What Advertising Should Take From TED

by Andy Hobsbawn on 10/15/09

These are some thoughts on TED and the advertising industry after Green Thing returned from TED Global 2009 a few weeks ago.

The big problem for the advertising industry is that it wrote the manifesto for the 20th century’s ideology of triumphant consumerism and excessive individualism. Advertising defined what it was that those who had a newfound capacity to consume should buy, and how to spend their money in a way that suited themselves and no-one else.

If I had to pick out one thing that advertising should take from TED it would be how urgently we need to reboot our society and financial systems to address the great challenges of our times: our environment and economy, our health services and education systems, social inequality and a lack of community, and an ageing population with dwindling supplies of water and oil.

A consistent theme throughout the conference was how our values and cultural behaviours are changing to reflect a growing preoccupation with these new social and economic imperatives.

Thus social commentator and Young Foundation director Geoff Mulgan spoke eloquently and convincingly about the need for systemic change and social innovation to tackle the things that free markets don’t do well; like compassion, empathy, social relationships and care. Capitalism is already getting drawn into the world of social networks and will become more social still as it recognizes that value comes from relationships not just consumption, and as customers demand that businesses also serve more productive public needs like ecology, family and community.

We need a new set of intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivations, which recognize that people want to contribute to something greater than themselves and do stuff that matters. This has been the case online for some time, as Harvard law professor and writer Jonathan Zittrain pointed out. Sites from Wikipedia and Craig’s List to Couchsurfing.org, or even the network engineering system of the Internet itself, have always been based on a patchwork system of collaboration and trust. Things get done for love rather than money and individuals regularly work together purely for social or altruistic reasons.

Sure, not everyone is turning away wholesale from old-fashioned consumerism, but the middle class that became the engine of the 20th century consumer movement is changing what it cares about. Perhaps in part because it is better educated. In 1938-39 there were around 50,000 fulltime university students in the whole of Great Britain, now there are 2.5 million and this rate of increase applies pretty much globally.

The rise in middle class education doesn’t eliminate the old ideology of looking out for No. 1 first but it does help to counter it because those who have gone through schooling (and increasingly have access to new, digital media channels through which all kinds of information flows) acquire habits, beliefs and ideas which don’t come to them purely though advertising or other traditional media.

There are signs that social change can help advertising to move from primarily consumerist to new motivations. The mood and situation are different. TED itself, of course, is partly an exercise in very successful marketing. It’s extremely good at finding inspirational ways to package and deliver intellectual discussion in forms that will project, get noticed, and have an effect. And like advertising, which created new units of cultural transmission such as the 30-second TV spot, TED has even invented it’s own memetic media format, the 18 minute talk, which it distributes online to 300,000 people a day.

The times are changing quickly and consumers, to paraphrase David Putnam, are ‘relocating their dreams’ – the challenge for advertising is to move with them. Today, in the words of Nobel Laureate economist Robert Fogel: “People have enough to live, but nothing to live for; they have the means, but no meaning”. People still haven’t found what they’re looking for and hundreds of millions of them, who no longer have to worry only about where their income is coming from, have started searching for happiness in places other than shops – which partly explains the appeal of TED.

Andy Hobsbawm, Co-founder, Green Thing (Dothegreenthing.com)