Advertising Across the Middle
Nearly three weeks have passed since a sizeable chunk of the American public did the (to some) unthinkable and elected Donald Trump the 45th President of these United States. To say considerable kvetching ensued would be an insult to understatement. Even the British kind. The handwringing wrought within the ad industry may have been even greater than within the general populace. But that’s hard for me to say, given that I work in said industry.
Much has been made as to the disconnect between the media centers on both coasts and the fruited-plain-dwelling denizens of Middle America. In the months leading up to the election, more than a few agencies sallied forth with work that was pro-Clinton or anti-Trump. (Which didn’t strike me as being very inclusive of the supposed free thinkers in their ranks, but that’s another story. I’m here to spread joy, love and healing.) Yet, the worried logic goes, if agencies couldn’t discern (let alone influence) the political minds of so many, how could they hope to sell them shoes or soda or psoriasis ointments in the days and weeks to come? #sademoji
The answer is simple: Me.
Truly. I can be your guide to the Midwestern Mind. Regardless of political leaning or affinity for gun safes or safe spaces. Now, most of you know me as the chin behind @leeclowsbeard. But what you may not know is that I was born smack-dab in the middle of the U.S. of A. in Kansas City, Missouri. I grew up in one of its biggest suburbs, Independence, home of President Harry Truman. I went to college in St. Louis. I started my career back in KC, got married in Minnesota to a farm girl from Iowa, moved to Dallas (which is more Midwestern than Southern if you take away the drawl) and somehow ended up in Omaha. Yes. The one in Nebraska where they put cabbage in loose meat sandwiches. Life is weird.
In addition to my super-awesome wife, I have three kids, a dog, a house and a yard that I hate to mow. As well as a 12-year-old minivan that steals a little bit of my soul every time I drive it. I am not unlike Jim Gaffigan, minus the stellar career and freezer full of Hot Pockets.
“But, Jason,” I hear you saying, “you’re just some Gen X white dude stuck in a basement two miles from a cornfield.” And you would not be incorrect. You might be ageist, racist and sexist, but I’ll let that slide. Because, once again, I bring joy, love and healing. In truth, while my extreme Caucasian-ness and other demographic stats may not be wholly inconsequential to my life’s experience, they’re not paramount to this discussion.
See, the beauty of being a thus-far permanent Midwesterner is that I’ve lived among people from all walks of life. Worked with them. Worked for them. Been a friend, a customer, a guy who offers them random advice on LED light bulbs while shopping at Lowe’s, whatever. I am, if you will, a man for all seasons. Except for the summer, because I burn easily.
I grew up the son of a cop in a house my parents still call home. Next door lived (and lives) a lifelong UAW man. Across the street, a Hispanic family. All around, mostly blue collar folks doing their best to provide for their families. We didn’t have block parties with Daniel Stern doing voice-over narration, but we all had each other’s backs. Well, the adults did. Us kids were too busy having dirt clod fights.
In college, I lived in an apartment building in which I was the minority. Did it matter? No. Because respect given is almost always returned in kind.
Over my career, I’ve had numerous female art director partners, more than one female creative director and have remained friends with most. That’s not to say a good-old-boys network didn’t or doesn’t exist in this part of the country, but the women I knew were too smart, too driven and too good to care. Let alone let it stop them.
“But, Jason,” you’re still saying, “this sounds an awful lot like the ‘one of my best friends is black’ trope that privileged bigots trot out to deflect their inherent diabolicalness.” Not so, although my best friend in first grade did happen to be black (sadly, he moved away over the summer). I say all this only to prove that I’m not speaking from an ivory (with extra bleach) tower. Nor am I trying to pass off my own views and biases as those representing an entire populace spread across three dozen states.
No, I say all this because, regardless of if they are young, old, male, female, white, black, Hispanic, Asian, left-leaning, right-leaning, Evangelical, Catholic, atheist, don’t care, thinks soccer is a communist plot or insists on calling it “the beautiful game,” every Midwesterner I have ever known is – wait for it – a human being. A complex individual with particular opinions, tastes, beliefs and dreams. And what they don’t want from you, Mr. or Ms. Marketing Maven, is to be told those things are wrong, stupid, evil, backward or so very 2002.
So if you want to speak to the people you usually only encounter on layovers, here’s the key: Entertain first and preach never. Politics in the Midwest is just as contentious as in the rest of the country. In fact, it is probably even more so. But most of us don’t want it infused into every single aspect of our lives, and even fewer want it to affect the brands we buy. I’m not talking about brands built on causes or a particular worldview, of course. TOMS shoes can do as they like because that’s their reason for existence. But no one in my neck of the plains cares what their cookies or fabric softener or cable company thinks about the hot-button issues of the day.
For example, I mentioned my dad was a police officer. Thirty-four years on the job. Which means I had plenty of exposure to firearms and understand both sides of the gun rights issue. So what’s my particular take on it? As far as you’re concerned, brand manager, who cares? It does’t matter. You don’t have to change a person’s politics to sell them a toilet plunger. Just treat people with respect. Don’t condescend. Don’t assume everyone shares your worldview. Make something worth buying. Deliver on the promises you make. And feel free to make those promises in ways that are enjoyable, interesting and relevant to people outside your conference room.
And if you’re having trouble figuring out if you’re on the right track, give me a shout. I work on Madison Street, which is just different enough from Madison Avenue to bring you and the brands you serve much joy, love and healing. Also, sales.