Listerine and the Business of Shame

Image via Kilmer House, a blog dedicated to the story of Johnson & Johnson and its employees. Frederick Barnett Kilmer, for whom the blog is named, was J&J's first scientific director. The blog is written by J&J corporate communications. This is a great example of corporate branding best practice.

Marketing, as an industry, trades on shame. Subsistence happens on one level, admittedly not cheap but not nearly as expensive as the stuff you are routinely offered to buy. Or the stuff you don't need, but that marketers invent, convincing you along the way that you must have it ("creating a market.")

It is a paradox that shame is universal, and yet we universally seem to have trouble talking about it. Maybe that's because of the nature of shame. It's designed to keep people in line - nothing more and nothing less.

Shame is a spiritual theme. In the Garden of Eden, the Biblical story goes, Adam and Eve felt shame when they sinned against G-d. There was nobody there to make them feel that way - they just did.

Shame is enforced by the group against the individual. It's a way of keeping the powerful in power. The targeted person - who may or may not have done anything wrong - is marginalized, punished, laughed at, silenced.

Usually there are interlocking forces around shame as a tool. So you learn in religious school about what G-d supposedly wants, and then there are people in power who enforce those rules and enforce themselves as the keepers of them.

It occurs to me often that organized religion creates more problems than it solves because of the way it shames people. Honestly I think there would be peace in the Middle East right now if religion were not a factor among the negotiating parties. Because too often it defines any compromise as shameful.

Shame makes us take on debt we could otherwise avoid. It makes us fight with people we otherwise have no bone to pick with. It drives us to shame other people, just to relieve our own agony and despair. Shame makes us try to compensate for our own insecurities by becoming overachievers. And overachievers run a lot of races that don't matter, distracting them from more important priorities that don't come with an award attached.

Listerine makes it sound simple to get rid of shame: Just rinse with antiseptic and you'll be fine.

The problem is that only works temporarily.

In real life the answer is not that simple, but here are some thoughts:

1. Probably the first thing is to admit your own shame, even if only to yourself. Whatever it is, stop spending a lot of energy fighting it or directing your energy to temporary fixes. Preferably, write it down. Once you look at it on a piece of paper, that scary monster loses a lot of its bite. Like the movie says, you can "burn after reading."

2. The second is to look to a third party for validation. Even if you just go on the Internet - it is pretty big and I guarantee you, whatever you are going through, no matter how strange or minor it may seem, someone else is going through it as well.

3.The third is to gain support from a community. Online, offline, close friends, acquaintances, formal or informal support network - you name it. The last time I went to Panera an elderly man looked at my computer and then lifted his hands and said, "I couldn't ever use that thing, even if I wanted to." He was surrounded by other elderly people who laughed and said the same. That's support.

4. The fourth is to take concrete action steps to eliminate the impact of shame on your life. Are you living beyond your means to prove you're not lesser than anyone else? Working in a career you hate? Those are good places to start. Everything is subject to change - you just have to take that first step.

5. The fifth is to offer your support to other people. It doesn't have to be that they are the same as you. You don't even have to know what their problems are. But as you give your support to others, you get support back from the Universe. It works that way.

All this is not to say that marketing is bad. I find that it gives me tremendous joy. I love advertising of any kind. The sight of new products gives me joy. It's fun to take them apart in terms of marketing strategy, and it's fun to actually buy them.

But shame as a motivator isn't fun. It isn't necessary and it doesn't really propel you anywhere, in your career or in life. Like I read somewhere the other day - just be who you are. You have no other choice, anyway.