With Super Bowl 2011 approaching, AdAge highlights the question on everyone's mind: "Could a Super Bowl Spot Make Us Love Our Government More?" (Some prominent ad execs' reflections on this subject will appear in Harper's Magazine in the issue forthcoming January 20th).
OK, obviously this is not the question on everyone's mind. But for marketers this is the equivalent of a logical puzzle. Can a single brilliant spot take the government from Scrooge to Santa Claus?
As a public servant myself I have a few insights into this subject that may be helpful. (Speaking only for myself and not astro-turfing, I promise.)
* * *
Consider this story. It is just too good not to share. And it will get us back to the point, eventually.
In the coffee shop where I'm writing this, an elderly woman and her husband are sharing a table with me.
She walks away to get a drink and comes back with two Izze sparkling sodas. The cans are skinny and colorful and have images of flowers on them. She tells her husband, "Try this, you will love it." She puts the straw in the can.
Husband takes a sip and says, "Uch, you drink it."
Now, he is reading while she sits patiently and actually watches him read. She continues to sip her Izze, completely relaxed.
Did they make Izze specifically to appeal to women who go to bookstores and watch their husbands read?
She is eyeing the second Izze.
* * *
So how to rebrand government? Another story.
As a government employee, I recently spent some time in a mandatory training class. You may think that as someone who likes to read and write, I would completely enjoy training time.
Actually – no. I am not really a sit-in-the-classroom type. I tend to squirm in the seat. I have no idea how I made it through twenty years of formal schooling. It's actually amazing that I can sit at a desk.
Plus it was not the most fascinating of subjects. Honestly, if it isn't branding or social media – MEGO (my eyes glaze over).
The teacher however was outstanding. A retired government employee who had come back to the workforce to teach this particular subject. And if I were going to produce a Super Bowl spot to promote faith in the government, I would put him up there.
This teacher represented everything that the government actually is. In a good way:
· Not just competent, but excellent – highly qualified and intelligent
· Extensive institutional knowledge – been there, done that and then some
· Humble and unassuming – no ego about being the "top dog"
· Sense of humor
· Human in terms of treating the students fairly, allowing for the weather, etc.
· Family-oriented – talked about his wife, pets, hobbies - a sense of work/life balance
· Most importantly, had his feet on the ground – explained how to work with this subject in the real world, given political and cultural realities
Of course nobody is perfect. The subject matter was dry and he followed the rules, teaching it in the dry way they had handed it to him. But in a way that also shows a certain level of maturity. In a mammoth bureaucracy, it is not realistic to expect everyone to be "change agents," breaking paradigms and performing radical acts of transformation in defiance of the rules that keep things running smoothly.
I totally disagree with the concept of creating an advertisement to "rebrand government." It really is so much more than that. Primarily, I think, it's about aligning the audience's perceptions of the government with the reality of the government. Admitting what is, setting a target for what should be, providing a plausible and engaging strategy as to how we will get there. And engaging actual employees as passionate brand advocates along the way. (Forgive this intrusion from the world of IT, but in the field of enterprise architecture they call this a baseline, target, and transition plan.)
Nevertheless, just in case there is some attempt to create such a spot, I would suggest that an individual like this be recruited as a spokesperson. I wouldn't even give him a script. Just give a teenager a handheld camera and have the young person conduct a brief interview. Let the government employee say, in his or her own words, what it's really like to work for the government. (Better get a retiree to do this – someone with no skin in the game, who is just happy to help out if they can.)
My thinking is, maybe if people could see what type of people the government actually hires, they might – if not change their minds – open their minds and shift their thinking about government a bit. They might see that for the most part we are just a bunch of people doing the best we can with the resources we have. Working within a system that is built to accommodate an almost impossibly high level of standards to ensure everyone's integrity.
In the end, the government is not something that was imposed upon us. It is something that we have created ourselves. In a sense, we are all married to it. It is up to us whether we will watch other people read in the bookstore, or whether we will pick up a book ourselves. And use what we have learned to support what is good, change what's not working, and help prepare our nation for the incredible changes that are undoubtedly awaiting us as we journey even further into the 21st century.