On the Issue of Selling Issues

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We have this thing called the First Amendment that, in theory anyway, guarantees us the right to say anything. What it doesn't guarantee is that anyone will pay attention. American air is heavy with second-hand smoke being blown up our collective skirt by First Amendment users of all persuasions. Political and cultural constituencies all yammering at once, struggling for your ear, your signature, your vote or your check, competing for mind share and market share, just as brands do.

The rare practice of bringing the tools of brand advertising to these issues is the strange career niche that I find myself in. What's beautiful and life affirming about it is I get to employ my skills to help people and save the planet, while collecting a paycheck for it. So I get to live my values and sell out at the same time. But issues work comes with some unique "challenges," to use the popular corporately correct euphemism. For instance, with consumer brands we take boring products like paper clips and portray them in an exciting way. In this arena, it's not about making office supplies amusing or cruise lines sexy; it's about finding the funny in reproductive health and developing nations, or giving our target a woody for energy conservation.

Unlike many consumer products, issues come with the emotionality built in. And, as an added bonus, those emotions are often attached to opposite sides of the issue. Think about abortion rights, for instance. The goal then becomes to appeal to the "pros" without igniting the wrath of the "cons." We're tasked with being simultaneously compelling to the target, and stealth to the enemy, lest the dragon awake and our efforts bring more harm than good. It makes a kind of sense, but it creates a strategic schizophrenia that can frustrate and poison creative teams. We're supposed to get people's attention and make them not notice our ad at the same time? This "look at me/don't look at me" problem can lead to truly bland work. So the failures are there, especially the really effective ones, to remind us how little the creative matters when the subject matter is so potent.

Happily, at our agency we've been able to maintain a glimmer of hope that maybe we're not just doing this for the karmic brownie points. There's been some awarded work for Energy Star and now, some new work for gay workplace equality, in which something happens that you've never seen happen in a TV commercial before. Often, I see ads on social topics that feel as though the agencies responsible have thrown their strategic principles out the window and just gone for shock value or a tug at your heartstrings approach. I want the work we do to tug more at the head. It's pretty rare, though, for any of these projects to be clear of political landmines. Despite that, there's a lot to like about doing issues work. I like the idea of taking relatively miniscule budgets and creating little movements, making activists, rather than consumers, of our target. And I like the thought that we might be penetrating people on a level deeper than a hair conditioner ad, tapping into what's smart and reasonable about Americans. So far, I don't see any other agency doing exactly what we're doing. We've been able to quietly build this practice on a foundation that few creatively principled agencies would care to stand on. I'm not sure if that makes us seem clever or desperate; I will say, we are, and will always be, desperate for creative opportunities.

Eric Gutierrez is a creative director in DDB/Seattle's Issues and Advocacy group.

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