Former ad man Matt Jackson has left the industry to start his own business Affectors.com that attempts to marry art with commerce. In this guest post he reminisces of his days in agency land and the lessons learned…
On New Year’s eve my mother and I engage in a tradition which involves toasting a glass of Champagne to what we deem the greatest achievements of our passing year. I remember the year I announced that I had managed nine of the most effective McDonald’s Happy Meal campaigns in Australia’s advertising history. I was aware that the achievement of this required manipulating people and I didn’t believe that manipulation in itself was either a bad or good thing. However, in the time between announcing my achievement and sipping the champagne something stirred in my stomach.
Manipulation is neither bad or good
Since I left advertising I have realised that manipulation is not a bad thing. There are contexts in my life wherein I actively seek to be emotionally manipulated and if I am not then I am disappointed. Primarily these occur in the arts. When I select a song to listen to I am doing it for the way I want the music and lyrics to affect my thoughts and feelings. Likewise when I buy a ticket to the theatre or the movies and when I surrender to a novel or a persuasive piece of nonfiction writing. What is it that makes one form of manipulation acceptable and another abhorrent?
When manipulation is positive
Manipulation is not inherently negative. In many ways it is a creative act that steers the subject toward a series of realisations that leads to personal growth. Positive psychology and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) are two methods used in the health sector that aim to help clients build self-esteem, confidence and resilience. Like audience members in the arts, clients permit their thoughts and emotions to be manipulated in order to gain insight into how the world affects them and how they in turn affect the world around them. With increased self awareness the individual is empowered to choose the way they respond to manipulation and becomes more conscious of the motivations beneath and the consequences of their actions. Note that I am not defining a positive manipulation as a joyful experience, but rather one that leads to an expansion of self awareness.
How we measure success
The nasty aspect of this on a larger commercial scale is that we don’t measure or celebrate whether advertising and media succeeds in terms of the way it affects people. We only focus on measuring, ‘effectiveness’ in terms of the attention and sales achieved by the campaign. Whilst studying and practicing marketing I learned that attention and sales can be won through advertising that uses the principles of positive psychology and CBT to affect people in positive and negative ways. There is also strong evidence that advertisements that agitate fear and affect people’s self esteem in negative ways are more effective. Younger consumers today are more aware of the manipulative techniques used in overt advertising and they are enabling themselves to block them. It is also encouraging that we acknowledge and celebrate campaigns such as those by Dove that affect people’s self esteem positively. Campaigns like Dove’s are the remarkable exception though. The more pervasive marketing trend is to make the manipulations even more covert through the use of algorithms and personal data that make the manipulators more aware of the subject than the subject is of themselves.
Manipulation is part of life and sales are essential to business. We are becoming more adept and powerful at manipulating people’s thoughts and feelings and we are becoming more aware of the way it is happening through affective computing. My suggestion is that we use the technology to start celebrating the success of businesses that drive sales by moving hearts and minds in positive ways ahead of those that stimulate the most amount of sales by any means possible.
Matt Jackson is the founder of affectors.com, a business that affects creativity and team performance in the workplace. His latest book, The Age of Affect (Richmond Publishing $27.99), now available instore or online at http://www.affectors.com/shop/the-age-of-affect-by-matt-jackson