On The Power of Positivity

I’ve got this friend Dave Butler.  Larger than life, his raw, unfettered enthusiasm makes Dave the guy you always want on your invite list.  He’s that rare type of cool guy who doesn’t hold back his excitement about anything; a night out, a party, a Steppenwolf play. As a result, he attracts people like a bug light and collects memories and experiences where so many others collect only regret.

I thought of Dave over the weekend when I read an item posted at Yahoo.  In an AP human interest piece, Ryan Nakashima cited the popularity of Yahoo’s celebrity-focused site OMG! and credited much of its popularity to its relentlessly positive tone.  For the past year in the crowded world of online gossip, OMG! has held sway as the leading aggregator of eyeballs.  That’s more visits than Entertainment Tonight or People’s sites, more than the brash emerging celeb news source TMZ, and far more than smarty-pants sites like the often-hilarious What Would Tyler Durden Do and the self-obsessed PerezHilton.com.  Moreover, it leads the competition in overall page views as well.Blog

Of course, OMG! benefits massively from direct links from the 500 million unique monthly visitors to Yahoo, just as the newer and similarly styled Wonderwall does from MSN.  But OMG! does something else I found fascinating: they consciously spin all their items with an upbeat, non-judgmental tone.  Sibyl Goldman, a Yahoo VP says “We just like to tell the happy view on what’s going on in the entertainment world.”

As a rule, people prefer the ‘happy view’: we love optimism, sunshine and happy endings.  This is the foundation of decades of bubble gum music—those pop songs from our past that even provide a guilty pleasure to innumerable hipsters.

Being positive is a simple game plan for success, but one that’s extraordinarily difficult for creative people to execute consistently.  Few of us strive for a career creating cocktail chatter, we don’t want to develop light and fluffy tones free of personal viewpoints and judgment.  After all, our strongest creative influences take the exact opposite tack.  The brainy irony of Letterman, Stewart and Colbert, the bleak narratives of Cormac McCarthy and anti-glamour songwriting of Tom Waits, the visual sophistication of Scorsese: all conspicuously avoid easy, crowd pleasing actions.

When instructed to create a positive tone in our ideas, our self-censor inevitably rears its ugly head, concerned that if we get too upbeat, we’ll abandoned intellectual heft and creative integrity.  In the end, determining where that line lies requires empathy.  And empathy doesn’t always come naturally.  We are not always in synch with the largest markets in America; we don’t always watch what they watch or read what they read.

Further, as much as it pains me to admit, our messages are incidental to most peoples’ lives.  We try to earn attention amidst infinitely more important daily concerns like their health, their family and the White Sox score.   People rarely approach marketing messages and mediums seeking a challenge; they want something easy and fun, even if it’s information.  They welcome the respite of a bright and breezy tone.

So go ahead–post that snarky tweet, write that ironic Facebook status update, and share that obscure German stop-motion animation short with your friends.  But when you need to reach a broad market, strive to be positive.

OMG!  It works for them…

by Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Flawed Characters, Authentic Brands and Tom Waits’ Perfectly Imperfect Voice

Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young: most reasonable people would accept the argument that the three of them together don’t add up to a single great vocalist.  And yet as rock singers, each reigns sublime in their own right.  How is that?

As noted by critic Daniel Durchholz

Said by critic Daniel Durchholz...as praise.

We respond to their idiosyncracy, their remarkability, their singularity. We respond to them much like we respond to characters in a story; if they were perfect, we wouldn’t care because they wouldn’t feel realistic, but a flawed hero gets us every time. The imperfections, the shortcomings, the blatant failings draw us in, make us relate, and flesh out these characters as believable people. Like us.

As we create brand stories instead of mere campaigns, we need to tap into this sense of what makes a hero human and tie that to our products or services. The challenge lies in convincing a client that admitting, or even touting imperfections will actually increase relatability; with marketing dollars at a premium, few want to invest the time, money and effort in anything short of high-gloss perfection.  After all, manufacturers value perfection.  Their assembly lines eliminate inconsistencies and hone tolerances to microns.  Yet when deep rows of exactitude crowd shelf after shelf in our superstores, the imperfect product creates the most interest.  This  fuels the rise of the handmade movement and outfits like etsy.com but that’s probably fodder for another post.

As advertisers, we can serve this simple truth best by bringing humanity to our brand stories in terms of authenticity: not perfection, not idealization, but authenticity.

For a great example of that, go to the iTunes store, punch up Tom Waits and just listen to the sample for his song “Gun Street Girl.”  Listen to the hard-edged experience limning his gravelly growl and you tell me this isn’t a man who knows a thing or two about dying his hair in the bathroom of a Texaco or getting liquored up on roadhouse corn.  Bless him…

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79