Reaching “Peak Bullshit” and Where We Go From Here

I’m a college graduation speech junkie. When you ask interesting people to share life lessons, not surprisingly, it can make for some pretty great stuff.

My favorite of 2013 was Jon Lovett’s address to the graduates of Pitzer College, which the 30-year-old former Obama speechwriter later excerpted in a piece for The Atlantic called “Life Lessons on Fighting a Culture of Bullshit.”

You had me at “bullshit,” Jon. Being that the recession created skeptics out of even the most trusting among us, I’m willing to bet his point of view will strike a cord with you too. It’s kind of hard not to agree with statements like this:

“One of the greatest threats we face is, simply put, bullshit. We are drowning in it. We are drowning in partisan rhetoric that is just true enough not to be a lie; in industry-sponsored research; in social media’s imitation of human connection; in legalese and corporate double-speak. It infects every facet of public life, corrupting our discourse, wrecking our trust in major institutions, lowering our standards for the truth, making it harder to achieve anything.”

You can see where I’m taking this as it relates to brands. Phoniness is becoming a liability and, conversely, there’s more opportunity than ever for brands that are honest. In a McKinsey & Company article about the rise of socially conscious consumers, the growing importance of brand integrity is spelled out in the stats:

“At the same time, consumer trust in corporations has declined by 50 percent since the crisis. Consumers now trust only one in four companies on average. The dearth of trust in the marketplace makes it an agent of differentiation. As a result, the correlation of trust to brand equity has increased by 35 percent in the past three years. Trust, once an afterthought, can even help companies enter new market categories.”

Jon Lovett not only recognized a similar demand for sincerity in his commencement speech, he argued that it’s led us to an important cultural tipping point:

“I believe we may have reached ‘peak bullshit.’ And that increasingly, those who push back against the noise and nonsense; those who refuse to accept the untruths of politics and commerce and entertainment and government will be rewarded. That we are at the beginning of something important. We see it across our culture, with not only popularity but hunger for the intellectual honesty of Jon Stewart or the raw sincerity of performers like Louis CK and Lena Dunham. You see it across the political spectrum, from Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts to Chris Christie in New Jersey to Rand Paul in Kentucky.”

Marketing can’t create trust in this environment, it can only magnify it. More and more, people are looking into the practices and policies of the companies they choose to hand their money over to. Do they treat their employees fairly? What are their environmental policies? Where/how are their products made?

That’s why I think Jon’s parting advice to the Pitzer graduates is as relevant to brands as it is to individuals:

“All you have to do is avoid BSing yourself — in whatever you choose to do…be honest with yourselves, and others…reject a culture of insincerity by virtue of the example you set.”


Photo: Vagenda Magazine

I started down my path as a marketer in the late 90s as a media major. One of the first things I observed about the industry I was preparing to join was how off-base, out-of-touch and sometimes downright insulting too many of its messages targeting women were. Sadly, not much has changed since then (which still amazes me given the significant consumer purchasing power women have had for decades). But I do think it’s finally about to.

As a women’s issues advocate and an account planner at an agency that gets it, I’ve felt the momentum building toward a fourth wave women’s movement — and, concurrently, a tipping point-level demand for more media accountability — for a while now. Then a few weeks ago, this widely-held presumption was recognized as an official consumer trend by Kate Muhl of Iconoculture (my favorite research resource). From Kate’s “The F-Word Returns” trend brief:

Thanks to post-recession economic realities, a 2012 campaign season that brought women’s issues to the fore, and public figures like Sheryl Sandberg, feminism is back — but with a witty, social-media-fueled twist. Both women and men are participating in the conversation, and taking misguided brands to task.

 Yes. Yes. Yes.

One of the most entertaining examples of “taking misguided brands to task” is the hilarious parody commercial Ellen DeGeneres created for Bic’s “For Her” pen series after the brand attempted to recruit her as its spokesperson last fall. But, as Kate points out, “Women (and men) are no longer sitting in a passive position waiting for the entertainment industry to channel their irritation into lampoons and parodies.” They’re taking matters into their own hands and, in doing so, are forcing worldwide change:

  • Just weeks ago, Reebok dropped their sponsorship agreement with rapper Rick Ross because of social media-fueled pressure surrounding song lyrics referencing date rape.
  • Miss Representation, the advocacy organization behind the fantastic documentary by the same name, introduced the hashtag #NotBuyingIt during this year’s Super Bowl to call out brands that rely on sexual objectification to sell their products and are currently raising money for a #NotBuyingIt app that will let users photograph, map and share sexist ads.
  • Ford India’s leaked ad mock-ups depicting bound women in the trunk of a car sparked online outrage and resulted in the termination of several of their agency’s employees. (Again, keep in mind that these ads never even ran.)

Possibly the best example how tired consumers have become of the media’s hyper-sexualized, perfection-obsessed depictions of women came not from yet another outrageously disparaging ad, but from an unusually relatable one — Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” video. Unless you’ve been off-grid for the last week, you’ve probably seen it and/or had discussions about why it was such a big deal. Although some have made relevant arguments about the limitations of Dove’s message, it’s clearly proven that authenticity is an approach that women will not only respond to, but champion.

Women have become so used to media that creates and preys on insecurities (there’s a lifetime of that BS inconveniently stored in our brains), which is exactly why the Dove campaign feels so revolutionary. And the message it sends to the industry couldn’t be any clearer: It’s time for a more progressive and respectful way to communicate with women.

“Girls get the message, from very early on, that what’s most important is how they look, that their value, their worth, depends on that,” says Jean Kilbourne, Ed.D, an author and filmmaker internationally recognized for her work on the image of women in advertising. “Boys get the message that this is what’s important about girls. We get it from advertising, we get it from films, we get it from television shows, video games — everywhere we look. So no matter what else a woman does, no matter what else her achievements, her value still depends on how she looks.”

The price our society pays for this environment is high: girls are increasingly learning to self-objectify, women are twice as likely to suffer from major depression than men, 65% of females exhibit eating disorder behavior, and 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime.

This is not just an industry issue (and certainly, within our industry, there are many exceptions) or potentially a bottom-line issue, it’s a social and moral issue propagated by other cultural influencers as well. Yet when media shapes culture, like it does in this always-connected digital age, not taking responsibility for our role in it is…well, irresponsible.

Listening: A New Day-After Thanksgiving Tradition

A key part of my role as a planner is to be a good listener. So naturally, when I heard about The National Day of Listening — a holiday started by StoryCorps in 2008 — I wanted to learn more.

A noncommercial alternative to Black Friday, The National Day of Listening is celebrated the day after Thanksgiving by recording an interview with a loved one. It’s a day to honor someone in your life through the simple act of listening. StoryCorps calls it “the least expensive but most meaningful gift you can give this holiday season.”

What a beautiful thing.

If you’re not already familiar with StoryCorps through their weekly broadcasts on NPR’s Morning Edition or their really cool animated shorts, the holiday initiative is another good reason to get to know them. An independent non-profit, StoryCorps runs the largest oral history project of its kind, giving Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs the opportunity to record, share and preserve the stories of their lives.

New this year, StoryCorps has partnered with SoundCloud to provide an interactive venue for sharing Day of Listening interviews called the Wall of Listening. They make it really easy to participate and offer interview tips and sample questions to help you prepare. All this in an effort to remind one another of our shared humanity and teach the value of listening.

Here’s where I was going to talk about why listening is so important to the planning process, but I realized that’s a pretty obvious point. Besides, it’s almost Thanksgiving and I’d rather just share something nice with y’all for the sake of it.

Maybe I’ll catch your interview on the wall? I’ll have one up there.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Teenage Girls: Misunderstood and Underestimated

It dawned on me a few years ago when my much-younger sister was in high school: There’s something very different about these Millennial girls. In a good way.

Like me and my fellow Gen X’ers, I noticed this upcoming generation of young women indulged in cattiness, crushes and unconscious consumerism. But, they were also leading social and political groups at school, volunteering in their communities and making much more thoughtful decisions than my friends and I were at that age. It was like they were purposely rounding out their girlish silliness with substance and character-building. Hmm.

Still, I went to public high school. They attended a college-prep Catholic school. “Of course,” I remember thinking, “that’s the difference. They don’t represent the majority.” Wrong, Katie.

Psychographic insight about Millennial females (teens in particular) proves just how wrong I was. By and large, it turns out that they’re a pretty exceptional bunch. If you have teen girls in your life this may not come as a surprise to you. Among those who don’t though, this demo is often dismissed as selfish, flighty or shallow – a stereotype perpetuated by “reality” TV shows like MTV’s Teen Mom. Yet, it seems that they’re among the most misunderstood and underestimated demographic groups today.

Here are a few things I’ve been pleasantly surprised to learn about today’s average teenage girl:

– The number one quality she attributes to herself is intelligence.
– She’s a cost-conscious, careful spender who appreciates the value of a dollar and researches most large purchases.
– Being a leader resonates more with her than being trendy.
– Although she likes to find commonalities with other girls, she also has a strong desire to be individual and independent.
– She’s about twice as likely as her male counterpart to volunteer and value “giving back.”
– A brand’s philanthropic commitments are REAL purchasing considerations for her.

Of course this profile doesn’t reflect all Millennial girls, just like not every woman of Generation X was once a frivolous mallrat*. Still, I can’t deny the evidence that they’re pretty incredible. (Or that my little sister’s maturity and discipline continue to put same-age me to shame.)

It probably has something to do with the fact that they have more access to information about social and political issues than past generations did, or that they’re coming of age during a worldwide recession. In any case, I see them in a new light…and it gives me much greater hope for the future.


*A note to the ladies of Gen X: No disrespect meant. It may have taken us a little longer to get there, but we’ve come into our own in a BIG (world-changing) way. I blame the delay on headgear.