The Invisible Brief

In 1999 Harvard psychologists Christopher Chabris and Donald Simons conducted a famous experiment on selective attention. If you’d like to try the original experiment, you can find it here before I spoil it.

If you're not going to try it, here’s how it works.

Two teams simultaneously pass two basketballs.

Participants were asked to count how many times the team in white passes the ball.

While they are carrying out this task, a person in a gorilla suit walks across the screen.

Incredibly, the experiment shows that roughly 50% of participants fail to notice the gorilla even though it’s in plain view for 9 seconds.

Proving that when we are completely engrossed in a task, we are quite likely to miss what’s happening around us.

This metaphor applies very well to business.

Companies get so engrossed in day-to-day operations that they fail to spot important trends.

And get blinded sided by the obvious.

And few things are more obvious than the proverbial 900 pound gorilla.

Blockbuster’s gorilla was Netflix.

RIM’s gorilla was the iPhone.

Groupon’s gorilla is a lack of sustainable merchant benefit.

And this metaphor also applies to advertising on an almost daily basis.

Explaining why 90% of advertising is crap.

Because between the strategy documents, the PowerPoint presentations and media charts, the obvious has gone missing on Madison Avenue and along Shoreditch.

(Not that the condition is limited to London and New York.)

It occurs everywhere the industry is too busy complicating things to remember what a simple business advertising essentially is.

Everywhere agencies fail to recognize the invisible brief.

So here it is made fully visible:

Get noticed and remembered for being relevant.

It’s guaranteed to improve any brief.

And it’s often the only one you need.

Now is the Spring of our Bloomin’ Discontent

Can you feel it? It’s everywhere.

From the rebels in Syria, to Occupy Wall Street, to student protests in Quebec, to a toxic US election campaign, to vocal Russian dissidents, to a UK local election thumping for the coalition government, to an embittered and unemployed Spain, to a despairing Greece, to a Eurozone coming apart at the seams.

And I’m leaving a lot out.

Discontent is everywhere and it’s different this time.

It’s not a bunch of radicals or a revolutionary cell.

This time it’s the 99%.

They may not all be manning the barricades or lobbing Molotov cocktails.

But perhaps for the first time, it feels like the majority of global citizens know the game is rigged.

They know Left or Right, Democrats or Republicans, it’s just different shades of grey.

They know governments are run by lobbyists for corporations.

They know that $30 per hour semi-skilled jobs are never coming back.

Sure, they still vote - to do otherwise would be to give up absolutely but deep-down they know it won’t change anything.

They will get fooled again.

They know all governments tell lies and waste money, and in the West, the best we can hope for is that it’s not deliberate.

And we’re lucky.

If you’re not so lucky, you get a bunch of thugs blatantly lining their offshore accounts while your kids starve.

And there’s nothing you can do.

So here’s the point.

Here’s the question.

How do you sell stuff in an Age of Universal Cynicism?

Because that’s the age we’re in.

1. Be honest

Your mum probably told you, “Honesty’s the best policy.” She was right.

Lying about a product invariably gets found out. Ask Nutella and I imagine the $3 million in damages is nothing compared to the hit Ferrero’s sales have taken over this class action lawsuit.

The bigger question is why lie to sell your “healthy” product when you could just produce a genuinely healthy product in the first place?

Having worked on quite a lot of FMCG, basically it comes down to price points and volume. Make a healthier product, price points go up, volume goes down, profit margins get thinner. I’m not saying it’s easy.

But the real bottom line is we’re choking on deceit. More than ever we want brands we can trust. Especially when we feed them to our kids.

2. Be credible

Being honest won’t get you very far unless you’re credible too, and that’s not just semantics.

It’s become too easy to bash RIM, but that’s not my problem when they make silly claims in Blackberry Bold ads. If you’ve seen the ad where Meridith Valiando claims to answer 1000 emails a day you know exactly what I mean.

I doubt anyone answers a thousand emails a day on any phone but even if this claim is true, it’s simply not credible. At a minute an email that’s 16 hours 40 minutes per day. Credibility is a huge brand asset, it’s easy to lose and hard to regain.

3. Put a smile on my face or a thought in my head

As Howard Gossage said, “Nobody reads ads. People read what interests them, and sometimes it's an ad.” So make your ads amusing or provoking or something... Because nobody cares about your message and they’ll care even less if you beat them over the head with it.

These are good advertising practices at any time, but they’re especially welcome in an Age of Universal Cynicism.