“No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”
— H. L. Mencken, “Notes on Journalism”
There’s something about creative work that makes it unconscionably easy to believe your viewers are morons.
Think about it: the very premise of most creative work is that an audience doesn’t know something and the person creating the work does. For the work to be good, the information or idea fueling it has to be important enough to eventually merit the audience’s attention.
So if they don’t know what you know and what you know is important, by default their knowledge is inferior to yours. The leap from there to calling them an idiot is a tiny judgment that’s unnervingly easy to make when you’re doing this on a daily basis.
In content marketing this is particularly true. Because if you’re doing content marketing right then you’re talking about issues that are important to your audience. And you’re only doing that because you know you can position the solution you’re selling as the solution they need to overcome the issue.
Which means that while they’re floundering in an industry wide issue, you, someone who basically learnt about the issue after a brief and some research, knows more about how to solve it than they do. Which means by default, they are lacking in knowledge that’s vital to their role, and you – casual creative – are sweeping in with the answer.
And you’re probably wearing flip-flops.
Is your audience an idiot?
There are, reductively speaking, two ways of looking at the world. Humans being humans, we’re capable of holding both world-views at the same time, even though they’re fundamentally at odds with one another.
The first perspective is that people – normal/civilian/TV-viewing/listicle-reading people – are gullible putty. They are easily manipulated and therefore willing to believe a thirty second TV spot that claims women are weak and unemployable without face whitening cream.
Not only is this perspective popular, it’s also worryingly easy to prove. All it takes is some no-nuance analysis of a campaign to believe that your global media spend (badgering) led to a large number of sales. In which case, selling is essentially considered a form of manipulation.
The second perspective is that people are smart.
Your messaging then, has to speak to that intelligence and construct a value proposition that is sound, believable and worth their time. It might speak to an emotional trigger and it might speak to a practical one, but it will always speak to them like they’re people.
In which case, if all you’ve got is a 30 second TV spot espousing a narrow-minded world-view, then you know they’ll trade your product for the competitions the second there’s a half decent deal on at their local Tesco’s.
If this view feels unpopular then it’s because it comes with the caveat that smart people can choose for themselves. Which means that for some people, the most intelligent solution to their problem isn’t the one you’re pushing.
Because when you look at things this way, selling is about conversation. And it isn’t a good conversation if you don’t respect the other participant’s right to leave it.
The pressure to patronise
Now both these perspectives are legitimate. So the truth, if there is such a thing, is probably a mixture of the two. When people are at home watching late night TV, they probably aren’t at their brightest. But when they’re at work wondering about whether the company CRM should be moved to the cloud, they’re a whole lot more switched on.
So the difference between these two world-views is also, to me anyway, analogous of the difference between B2B and B2C marketing. The way both camps are set up (treating creatives like they’re special, tight deadlines and winding approval processes) can lend itself to condescension if you aren’t paying close attention.
In B2C marketing, it’s infuriatingly easy to dilute a great message into a stupid one when you claim you’re talking to an imaginary lowest common denominator. And since everyone we know is a consumer, that lowest common denominator is usually the stupidest person we can think of.
If you can sell it to that guy, you can sell it to anyone, they might say. Even more infuriating, ‘anyone’ also happens to be the target demographic for far too many consumer brands.
Meanwhile in B2B, the lowest common denominator is practically a domain expert because they – unlike you – actually live in the domain you’re selling to. Almost by default, you’re selling to the most awake, most aware person with an entire company’s budget at stake. They can’t afford to take that shit lightly and neither can you.
But you can take the quality of your design for granted. And you can write broad, general statements that say everything in a way that’s actually saying nothing. Because hey, our product is so obviously the bomb, they’ll be buying before you can finish saying ‘innovative’.
It’s a different kind of condescension, but it’s a way of belittling your prospects nonetheless.
The difference between shouting and whispering
The way I see it, the way you approach your communication challenge plays a big part in determining how you treat your audience. Essentially, it’s the difference between public announcements and pillow talk.
If you think you’re shouting through a megaphone to a hundred million people in a crowd, you’re going to get flustered. Because when there are a hundred million listeners, and therefore a hundred million interpretations of what you’re saying, you presume saying as little as possible is the safest bet.
More importantly, you think you’re speaking to a crowd. And crowds are just straight up dumb. The people that make up that crowd on the other hand, are not.
So if instead, your messaging spoke to the one single reader or viewer reading or viewing, you’d be able to speak a lot more intelligibly. You’d be able to take a stand and elaborate on the things most important to you.
You’d be able talk to them like they’re a fucking person.
Because while the safe bet might be a dial tone of a positioning statement to your hundred million listeners, it’s also the stupid bet. Brands are uniquely positioned to have a hundred million listeners. So every time they spurn that opportunity and say something ‘dumb’ because they think their audience is dumb, they’re spurning a unique opportunity to be real and actually impress.
Talk about dumb.
Stupid is as stupid does
It always grinds at me when I hear people say no one reads long form copy any more. Not just because people have been saying it for years and last I checked long form was doing just fine, but because it’s a generalisation based on an expectation that people just don’t give a shit about anything anymore.
What makes that presumption so poisonous is the fact that it stems from a fear that what you’re making just isn’t good enough. This blog post is a pretty long one, but the people who’ve made it this far are exactly the people I care about writing to. They’re the ones who agree that what I’m making is worth a little extra scrolling.
Had I started with the notion that what I’m making isn’t worth anything, I’d have tweeted a tweet that would basically appeal to people who didn’t care about this enough.
So if you think you’re selling bullshit, then bullshit is how you’ll sell it. And the tricks of the trade that frame selling as manipulation can prove plenty handy at that point. The trouble is that when you treat people like idiots, it’s really easy to justify lying to them.
And apart from making you feel like shit about what you do, it just isn’t a very sustainable strategy. Respecting them and their choices on the other hand, that’s the kind of thing that puts the pressure back on you to actually make something worth their while.
The onus of communication is on the sender
People aren’t idiots for liking Justin Bieber and listicles more than they liked your eBook. If they don’t ‘get it’ it’s because you failed as a communicator. If you’re over explaining a point that’s as clear as day to you, but it isn’t to them, then you aren’t diluting the message, you’re selling it – and that’s the gig you signed up for.
But here’s why this is so easy to forget. There’s a tiny but crucial paradox at the heart of the creative challenge. And nowhere is it clearer than in comedy.
The best way to write a great joke is to make yourself laugh. The judge here is you. But the best way to make someone else laugh is to write a great joke. Here, they become the judge. So when transferring a funny joke from your head to the stage, you’re transferring the right to judge how good it is.
It’s both the most fun and most terrifying thing about doing what we do. And your response to their becoming the judge will define the kind of creative you are. The kind who respects them enough to want to make them laugh. Or the kind who resents them for thinking differently.
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