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What Do You See?

One of my favorite scenes in all of literature is from Raise High The Roof Beam Carpenters, Seymour an Introduction by J.D. Salinger. Who TF approved that title, I will never know, but remind yourself that a book with that title was published the next time you’re feeling down about your own prospects and you will feel better.

The scene isn’t really a scene, it’s an observation on page 73. A rambly observation inside of an even more rambly block of stream-of-consciousness thoughts (many people do not like this book. Or as a good friend once said, “This book has no plot.” Hmph.)

The observation is about sight.

“Isn’t the true poet or painter a seer? Isn’t he, actually, the only seer we have on earth?”

The narrator goes onto explain that our eyes are what make us artists. I’m inclined to agree. I’ve always said that if you want to be a good writer, you must learn to see. Then write down what you see and tell the truth.

The book makes the argument that us “seers” are “dazzled to death” by our “own scruples, the blinding shapes and colors of [our] own scared human conscience.”

Here’s where we disagree.

I think when you learn to see, but don’t do, that’s when we’re in trouble. When the people who see (ahem, you) say nothing, do nothing, or feel like their efforts are in vain, that’s when we have a problem.

And often the problem looks really benign. Like the one I’m going to tell you about today about advertising. It’s a story that has financial consequences, but not much more.

The story is this: Volkswagen made an entertaining advertisement that absolutely fails to hit the mark when it comes to the purpose of the ad. When you watch the ad you’ll see there’s no connection between the themes in the story and the desired takeaway, which I speculate is either: “sell more Volkswagens” or “influence your perception of the Volkswagen brand.”

Hillary and I made a minisode about this missed opportunity which you can watch here. (I’ve made this mistake, Hillary’s make this mistake, we’ve all made this mistake. Only one brand really does it well (which we explain here), the rest of us need not waste our time).

This episode is, on the surface, is about what’s wrong with the latest Volkswagen ad. But that’s not actually the problem.

The problem is millions of dollars and hundreds of people touched this ad and no one stopped to say, “This doesn’t work. Let’s start over.”

No one was going to put that train back in the station once it left.

Now, if you’re thinking what I’m thinking, “Who is going to put their job on the line for an ad? Their job isn’t to produce an ad that sells! It’s to please their boss. Everyone was just trying to not get in trouble and keep their job. It makes sense. You’d do the same.”

And you’re right. I would do the same.

Isn’t that the problem?

That we live in a world where we’re so encumbered by fear and sunk costs that we can’t (or won’t) take action on what we see. That we live in a world where the cost of speaking up on something benign is so great, we’re afraid to do it (or worse than fear, we’re apathetic).

The seers, the ruckus makers, the people Salinger called “artist seers, the heavenly fool who can and does produce beauty,” if we are self-silencing this world is done for.

This isn’t about taking a stand. It’s about telling the truth about what you see. With your own eyes.

The ad doesn’t do anything overtly offensive, it just doesn’t work (You’ll see why when you watch it). But I see a room full of liars who approved something for TV when they knew full well, it didn’t deliver.

What do you see?

Catch our Hillary and Margo Yell at Websites: How To Avoid This Common Ad Mistake minisode here.


PS: If you’re interested in ads, we geek out a bit on an advanced sales strategy I call the “non-sequitur approach” and Hill informs me is called “the tie-in” or something. We give an example of a brand that does an exemplary job of this approach (vs the Volkswagen ad that botched it) right here.

Also, Hillary made me keep my hair in a side-pony for this so I look like an 80s inspired fitness instructor. ENJOY.