we implicitly accepted kindness as one of our personal values, and we continued to cultivate kindness along the way.  That’s not to say we haven’t slipped occasionally.  We’re human, after all, and the business world can, at times, challenge the kindest intentions.

It isn’t easy to always be kind in business, and there may be times when kindness is well-disguised, but if the underlying culture is kind, the intention generally shines through.  Whether we are interviewing, training, correcting, or even terminating an employee, we do our utmost to approach it kindly—using empathy and compassion.  In client or vendor situations, likewise, when problems arise we look for solutions that are fair and respectful to all.  Where we have perhaps failed is in keeping clients too long that don’t share our values.  Clients who don’t practice kindness themselves.  Clients that don’t want to pay for the services they receive, or who put the blame on others for mistakes they make, or who ask us to bend our integrity on their behalf.

Choosing Integrity

A few years ago, after a large conference, a couple of our staff noticed that the hotel had missed a sizable food and beverage charge on the bill.  The client’s convention chair directed them to pay the bill quickly and not point out the error.  Our staff followed their consciences rather than his instructions.  They pointed out the error to the hotel and asked for a corrected bill.  The chairman was not happy.

In doing this, our team not only did the right thing, but also modeled our values to our client and to their office colleagues.  The longer I am in business, the more certain I am that success lies in working with people—employees, clients, suppliers, business partners—who share our values.

Unkind people can learn to be kind, just as dishonest people can learn to be honest.  But if they choose not to value those traits it is probably because beneath it all they believe that others are just as unkind or dishonest as they are.  Our job, then, is to decide whether to work with such people.  If they are likely to change, we should give them that chance, but if they are unlikely to, we should seek our business partners elsewhere.

There’s so much more to be said about kindness in business and in the workplace.  What has been your experience of kindness (or its absence) in business?  Please share your thoughts below.  Maybe we can start a dialogue.

“We live under the illusion that organizations are ‘them’ when, in reality, they are ‘us.’  If we wish to work in evolved organizations, we must each be the first to start the journey.” (Lance Secretan)