Commentary

What's Meaning When You Can Have Experience?

Joseph Campbell wrote that people who think they are searching for the meaning of life are actually searching for experiences, which they don't realize are empty. I had a conversation with my daughter about this. She was given an assignment to find literature that refutes or supports her interpretation of Campbell's statement. I let loose with some existential claptrap from my days in the commune making ecstasy in the basement -- stuff about existence preceding essence; that meaning is no more independent of experience than the heart is of the blood it pumps. I went on with some syllogism like "Meaning is enlightenment, and enlightenment is experiential, then meaning is experience." My daughter said, "Uh huh," and continued her important work texting her friend about "Pretty Little Liars."

But then it occurred to me that, really, Campbell was likely impugning experience experienced for the sake of experience -- meaning for the sake of distraction, of which I know I'm a devotee, because I love being distracted. I explained this to my daughter as well, but she was now trying to perfect her twerking moves in the mirror, while my wife yelled at her to do her homework. "It's a little too late to be a tiger mom," I mumbled to myself. "The best we can hope for at this point is to be decent zookeepers." I try to be optimistic. I decided to carry on this conversation internally, with the Buddha. 

The truth is, I tried reading Hero With A Thousand Faces recently, but couldn't get through the first chapter because I was distracted. But I seem to think he wrote that enlightenment is something you can't manufacture and that the only reason Siddhartha Gautama went to sit under the Bodhi tree is because he had AT&T and he figured the reception would be better there. 

Do marketers need clarity on this? Yes, they do. Because advertisers conflate superficial and virtual experience with meaning, and that's not a good way to think about how the mind eats. We are  stuffed with experience. Over the past century, technology -- from the car and camera, to the plane to the Internet -- has democratized the kind of experiences that used to be the sole privilege of the endowed classes, who took their season on the Continent and to the Indies, etc. (that has been supplanted by trips to space, or will be.) Now we can get a shallow, visual version online at YouTube and elsewhere. Even at the gym: I've hiked Utah, the Grand Canyon, and Yosemite Valley on the elliptical machines, cycled Verdun and the Adriatic on the stationary bicycle (thanks, GoPro.)  

Advertisers are shoehorned into trying to give brands meaning through sensory experience. That's what advertising is, after all, but back when John Wanamaker couldn't decide which part of his spend worked, advertising was at least audible and visible; it wasn't just one more droplet from the media fire hydrant. Things are geometrically worse now for consumers and marketers.

But there's one frontier that offers some real open space for the sellers: temporal relevance, i.e., delivering something that actually matters, not something the marketer thinks should matter, or that will be clever enough to at least get people to look in that direction for a second. It may be that ultimately, the only way to market to prospects is to deliver the right message, the right offer, the right product to the right person at the moment when he or she happens to be looking for just the thing you are selling. That’s meaning -- and yes, it trumps experience for experience’s sake.

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2 comments about "What's Meaning When You Can Have Experience?".
  1. Karen Ticktin from brandthis , February 28, 2014 at 9:16 a.m.
    And what about meaningful experiences?
  2. Mickey Lonchar from Quisenberry , February 28, 2014 at 11:57 a.m.
    Great perspective, Karl. What you described is the quintessential definition of 'brand': the collective experiences and feelings one has about a particular product or service. Note that we never bothered to define 'experiences' here. That's because they can come to us from anywhere. Not just from using the product or viewing marketing messages, but from reviews, casual conversations, seeing it on retailer shelves, how long it takes customer service to pick up the phone, how navigable its website is, etc., etc. We've known this for quite a while, but with more possible touchpoints for consumers, we need to invest heavily on ensuring a consistent 'experience' across the Influence Loop.