Method Advertising?

[September 24, 2011]

Though the different branches of advertising have many points of disagreement, they usually find common ground in one area. Everyone grasps that motivating an audience begins with understanding it. So whether you’re meeting about branding, messaging, media strategy—or the mundane aspects of copy and design—you’re liable to entertain a discussion of “tone,” “voice,” “identity,” “persona” and, depending on the age of your CEO, “psychographics.” 

What a strange, disembodied way to talk about ourselves. 

After all, the audience we hope to motivate is not made up of members of a different species. Maybe in some remote era of the future, marketers living on the moons of Jupiter may wonder how to sell a DustBuster® to a family of sentient crustaceans on Gilese 581g. But until that time, advertising firms and the brands they advise will be people talking to people about life on Earth.

How do you do that? It’s a question the advertising-marketing subspecies of homo sapiens has been asking for over a century. Since so much of the terminology we use seeks to define character and personality, I wonder whether acting training should be added to the Communications and MBA curricula. 

Get into character.
Think about the number of times a day we’re enjoined to understand the mindset of The Consumer. In its evocation of behavioral psychology, this quest for understanding reminds me of the way some actors prepare for their roles. Using a kind of anthropological research, they unearth detailed clues to a character’s thought processes, emotional life and environment.

Other actors, by contrast, seem to take a more physical approach, mimicking the stride, breathing patterns, speech rhythms, body language or facial tics of “typical” representatives of the character’s cultural group. Still others rely on improvisation, finding the character’s characteristics “in the moment,” using the tightrope wire of adrenalin to tap into their deepest perception of the human condition. 

No matter how they achieve the results that make us laugh, cry, rage or rejoice, they’ve found an entry point into the human psyche that, as I see it, is many times more definitive than anything we currently achieve, particularly in digital space. 

Personality, charisma are like…you know…sales?
Despite the real difference between a Drama Team and a Marketing Team, to the extent that they both aim to evoke a predictable range of responses from everyday people, the analogy is worth exploring. Certainly, in their drive for commercial success, films in the action/adventure genre mirror our work more closely than we’d like to admit. 

Like a successful director, we want the final product to be engaging, gripping, motivating and to pique enough interest to justify a sequel or two. Not, despite what we hear at award ceremonies, because it “serves the client,” but because it reaches out to real people and makes their hearts race.

And yet, in countless creative presentations I’ve witnessed, we rarely offer our clients anything more thrilling than a flash marquee with—perhaps—a groovy swirl pattern. Certainly nothing so charismatic as a quirky adventurer or as powerfully moving as a distraught mother searching for her lost child. 

On the contrary, the theme of these presentations revolves around the surgical precision with which we’ve “executed against the strategy.” If only. Imagine cutting edge thinking that actually included a cutting edge, an execution that actually spilled a little blood—OK, maybe ketchup instead—we might finally have a chance to rivet the attention of our audience. 

Act now.
At the sober, practical level, a move in this direction might not require too big a leap or—shudder—expense. Chances are, there’s a local arts education non-profit in your area that could offer a bi-weekly improv class—for less than the cost of that awful pasta salad you serve up at client meetings. Or you could postpone the purchase of another state-of-the-art-teleconferencing-center-no-one-will-ever-use and have more than enough in the budget to sponsor an annual, semi-staged play reading. 

Sure, it would shake up your professional paradigm, and some of your key players would be way too cool to participate. But for the rest, the experience in delivering a message through gesture, pacing, rhythm, facial expression and voice—i.e., anything but text and graphics—would open them up to a new understanding of their role as communicators. If you think this an unnecessary exercise, ask yourself: When was the last time you waited all summer for a Web site premiere?


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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