Have you seen the new Special K ad? You can check it out right here.
When you're done, come back and I'll tell you why I think it's so awesome - and reflective of a broader trend in marketing (we'll get back to the changing face of marketing later).
There is absolutely nothing about cereal in this ad. The ad's not about selling food - it's about selling the sensation of empowerment. Instead of the traditional "I'm a hot model getting checked out by (other gender), eat this cereal and you can be just like me", what this ad says is "don't try to be some artificial Hollywood standard - be the best you you can be."
Which involves more than cereal. Look at the women in this video - are they leisurely eating a bowl of Special K while wearing white Lulu Lemon gear, looking like they haven't a card or rush in the world? Nope - but then, how realistic is that, anyway? Most people are hustling in the morning - to get to work, to get the kids ready for school, to do all these things simultaneously.
In this way, most ads present false standards that people living real lives can't ever hope to realize - eat this cereal, turn into a model! Buy this fitness video, be buff and turn heads in 20 days or your money back!
The intent of those more traditional ads is to project an image of perfection and tantalize the viewer with the notion that they can be just like that if they simply buy the product. Which is of course isn't the case - health is a combination of factors, including diet and fitness, and it differs from person to person, lifestyle to lifestyle.
Instead of minimizing this truth and focusing strictly on their product and its values, what Special K's #OwnIt campaign does is present a more realistic view of women's health within their normal life context - starting with the relatable (97% of women have an "I hate my body" moment) and then throwing that inter voice of insecurity that so many ads speak to directly under the bus (tell that voice to shut up!).
What do we see then? Not a series of women munching down on Special K, but embracing their lives, pursuing fitness activities and clearly feeling good about themselves doing so. Larger woman dances, has a ball! One-armed lady doing push-ups - how inspiring is that? Then, women looking in the mirror and embracing who they are and what they can be.
There are only two images of people eating Special K in the whole ad:
- a woman in what looks like a gym, crunching on a bar after a workout
- a admittedly idealized version of a middle-aged couple in a very comfortable house at what looks like the end of the day, with the woman sitting on a counter having a happy bowl of cereal (might want to close that fridge door, though - you're wasting energy)
The ad isn't about cereal - it's about a sense of empowerment.
In real life, the less-than-model-perfect people will be drawn to what they see as perfect people subconsciously for the potential benefits (does perfection rub off through osmosis? If they get the hottest girl/guy in the room, maybe I can get the runner up?). This isn't about empowerment - it's about relying on the power of others.
We're all drawn to things like humour and charm because they act like chocolate, or a hug - they make us feel good. This isn't about empowerment - it's about externalizing happiness, the same way binge-eating or excessive drinking can be about externalizing the relief of depression or anxiety.
That's the kind of selling traditional ads capitalize on; they're not really trying to change our lives, they're trying to position their product as the life-changer. Essentially, we're being told to become product wingmen, because proximity to or consumption of that product/service will make everything better. We're shown a lifestyle, a look, and then told that product X is our ticket to that world.
Which of course isn't the way the real world works.
The #OwnIt campaign, however, isn't suggesting or even hinting that Special K is a world-changer, a ticket to the perfect body or perfect life. In fact, the ad isn't about the cereal at all. It's about perspective - and how when we change our perspective, we open up doors all on our own, without need of a magic key.
Very specifically, the ad targets women - a demographic that is still marginalized in the workplace, public life, on the street and especially in media, where the standard to which they are held is literally artificial. It says to women - "We recognize that the standards out there - standards perpetuated by companies like us - are false, and harmful to you. We want to change that. We encourage you to challenge the status quo to disrupt what defines beauty. We're on your side; we just happen to sell healthy cereal."
I'm not a woman, and I still felt good after watching that ad. Like most people, I like seeing people overcome odds, build confidence and find success in their own way. I get swept up in movements that empower change, just like a growing number of people. I want to be part of that change.
I once designed a whole campaign called "What's Your Healthy?" around the idea of individual definitions of health and the notion of maximizing one's own potential rather than meeting false standardized expectations. This concept ties in to a growing number of campaigns and initiatives that are tackling the status quo - redefining what it means to be mentally healthy, redefining what is socially acceptable in turns of ethnicity, sexuality, etc.
It's even happening in politics - while we still see old-school leaders positioning themselves as Alpha dogs and telling us to leave them in charge and just get out of the way, there is a growing movement towards citizen-engagement, social co-design and access to information and tools that empower everyone to have equal skin in the game.
Done? How do you feel?
Do you feel the same way you did after watching the #OwnIt ad? Do you feel a tinge of excitement, a sense of opportunity and idealism? If you're the target of an ad like this, what sensation does it leave you with?
What the marketers behind ads like this hope is that you are left feeling empowered, optimistic and inspired. They want to make you feel like you - no matter who you are or where you come from - can stand on mountains. You don't need them to do these things, any more than you needed your favourite teacher or coach to inspire you to be your best.
Just like that coach, or teacher, or mentor - you're going to remember them, aren't you?
If the psychological imprinting intended by these ads work the way they're supposed to, you will begin to associate that sense of empowerment and optimism with the cereal (or the service, or the candidate).
You will know that eating Special K is good for you, in that it provides good nutrients without detrimental sugar and whatnot, but you'll feel like you're getting a boost when you look a the box, like remembering the inspirational quote of that person who made a difference in your life.
In short, you're not buying the cereal for what it does for you - but what it reminds you is within your realm of possible, all on your own.
Here it is - the kicker, how marketing is changing and reflecting social change as a whole.
What business do companies like Apple have in supporting gay marriage? They're supposed to be focused on selling products, right? Sales is all about focusing on how your product is the best, most capable, the only one that can get the job done for a client, right? That's what laissez-faire capitalism is all about; hard sales through self-promotion and then ABC closing the deal.
There's no place in business for wading into social issues.
Just like there's nothing wrong with the polling industry's methodology - it's the people who are the problem.
People seem to be forgetting the way the world works - top-down, assimilate-to-succeed, conservative family values, mass-standardization, sales through self-promotion, etc. People need to succeed on society's terms and they need to find it within themselves to succeed - not count on external parties to hold their hand. Right?
Yet more and more companies, parties, organizations and even movements are emphasizing empowerment of the individual, personalized definitions of beauty/success and diversity as a strength. It's cool to be supportive; it's trendy to hack the system and its standards in favour of the individual.
Hence, companies supporting gay marriage, campaigns like black lives matter and MMIW, etc. Products essentially advertising for their target market, not to them.
And their markets - seniors, women, the LGBTQ community, millennials, etc. rewarding them for it.
See, the smart companies are applying new understanding of behavioural economics and societal trends to tweak their messaging and outreach to be less "push" and more "raise up", empowering their audiences to be co-creators of their brand through UGC.
Smart organizations are, in effect, empowering individuals to reach their maximum potential so as to contribute their maximum to the tranformative social change rocking our world.
They've adapted to the times, evolved with their markets and are winning as a result.
What's the lesson in here for comms people and marketers?
People don't want to be sold to - they want to be engaged.
It's not about you, nor your product - it's about them. Position yourself as part of their journey.
To succeed, help them succeed on their own terms - be part cheerleader, part teacher, and be clearly seen to embrace the social issues that matter to them.
The same lesson applies to business, HR and absolutely politics.
If you want to win, put your people first. Don't focus on the hard-sell; focus on ownership. It's not about you - it's about them.
It's as simple as that.
And they will thank you for it in ways you can't begin to imagine.