Shakespeare was unconvinced that “seeing is believing,” as his plays and sonnets are filled with characters seeing things that aren’t real and missing things that are. Or maybe he knew that believers see as easily and convincingly as seers believe. Nothing is ever as it seemed in much of anything he wrote.
The disparity between what we can sense explicitly and what we know to be true has gone from literary device to everyday life as our technologies have increased our vision farther than we could see unassisted. The combination of computer processing power and the ubiquity of the Internet mean our present includes seeing into the future -- weather forecasting is a miracle, if you think of it, and even if it’s imperfect, just as the way companies predict supply and demand needs is as brilliant as it’s boring -- just as it means seeing broader and more removed perspectives (trends, themes, movements in culture, economics, and politics).
It seems like less and less of what we know is based on what we see immediately and tangibly in front of us. Most of the information that matters to us is mediated in any number of ways, and then managed explicitly and implicitly by our foregone conclusions and beliefs.
In other words, we don’t need to see something to believe it, and we don’t need to believe things we see. Nowadays, it’s simply good enough to know what’s true irrespective of how we arrive at those conclusions.
It makes for some chronic cognitive dissonance in our lives, I think, and raises interesting challenges for communicators of any ilk, whether artistic, community, or commercial.
Have you noticed out of the ordinary high number of empty storefronts and homes with “for sale” signs in front of them? Was last year’s weather far more severe than you ever expected, or this winter not only mild but strangely so? Is packaging on products getting flimsier and in-person service more gruff and unsatisfying? Are roads and bridges bumpier than in years past, and does there seem to be more errant bits of garbage laying about? Is the unpredictable complexity of life on our planet proof of randomness or design? If and when we encounter homeless people on the street, are they victims of forces beyond their control, or culpable for making our own lives more difficult?
The people who have clear answers to these questions usually come up with them before they ever bother looking out their own windows. For the rest of us, we’re left in a confused muddle in which the lack of clear evidence (to us) is proof of our own shortcomings of values or conviction (to them).
This sets up an interesting challenge for we marketers. Brands were always artificial constructs, and their promises rarely more than tangentially associated with real-world facts that could be verified with a look out (or in) a window. Cars, vacuum cleaners, and computers make their owners happy internally first and foremost, just as perfumes and clothing fashions convince those who wear them that they’re going to influence those who see them. As long as these fantasies were perpetuated, brands could sell themselves to customers and charge for the service.
The peer-to-peer (P2P) nature of the social web has challenged this equation. The reasoning is that consumers can now share their actual experiences - compare what’s going on outside one window with that of another -- and thereby hold businesses accountable for the promises they make. Consumers are getting smarter because of the information available to them, which makes them tougher to sell to and more demanding to keep loyal.
Is it possible that we believe things about science, religion, politics, economics, and culture with no accountability to demonstrable reality, but that we’ve swung in the opposite direction when it comes to making reasoned and fact-based decisions about what toothpaste to buy?
Our values are absolute when it comes to everything but shopping?
I want it to be true, actually, in that I think it would be far easier to sell things to people based on facts and actions instead of fantasies and promises. P2P connectivity should empower businesses to not just listen to imagined “voice of the consumer” but build actual insights into their statistical controls. It would give the world better and more needed products and services, too.
But most big brands are betting on the opposite, throwing many millions at creating social media and traditional marketing campaigns that consciously and aggressively serve creativity and entertainment in lieu of facts. P2P networks are platforms on which to share beliefs and feelings about the artifice of branding itself -- liking commercials and participating in online marketing campaigns -- and not of interest to brands in any other proactive ways (they’re places for complaints, but that’s a customer service function, and the occasional pressure campaign, which gets handled by the lawyers).
I wonder. It seems Shakespearean, in a tragic sort of way.
(Image Credit: Look out any window)