The Advertising Industry Needs To Stop Trying To Win Wars

This post originally appeared on The Advertising Week Social Club on Oct. 31, 2013

Actually, no.

Actually, no.

Last week I attended TedxLowerEastSide. It was held at the visually stunning Angel Orensanz Foundations for the Arts. The event’s theme was The Hero’s Journey and featured a number of inspiring and fascinating speakers. A particular favorite of mine is Douglas Rushkoff, the media theorist, public intellectual and best-selling author whose latest book, Present Shock, is a must-read for those looking to understand how media and business are shaping the 21st century.  Rushkoff’s insights, and his ability to weave them into a compelling narrative, make him imminently listenable, and I found him to be completely engaging.

In particular he had an extended riff that I thought had real relevance for the advertising industry, though it wasn’t directed at the marketing community.  He spoke of the 20th mindset around “Winning the war on…” Examples of course being the “War on Terror,” or the “War on Drugs.” The “War on…” metaphor works well when the target is, say, Nazism. We’re really talking about a zero-sum game in that example. Once World War II was in full swing no one thought there was an acceptable level of Nazism that we should let exist. It needed to be eradicated and doing so may not have been easy, but it was simple: Defeat the Germans.

But things changed in the following 30-40 years. Actually a lot of things changed – politically, culturally and socio-economically to name a few. So when America decided that non-prescription drugs were a bad thing and needed to be dealt with in the severest possible fashion, the obvious meme –especially if you came from the World War II generation – was to prosecute a “War on Drugs.” So in 1971 President Nixon publically stated we were going to do just that. But ‘Drugs’ are a much more complicated idea, and problem, than Nazism. Not worse, or more heinous, but more complicated. Nevertheless, the War on Drugs continued unabated for nearly 40 years before, in 2009, the Obama administration stated they were no longer going to use that term.

In its place we’ve launched wars on terrorism, poverty and a host of other subjects, and we’ve done so with limited success to say the least.  Rushkoff argued that it is in part this 20th century framework that is preventing us from properly addressing our current challenges – issues like poverty, healthcare and the environment. How exactly do you wage a war on global warming? What does that even mean?  But if you watch the news, especially cable news, you’re bombarded with the “War on…” notion. Politicians use the term in aid of their increasingly radicalized viewpoints. Is a “War on Christmas” or a “War on the Middle Class” really being waged? It may take a very long time before we can understand that the grammar we are using to tackle the challenges we face is ill-suited for the task.

What does this have to do with advertising? Well, words matter, especially in advertising.  And ideas are what the ad industry traffics in, so understanding how words and ideas are used in service of an issue is critical to understanding how advertising works.  I think two of the most memorable campaigns of recent years offer a glimpse at how understanding the difference between 20th century and 21st century solutions can lead to great success and connect on an emotional level with consumers.

If the 20th century was about Victory, the 21st is about Sustainability. How do we achieve balance and learn to live within our means. Dove has built an entire brand around this understanding. Where most beauty brands encourage you to “fight aging,” Dove produced the Campaign For Real Beauty which encouraged women to appreciate and be happy with themselves. No “War on Wrinkles” or “War on Cellulite.” Women had been peddled that for decades and it was a war they were not winning because it’s a war that cannot be won. Dove is about sustainability, not victory.

Similarly, Dos Equis created an iconic campaign in a way that upended the traditional approach to beer, that most masculine of categories. The Most Interesting Man in the World campaign was witty and clever, but for all that, could have easily fallen into the one-hit wonder bin of advertising history. But here was the key line: “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis.”

Don’t always drink beer?! As a product spokesperson, it was assumed that TMIMITW not only drank Dos Equis, but probably poured it on his cornflakes and used it when brushing his teeth. That’s how you win the “War on Budweiser!”  If that wasn’t enough, when he did drink beer, he only preferred Dos Equis. So, if he came to your party and you didn’t have Dos Equis, but did have Sam Adams, yeah, he’d probably give you a raised eyebrow, but under the right circumstances he’s pop the cap and take a swig. There’s an unspoken understanding of sustainability here. A realization that you can’t fight a “War on, well, everything that isn’t Dos Equis.”

I think people understand this. In fact, I think we are becoming wary of the “War on” mentality that as a culture has led us where we are today.  Yes, the NFL, that most militaristic of sports is still the top dog, but look at the rise of action sports, where often it is artistic interpretation over ‘winning’ that was the genesis of the sport. Actually, it wasn’t even a sport, it was an activity until the people who run the networks and hold the economic levers got a hold of it.  My son is more interested in playing the co-op mode of video games than killing his buddies.

So, will the advertising industry take the cues from Dove and Dos Equis? More signs are pointing to yes. Chipotle’s recent efforts rather explicitly speak of sustainability rather than trying to fight a “War on Taco Bell.”  But I don’t think it requires a product or brand that is specifically focused on sustainability for the creative concepts to have that sort of motif.  It’s about connecting with people in an emotional way that communicates a truth about the world we live in today.