People are Bad

I was flossing my teeth at the balcony window the other night, taking in the view over the city, and I noticed someone trying to aim a projector at the big blank wall of an apartment building across the way. Since the projector was off to the side, this involved zooming and shifting the image in several axes and the individual at the helm was obvious having some difficulty. In any case, when it settled down enough so I could read it, I was a little dismayed to find that what was being projected was an ad for something called “People for Good,” and it featured a giant ScanLife barcode that people could use to download the People for Good app onto their iPhones. I was dismayed because I don’t like having giant, luminescent, animated billboards right across from my balcony, and I know, based on the opposition to the giant, luminescent, animated billboard next to the Burrard Bridge, that I’m not alone in feeling this way. So I hatched a plan to skewer People for Good in a scathing blog post, which wouldn’t have any effect on the persistence of that billboard, but which would certainly make me feel a lot better.

As it turns out, People for Good is a national campaign with the goal of “making the world a better place” by encouraging people to do good deeds for one another. As their manifesto notes, “It may sound ambitious but it’s easier than you’d think. In fact, you could help make the world a better place right now. Just by doing something nice for someone.” Their website implores visitors to “join the movement” and “pledge their support” by installing a Facebook application or by downloading the free People for Good iPhone app, both of which give you a list of suggestions for good deeds that you can do each day – offer to give someone directions, for example, or shovel the snow off someone’s walkway, or send someone a handwritten note instead of an email. It is the claim of People for Good that “when you do something nice for someone, it gives you a natural high that can last for weeks, even months”; and presumably, people doing good deeds for one another will create a cascading effect that will eventually engulf the world in happiness and good cheer.

Whoever wrote the web copy anticipated some scepticism: “Rest assured,” they say, “we’re not asking for money, we just want you to donate a little generosity.” Needless to say, I was not resting assured. This campaign, which involves billboards and subway ads and newspaper ads in major cities across Canada, obviously cost a lot of money to produce, and I was a little suspicious that someone would invest so much money in something without expecting a return. My scepticism was fuelled by the overall superficiality and banality of the campaign. There’s little else on the website or the apps apart from those suggested good deeds, and after reading the examples I gave above you could probably come up with another fifty off the top of your head while playing with a Rubik’s cube. Eleven out of twelve people gave the iPhone app a five-star rating, and at least two of these eleven people work for Thinkingbox, the company that designed the app; presumably the others, who showered the app in effusive praise, are their friends and family members. The one person who offered a two-star rating wrote what everyone else must be thinking: “I love to do nice things for people but I was disappointed by the lack of original and new ideas.” What’s more, an individual who goes by the sobriquet “fartamplifier” pointed out on the People for Good Youtube page that “peopleforgood.ca doesn’t function properly in IE9 (even with compatibility mode turned on) and FF5. It locks up both browsers and the site is displayed incorrectly.” In short, the app is stupid and the website is boring.

My question must be fairly obvious by this point: if these guys had a million bucks to spend on making the world a better place, why did they choose to spend it on something so inane and unsubstantial? People for Good was started by Mark Sherman, founder and executive chairman of a company called Media Experts, and Zak Mroueh, the head of a branding company called, modestly, Zulu Alpha Kilo. In a July 11 press release, Mr. Sherman characterizes the campaign as a feel-good bit of philanthropy:

When something is not right, we tend to rely on someone else-our neighbour, our boss or our government-to fix it. But the truth is, anyone can help change the world. Companies can harness the power of their collective to heal and improve our society. We took stock of what we could do as two business owners.

Mr. Mroueh has a similar outlook:

Small good deeds – even as basic as genuinely saying “thank you” to someone who helped you, smiling at a stranger or helping out a co-worker – make a big difference in creating social capital, the glue that holds us together as a community.

He acknowledges that the campaign is intrusive, but the intrusion is justified, he argues, because it intrudes “with a different kind of message.” But is the message really as different as he claims?

In answering this question, it’s helpful to look at another similarly unusual project that was carried out by Mr. Mroueh’s company, Zulu Alpha Kilo. In October 2008, a team of “interdisciplinary thinkers” from Zulu Alpha Kilo built a white box in the middle of Dundas Square in Toronto and offered to give passers-by creative solutions to any questions they might have, like “how can we raise $20,000 to help teach students to invest?” or “how can we put an end to road rage?” or “how can I dress up my wheelchair to look like a rollercoaster?” They called it “thinking inside the box.” After twenty minutes of deliberation on each question the team would present their solutions and then move on to the next question, and they repeated this process for nine hours while the video billboards around the square broadcast the proceedings. The similarities between this project and the People for Good project are quite plain: both have no apparent product that’s being marketed, both involve unusual ways of interacting with the public, both involve a considerable investment, and both offer a vague proclamation about how the project is doing good (in the case of the Think project, it was giving people a “new appreciation for creativity”).

The product being sold in both of these cases is obscured by the digressive rhetoric surrounding it. What we’re seeing here is advertising trying to become indistinguishable from its medium. We’re aware of how product placement incorporated advertising directly into the content of TV shows, but taking that idea to its logical conclusion would involve making the TV shows themselves into advertisements; if the TV show itself is an advertisement, people might not notice that that’s the case, and they might be less averse to the intrusion of the ad into their life. I’m obviously not privy to the conversations that happen in the boardroom of Zulu Alpha Kilo and other advertising agencies, but I imagine there’s some awareness that people generally dislike and / or ignore billboards and TV ads, so the future profitability of the ad business has to involve drawing a façade over the face of the ad to make it less identifiable as such.

The copy on Mr. Sherman’s Media Experts website reflects this strategy using different words. “The business of media,” it states, “is about engagement, not just exposures; it’s about getting into consumers heads and hearts, not just about counting them.” They quote the ancient Greek writer Aesop as saying “appearances often are deceiving,” and they cite this as thinking that “resonates with [their] own.” This is the kind of thinking, apparently, that underlies Media Experts’ presentations about “digital solutions 2.0,” with titles like “Data Driven Digital Marketing,” “Mobile Marketing Revealed,” and “Social Media’s Impact on your Company’s Brand.” There was no billboard in Dundas square that said “hire Zak Mroueh,” but by putting that box into the square and allegedly getting it into newspapers across the country – into the content of the papers, not the ads – Mr. Mroueh loaded his sleeve with a big ace for next time he’s in a sales meeting with a company who’s looking to refresh its brand strategy. If he can do this for his own company, what can he do for you?

Blurring the lines between advertising and non-advertising is a valuable tool because it can make advertising seem so benevolent. The People for Good campaign is ostensibly philanthropic, if you don’t look too closely – it really does appear to be about nothing more than spreading good cheer and making people connect with one another, and indeed, there’s nothing on the ads themselves, the website, or the Facebook or iPhone apps that would suggest otherwise. And there’s no evidence incriminating enough to make Mr. Mroueh concede, if asked, that yes, this actually was a form of marketing for his and Mr. Sherman’s companies. It’s all circumstantial. People complain about advertising being misleading, but this is advertising that’s misleading in it’s very form; it makes it difficult for people to tell if they’re reading the news or being targeted by advertisers, if they’re talking to their friends or being targeted by advertisers, if they’re looking at art or looking at marketing, and this is undermines the whole concept of an informed consumer. Advertising that intrudes on our friendships and our public spaces without announcing itself as advertising is intrusive to a degree that makes old-fashioned TV ads and billboards seem totally innocuous by comparison. This is especially concerning in light of the growing scope of corporate control over politics and government. In the United States last year, for instance, Google and Verizon got together to draft a policy proposal regarding net neutrality, and they left it full of loopholes that would very clearly give them control of content provided through mobile devices – the most rapidly growing sector of data traffic. And the FCC engaged them in talks! Control over web content in the hands of behemoth corporations, coupled with advertising that you can’t tell is advertising (made by people who are  “in the business of changing attitudes and behaviour”), is a prospect that motivates me to move to the backwoods of the Yukon to live in a cabin.

Joke about tinfoil hats if you want, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think about how our current trends might manifest a few years into the future – in fact, I think it’s necessary. I’m a university-educated adult with a strong background in thinking critically, but even I was naïve enough to expect a product being sold in black and white when I got to the People for Good website, and I was frustrated how my research into the project wasn’t turning up any obvious culprits. People less cynical than myself probably wouldn’t think to try and identify a product in this campaign. As long as advertising like this is so banal that it doesn’t make people think twice, then mission accomplished.

Updated July 24.

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One response to “People are Bad

  1. I just came across this. Congratulations on a great piece of writing. You do indeed have a tremendous faculty for critical thinking, which seems in short supply these days.

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