Five years ago I lived in an anarchist commune, and to say I hated marketing would be an understatement. I thought capitalism was rigged, McDonald’s used subliminal messaging to prey upon babies, and CEOs were puppeteers of the American sheeple. To avoid giving our money to The System, we dumpster-dived for food, collected our own rainwater, grew our own gardens, and — I’m ashamed to admit — many of us shoplifted.
Let me pause to say that stealing things is not cool, ever. No matter how many employees between a company’s CEO and the product on the shelf, shoplifting robs people of their hard-earned money. My point is that refusal to support big companies is an integral part of anarchism, and yet, there is something deeply ironic about the whole subculture:
Anarchists are brand-loyal snobs.
Not American Spirits? Not smoking them. Thrifting for a jean jacket? Look for Levi’s. Off to shoplift shoes? They must be Vans.
So how exactly did marketers turn the ultimate skeptics into brand-name devotees?
By telling the truth.
Across the street from the commune house, my roommate graffitied a dumpster with the words “We are the disillusioned.” Super emo, I know, but she had a point. At its etymological roots, the word disillusioned means, “I ain’t falling for your crap no more.” We were right that companies were feeding us lies, but not in the nefarious way we suspected. In today’s media-drenched world, there are countless shrill commercials and ugly billboards that are more focused on seizing attention than touching human truths and desires. Untruthful marketing ranges from annoying to depressing, and in the din of hamsters in hatchbacks and blonde moms dazzled by air fresheners, it can feel pretty soulless.
In 2009, Levi’s launched the Go Forth campaign by Wieden+Kennedy. Go Forth was ruthlessly soulful. During the worst year of the economic recession, the campaign focused on a message that rang true not just for anarchists, but for many young people. As we struggled to find jobs and pay student loans, Levi’s acknowledged the poor and middle class of America, the adversity we faced as a country, and even our anger toward the rich. Mixing political images with shots of young folks hopping trains, making out, and running wild into the night, Go Forth did more than make jeans look cool. It struck a basic human truth: that we want freedom.
At its heart, freedom for self and others is what anarchism is all about. America had lost some of its freedom, and we wanted it back. We spent as much time feeding the homeless and protesting for social justice as we did vandalizing stop signs. Go Forth captured freedom in all its facets, from class struggles to the wild beauty of not giving a fuck. Hate brands all you want, but freedom — that’s a human truth.
Go Forth is one of the few campaigns that gave me the chills the first time I saw it. Another is Dove’s Real Beauty campaign.* Real Beauty launched when I was in high school, and I loved it. The campaign didn’t show perfect women rubbing their silky soft skin. It touched on the true experience of being a woman, the desire to be beautiful and all the insecurity and fear that comes with it. In the minute and 14 seconds it took me to watch this commercial, I was converted from a beauty-product skeptic into a brand-loyal Dove customer. I immediately asked my mom to stop buying other soaps and switch to Dove. Now that’s the kind of power that every company and agency envies.
Ten years later, not only was the Real Beauty campaign still in full swing, but it continued to nag at the back of my mind. I was working on my master’s degree in writing, had outgrown anarchism, and started paying for meals instead of digging through the trash for them. But I was still wary of companies and advertising. The Dove campaign was the first step in my transformation from cynic into aspiring copywriter. It made me realize that I didn’t hate companies — I hated bullshit. Great marketing doesn’t lie or manipulate because it doesn’t have to. It seeks the human experience that consumers and organizations share and helps people find businesses that align with their values and desires.
Of course, telling the truth isn’t all there is to great marketing. How you tell the truth is crucial. You have to be surprising and engaging, take what people already know and spin it anew. But that’s a matter of craft and creativity, a topic for another day. My point is that if you can win the cold, black hearts of anarchists, you can successfully market to anyone. Starting with a basic human truth lays the foundations for a powerful campaign, and you may end up with a platform you can build on for years.
At the end of the day, if you want win customers, tell the truth. And if you want to make actual sales, don’t market to anarchists.
*And I have to throw in a third one, because I love it too much not to mention: “Jane” for Sprout by HP.