I remember one of the lasts straws working in retail. I was selling men’s ties, shirts, and suits at Nordstrom and I was heading back onto the floor when a manager walked past me and said with total seriousness and not a mote of irony, “Smile!”
Snap. I could smell the marrow oozing out of the camel’s back.
I wanted more than anything to work in a place where I could totally be myself and not have Happy Hilda’s running around telling me how to feel. I wanted to work in…advertising! As a copywriter. Where I could be weird. And I didn’t have to smile. Unless I felt like it.
Well, eventually I did get a job as a copywriter and I could, in fact, be weird. As long as I also worked evenings, weekends, and in my sleep, eating bowls of stress for breakfast and watching twitchy genitally-challenged advertising-illiterate mid-levels on the client side tear out and eat every shred of value in my copy. (Ah, the early years. But that’s another blog post.)
My point is, nobody likes being told how to feel. How to act. How to be.
Grant McCracken, the anthropologist and brand guru, talks about that in context of Zappos in his recent blog entry for the Harvard Business School. He’s talking about the attempt to co-opt the emotions of employees by a corporation. He is greatly annoyed at the honking horns and cow bells and silly clownish artificial joviality that greets every visitor to Zappos.
I don’t blame him. It’s just such artificiality that makes New Yorkers suspicious of friendly Southerners and West Coasters. They wonder if our friendliness is real. I wonder myself, sometimes, especially when I see how I’m treated by my friendly neighbors during the ruthless evening commute.
And here, o my friends on the client side, is an important lesson to be gained. In fact, it just might be the oldest refrain ever uttered by creatives showing work to clients who ask them for something more…well…usually more fake. Usually more “hard-hitting” or results-oriented. Usually something that tells the audience how to feel, how to act, or what to do.
“People,” we say, over and over again, “don’t like to be told how to feel.”
If you ever doubt this assertion, just imagine some manager hopped up on lattes and self-help truisms walking past you while you’re doing your best to wrestle a big marketing problem to the ground and having them tell you to smile.
It’s why we all stopped carrying Colts back in the 1890’s.
So, why do I beat such a very dead horse? Because look around you. We are still surrounded with brand communications just like the tag line at the burrito chain where I buy my lunch. Every poster, brochure, and menu signs off with the same line: “What are you going to love at Qdoba?”
My answer is: your mother.
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