Shweta Khosla
Feb 25, 2014

We can be heroes

Today, we're liars. But by embracing narrative structure, we can be so much more.

Shweta Khosla
Shweta Khosla

Today, we’re liars.

The honest attempt of every lie is to be the truth. The tragedy of the advertising lie is that since its inception, the consumer has known that we’re lying. On a better day, we’re exaggerators, but mostly we’re liars, unless proven otherwise. We entertain them, we motivate them, we make them laugh and we’ve had great moments, where we’ve given them hope. It’s an important role but do they respect us? Do they believe us? They would much rather avoid us.  

It could be different. We could graduate from being liars to being heroes. All it needs is for us to know a little history and take a little inspiration from David Bowie.

A history of deception

In 1870, John E. Powers said, ‘if the truth isn’t tellable, fix it so it is’. It’s an advertising adage that we live by until today but at that time we took it literally. A classic example, in 1902 Lifebuoy is called a through and through life saver. A sanitary, antiseptic, disinfectant which purifies while it cleanses. I wonder if Lifebuoy was shipped to Egypt to prevent the spread of cholera. Our lies were the sperm that led to the birth of the FDA and other regulatory bodies as knuckle-rappers for advertising.  

In the face of curbs, we then moved from blatant lies to emotional, need based ‘fixes of the truth’. The beauty category began selling hope in soaps/perfumes/shampoo bottles and we’ve not really evolved from this 1911 Woodbury’s facial soap ad (A skin you love to touch). We were so successful in doing this that N.W. Ayer & sons first advertisement for Debeers set the trend for diamonds being central to engagements.  

We created truths because it was the need of the medium. We needed catchy headlines because we were on posters and in newspapers. We imitated the media and dispersed ‘eye catching’ news.

When TV arrived, their shows were christened ‘soap opera’s’ because they were sponsored by ‘soaps’ of early FMCG marketers like P&G and Unilever. So when we began sponsoring TV shows to reach the consumer, communication took the form of telling stories in a 30-second format. We were adapting to the medium again, but we kept consistent our core of ‘fixing the truth’. I cringe at doing this, because this is work I revere and enjoy but proving a point is the point, right?

So, can a Macintosh really help me think differently? Or prevent ‘1984’? Can wearing Nike shoes get me off the couch? Can wearing Chanel No. 5 make me attractive to Bradley Cooper if I weigh 87 kgs? How does wearing a diesel make me stupid, exactly?

Although the conversation so far seems to have come from a hater, I truly am a big fan. The Thailand ‘true move’ ad makes me want to be charitable. The Disney ‘magic happens’ ad makes me want to be the girl with the shoe. They were just stories in which I ‘could’ be the hero while I watched stories about other heroes. The thing is—that I want to be the heroine. Until now, advertising just showed me that it could be possible, it didn’t make it happen.

There is a lesson besides the fact that we are liars and it’s about time we redeemed ourselves. The forgotten lesson, that we were masters at adapting to the medium. When we were in the newspaper, we dispensed news. When we sponsored a story telling medium, we spun stories. Today, we are communicating through a medium that the consumer is using to create a better version of themselves. Then why are we still just limiting ourselves to creating ‘engaging’ content when we could actually be making them heroes of their stories? While we are hungry for them to ‘like’ our posts or share them, we could work a little differently and transform from being liars to being their Dumbledore.

Inspiration from David Bowie

And you, you will be queen
We can beat them, just for one day
We can be heroes, just for one day.”

—David Bowie

The consumer is living in a viral world. Her Facebook wall is a vision of what she aspires to be. Pictures where she looks her best (the genius of the ‘untag’); posts that are a testament of her character; an exploration and display of her inner talents. Twitter has turned us all into 140 character philosophers.

When she is online, she is the hero of the story her life. If we can break down the anatomy of that story and realign the equation with the brand’s variable, we can be the one who plays the all important role of Dumbledore in her life.

The anatomy of the story

Every great story has a protagonist (the hero) and an antagonist. The antagonist needs not necessarily be a human. It could be anything that stops the hero from attaining her deep-seated unmet desire; culture/adage’s/self-doubts/society.

There is almost always a conflict between the hero’s desire and the antagonists which is the crux of the story. The catalyst comes in and inspires the hero to take on the antagonist, to attain her glory. All the action happens and then the hero gets her reward.  The anatomy fits all and every story. A check?

Another check? A little more recent?

It would work with Potter, it would work with Reacher and it would work with any story. It is a sketchy outline but a working structure for us to take this discussion forward.

Now if we replace the catalyst with our brand’s purpose and the protagonist with consumer psychographics, we have a neat little structure that will enable the consumer to be a hero of her own story, indelibly raising the brands esteem and role in her life.

To illustrate, I would request you to please allow me to use an example of a brand which has got it right and its competitor which is struggling.

Coca-Cola has been the torch-bearer for ‘happiness’ for a while now. They’ve done initiatives where they’ve made consumers spread happiness. The ‘Share a can’ or even when they made the people of India and Pakistan make friends with each other; they enabled the consumer to create happiness. They successfully created an indelible, happy bond with their consumer. In this grey world, they made their consumer experience and create the joy of the red.

Pepsi, the challenger to Coke, positioned itself as the youth’s cola. Many years of successfully countering Coke followed, but today, the brand seems to be struggling to hold its supremacy and quintessential edge. In 2013, Pepsi created a commercial which celebrated the youth’s thirst for now (Live for Now). It’s a fact, but had they looked a little deeper into their consumer they would have realized that it is actually the ‘worry about tomorrow’ that’s holding them back from enjoying the ‘now’ vs. fear of the past. While they claim to be serious, sorted and have vision about their future, they are plagued by insecurities, and are extremely unsure of their choices and abilities. Is success about money or being a good human being? Choreography or engineering? An MBA but can I?

The only way they can truly enjoy the now is if they are confident that they can tackle the future. All the brand needs to do is be the beacon of positivity and confidence.

So, what would the Pepsi structure look like?

The ad wouldn’t just grandly tell a philosophy, it would make them the ambassadors of it. It could showcase youth who moved on from the ‘can I?’ to the ‘aha’ of satisfaction. It would inspire them to come and tell their heroism story. From as big as joining a choreography class to as bigger as raising money for ‘save the children’. It could be a platform which nurtures hidden talents or allows them to explore their genius. They would be the hero who shows irreverence to doubts / worries / negativity and makes a dream come true in the here and now.

Each one would be his own hero (now and tomorrow, where it counts), and Pepsi would be the one that made it possible.

Finally, we would not just be creating content where their involvement is limited to clicking the like button or typing a few comments. We would be the catalyst for the greatest, most important change of their lives.

This was an outsider's point of view and obviously there is always a better more concrete one that the brand owners can develop. The point is, sometimes we get it right, sometimes we get it wrong and sometimes we conclude the journey mid way when we could have completed it if we defined the destination right. Coke did it right. Kotex ‘Inspiration day’ left the brands and its purpose somewhere far far behind. Dove sketches could have concluded it by creating an app where consumers could experience the difference for themselves, because even after she watched the video she would be 5 kgs overweight with pale skin and dull hair. But if she could see how lovely she really is, she would feel like a queen for a moment and we would be heroes for a day.

Shweta Khosla is the planning director for Pantene APAC with the Grey Group 

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