I’m not a believer in “positive and negative energy”, though saying so violates the prevailing orthodoxy of the day. Philosophically, to say a thing is too dim is the same as to say it should be brighter. I can parse 50% of 100 the same as I can 100% of 50. Light vs. darkness be damned.
But in advertising, or ‘messaging’ if we prefer the nominalist parlance, I DO recognize the power of abundance over scarcity. A story that comes from an aspirational assumption beats one that comes from fear or want, hands down.
Should We Sell More or Less Fear?
Case in point, take these sets of messages:
Wow. Did you feel your blood pressure rise? Gotta watch that, or it could land you in the hospital.
Now Try These From Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center:
End to end, even if you can’t read the fine print—from Headline to Tagline, MSK’s ads are about what’s possible. One of the messages says, essentially, ‘By starting from what’s possible instead of what’s terrible with cancer, we’re finding new ways to treat it.’
The Russian Roulette of Selling Scarcity
You can scare a lot of people with ads. Some Russian hackers and American trolls were paid handsomely to demonstrate that fact. A raging electorate backed an idiot after being terrorized by who was coming for us and our jobs and in the name of industries that are never coming back with a mentality of victimhood that cannot grow, change, or prosper without being rescued. The rust belt, we were told, would be revitalized by making its privation, ruin, and hardship the center of our collective soul.
In that sense, fear and lack are effective. You can even build loyalty from those things, but you don’t build love. And in a climate of other brands strengthening their cache, that’s the same as being hated. Brands that can only tear down, not build, are headed for a special blend of financial and moral Hell. Which brings us to the mall . . .
Deprivation and fear are the emotional equivalent of price cutting—a trap from which it’s hard to recover. Comedian Rich Vos said, hilariously, that Kohl’s has no self-respect; by the time you get your purchase to the register, it’s free—40% off, 30% coupon, 20% if you use a credit card, and look your license says it’s your birthday—that’s a 15% break… Hell, here’s $5 to just take it.
It’s not just the “Amazon effect” that’s driving department stores out of business. Barnes & Noble has weathered it by offering value, not discounts. JC Penney’s own leadership, on the other hand, acknowledged it got so cheap that there was nowhere left to go but down. We’re still rooting for her.
And of course there’s Wow, the discount department store for air travel that just crashed financially. This was what their missives to my inbox contained:
Ouch. Those sub-$50 trips to Iceland didn’t include talking to us about how cool Iceland is, and that’s a shame, because Iceland has a LOT going on. Also, I learned next to nothing about Wow. Why are they even called Wow? Is it really just this award for cheap?
There’s good wow and bad wow. I wanted a brand to know, like, and trust, but I got one that let me down by going bust.
By contrast, I’m a stockholder in JetBlue, at a time when airlines are a very long-term bet, if a good one at all. It’s because 1) they’re part of an elite class (with Southwest and Virgin) of non-legacy airlines that provide a stellar experience that minimizes the pain of flying; 2) they’re headquartered in NYC, where I live and can keep a close eye on them (I’m with Reagan on this one: “Trust but verify.”); and 3) they started daily relief flights to Puerto Rico in a time of renewed economic uncertainty, rising fuel costs, and when the Executive Branch of government was mocking that US territory for its pain, and frankly not enough people spoke up. In short, JetBlue comes from a place of abundance. So I don’t try to save a few bucks on my JetBlue flight; I upgrade. Their tone?
It’s a mixed bag—they scrap with the competition, but overall, pretty much about hope. They offer relief, not a closer emergency room.
Long after the dust has covered the brands that scare us or tell us the world is a zero sum, fixed pie fallacy, the legacy of those who point to hope, vision, and opportunity will persist. They will be our case studies in motivation, because instead of spending our hearts and minds on a thing that can’t fulfill, they lavish on them the only power any of us has to do so. Parmenides famously uttered an axiom of science, but initially as an ontological truth: “Out of nothing, nothing comes.” We cannot prosper out of scarcity. Only in abundance do we find abundance.