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  • Bob Hoffman

KINGS, POPES, AND ADVERTISERS

Picture two fat old men in their underwear sitting on a park bench explaining to passersby that God wants everyone to do what they say. Hold that image. We’ll get back to it in a  minute. Meanwhile...

Having spent more decades than is healthy in advertising, my view is that it is a fascinating business. What makes advertising fascinating is that to be good at it you have to understand one of the most incomprehensible of subjects —people.

To acquire an understanding of how people actually work requires a skill that most advertisers and marketers don’t possess. It requires the ability to step away from the subject and see the big patterns of human behavior that are often hidden in plain sight.

In the modern era of humanity (let’s say the last 2,000 years) the two most powerful institutions of human invention have been religion and government. The success of these institutions is generally presumed to be the result of either the power of their ideas or the power of their swords. I would like to add a third factor. I believe the success of religion and governments owe much more to the creative arts than is generally recognized or acknowledged. Creative people - writers, artists, designers, musicians, architects - have played a critical role in legitimizing religious and political authority.

Let’s get back to that initial image. Imagine a pope and a king sitting on a park bench without their costumes, trying to convince people to do what they say. All you have is two old men in their underwear spinning ridiculous fairy tales. Other than point and giggle, no one would pay them the slightest attention. But dress them up in glorious costumes, put them in a cathedral or a palace, surround them with beautiful art, beautiful music, and beautiful objects, re-work their fairy tales into lovely stories and suddenly you are tempted to believe.

Christianity began its life as a fringe movement within Judaism. While Judaism barely survived as a religious institution, Christianity swept over the western world. Christianity had enormous advantages over Judaism. One of which was that it was very adept at harnessing the power of artistry.

 

For about a thousand years you could not make a living as a musician, a painter, a designer, a writer or an architect unless you did your work for the church. The western world’s most creative minds dedicated their efforts to beautifying and glorifying Christianity. They were enormously successful. Some of the most beautiful music, art, structures, stories, and costumes the world has ever seen have been created in the service of religion.

As religious power started to ebb and migrate into secular hands — you might call it the separation of church and state — kings and queens began to vie with the clergy for the services of creative artists.

The powerful imagery of palaces, costumes, music and art were employed by political entities.

 

For centuries average, undistinguished people, dressed up in fancy costumes, living in opulent environments, surrounded by beautiful objects and glorified in splendid tales were able to maintain secular rule -- mostly unchallenged, except by each other.

It would be comforting to believe that these people derived their power and authority from some form of transcendent wisdom or virtue. Sadly, history is perfectly clear on this. Kings and so-called spiritual leaders have been every bit as flawed and ignorant as you and I.

Very ordinary people shrouded in extraordinary beauty have been able to maintain control of our most powerful institutions. The power of artistry in creating the perception of holiness and authority is so strong that over the centuries millions have been willing to give their lives for the glory of the most unexceptional of kings and spiritual leaders. I doubt that even the popes and kings recognized the role that aesthetics have played in bestowing the illusion of virtue and authority on them.

For twenty years or more, the advertising industry has been steadily devaluing the importance of aesthetics in our business in favor of rational and easily measurable characteristics. It ought to be clear to marketers that without the benefit of swords, harnessing the power of the creative arts is among the most effective ways to maintain relevance and market dominance.

But most marketers don’t see it that way. They are under the delusion that their products are unique and can stand and thrive on the strength of their rational attributes -- their utility, their practical benefits, and their "brand meaning." Very few understand the power of artistry in market competition.

When they are faced with the reality of deteriorating customer loyalty, marketers have a hard time understanding it. If they appreciated the role that aesthetics play they might recognize the powerful relationship between creativity, human connections, and market power.

Nothing lasts forever. But with the advantage of aesthetic distinction, mundane brands and products (and, by the way, sooner or later all brands and products become mundane) can achieve surprising levels of success and thrive far beyond their inherent life expectancy. Without creative inspiration, brands and products eventually deteriorate into fat old men in their underwear sitting on a park bench.


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