- Dr. Bryan MacCarthy - ITI
Being a 'Boss' of Messaging in This Messy Moment
Is your business or institution finding it difficult to strike a socially acceptable chord in today’s politically charged messaging and marketing climate? You’re not alone…Many business leaders seem to be struggling with the question, “How can my organization constructively (profitably, sustainably) communicate its valuable message in an era of fierce identity and category feuds?”
As a contemporary example of the expansive, and expensive, scope of this messaging and identity challenge, during this year’s Super Bowl, iconic brands Jeep and Bruce Springsteen made a surprising miscalculation despite what they apparently thought was careful curation: Their twenty-million-dollar, two-minute spot was roundly skewered by those on both of America’s two tiresomely theatrical “sides.”
Where did Jeep get off track with their seemingly positive branding message? Why is the divisiveness in this country so thick that a plea for unity and mutual understanding as benign as the Boss’ could be cancelled? And what can your business learn from the dissonance accidentally created by Jeep and Springsteen?
Well, for starters, Jeep’s intended lullaby was never actually any match for the increasingly blood-thirsty “Teams” we’re all forced to play on (if we want to play at all, that is). But the message resonating with any business and community leader with the right ears is that the ‘identities’ of those you target in advertising are not actually Red and Blue.
For those who missed the debacle, here’s what happened: Bruce Springsteen got on TV during the greatest perennial media event of the year to sell Jeeps but also to tell us that we’ve got to find some way to stop fighting with our compatriots. “We need,” he said, “the Middle.”
Businesses need to respond by setting aside the Red and Blue filters for marketing and risk mitigation and learning to observe the ancient and potent energies underlying today’s explosively charged marketplaces and community squares.
Since the Boss has long been known for his Blue Team politics, objections from the Right that the commercial is cynical and hypocritical were unsurprising.
But the Left sniped back as well, accusing him of letting Trumpies and other Republicans off too easily for the Capitol riots and selling out environmentalism to Jeep as well as being a little too Christian.
The ironic result of Jeep’s effort at unity was therefore, as an Adweek poll revealed, that the spot was the “most divisive” of Super Bowl LV. A Chicago Tribune headline declared, “Sorry Boss, but the middle of America exists only on a map, not in the hearts of its people.”
Now, I kind of think this critique is wrong. Not only do I think the middle exists somewhere in people’s hearts (if not on any ballot), I also don’t think many of us even need to be encouraged to step into that middle. There are plenty of people who never left a common-sense center; they just don’t know what to say in the face of the crossfire in today’s marketplace and public square.
In the middle of this messy moment, can we understand and engage communities and consumers NOT as Red or Blue—white, black, brown, etc.—but rather as people of passion, protectors of neighbor, lovers of local flourishing, curious creators of sustainable commerce!?
The better question from the perspective of advertising, however, is: Who’s firing? That is, who are the voices shouting back and forth, creating the chaos that forces our common-sense center customer and citizen into withdrawal and disengagement?
As I said at the outset, I do not believe it’s a Red-Blue, Right-Left thing. In reality, every business is—intentionally or unintentionally—conveying a message to human psyches of greater or less maturity. In this case, Springsteen struck a chord that resonated with two unhealthy inflations dominating public discourse and identity these days: the Wounded Warrior and the Angry Intellectual.
It would be easy to apply these labels to our situation along stereotypical lines by painting the right-wing critics of Springsteen’s commercial as a collective “Wounded Warrior”: “Okay, you won [stole?] 2020; just leave me alone to bleed in peace.” And the left-wing critics as a collective “Angry Intellectual”: “You’re just not listening!”
Such a maneuver would conveniently—but too conveniently—fit the common narrative. For years, progressives have complained that conservatives are gun-toting aggressors with a “strict father morality” and an appetite for civil war. Conservatives, in turn, frequently charge that progressives are smug, bratty snobs who pretend to know more about what’s good for you than you do and are indoctrinating America’s youth in university. And progressives only happily take up the latter stereotype for their self-conception, as Hilary’s 2016 “basket of Deplorables” comment—and President Biden’s newly-minted “Neanderthal thinking” swipe—attests.
But such criticisms go the other way too. Former President Trump’s second impeachment lawyers, for example, bombarded the country with a twenty-minute montage of Democrats talking about punching Trump in the face and urging fellow partisans to “fight,” “fight,” “fight,” “fight like hell,” and “for those of you who are soldiers, make them pay.” Plenty of Wounded-Warrioring going on there. On the other side, Democrats have been calling Republicans elitists for decades. Indeed, the arguments against voter suppression and economic inequality depend on such accusations. Hence, conservatives like Mark Levin and Dennis Prager have accused the Left of being anti-intellectual. There’s even a book about it. So the Right is no stranger to the Ivory Tower of the Learned but Unheard.
The upshot of these observations is that the Warrior-Intellectual dynamic is not, as it might first appear, a Right-Left one at all. Rather, it seems that one side’s Warriors (or “Activists” or “Protestors” or “Rioters”) are fighting with the other side’s Intellectuals (or “Analysts” or “Experts” or “Pundits” or “Journalists”) and—the key insight—vice versa at the very same time. And I don’t even think everyone is totally in one mode or the other. Which mode, for example, best describes a “gladiator” with a J.D. from Harvard who sneers at Ed.Ds for calling themselves “doctors”?
Am I calling people to LOVE something, PROTECT something, SERVE something?
So it’s a mess. We’re a mess. Successful messaging to communities and consumers is a mess. Can anything less messy and more constructive be said to these disparate demographics, given the highly charged energies operating in our individual and collective psyches? In the middle of this messy moment, can we understand and engage communities and consumers NOT as Red or Blue—white, black, brown, etc.—but rather as people of passion, protectors of neighbor, lovers of local flourishing, curious creators of sustainable commerce?
Enter Springsteen, who embodied none of these energies (precisely) but tried to say something beyond at least the Red and Blue ones:
It’s no secret: The middle has been a hard place to get to lately. Between Red and Blue, between serving and citizen, between our freedom and our fear. Now fear has never been the best of who we are. And, as for freedom, it’s not the property of just a fortunate few; it belongs to us all. Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, it’s what connects us. And we need that connection. We need the middle. We just have to remember the very soil we stand on is common ground. So we can get there. We can make it to the mountaintop, through the desert. And we will cross this divide. Our light has always found its way through the darkness. And there’s hope on the road up ahead.
And so the Warriors and the Intellectuals pounced: “Who is he to tell us not to fight? Tree-hugging Beatnik.” “What does a rockstar know about anything? Shut up and go back to your working-class crooning and guitar-playing.”
Isn’t it obvious, though, that they only jumped on him for not being like them? But that’s no surprise. Of course anything that isn’t aggression or condescension is going to strike these folks as sappy. Springsteen spoke of “connection” and “common ground,” “light” and “hope.” None of these fit in the Warrior-Intellectual shell, which prefers division and separation, darkness and despair.
Now, there’s a place for both aggression and condescension—a time for everything under Heaven, if you will. But to require them in all political discourse is to presuppose that they are valuable above everything else.
Are they? We know what the Warriors and Intellectuals want, or at least what the more inflated and energetic voices in those camps demand on social media and news magazines. But what about the rest of us? Surely there are confident, comfortable citizens of courage who can meet in the middle without casting aspersions and spells on the other side. Might businesses seek out such people, who are passionate about serving their neighbors and caring for their community, despite the brands they see on political signs and status symbols everywhere? A noble and peaceable tribe awaits, ready to prioritize local community sovereignty and sustainability—not to mention global ecological and economic viability—over brand or identity allegiance. Businesses need to respond by setting aside the Red and Blue filters for marketing and risk mitigation and learning to observe the ancient and potent energies underlying today’s explosively charged marketplaces and community squares.
So armed, they can tap into the most constructive of these energies and avoid the costly, critical crossfires of our moment. What, for example, would it be like for businesses and institutions to reach out to more Ambassadors and Philanthropes who prefer common ground and connection to winning or being right? If Jeep had ditched its ‘this isn’t a Red or Blue commercial’ schtick and, instead, drove home a different question, “Am I calling people to LOVE something, PROTECT something, SERVE something?” both “sides” might have bought the premise—and a Jeep.
And, actually, I think this is the question the Boss was really asking, or maybe answering, and I don’t think it was wrong or naïve to do so. At least no more naïve than starting a country on the principle that anyone from anywhere can come to live in freedom together.