The Consumer: The More Things Change

  • by June 28, 2007

Recently, I was invited to speak at a symposium about alternatives to the traditional 30-second spot. I was joined by an eclectic group of speakers, ranging from game developers and toy makers to designers to people who said they worked for "non-advertising agencies." And there also was an interesting group of clients, creative and new media types.

The topic, "Life alongside the 30-second spot; wading through the gimmicks to determine what really works," proved challenging. How do we wade through the gimmicks? How do we know what really works? How do we know whether it will work before we invest the money in trying it?

All big, difficult questions.

My response was small and simple: The only way to achieve any kind of clarity in communications these days - and the only way to have any chance of success in your marketing endeavors - is to start by trying to understand consumers. Work out what they want, how they relate to the brand and then come up with ways to make that relationship a little more entertaining, a little more enjoyable and a little more profitable.

My support for this point of view came from the observation that if you go to the heart of new media - YouTube, of course - and if you wade through the gimmicky videos that no one watches and look at the most viewed videos of all time, you'll see a collection of entertainment that could have made up the act list for an Ed Sullivan show in the 1960s.

There are quick-change artists, kids playing Pachelbel on electric guitars, guys performing the history of dance.

Some of them have been viewed over 40 million times. Proof positive that what we respond to on the newest of new media platforms is exactly the same as we'd have watched on a Sunday evening variety show 40 years ago. Fashions change, technologies change, but people - they don't change so much.

We're motivated by love, hate, passion, greed, envy and ambition just like we always have been. And we respond in the same way to cuddles, or comedy, sex or violence as we always did.

This isn't a new point of view. In fact, at just about the same time as you could have watched that Ed Sullivan show, Bill Bernbach was making a name for the ddb advertising agency with his now famous point of view: "At the heart of an effective creative philosophy is the belief that nothing is so important as an insight into human nature."

Given the age of that well-worn quote, I sometimes feel like a bit of a dinosaur when I whine about understanding the consumer and respecting the people you are trying to sell to.

But all that changed the other night when I heard my favorite quote of the evening. It was a game developer from Templar Studios referencing another, apparently infamous, game developer called Chris Crawford who came up with the idea of people games. He had this to say: "I dreamed of the day when computer games would be a viable medium of artistic expression - an art form. I dreamed of computer games expressing the full breadth of human experience and emotion. I dreamed of computer games that were tragedies, games about duty and honor, self-sacrifice and patriotism. I dreamed of satirical games and political games; games about the passionate love between a boy and girl, and the serene and mature love of a husband and wife of decades; games about a boy becoming a man, and a man realizing that he is no longer young. I dreamed of games about a man facing truth on a dusty main street at high noon, and a boy and his dog, and a prostitute with a heart of gold."

It warmed my heart to think of this new media guru talking about interactive entertainment in a way that is completely universal and completely reflects the unchanging nature of man.

I could picture a middle-aged couple in 1967 enjoying an episode of Ed Sullivan while their teenage son played one of those people games.

And it made me wonder whether it was with this in mind that Rockstar Games developed Grand Theft Auto. Almost 40 million games later, we can confidently claim that franchise worked. And perhaps with the same confidence, we can conclude that thinking about people first really is the right way to get past the gimmicks.

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