Commentary

Why Can't We All Be Different?

“We’re going to make some history together today,” Steve Jobs told the assembled at Macworld just before unwrapping the iPhone just 10 years ago last month. Since then, the smartphone has become a veritable “extension of our arms,” says author Gabriella van Rij. “Whether you’re 60 or whether you’re 8, we all have them. It’s such a powerful little tool.”

But, she continues, “In the wrong hands, these devices become weapons. And I, unfortunately, have see the devastating effects.”

Van Rij, a “kindness advocate” and “anti-bullying proponent” you may have seen or heard on TV or radio, cites many examples of children and adolescents being harassed and embarrassed by videos posted by their peers. Their motivation to do so, she says, is not unlike those of many marketers:They want to go viral. They want to be liked. “They just want those attaboys,” she says.

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That’s nothing new, of course. People have always craved compliments. But it’s amplified online, just as it is with branding messages.

“You ain’t cool if you don’t have this” applied to PF Flyers, Converse All Stars and Air Jordans in their days, too, but it’s nothing like the social frenzy around the Adidas Ultra Boost Uncaged Mystery, she says.

“I wouldn’t want to be the parent of a teen today because if you can't afford the $200, your kid is going to get bullied,” says van Rij. “You have kids as young as seven taking pictures of themselves on their skateboards and Instagramming it, hoping the company will use it.”

Marketers would argue that these Instragramming influencers are “real people” who are expressing their “authentic” admiration for the product, no?

“It’s all so staged,” she says. “If you go out to dinner with my daughter, she takes seven pictures before it’s the right one. Meanwhile, everyone is sitting around the table waiting to eat.”

Alexandra, 28, “is promoting what she’s wearing, where she’s traveling, which hotel she’s staying at, what she’s using, her camera..." says van Rij. “It’s not like she’s promoting a way of life. She’s just promoting that one product, making that one color of nail polish trend.”

Brooklyn, meet your biological father, Madison Ave. Thousands of influencers aspiring to replicate, with their photo apps, the unlikely perfection portrayed in magazine spreads from the days of the rotary dial.

As a result, social platforms that could be so useful for the exchange of divergent opinions and ways of living become more prone to judgments based on arbitrary ideals. “Everybody wants what everybody else does,” says van Rij. But the whole notion of influencers, in fact, is one that still perpetuates mostly unattainable notions of beauty, cachet or desirability.

So what would van Rij tell marketers?

“I would love to see them market the real person" -- as Dove notably, has been doing. And she sees unlimited potential of that happening with live-streaming which, by its nature, is unvarnished, spontaneous and transitory. Just like she tells people who are bullied to take ownership of the attributes that other people make fun of, marketers have the opportunity to put themselves out there, warts and all. That's what van Rij does when she talks to kids.

“I say, ‘I’m hopelessly flawed. But you’re going to have to look at me. I don’t see myself.’ And you can see them say, ‘Hey, I never thought of that.’”

Her main point: “There’s something to be said for the beauty of imperfection.”

But marketing, by and large, not only Photoshops our blemishes, it also promotes the unreal image of DD cups on a size 0 body, she says — admitting to, but not disavowing, the stereotypical assessment.

We are all imperfect in our own perfect ways, of course. As I was listening to van Rij, I could not help but think about a pitch for a TomboyX video I got last week “featuring gender non-conformist model, Rain Dove, highlighting the brand’s mission to promote the ‘Human Agenda.’”

“The fact is, nothing will ever suit a person better than being exactly, no apologies, who they were born to be,” Rain Dove tells us with unflinching pride in the 1:31 spot.

And so, I put the question to you: Why couldn't marketers lead social in another direction, one that celebrates differences other than Unique Selling Propositions? One where we’d be liked for our individual perspectives and imperfections rather than our ham-handed attempts to fit into what we think other people expect us to be? It’s a huge — and ever-expanding — market, after all.

7 comments about "Why Can't We All Be Different?".
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  1. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, February 9, 2017 at 2:46 p.m.

    These essays need a Like button, to save me from typing an attaboy.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, February 9, 2017 at 3:24 p.m.

    How gullible are you ? on a scale from one to ten how much you think you are and how much you really are ?

  3. Jacques Bertrand from helpage canada, February 9, 2017 at 4:18 p.m.

    Great column!  Very interesting. Thank you!

  4. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, February 10, 2017 at 8:30 a.m.

    Remember when Brooklyn was real and Madison Ave. was the home of fake? Times have changed. 

  5. Thom Forbes from T.H. Forbes Co. replied, February 10, 2017 at 2:44 p.m.

    If you are referring to the "Share" buttons that were part of the design in the past, I'm told they were underutilized and were dropped from this sleeker, more mobile-friendly version of the columns, Douglas. Thanks for the comment!

  6. Thom Forbes from T.H. Forbes Co. replied, February 10, 2017 at 2:46 p.m.

    ;-) Still waiting for the Bronx myself.

  7. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health replied, February 12, 2017 at 2:01 p.m.

    Thom I'm from The Bronx. Don't tell me they're moving in there too. 

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