Print Politics

Criticism by Design

Make an impact by stepping out of your comfort zone.

Whether you're advertising bubble gum, or the next President of the United States, a little self-criticism might be one of the only ways left to make an ad campaign worth paying attention to.

There's an old rule in advertising that says it's never okay to criticize yourself. Like that other old saw that says it's never okay to draw attention to your competition, this advertising theory seems to run on the principle that if you just pretend something doesn't exist, it will go away.

But as Nina Simone once said, “It's a new dawn, it's a new day,” and it's a new advertising universe. As consumers (or voters!) become more savvy and cynical, the rules have got to change. And at some point, it has become okay to criticize, disparage, and/or make fun of ourselves in an advertising campaign. But what's the payoff of this potentially risky game?

I got to thinking about this today after reading Ron Fournier's article on a recent comment made by Barack Obama. During a speech, Obama acknowledged that it is a “stretch” for voters to feel comfortable with the idea of him as Decider-in-Chief.

We see this type of challenging self-awareness in advertising campaigns more and more frequently, particularly online and in other forums where marketers need to step out of line in order to direct attention to their campaign. Taking into account that the road to the White House is essentially one, long, drawn-out advertising campaign, I have to wonder if Obama's comment wasn't a similarly strategic advertising decision.

So, what benefits might Obama stand to gain for criticizing himself publicly?

1 – Obama earns points for clear-sightedness. He knows that his youth and relative inexperience are concerns among voters (particularly older voters), so why not acknowledge them, and go for the honesty and transparency snaps?

2 – He appeals to the advertising needs of his key demographic. That is, an audience that is under 40, and eager to have media and advertising confirm that they are right to be suspicious of media and advertising.

3 – By acknowledging the barriers between the advertiser and the consumer (cynicism, desire, imagination, power), he may effectively overcome them. Making fun of yourself, and of the practice of advertising, as a whole, lets the consumer know that the advertiser understands them, and hence, a connection is formed.

4 – He positions his laid-back, good-natured self-awareness against the contrived rigidity of other candidates, which has been so grating this campaign season.

5 – By committing the ultimate political (and marketing) faux pas – that is, to admit that he might, in fact, be wrong – Obama exposes the fallibility of the entire process, and suggests that a candidate who can admit fault is better than one who is blind to it.

It's easy to argue against these points, saying that there's no sense in calling attention to the weakest elements of your campaign platform. To do so is to run the risk of putting negative thoughts in the heads of your supporters, and give fuel to your detractors while hardly winning them over.

However, this carefully thought out strategy – and make no mistake, it is a strategy – has become one of the best ways to market to a consumer culture that has become a wasteland of jaded cynicism. We tune out advertising and politics as easily as we did our junior high school teachers. And why is it so easy? Because it's always the same old song and dance. That's why today's advertising campaigns can benefit so enormously from wiping off the face paint and plastic grin and showing consumers a little humility. Hang your head, show your tender underbelly, expose yourself to criticism, contempt, and derision. In this advertising climate, people will love you for it.

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