Saturday, May 19, 2012

What I'm Selling Now

For almost 20 years, I've sold products (mostly) to women: make-up, pencil skirts, hosiery, mattresses, online beauty services, insurance, face creams, fragrances, bed sheets and duvets.*

As a conceptor and copywriter, whenever I had the chance to impose my own value system on the messaging, I’d weave in something important.  I’d send my audience secret gifts  – embedded in the copy – ideas that led to a bigger truth. Something that said great hair, magical fragrances and less wrinkles are wonderful but... there is so much more.

I recently read about the advertising for Kotex. It makes fun of all those cliches about feminine hygiene.  There’s the cute new European campaign for Dove which is about subverting ads that play on our beauty fears.  Love the direction - slightly post-modern, irreverant, positive - but as a war-weary veteran of the fields, I’m disappointed. 

A mission to make all women feel sufficiently beautiful is a great start. Telling women they don’t have to hug kittens and wear white and bounce through fields of daisies on their period is funny.**

There’s something so much deeper, something we haven’t reached yet.

Changing the conversation about beauty and vanity and women’s troubles, means we're still talking about beauty. And beauty – at least the version we use to sell and buy things – is a hierarchy.  Using the commodified version of beauty (which is NOT, as we all know, the thing that turns heads or even attracts the opposite sex), no matter how good I feel about myself, how much hair dye, mascara, botox or liposuction I buy, or even all the confidence and self-esteem in the world, I will never ever be confused for Claudia Schiffer. She and Kate Moss and Christy Turlington, especially their retouched avatars, are at the top of the food chain in magazine beauty.

In my IRL  (in real life) experience, beauty is two things. The first and most obvious: the win in the genetic lottery, some perfect combination of features and height and metabolism one is born with. This is the beauty that is not only used to sell stuff to men and women – and, given our addled little brains – what we consumers demand to see, as I have seen tested and proven in so many focus groups, in order to believe it’s a superior product. What's depressing is how many really smart people fall for it IRL.

The second kind of beauty is more interesting. In the second case, beauty is not a goal but a side effect. It's the beauty we get later, as we grow and love and learn and experience the world. This kind of beauty, an irresistible you-can't-look-away kind of radiance that is not dependent on age or genetics usually comes from people who haven't been chasing it.

To really change the conversation, we need to stop making the wrong kind of beauty important. 

Let me put it this way. It’s not that we stop telling our girlfriends and daughters they are beautiful or that shirt looks so great or that mascara really makes your eyes look huge – but that we change the emphasis. 

We tell them FIRST they are so smart, talented, great at math, capable and wow - you get SO MUCH done in a day – and by the way, that’s a cute skirt. I'm not suggesting everyone stop wearing lipstick or buying fragrance (because then I would starve) but that we remember that they are purely accessories.

So here's what I am selling to women now.  And what's funny about this is – these are all the things I used to use to sell gunk, clothes and scented rubbing alcohol before.

Your Intuition

You have it. It's not that airy-fairy Bewitched magic. It's the way you actually do know stuff. It's solid and practical (like Samantha was with her witchery). It’s about stopping and listening to yourself. It's the way you know the relationship with that guy is doomed. You knew it wouldn't work from the first meeting, but you were attracted to him. So you swept away the fact that he spent the entire lunch talking about himself and didn't ask you a single question about you. Somewhere, deep down inside, maybe even after you get engaged, you really know it was never meant to be. All intuition stories aren't that long and complex, but you understand what I mean. 

Believe in your ability to perceive the correct path for you. Believe in your sense of self. That means knowing your worth, standing up for yourself when you’ve been treated unfairly.  And standing down when you know you’re one in the wrong – that’s a point of strength, too.

Your Body

Loving it. Living in it. Really living in it. Because when you exercise all parts of it (including your brain) and feed it well, you live in it to full capacity. Your body is your interface with the world. For women, I feel like our bodies tend to reflect our sense of worth and to manifest what we are doing to the planet. The idea is not to smack it into submission. Because when you look after your body properly, it looks gorgeous. Not like a model. Like a luscious, touchable, breathing human. It begins to glow with the radiance that makes other people want to be close to it. It’s not about a hierarchy here. No one’s body is better than your own when you love it.  When you eat well, eat organic, breathe, exercise, get enough sleep, sit out in the sun sometimes.  
When you are living well in your body, you can’t stop respecting and loving it for all the places it takes you.

Your Sexuality

This is both a part of your body and your soul, but it also has a life of its own., doesn’t it? Like a wild and love-crazed Tasmanian devil unleashed on one extreme and a seething volcano in the basement on the other. How do you tame it? How do you enjoy it, harness it, ride it to all four corners of the earth without wearing it out? If not loved and respected, I worry that our Divine Feminine (excuse the New Age-yness) is turning into breast, uterine and ovarian cancers. I feel like we have not yet learned how not to chop off our body parts, how not to internalize the ways we don’t feel like women. I feel like we need to have fun with our power – how cool is it that we can create an entire human life inside of our bodies? How cool is it that we don’t have to? We are connected to the planets and the universe in ways we are just beginning to appreciate. We need to remember that it is a strength. Our sexuality is an asset not a liability.

Stop Getting Old

First, before you get all excited - I have no magic fountain of youth. I’ve tried almost every natural method – that doesn’t include injections or surgery – resveratrol, Chinese mushrooms, different kinds of exercise, acupuncture.  But what I mean is the figurative sense of the word. How to stop being passee or irrelevant. How to stop being tired. 

I do have a couple of tricks up my sleeve.  But you know tricks aren’t what you need. Good mascara and highlighter can brighten up your eyes but what it’s really about is changing how you see. That changes how you see yourself and how you live in the world. It’s about staying vibrant and dynamic. It’s about being filled with awe and laughter at the way the world surprises us. I know an almost 70 year-old woman who breezes into a room with the lightness of a teenager. She doesn’t wear make-up and has never had any plastic surgery.  Even if you don’t know her, you get the sense of a breath of fresh air. She rarely stops smiling or laughing, but she never laughs at anyone. As for me, I’m in my mid-forties and my business partner just said to me, “Ameena, the thing I love about you is that you still think you are 25!” 

I’ve sold (and bought) so many incredible, incomprehensible skin products that plump and brighten and renew and lots of them actually work – but if you are not open and young in your soul – they won’t make you younger.  Sorry.

Stop Being Judgemental

Ha! (Cough) Even as I write this, I have to laugh because I haven’t mastered it yet. But every time I manage to overcome a moment of irritation and frustration, I feel a surge of energy that is inexplicable. It is hardest to do with the people closest to you. The people whose behavior you subconsciously feel is a reflection of you. Those people you feel have wounded you or taken advantage of you. Or made you look stupid. Try and think about where they are coming from. Strangely, smaller slights sometimes sting more than bigger ones. If you really can’t get past something, pray. Pray for yourself, pray for the person or group of people you are mad at, pray for greater understanding amongst all human beings. It doesn’t matter what or who you call God, Jesus, Allah, Krishna, Brahma, the Universe, just pray because we are all connected.

If you do something hurtful or unkind, even unknowingly, apologize, but then, move on. Don't beat yourself up. If the other person is still angry, there's nothing you can do. The only person who has to forgive you is yourself. Regret and sorrow, self-punishment, take a big toll on you and your body. Learn from it, but don't take it with you. 

Every time you let something go, every time you are just open to other people being on their own journeys, every time you laugh and have faith in Universal Intelligence or God or the Divine, you get a moment of flow.  This is so unbelievable that I have to tumble on to the New Age wagon.  I swear this one thing will make you prettier, younger, happier and more popular. Isn't that what luxury is really meant to do?

Much much more effective than any expensive clothes or make-up or plastic surgery. 

Back when I was really an embedded reporter in the beauty and fashion wars, I used to ask my clients to sell me their products first. I needed to believe in something before I sold it. I couldn’t be excited and enthusiastic about a product that no one needed or that wasn’t lifechanging in some way. I refused to work on advertising that was full of false claims.

This is what I am selling now. Only because I believe in it. It won’t make me (or any big corporation) massive profits.

Are you buying?

Let me know. ***

*One of my lowest moments was an ad that conflated filling your home with plastic with protecting your baby. Sadly, or maybe necessarily, almost all baby stuff - car seats, toilet locks, outlet covers, baths, stroller seats - is made out of plastic.  With our new awareness of B.P.A., fluorocarbons and endocrine interrupters, I don't know how to think about that.

**We need to address the reason we ad people put in all those stupid cliches to begin with. Wearing white and doing gymnastics or diving into a pool proves that the product is leak-proof and comfortable. Hugging kittens speaks to our desire to be comforted and treated gently when our emotional pitch is high.  And the flowers imply innocence and cleanliness, a concern from back in the day when “women troubles” were dark and dirty. People make fun of the cliches but they forget that almost all advertising includes an iconography that is demanded by the consumers because it communicates quickly. What's frustrating is that, when I've run more realistic images through focus groups, the women get irritated. They WANT the cliches, the retouching, the unbelievable bodies, the poreless, wrinkleless skin, the make-up. We can't just change the advertising - because, of course, we need to sell stuff. We need to change our minds.

***Please comment! It is so strange to get 500 to 1500 views of a post and no idea (apart from facebook) of what people really think. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

can the internet stop evil?

i adore gil-scot heron.

i am ashamed to be yet another person bastardizing his words. but i now believe the revolution CAN be digitized.

a couple of years ago, there was an article by malcolm mcdowell in the new yorker, about how the civil rights movement would never have had an impact if it had started out with a facebook page. his theory, which i agreed with myself in october 2010, was that people click or "like" and then go back to their real lives. their somewhat passive "action" makes them feel like they are doing something so they don't really have to. and the truth is - as both causes and commercial products are finding - "likes" don't add up to people voting with their feet or wallets.

so what happened? why did things change?

there was the arab spring. people in oppressive regimes took to the streets and started demanding change. a young tunisian man who got an education and could only sell fruit on the street, set himself on fire - rather like a vietnamese monk in the 1960s - and people began to realize that they not only could, they HAD to change things. the vast, sweeping movement in egypt started, at least, with google and twitter.

in the past couple of years, there were movies like V is for Vendetta and the subsequent online activists anonymous and wikileaks.

then across the water in peaceful, complacent u.s.a, we realized we were running out of money and natural resources. teachers, professors, workers, ordinary people in wisconsin moved into the state capital to protest budget cuts that would reduce their health benfits and force them to relinquish their right to collective bargaining. all this in the country that gave us emma goldman and norma rae. people all over the u.s. got online and ordered them deliveries of pizzas, sleeping bags and drinks so they could hold out.

people came out in force to demonstrate for and against park51.

the tea party and ron paul had made everyone start to think grassroots. whether we like them or not, we learned we didn't need to simply accept what authority told us.

then came #occupy - first wall street and then cities across the country. admittedly, it was a rag-tag bunch, mostly students who couldn't find jobs out of college and the usual band of socialist workers and people out of the mainstream. but what was surprising was their level of support in the mainstream. religious leaders across the spectrum - christian, muslim, jewish, buddhist - spoke about how the movement represented the necessary ethical struggle against greed and excess.

even though #occupy lost its physical space, in an almost predictable battle with a massive real estate holding, the idea that the average person DOES have power and presence in the political and economic landscape had taken hold. the issue, of course, was the fact that it was a band of people held together by their unhappiness with the economic situation, but their specific goals were so diverse that they were never made clear.

and now there is STOP KONY 2012 - a viral video and campaign started by an organization called invisible children. the video is the story of a young american man who is so moved by his meeting with a ugandan boy that he vows to help him eradicate the villain whose forces killed the boy's younger brother and destroyed his home and family.

in my advertising mind, the video was genius in several ways. there was a clear and evil "bad guy" (black and sweaty), there were clear and sweet "good guys" (mostly white and smiling) and a very simple message along with - we LOVE this term in advertising - a single-minded proposition. they tell you EXACTLY what to do, how to do it and, best of all, how it will make you feel.

i had only two issues with the campaign (from a purely commercial standpoint) - 1. the 25-minute video was WAY too long for my attention-span. on the other hand, since it targeted 13 to 17 year-olds, they have more time to watch and they were drawn into the story and the way the momentum built. 2. it was a little too obviously "white man's burden." the activists and the good guys were ALL white. the black people were either bad or victims - and they were ALL africans. we saw no non-whites (except in massive crowd shots) who were activists. a bright, young uganda woman explains how often americans/europeans arrive to "fix" africa.

on the other hand, from an advertising standpoint, we have a lot to learn from the exercise. like what everyone wants is an idea that makes them FEEL better about themselves. what is simplistic is to promise them that an antiaging creme, a hair dye, a lipstick, a fragrance, a dress or a pair of jeans will do that. we also all want an idea that makes us feel like we can have an effect on something important. who doesn't want to change the world? we all want, as they say in advertising jargon, "an activation." the DOVE campaign for real beauty did that, but didn't manage to deliver on the product.

however, a host of other places, the washington post, the new york times, the huffington post, friends on facebook, criticize the simplicity and sudden popularity of the campaign.

as for me, from a political standpoint, i agree with forbes. what the campaign has succeeded in doing is mobilizing a group of idealistic young people who could feel themselves powerless. when you are young, you have the space to think and care deeply about the suffering of others. when you are young and fed and clothed and sheltered, you can see the injustice of people who are not.

perhaps, since my children go to the united nations international school in new york city and grew up memorizing the "rights of the child" (rather than the pledge of allegiance), they are especially vulnerable to such propositions. but it seems like children all over the country are responding to the cry of another child, even though he's halfway round the world.

yes, the kony campaign is imperfect. it seems that the forces enlisted to rid the world of kony are only slightly less bad than kony's lord's resistance army. the solution proposed is simplistic. but then again, in today's complex world, we crave simplicity. the campaign is a bit loose and sloppy with the details and the facts, but so are most ad campaigns because the idea is to make a simple point. we get you thinking and then you do the work to find the important details.

if you are 13 to 17, the idea of triumphant music and a children's march to paper the country with STOP KONY posters on april 20, is both inspiring and empowering.

despite the horrible history of the word "crusade," i like the poetic sound of the word. for me, it means marching towards a goal, a sense of moral or ethical purpose. STOP KONY implies a children's crusade, much like the disney revival of newsies, a group of young newsboys who rise up for justice and fairness.

when rara was eight, she took all her pocket money and donated it to an organization called falling whistles, a campaign to end child soldiering in congo. they gave her a whistle to wear around her neck and sent her a letter telling her whistles would be given to children in congo. the idea was to make a noise, to stop the suffering of these - as the kony campaign tells us clearly - "invisible children."

in my opinion, the STOP KONY campaign, is both a massive success (whether or not it stops Kony, who, according to some sources, may already be starving and weak in the jungle) and also a testament to the desire of our young people today to change the world for the better.

can the power of the internet stop evil? yes. maybe. not totally. but it can change the way we think and make us realize even more how we are all connected. it can educate young people in global realities. the fact that american children's emotions are an online connection away from those of african children means that the global village is getting closer by the moment.

and that's just where as humans, we should want to be.

want to take another step towards stopping child soldiers all over africa? stand with amnesty international