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June 27, 2009
Everywhere There’s Something
There’s always a lesson to be learned from the world around you. All you need are a pair of eyes, two ears that work and an open mind. And events that don’t have anything to do with what you do for a living still might have an impact on how you do things.
So with that being said, here’s what I’ve learned from following the election protests from Iran, and how something so important can affect, of all inconsequential things, advertising.
(And just in case you’ve been living under a rock, here’s 25 words explaining what happened: Vote rigged. Citizens protest. Twitter. Leader denies. Citizens protest more. Violence. Terrifying videos. Chanting. Telecommunication pulled. Doesn’t matter. Government in trouble. World behind citizens.)
1. Think before exploiting.
I’ve been amused and saddened by the mainstream media’s response to the use of Twitter from the protestors in Iran. Those who are late to the party are either doing whatever they can to belittle it (and sounding like people scared for their jobs) or they’re completely misinterpreting its impact. Let’s be clear here: Twitter has been important. But it just happens to be the tool everyone’s using because it fills that specific need.
The spirit of Twitter is to get your word out to as big of an audience as possible, and using only 140 characters actually frees you up to be as succinct as possible. Why is that important? Well, when you’re running for your life, typing 140 characters seems like a novel (that’s an exact tweet from a protester, by the way). Still, it’s easy to write and quick to disseminate. There’s a reason why it’s being used.
In advertising terms, it’s a great execution to fulfill that idea.
But that’s just for this situation. Before you use a social networking tool, ask yourself if it really fits your idea. And if it doesn’t, leave it alone and find something else. The answer is in your idea, not in what’s expected.
And that leads me to…
2. If you’re gonna take, then add something back.
It’s up to us to use Twitter and other social networks to acquire as much data as possible, listen to it, figure out some context and then make decisions. But it doesn't end there. It's still on us to then create something great with it.
A great example of this is Andrew Sullivan’s blog at andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com. Sure, he’s utilizing Twitter feeds, but he’s also aggregating information and content from all over the web such as news articles and blogs and Flickr and YouTube videos, and then creating something from it – in this case, his opinion, which has suddenly become an indispensable checkpoint for all things Iran.
Basically, he’s taking other people’s creativity and resources and, in turn, creating something new and worthwhile.
We should all be doing this for our clients. We need to continually ask what role should social networks play (if it even plays a role to begin with), what role other types of media play and use all of that information to add something positive back into the world. Not something indulgent. Something worthwhile.
Simply, if you’re gonna access useful things, then create something useful in return. Otherwise, it’s worthless.
3. Being slick is no match for being translucent.
State-run media have proven through time, from Nazi Germany to recent history in Iran, that you can dictate what you want to say if there’s no avenue for a dissenting opinion. And that, sadly, made it perfectly easy for the masses to accept any sort of propaganda that’s put out there.
But nowadays, since there’s so much insider information out there that people are willing to share, it doesn’t take much to get to the bottom of things. And that means that any sort of mistruth or broken promise will always be fished out. You can’t hide anything anymore. Suspicions about a rigged election were only bolstered by claims and evidence from those in the know. And the resulting denials by the government seemed shallow because the proof was already out there, and it came across as insulting (among other things).
My point: Don’t try to pull a fast one. Don’t try to be too slick. You’ll be called out on it. Quickly. And once you are, you’ll lose that faith and trust of your audience. And then, you’re lost.
Which, again, leads me to…
4. Don’t advertise. Just communicate.
The Iranian government is doing whatever they can to cut off the free flow of information. They are having a one-way conversation, which by definition is not a conversation. They are trying to control the train of thought, and because of that, they’re selling an idea to an audience that is now too savvy to believe a tainted opinion.
In short, they are advertising.
But their people want to be listened to, and because of that, people around the world are listening and responding with IP addresses for them to access. They’re adjusting their Twitter settings to Tehran standards to cause confusion to the government, and in return, more tweets are getting out there. And people thousands of miles away are becoming media agents for those in the thick of things, spreading the word as quickly and efficiently as possible.
In short, they are having a conversation.
My point: We don’t live in an age anymore where the conversation ends when the commercial is over or the magazine page is flipped. So you have to do more. Your audience has something to say, and they want brands to shut up and listen and then help them get to what they need.
And, to be honest, filling precise needs is behind the creation of every single product out there. That’s what our brands do. We need to follow suit.
I know it seems trivial to see how the momentous events in Iran affect websites and television spots. But like I said, there’s lessons in everything.
And it beats paying attention to Lindsay Lohan.

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Steven is an Associate Creative Director at AKQA, San Francisco, where he works with Kobe, LeBron and the rest of Nike Basketball. Throughout his career, he’s worked on Hewlett Packard, XBox, EA Sports, CMT, Target and countless other clients. He’s received his share of One Show pencils and other flotsam, and spends his scant free time chronicling every day of his son’s first year. http://www.throughwyattseyes.com
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