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)

What’s Your 10K?

“Even if our efforts of attention seem for years to be producing no result, one day a light that is in exact proportion to them will flood the soul.” (Simone Weil)

A few years ago, I was in a small village in Scotland and had an opportunity to listen to a local author. One of the notes I took from her talk—delivered in such a delightful brogue—was the comment, “What’s for you won’t go by you.” This saying has its roots in Scotland, but as so often happens, I subsequently encountered it in many places.

I’ve had the phrase pinned to my bulletin board ever since that trip. It comforts me and it also troubles me—as good ideas often do. I like the notion that what’s meant for us will persist until we find it. But it seems both facile and dangerous to assume that what I need to live the life of breadth and depth I desire is hovering patiently somewhere nearby.

It may, indeed, be hovering, but unless I’m paying attention and willing to do the work required to have the life I want, what’s for me will go by me. I think often about Malcolm Gladwell’s juicy book, Outliers, in which he asserts that to become good at something we need to put in at least 10,000 hours developing our skill or craft. Whether it’s playing the saxophone, writing, painting, or playing tennis, we’re not going to be become proficient—we’re not going to develop our full talent—unless we put in the hours.

The idea of spending 10,000 hours ballet dancing, playing golf, or studying macroeconomics holds no appeal, but the idea of spending 10,000 hours focused on kindness, or 10,000 hours writing, describes the life I want to have. I’ve still got a long ways to go with kindness, but I suspect I’m well into my second or even third 10K hours of writing, and hope I’ll have time to double or triple that number before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

Of course 10,000 hours of effort offers no guarantee that we will become experts or superstars in our chosen field, but Gladwell’s assertion is that without that investment of time and practice, it’s a pretty safe bet we won’t.

Another way of looking at the cultivation of our talent is to liken it to the growth of giant bamboo. It generally takes three or more years before the bamboo seed sprouts through the surface of the soil. But once it has, it may grow 80 feet in just six weeks. As long as we water it, the bamboo seed will eventually grow. Likewise, as long as we continue to nurture our abilities, proficiency will come.

“What’s for you won’t go by you” implies a passivity I reject. It’s planting the seed without watering the soil. I need to be alert so I can recognize opportunity; I need to be thoroughly prepared and able to handle all the effort and responsibility required. I also need to be able to seize and hold the opportunity, and then subsequently nurture it into full fruition.

So, I share the notion that what’s for you won’t go by you with these caveats:

  • As long as you pay attention
  • As long as you prepare for it by putting in the hours needed
  • As long as you recognize what’s really right for you and not what others say you should want
  • As long as you seize it wholeheartedly and without doubt
  • As long as you nurture and cherish it.

Dul chun é, mo chara! (That’s “Go for it, my friend!” in Gaelic)

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” (Howard Thurman)

 

Kindness and Common Sense Often Go Hand-in-Hand

“There are few problems in life which kindness and common sense cannot make simple and manageable.” (Mary Burchell)

Attribution: Donna CameronI’ve been invited to speak at a conference later this month on the importance of kindness in business and the workplace. Working on my PowerPoint (of course, there must be a PowerPoint!) and putting some notes together this last weekend, I kept thinking how obvious it is: kindness is one of the keys to success in business—both individual success and organizational success. It seems like a no-brainer.

I’m old enough that I remember the days of “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap and a proliferation of business books about Winning Through Intimidation, Looking Out for Number One, and Nice Guys Finish Last. There really was a time when “profit at any price” was a prevailing business philosophy and when ideals like kindness, compassion, and even teamwork were viewed as soft, squishy, and oh-so-weak.

Managers believed—they were even taught—that they got the most effort from their employees through bullying, browbeating, and coercion. They overlooked the obvious—that those behaviors resulted in low morale, resentment, and high turnover.

In recent years, there’s been a whole lot of research on kindness. As I’ve noted in many earlier posts, there are health benefits, wealth benefits, relationship benefits, and, yes, many, many business benefits. Just as there were once many books on cutthroat business practices, there are now numerous books on compassion as a successful business strategy. Among them:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unlike the others, this last one isn’t a recent book. It’s 20 years old, but still one of the best business books I know. Certain ideas are timeless, and you’ll find them in this and other books by Lance Secretan.

 

Here’s just a sampling of some of the recent research on kind and compassionate workplaces, found in these books and elsewhere:

Employees of companies described as having kind cultures:

  • Perform at 20% higher levels
  • Are 87% less likely to leave their jobs
  • Make fewer errors, thus saving their companies time and money
  • The companies themselves have 16% higher profitability
  • And if they’re publically traded companies, they have a 65% higher share price.

Research has also shown that compassionate business cultures consistently have:

  • better customer service
  • healthier employees and fewer absences
  • far less turnover and an easier time replacing employees when they do leave
  • higher productivity
  • greater employee engagement and commitment, and
  • an atmosphere where learning, collaboration and innovation are more likely to flourish.

In business, kindness is your competitive advantage.

It helps to have some common sense, too.

Which brings to mind United Airlines’ recent incident. I’m sure you’ve heard the story: Passengers were bumped from their seats and removed from a plane to make room for United crew members who needed to get to the flight’s destination. One bumped passenger, a doctor of Chinese descent, was forcibly removed when he refused the bump, telling airline personnel he had to get home to see patients. Security dragged him from his seat and pulled him by his arms and on his back down the aisle; his face was battered and bloodied in the process. What did United gain by this? Well, maybe they got their flight crew to their destination, but it cost them millions of dollars (one estimate I saw said easily a billion!) in bad press, lost passengers, and worldwide contempt. In China, where United is among several airlines competing for a share of the huge travel market, videos of the incident have gone viral at record rates, and Chinese travelers are vowing never to fly United. The monetary and P.R. costs to the company are incalculable.

Common sense and a compassionate mindset would have told United there were numerous other options: buying tickets for their crew on another airline, seeking a back-up crew, allowing the stranded crew’s flight to be delayed, approaching passengers without the confrontational, stormtrooper tactics…they could even have chartered a small plane. The relatively small cost of any of these options would have been preferable to the “nuclear option” they chose.

But if kindness and compassion—and, let’s face it, common sense—aren’t part of a company’s culture, these are the sorts of things that happen. I’m guessing other airlines, and other businesses in general, are using the United story as a teaching moment for their executives and employees. Let’s hope United has the good sense to be one of those companies.

If they’re interested, I can recommend some good books….

“When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace.” (Jimi Hendrix)

The Jerk Shall Inherit the Earth?

Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies, God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” (Kurt Vonnegut)

Bandalier,NM-ladderWellcrap.  I’ve spent the last fifteen years reckoning the importance of kindness in my life, and the last five months deeply immersed in an exploration of kindness.  And I have become convinced that despite local, national, and world current events to the contrary, people are growing kinder; we are on the verge of a kindness Renaissance.

Turns out I was wrong.

At least that’s one interpretation from an article that appeared in the June issue of Atlantic magazine.  Entitled “Why It Pays to Be a Jerk,” author Jerry Useem asserts that—consistent with the old adage—nice guys generally do finish last.  He further claims that some of the most successful people in business are also some of the biggest jerks—think Steve Jobs—and that their jerkiness is exactly what led to their success.

Useem does caution that being a jerk can also backfire and lead to abject failure, but bad behavior done right in certain circumstances is often the path to the top.

For example, stealing supplies or provisions just to benefit oneself doesn’t advance you in the eyes of colleagues, but stealing and sharing the bounty with others puts you at the head of the team.

And someone who aggressively claims to have the answers, even when they don’t, is seen as a leader and often elevated to the leadership position.  Further, it seems that the more unaware one is of how unfounded and even deluded one’s self-confidence is, the more swift and direct is the narcissist’s propulsion to the top.  UC Berkeley Research Psychologist Cameron Anderson explained, “By all indications, when these people say they believe they’re in the 95th percentile when they’re actually in the 30th percentile, they fully believe it.” And somehow they make others believe it, too.

I think this explains so much about our political system, or “jerkocracy,” as I am moved to call it. It would seem that some politicians think they’re a lot smarter than they really are and we’ve bought into their delusion.  Okay, I know that’s a totally unkind thing to say, but really—do a quick run-down of presidential contenders—doesn’t it explain a lot?

Another distressing example in the article showed that people who are treated rudely and condescended to by salespeople in upscale brand stores (e.g. Hermes, Gucci, Louis Vuitton) tend to spend more money than they do when treated well by another salesperson in the same store.  There were some qualifications to this: the shoppers needed to value the brand, the salesperson must convey the image of the brand, and such tactics by the salesperson generally only work once with the same buyer (of course, if you’re selling Rolexes, one sale is probably sufficient).  It also completely backfired if it wasn’t a truly upscale store, i.e., don’t try this if you work at Kohl’s or Target.

Givers and Takers

If anything’s clear from the article, it’s that the whole subject is murky.  Useem cites research by Wharton professor Adam Grant, author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our SuccessGrant depicts “givers,” those whom we would generally describe as kind and generous, and “takers,” who are often labeled narcissists and jerks, noting that both givers and takers occupy the top—and the bottom—of the success spectrum.

The conclusion seems to be that you can be successful if you are kind and a giver as long as you are perceived as strong and are consistent in your behavior.  And you can be successful if you are an overconfident, narcissistic jerk as long as you are convincing and seen as someone whose success will have a spillover effect on those around him.  For both giver and taker, if you don’t convey your understanding of and ability to bring others along on your success journey, you can expect to make a nose-dive to the bottom.

So, it appears we have a choice if we want to be successful: we can be kind or we can be jerks—we just have to do either effectively.  While I have undoubtedly been a jerk at one time or another, I hope those episodes have been rare.  I choose kindness.  Being a jerk to achieve success would be soul-crushing.

Perhaps the choice between the kindness route and the jerk route depends upon how you define success.  I’ve never viewed it as either wealth or power.  Increasingly, I do define success as spreading kindness and helping others.  As long as power, intimidation, and obscene wealth constitute success for some, it looks like jerks will continue to lead.

So, the Atlantic article is discouraging.  There does not appear to be a straight path to a kinder and more respectful world.  Jerks are still reaping the rewards of their bad behavior.  There’s still a long way to go to reach the kindness tipping point.

Nobody ever claimed it would be easy.  But, we’re in this together and each time we choose kindness we move that much closer.

“Our lives are made of these moments.  Simple words and actions, taken together, weave a single day, and our days become our life.  Every gesture is a seed, and the seed determines the harvest.” (Wayne Muller)