By Jackson and Scott Gillum
Estimated read time: 5 minutes

Editor’s Note: A father and son project often results in something being built. A treehouse, a restored car or a piece of furniture. With very little mechanical skills but a knack for storytelling and a son who is an English major, our project resulted in a white paper on Personality Based Marketing to be published in the fall. The blog post below is an excerpt from that piece, Jackson researched and wrote it, I just helped to frame it, without any tools…of course.

John B Watson is a crucial character in the use of personality in advertising, used extensively today, yet for many his name is unknown. He lived during a time (1878-1958) that saw the rise and boom of both psychology and personality studies.

As a professor at Johns Hopkins he did extensive research in psychology until a scandalous affair with a student would cost him his job. After being forced to leave the university, he entered the world of marketing work as a door-to-door salesman for advertising agency J. Walter.

It didn’t take Watson long to start making observations about his customers. He concluded that rather than consumers being rational, they acted emotionally. Watson claimed: “tell him something that will tie him up with fear, something that will stir up a mild rage, that will call out an affectionate or love response, or strike at a deep psychological or habit need.”

Using this, Watson would lead several advertising campaigns, utilizing strategies that are still in use today. During his advertising for Ponds Cold Cream and Pebeco toothpaste, he revolutionized the way that testimonials were used.

These testimonials were based on evoking the emotional response of desire for the customers. The ads featured seductive women, and were not directed to men but instead to women with the promise that they would become more desirable. The same approach used today in the advertising of skin and beauty products.

Attractive men and women drinking beers together sent a message greater than “this is a good beer” but instead “drink this beer and you can be like them.” Watson’s style of ads pitched a new reality attainable through the acquisition of their product.

There is now a new phenomenon in advertising. A new alliance few expected between social movements and corporations. Historically, adhering to social movements could be bad for business, and we have seen many examples of this.

Two recent examples are Budweiser’s “Born the Hard Way” Ad and Pepsi’s famous “Live for Now” ad. Both of these ads came out in 2017 and they were massive failures, each in their own way.

The story behind the Pepsi ad is more complex than that of the Budweiser ad, and the fact that Pepsi advertisers never foresaw any negative response is astonishing, yet you can tell their heads were naively in the right place.

They picked up on the popular movements at the time, specifically the #resistance movement aimed at the Trump administration and the foundations of the BLM movement. This can be seen everywhere in the ad, where the focal point is an enormous protest with young people marching, directly aimed at their millennial audience.

Then, the ad makes a massive turn for the worst, the idea that a Pepsi can bring everyone together. The moment that Kendall Jenner hands a police officer a pepsi is the moment that Pepsi created what could be considered one of the worst ads in history.

The message is patronizing, calling on both the absurdity of the message along with popular anti- Kardashian-Jenner sentiments that they are relatable people. This “bomb” exploded because Pepsi appeared to be disingenuously producing an ad that attempted to take advantage of social movements, but perhaps they were at the right place at the wrong time.

And that brings us to today, following the death of George Floyd and the monumental growth of BLM protests that have grown across the entire nation in 2020, companies are scrambling to produce as many ads as possible to address this audience.

The interesting phenomenon is, just like where Pepsi produced an ad using social movements as a marketing ploy without any relevance to their company, so are an extensive amount of corporations with seemingly no backlash…so far.

On July 13, 2020 Old Navy, released its “#WeAreWe” ad. It is colorful, upbeat, and poetic, praising the social movements of 2020. It is also accompanied by a new store manifesto committed to activism within their own company, and it has been successful.

Below the surface lurks the fact that their clothing is produced in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Philippines, Sri Lanka, etc., countries renowned for their cheap labor and lack of environmental protection laws.

While Gap, Old Navy’s parent company, has addressed its garment production in the past giving it some praise, it still has glaring issues when it comes to worker pay and empowerment. Good on You, a website dedicated to rating the ethical behavior of companies, scored Old Navy a “2 out of 5” when it came to labor, and a “3 out of 5” when it came to environmental friendliness.

What Old Navy, and companies like them are pursuing is potentially dangerous to the brand. In addressing one issue they are exposing themselves to others. And potentially, setting themselves up to be unable to fulfill their promise to consumers, making them seem hypocritical.

What companies must realize is that while they may have the best intention, in order to be authentic they must be able to live it.  Especially when the “trolls” come knocking. In the emotional and polarized environment we live in today, “covering the bases” is a tightrope that keeps shrinking.

Watson’s ads were successful because companies pitched you a new better version of yourself, one you can attain only through them. Now, companies pitch you a new version of them, one that they hope you accept at surface value but don’t look at too closely.

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