Appropriate Joy

I was walking by an ad yesterday on my way to a meeting. The man in the ad was beaming, starry-eyed, overjoyed and bubbling over with laughter, looking straight into the camera.

What is this ad for, I wondered. The most delightful tropical adult summer camp in existence? Did he just find the elixir to eternal life, win a million dollars?

No. It was an ad for public transit. Now,  I’m a downtown, carless urbanite and happen to be a huge fan of public transit. But does getting bus tickets make you (or anyone you know) ecstatically happy?

Which got me to thinking about “authenticity” in advertising and brands. Previously I had thought about “authenticity”  as sharing true stories and images: words and people that are actually related to the brand and its story/product. But I’ve realized there’s another level to authenticity – emotional credibility.

Take for example all those stock photos of women eating salad and yogurt. Part of what makes them ridiculous to us is the level of emotion that the women are showing while forking a leafy green into their mouths. Humans are really good at knowing when someone is legitimately smiling because they are happy versus “fake” smiling (i.e. a smile with no authentic joyous emotion behind it). So in a case like the “happy woman eating salad” photo, we know as humans that the woman is fake smiling OR if she is legitimately smiling we think that either that piece of spinach is sentient and just told her the most adorable joke, or the woman is—legitimately—crazy.

In summary, seeing a product/emotion disconnect in an ad makes us (the viewer) see the brand as:

  1. Inauthentic,
  2. Some sort of purposeful, tongue-in-cheek joke,
  3.  Built and/or modelled by crazy people, or
  4. Built using photos originally taken for another product or purpose.

None of these (obviously) provide optimal results for the client, except for #2, which would make for an excellent and amusing advertisement depending on the brand/product being sold, but I tend to find that sort of purposeful disparate pairing to be the exception rather than the rule.

I admit – I am guilty of creating work that starts falling into this emotional inauthenticity. Because it’s nice to see people smiling and laughing – humans in North America are conditioned to  see smiling as a blanket way to communicate a “this is good stuff” message.

Also, it’s much much harder to communicate an authentic emotional message, for several reasons. First of all, it takes more time and research from your creative team to discern the interesting and unique emotive power of a product or company. Also difficult is capturing and communicating those genuine subtle and complex emotions. Convincing a client to pay for their own photoshoot (or commissioning custom illustration work, etc.) versus using generic stock photos/illustrations can require a master debater’s stamina. Not to mention, trying to explain to CEO Spinach that—although spinach is SO WONDERFUL, maybe it’s not a laughing-alone-with-head-tossed-back kind of happiness?— can be a nerve-racking point to bring up, when Spinach Co. is paying you to make people love and buy their product.

Selling a specific person (in other words a “personal brand”, as opposed to a product) is a bit of a different process, but as with a product, it’s all about context: have a strict and curmudgeonly speaker that you’re selling in the program with a warm and fuzzy Santa smile photo? Your audience is going to feel betrayed when they are trapped in that conference room with him or her. 1 star reviews will abound. On the other hand, if you take this same person and give them a genuine (in this case, stern) photo with a bio that sells them as serious no-nonsense speaker, attendees can choose whether they want that experience or not, and your conference success and reviews are going to be better.

The fact of the matter is, when we see an emotional disconnect between a model/actor/spokesperson and the context of what they are selling, there is a tiny voice in our head that says “You can’ trust them. Something is off.” This sort or reaction will not be good for your brand in the long run. Ask yourself: does your product ACTUALLY offer joy and head-thrown-back laughter? Give it a moment. Now here’s the tricky part… you need to separate the reality of the experience you’re offering from what you wish your product offered. Not everything can be a glorious, brilliant Beyoncé. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that. Rubber plungers are not joy-inducing, and I don’t want it sold to me as joy unless you’re making a tongue-in-cheek hyperbolic statement about that moment when you desperately need a plunger and one descends from the heavens, Deus ex machina style. At which point the context (a joke) becomes appropriate to the emotion modelled (joy). Likewise, spinach does not tell funny jokes to solitary women, but if you ARE creating an ad about a woman eating spinach with head-thrown-back-laughter, that spinach better have a mouth and be telling a freaking killer line because out of the above list of 4 options, #2 is the only one that is going to create a great ad that’s good for your brand.

For my part, I’m going to ask myself harder questions about emotional authenticity in the work that I create, not just because it leads to more successful advertising and promotional work— but because it leads to more interesting, varied work. If we can imagine spinach as being a sentient being, surely we can imagine (and treat) humans as the sentient beings that we are.