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Spread A Little Happiness

Posted on January 11, 2012 and read 2,576 times

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bayfield Spread A Little HappinessMike Bayfield
Senior Copywriter
balloon dog

In the run up to Christmas I had an invitation from Uniqlo – to climb aboard the Happy Machine, which offered online discounts every lunchtime for a week. It didn’t quite leave me with a warm glow, but did almost make me buy a sweater.

I also had a festive invitation from Coca Cola, to ‘open happiness,’ in the latest incarnation of their longstanding brand campaign. If only it were that easy, I thought. Which also made me think a bit deeper about happiness generally, and how brands and we as advertisers contribute to it. Or – according The Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC) in the UK – don’t.

The PIRC published a report on the impact of advertising on society, called ‘Think of me as evil.’ There’s a clue in the title. It was inspired by a quote from Rory Sutherland, Executive Creative Director and Vice-Chairman of OgilvyOne London, who said he’d “rather be considered evil than useless.”

As the introduction to the report states: “There is evidence that advertising may have significant negative cultural impacts: increasing our ecological footprint by boosting consumption; influencing our values and identities in ways that undermine our concern about social and environmental challenges; and eroding wellbeing and freedom of choice.”

One of the fundamental problems it identifies is that advertising generally appeals to ‘extrinsic’ values such as image, status, prestige and the horsepower of your car. And the pursuit of these often encourages behaviour that is detrimental to society and the natural environment.

Advertising obviously also attempts to appeal to our ‘intrinsic’ values such as love, belonging and benevolence: the things that make us, and the people around us, truly happy. But when it does, the attempts are often spurious and inconsistent – like the perfect happy family in the fast food joint.

Our job is to persuade people to buy the stuff our clients make or the services they provide. But if that is maybe making us miserable, then we have to think how we can use brands to promote more positive values, to help make us happier.

Some brands or products have an obvious head start in the smile stakes. Like Viagra. Its benefits are (hopefully) spectacular and immediate. Others may little longer to have the desired effect: an eco-friendly car for example.

A recent campaign by Strawberry Frog in the US for Smart cars, ‘Against dumb,’ promoted the virtues of the product by actually questioning the whole nature of mass consumption. It focused on all the stupid things we buy, that our lives would be richer without – like pet jewellery and William Shatner CDs.

It then asked us to think more carefully about our purchasing decisions, to make smarter choices – Smart cars obviously being one of them. But what about sweaters?

Benetton (who, like Uniqlo, sell rather a lot of them) have used their brand to make public statements about various issues such as, war, AIDS, racism and the death penalty. Their most recent ‘unhate’ campaign, based around some notoriously provocative ads of world leaders kissing, is aiming to promote love, peace and understanding. And hopefully sweaters too.

Back in the real world, rather than grappling with each other, those same leaders are busy grappling with some bigger issues. At the start of 2012 the eurozone is in meltdown, we’re possibly on the brink of a global recession and the bankers are still struggling to spend their Christmas bonuses. Not exactly a chuckle fest. Yet a new year brings a renewed sense of optimism, that the previous year’s problems – economic or otherwise – can be overcome. Even if that might take longer than the next 12 months.

Much to the chagrin of Republican presidential hopefuls, the US economy is showing fragile signs of recovery. And the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are experiencing record economic growth, which will benefit us all. That growth is fuelled by a collective desire of the billions who live there to improve the quality of their lives. More precisely, to have the cars, plasma TVs and tumble dryers that make our western lifestyles more comfortable.

So, even though it can be argued that by promoting mass consumption, advertising is making people unhappier, much of the stuff we buy is about making our lives easier. The products and services that give us more freedom to concentrate on the things that really matter. The best thing I’ve ever bought is probably a dishwasher. I can hear it happily gurgling away while I’m writing this.

Like politicians, airline pilots and America/Argentina/Albania’s Got Talent judges, we have a responsibility to society. In order to help pull ourselves out of the economic doldrums we need to stimulate consumption. That’s our job. But we should think very carefully about how we do it and how this affects our true happiness. We must try to relate brands more to people’s lives and the intrinsic values that fulfil them.

Digital media leads the way in this, by allowing us to create two-way conversations with consumers. By listening more we can develop brands that better help people realise their hopes and dreams – if only in a tiny ways. A little idealistic maybe, but something to aspire to all the same; rather than simply trying to plug a vacuum in consumers’ lives by filling it with more stuff.

As western countries focus on the holy grail of economic growth and stimulating GNP, the tiny kingdom of Bhutan nestled in the Himalayas, focuses on stimulating GNH – Gross National Happiness.

Inspired by Buddhist philosophy, GNH looks beyond material fulfillment. Instead, it measures quality of life by things like the amount of leisure time people have, family relationships and the cohesiveness of communities. Think Kung Fu Panda without the merchandising. Few of us would want to live in Bhutan, but if we try to generate a little more GNH – as well as GNP, ROI and OMG – we could help make our world slightly happier place.




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