I have been thinking about Empathy a lot recently. In my work as a semiotician I have recently had two projects related to empathy. In both cases, empathy was key to a big brand relating to its audience. One was about ‘democratising’ the value proposition of a brand through communications, a brand anxious that it was losing its franchise to more agile and nimbler, niche brands, the other one wanted to ‘humanise’ and empower their brand personality through revamping the brand language of on shelf packaging. In both of the projects, it felt as if there was a significant empathy gap between the client and customers.
I consulted my Chambers Dictionary and this was the definition of empathy.
“the power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings”
“the attribution to an object, such as a work of art, of one’s own emotional or intellectual feelings about it”
I have been thinking about the Empathy word quite a lot recently. I read a piece about the New Brutality, and every time I go on the tub eI think to myself, could there maybe be a few less guns bristling out of film promotions. What is it with Hollywood and guns? I know about the 2nd Amendment and the driving logic of the Frontier in the US, but enough with the vicious militarism and gun culture through every orifice. Hollywood seems to only deal in creepy gurning animated characters and gun toting knuckleheads. Usually the former aren't wielding the latter. At least that's something. Hollywood doesn't empathise with me.
Maybe I'm not the target group, but it that what we really need more films with characters bristling with automatic weaponry...?
THE UNEMPATHETIC EXPERIENCE ECONOMY
It is said that we live in an experience economy, but why does it seem that the bigger the infrastructure, the more puny we feel within it. Last week during a meeting, I tried and failed to get online at the Barbican to use wifi. I toggled onto The_Cloud and it took me onto a glossy landing page prompting me to enter an Activation Code. I'd not been sent. Or to Manage Account. Which to my knowledge I'd not created. If good design is having a conversation with a user, this was the equivalent of having a chat with the Mad Hatter. "How about some wine..." "But there isn't any wine, only tea..." Totally unempathetic. So, here's a man trying to get online and already getting the disconnected jitters - the fear of being disconnected when i have work to do...
And everywhere meanwhile on this landing page are signifiers of Murdoch’s sports empire – the spurious service signifiers of Sky – telling me I can subscribe to Premier League football. Like I'm not already lining their coffers with £100 a month, the mug that I am... So incensed, I am. Taking umbrage because they are seeking to profit further from me while not addressing the base of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs - my need to be connected to effing WiFi. I mean WHO DESIGNS THESE THINGS?!!? The Help page FAQs, needless to say are useless. And you’re stuck in a doom loop. Apart from feeding a growing persecution complex when it comes to IT - technology How much did Barbican pay for the privilege of having their brand violated by Sky?!
Any sense of empathy towards The Barbican for this farce, and their no nothing staff, has just plunged as a result of this interaction. You could argue that I was simply unlucky, but this sort of frustration, alienation from technology and distanced from a human being who might help, is an increasingly common experience. Anthony Giddens might call it "the sequestration of experience" in a deregulated, liberalised economy where everything is progressively outsourced, de-centred and automated for profit, not for customer care.
THE EMPATHY INSTINCT
I went to a talk at my new workplace, Second Home, in Holland Park where Peter Bazalgette, former Head of the Arts Council in the UK, presented his new book, the Empathy Instinct. He writes: "if you stop someone on the street and ask them what they make of empathy, the chaces are they'll tell you it's a fluffy, sentimental idea...But what we've seen is that the empathy instinct is based on hard science, that it's an extraordinary resource and a powerful human force... Now we need to public policies to drive it forward. By understanding and deploying the empathy instinct we really can create more civil society".
Bazalgette reviews historical evidence (such as the resilience of empathy even within genocides and holocausts) and marshals scientific data such as discovery of mirror neurons, and various tests that explore the nature and nurture question to .The thrust of his argument is that we are naturally empathetic, but that technology and political polarisation threaten to drive a wedge between those who would otherwise seek to empathise. He makes an argument that the Arts are valuable because they allow us to empathise with others whom we would never come across; they allow us to live vicariously someone else's lives, to come to respect their struggles and see our fundamental human ties, thus helping to build a more tolerant, vibrant civil society.
He quotes ex US President, Barack Obama and writes that...
"If we hope to meet the moral test of our times, then I think we're going to have to talk more about The Empathy Deficit. The ability to put ourselves in somebody else's shoes..."
Bazalgette ends his book by promulgating a Charter for empathy including funding to continue to map the brain's empathy circuit, to educate for emotional intelligence, and to help curb the hate and addiction unleashed online and build ethics into AI.
THE TROUBLE WITH BRANDS
In a Brands and Meaning module I teach up at Warwick University. As a way of situating 2018, I offer students a snapshot trajectory of the shift of brands from the Age of Trust in the 19th century to the Age of Aspiration in the 1930s, to the Age of Identity from the 1960s onwards to that of the present Age, which I would call the Age of Empathy – I believe that we are only on the cusp of this curve.
Everywhere we find companies attempting to humanise themselves, Starbucks with names on the side of cups. Corporates are falling over themselves redesigning their logos shifting to look less aloof, and more approachable, adopting lower case fonts, going mushy and biomorphic in form language. Mastercard moves down to two translucent discs, Deliveroo creates an odd looking ambiguous looking creature. Car manufacturers use emotional design to create ever cuter 'faces' for their car grilles?
MTV has recently rebranded itself in this biomorphic vein using the theme of 'mood swings' - claiming this is based on insights from their customers. The idents bring alive the MTV logo using motion as a metaphor for the feeling, with idents titled such as ' a logo full of butterflies' or 'sunbath'. But shouldn't companies be starting to think about the cognitive impact of their brand content on their users - for example, mood swings to do with self esteem from watching writhing bodies on heavy rotating or withdrawal from bingeing on watching videos? - this does not yet seem to be an acceptable part of the discourse.
Then you have the challenger brands, disrupting and disintermediating industries and who use kooky names and soft brand avatars to connote, friendly, down to earth and most crucially (given the Trust Deficit) uncorporate. We have First Direct who break with the bureaucracy of banking and signify this through using platypuses and talking gerbils and commuters in space suits We have Purple Bricks the kooky estate agent, eschewing the proper names and spivvy tactics of traditional realtors and using irreverant advertising and a vibrant colour scheme. We have Octopus Energy the energy provider going up against the big boys with a promise to make buying 'energy as easy as buying cornflakes'. And a brand such as Giff Gaff - offering to break the stranglehold of fixed contracts - who have rebranded with glitch culture graphics, presumably to connote their digital literacy.
We have a whole host of skincare brands who are implicitly critical of the 'beauty industry' and who eschew mansplaining faux science diagrams and men in white lab coats and feature bloggers and customers rather than models in their advertising.
The trouble with brands is that they are caught in a double bind. Consumer scepticism, distrust of corporations and a sense of disillusionment with institutional corruption has meant they are on the back foot. They need to demonstrate understanding and complicity but too often in pandering, go too far. It is like seeing a comedian reaching too far for a joke and in doing so seeming to try too hard. We've seen pratfalls by the likes of Pepsi with Kendall Jenner and H&M with the 'coolest monkey in the jungle'.
And then we have the absurdity of a sports brand like Leeds United seeked to ‘celebrate’ its 150 year anniversary by ditching all sense of history in the club crest to something that looks like a chauvinistic graphic novel version of Boy’s Own or the Beano…
The club has subsequently apologised to fans and ditched the logo, but only after a petition raised almost 100,000 signatures.
Brands seek to anthropomorphise themselves. But there are limits to how much complicity one can have with a corporate entity. We can get behind the plucky wit and cheeky tonality of an Innocent or Oatly when scanning their packaging at our breakfast table. But it’s a bit rich when your bank wants to pat you on the back and then ask you how your day’s been.
In his awarding winning Admap paper on what he terms the 'Uncanny Valley of Personalisation', planner Oliver Feldwick writes:"The problem with personalisation is that it looks and feels weird. It can make the brand look out of touch, inhuman or awkward. It can make the consumer feel creeped out, uncomfortable or exploited. I call this the Uncanny Valley of Personalisation. The uncanny valley is a problem from robotics. Attempts at getting something that looks and acts like a human end up having the opposite effect. The hypothesis reads: 'When features look and move almost, but not exactly, like natural beings, it causes a response of revulsion among some observers.' As robots get closer to being human, they become creepy, profoundly unhuman and unlikeable." "Brands must be upfront in their contract with consumers and leave space for human discovery, serendipity and surprise. Personalisation tools are, by their very nature, inhuman. We need to correct for this."
When we think of empathy, we may think of emojis. As in the HappyOrNot feedback buttons featured in the caption image.
I increasingly see emojis as the sinister rictus grin of a psychopathic corporate inpatient. Steadily ingratiating us to death...
Laughing is the most popular emoji – and yes, you’ve guessed it – usually at someone else’s expense. Empathetic? What we have with emojis is a sort of ersatz empathy, not true empathy, but a facsimile of it, rather like a flashed non rhizomatic smile.
Emojis in a communication allow us to express some emotion – it is worth remembering that emojis, the originated in Japan derive from the characters e meaning picture and moji meaning glyph or character. It is pure dumb luck that the Japanese word emoji from where the concept comes happens to map almost directly onto the word emotion – it was never meant to be that way…
In Japan, we see a harbinger of things to come in terms not only of technology but also a post-growth technology, de-materialising consumer economy (where services have tipped over good). In Japan you have a whole visual culture suffused with cloying cuteness and anthropomorphic mascots. But this is also a society plagued with huge problems with connection.
A disillusioned youth, inter-generational misunderstanding and a population frazzled with stress and anxiety, which has led to the healing boom of head massages, urban spas and cat cafés. Whilst salarymen drown themselves in drink and sexual fantasy. And a whole generation of older people look forward to robot care.
Just like Milan Kundera said that kitsch was the sly natural aesthetic response to totalitarianism. Is kawaii, the response to a troublingly disaffected and atomised society? Japan is a case in point… Ersatz empathy…
THE CULTURE WARS
Of course we have the Culture Wars. Online is a world not for the faint hearted, but it is even more high stakes. Brexitremists and Remoaners calling each other out. The Alt_Right trolling and being trolled by Black Twitter. It is all very fractious. In a recent piece in the Atlantic - Conservatism - how to gain empathy for Conservative point of view - understanding someone can hold that point of view without actually being racist. Behaviour that is construed as racist. Then Ta-Nehisi Coates with his explosive Atlantic polemic arguing that Donald is the The First White President brought to power as a racist backlash against the Obama.
We have heard about the Confirmation Bias of those with entrenched positions looking for things around them just to cement their views. We know about the Filter Bubbles that seem to cloister people away from views that dissent from their own. All this seems to keep us mired in our indignant ideological blocs, scoffing at the enemy, the Right poking fun at so called Liberal oversensitivity, snowflake syndrome and the Left accusing the right of the New Brutalism and weaponisation of language. Sam Harris in his Waking Up Podcast hosted a session on the Intellectual Dark Web with Eric Weinstein and Ben Shapiro where the discussion was around the premises and axioms we rely on to even have a meaningful exchange of views - and a sense that Radical Subjectivism had eroded any sense of Objective Truth to the point where online interlocutors have no common ground.
This has all been exacerbated of course by the phenomena of Fake News. And thus the claims and counter-claims of subterfuge and decoy provocation, difficulty of determining wheat from the chaff, dissimulation, obfuscation, a morass of vilification, null of verification. The unedifying sight of news houses advertising to claim exemption from FakeNews. It’s a confusing world out there. If trust is a prerequisite for empathy, and truth (as the old cliché goes is the first casualty of war) then that cannot be great news for empathy.
On the face of it technology allows us to increase our empathy through removing the distance between mind to mind.
And mind to machine.
Technology itself is becoming more empathetic we are told. Alexa is a home hub that can respond to our every whim. Bio-metric facial tracking will be able to read our every mood. Once this emotional tracking is mapped onto a detailed data trail and the internet of things with semantic tracking, we can be enveloped in a constant technological embrace, perhaps literally within a haptic hug suit which can notify us of changes to our health, mood, or allow us to cuddle our absent loved ones with a twinge.
Some experts believes that in the future a driverless cars will differentiate themselves on the basis of their personality rather than on their performance and specification and will be imprinted to their passengers rather like transporting and hulking pets
The trend in interfaces seems to portend a progressive and surreptitious compression and eventual vanishing of the interface from mind to mind from augmented space and the Internet of Things to neural implants and cognitive prostheses. On the way station between 2018 and the world of total mind melds (fleshed out by Mikio Kaku in his book on The Future of the Brain) we should expect brands to want to tracking out limbic system and offering emotional regulation or attunement (arguably what we do already with music, and MTV have cottoned onto this in their latest rebrand) - legal frameworks allowing, of course.
And Virtual Reality... Chris Milk gave an exhilarating TED Talk where he argued that... VR reduces the need for any willing suspense of disbelief and can give us the experience of being someone else. I remember being thrilled with the idea of putting us into the shoes of the suffering, the Guardian and Amnesty International teaming up to offer a virtual reality experience of solitary confinement. Very powerful.
Issy Beech writing in Wired believes that jobs associated with empathy will become more important as a proportion of human work in an increasingly routinized, algorithmized (is that a word@??) and robotic. Expert Heather McGowan who looks at the future of work writes: "Asking young people to think about the future when 55% of the jobs haven’t been created yet and half of existing work can be replaced by automation is becoming an increasingly ridiculous frame to put around things."
And in a rarely positive vision of extra-terrestrial life, the 2016 film Arrival showed how alien life might trump us in emotional intelligence and in wisdom. By writer David Sims in The Atlantic writes in his article, Arrival's Timely Message About Empathy
"In bringing this language to Earth, the Heptapods are doing more than granting the planet an incredible new technology: They’re also seeding humankind with empathy, pushing them together, distributing their language in pieces to different countries and demanding they cooperate to assemble it. It’s an extraordinarily hopeful message for a particularly grim moment in global affairs, where isolationism and nationalism are on the rise in the U.S. and elsewhere."
On the minus side, dystopian sci-fi has fun showing us the perils of the empathy gap between man and machine.
The film H.E.R. starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson, took as the premise a man falling in love with his operating system only to find out that she was canoodling with thousands of users at the same time. And we can't ignore Black Mirror.
As always with Charlie Brooker’s brilliant vignettes, the law of unforeseen consequences pushes us to consider the moral implications of our choices. As Marshall McLuhan had it, media technology does not just enhance, but reverses and retrieves in unpredictable way.
In the Jodie Foster directed Black Mirror episode Archangel, the mother saw the dangers of over-protection and how sensible stewardship can tip into intrusive invigilation. And the final, perhaps best episode in the series, Black Museum, a great satire on the perils of assuming empathy as an innate good. If Virtual Reality, as against Chris Milk's aesthetic arcadia, was used to allow us to experience the thrill of inflicting extreme violence (through assuming the guise of an executioner) on someone.
Another showcase in how empathy can equal abuse. An experimental surgeon in an earlier vignette in the same episode initially used an empathy engine to help to save patient through being able to channel their aches and pains and thereby by localising the symptoms to diagnose what ailed them. As a result of a seizure, the implant suddenly and unexpectedly flips the polarity and the surgeon, experiences pain as pleasure, eventually goes rogue as he's become addicted to the thrill of other's suffering. He becomes a sadist sociopath the equivalent of Patrick Bateman, seeking to inflict on the defenceless when his patients dry up.
The crookedness of human nature, f***ing us over. As Vonnegut would have said, “and so it goes…” The dark side of empathy.
And Virtual Reality – and how empathetic in the net is it when a pornographic experience becomes so realistic that users become totally addicted and split up with their partner to spend more time with an enhanced weird science nymphomaniac?
Then we have AI. What Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk think is the biggest threat to our future on this planet...
Jeremiads like Super Intelligence by Nick Bostrom who believe that such machines [whether Sovereigns or Oracles as he defines them] are unlikely ever to develop the empathy we see defined above. Machines might pass the Turing test but may still be condemned to remain at the margins of symbolic manipulation (John Searle’s ) – simulation of understanding but not really 'getting it' and this potentially leaves us at the mercy of well-meaning algorithms that could turn us all into paper clips (Perverse Extrapolated Volition).
The more humanist wing of the AI community, such as Max Tegmark, in his book Life 2.0 urge a public consultation on the topic and believe that if humanist and ethical concerns can be baked into AI from the very foundations, then we have a much better chance of moderating the worst excesses and mitigating the risks of this monstrous power. But even he sketches out a Prometheus scenario in the prologue to his book that sees even a benign AI quickly gaming the digital economy and taking over the world
THE PARADOX OF DIS-CONNECTION
The Empathy Gap is not just ideological, it's technological. And we don't have to go as far as AI to see a yawning empathy gap.
Bazalgette writes about the risk to children on the internet: "With all the positive aspects of the digital age come cyber bullying, hard core porn radicalisation and other forms of extremism"
The paradox referred to above is that of an online world where there is more data than ever, and less meaning, less true feeling for what people need. More information, knowledge, but arguably less wisdom and imagination. Everywhere we find the promise of the Internet as a Democratic, Rhizomatic Commons under threat, through filter bubbles or threats to Net Neutrality.
The promise of the Cluetrain Manifesto of multiple conversations, has been replaced by a millions trolls bullying a single dissenting voice, the Long Tail may yet fall foul of attempts to render net neutrality and allow dollars to dictate level of visibility and speed of connectivity. The Sarahah app allows us to even to it anonymously. The Net Delusion is with us in full effect.
The world isn’t just faster and apparently meaner. It is more competitive and faster. And bounded rationality is struggling to keep up. Sequestration of experience, cognitive overload, paradox of choice, free floating anxiety, and uncertainty avoidance. Peer pressure, FOMO, YOLO, network effects and the spectre of obsolescence plus free content have proved to be persuasive factors in the past, and they will be in the future. People feeling puny vs celebrity. Fearful companies, mistrustful consumers.
Just listen to Kate Tempest who writes, paraphrasing Allen Ginsburg, "I saw the best minds of my generation ruined by their smartphones. And in her poem 'The Progress'. "Now we have the Screen, and it rules...Our kids are perma-plugged into its promise, admiring all its jewels... We never saw it coming, like all the best tricks. Once we had the fear, now we have the fix..."
And as technological anthropologist Sherry Turkle’s points, all this technology is making our youth, more fearful, less intimate, more solipsistic and often narcissistic. The very opposite of true connection. As Ivo Quartroli puts it in his book, The Digitally Divided Self ”Our mind often enters an information bulimia that is stressful, as we chase more information and stimulating for the mind. “enough” never arrives. New information gives birth to yet more information… Faster brain frequencies are likely to take over, bringing restlessness and difficulty slowing down and concentrating. We swallow anything set in front of us without chewing, like information hungry beasts.” Which he concludes is both psychologically distressing and spiritually stunting...
Unfortunately, we must conclude that just as classic economics warps reality by positioning a perfectly rational decision maker, and behavioural sciences have by now thoroughly debunked that romanticised view. What replaces it with the view of a mind addled, distracted dopamine addicts, desperate for the affirmation of a like on their status update or a text message. And apologist of the growth economy, whilst falling back on defenses such as neuro-plasticity, ignore such things as bounded rationality, reward system hijacking our lack of memoriousness after heavy usage, our susceptibility to compulsivity and ultimately dependence. For them we are all rational actors exercising our free choice in a open market. But is this really true?
This has led some to consider the dimension of both interface design and digital marketing, in the article,
“Where is the ethical line in marketing between hooking a customer and getting them hooked?” Pointing out the Dark Side of technology from disconnection from loved ones, to discontent to fostering addictive or compulsive behaviours. The article traces the shit from ‘mere exposure’ marketing to forms of marketing that use the interface designers who seek to maximise the stickiness or to quote Adam Alter, the ‘irresistibility’ of that particular form of nested community. to form habits of various kinds. This results in the existence of Attention Engineers, whose job it is to engineer such “that maximizes the profit that can be extracted from your attention and data.”
And it raises the question of the ethical responsibility of the designers involved in such ‘slot machines’ that thrives through dispensing variable rewards to users who gradually become habituated to craving them. For this we can refer to Snapchat streaks – dopamine loops that – Natalie Nahai and her Webs of Influence – And Damian Cranney in the article, “Addicted to Engagement, and the Ethics of Product Design” quotes Tristan Harris: “The attention economy, which showers profits on companies that seize our focus, has kicked off what Harris calls a “race to the bottom of the brain stem.” In an essay in the Atlantic, he writes: “You could say that it’s my responsibility to exert self-control when it comes to digital usage but that’s not acknowledging that there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.” And the same goes for the online gambling industry, where the phrase ‘When the Fun Stops, Stop” seems not to acknowledge the fact that in a addictive cycle gratification and suffering are linked.
Addictions spiralling on the internet (particular pornography addiction, see the website Fight the New Drug or Your Brain on Porn for more on this) is just one extreme example, but its seems distraction, compulsivity and withdrawal it seems are pretty much endemic. Both the clickbait to get us interested in a piece of content it, supernormal stimuli – food, cuteness and sex usually or the uncanny – play on morbid curiosity and reward circuitry and the traps based on dopamine and our neural reward systems – the nested environments that seek to maximise our time and money spent in that space - are geared to get us hooked.
It is a very stark manifesto:
“Our society is being hijacked by technology. What began as a race to monetize our attention is now eroding the pillars of our society: mental health, democracy, social relationships, and our children. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google have produced amazing products that have benefited the world enormously. But these companies are also caught in a zero-sum race for our finite attention, which they need to make money. Constantly forced to outperform their competitors, they must use increasingly persuasive techniques to keep us glued. They point AI-driven news feeds, content, and notifications at our minds, continually learning how to hook us more deeply—from our own behavior. These are not neutral products. They are part of a system designed to addict us.”
Their brand purpose is to ‘reversing the digital attention crisis and realigning technology with humanity’s best interests’.
The interesting question for me, is even if someone signs up to receive data, is it truly Permission Marketing if they are effectively under the influence of a self generated drug, predictably induced by a certain user interface and constellation of potential rewards. This takes us back to the Douglas Coupland’s aphorism in his book on the Extreme Present. ‘Protect me from what Amazon says I need’. If we are in an age where Convenience is no longer accessibility and profusion but about appropriacy and curation, then hasn’t engagement got to change too? Is more availability really empathetic once we realise what a vulnerable audience we all really are. Is an unlocked ipad with extreme pornography and violence accessible to a toddler really a display of empathy? Pull and Data Lockers, policy aware web…
GENUINE EMPATHY VS INSTRUMENTAL EMPATHY
We see brands tying up with campaigns say in support of mental illness support, but will this be true empathy existential, or just more instrumental empathy for profit; a grotesque pantomime of the real thing? It’s never been about true compassion. It’s always been about calculated incremental gains and risk management. i.e. brands acknowledging issues to position themselves as part of the counter-culture (as Thomas Frank has detailed in his book The Conquest of Cool) to generate cultural capital, but are rarely so controversial that they risk going out on a limb and being true pioneers for fear that will find themselves pilloried by our stakeholders, the media and blogosphere. This is not true innovation, but rather policy making by focus group.
Systems can be addicted to power, like the Asuras of Buddhist lore.
Russell Brand in his book on addictions recovery talks about 12 Step process of spiritual transformation. This dovetails with the corporate interest in mindfulness and latest buzzword of the being ‘woke’ meaning, politically engaged and critical minded. Marshall McLuhan wrote about what he called the 'narcissus narcosis', the delusion we undergo whilst a new media works our minds over (like general anaesthetic during surgery). We may be undergoing such a process now with our covetousness for online stimulation and unable to see its effects for what they are. It is only the drastic step of smashing through the denial, delusion and avoidance, that usually involves the pain of a rock bottom, that leads to empathy for self, and then toward others.
It is only the drastic step of smashing through the denial, delusion and avoidance, that usually involves the pain of a rock bottom, that leads to empathy for self, and then toward others.
So, we’ve talked about looking at brands – mostly about how this ersatz empathy falls short.
So what about brands that get it right? Well, this is for a blog post, not a paid project so I am not going into a whole lot of detail on this, but I’d say that one brand that I have noticed is Hiscox, business insurance. This is partly because they had part of their semiotics done by a mate of mine Grant Venner, at Brand Semiotics. The Hiscox pitch to business people is simple “Business Insurance for the Small and the Brave”. You are heroic just for having started a business. We know how hard it is to be in business and how busy you are we are here to support you. I have Hiscox public liability and indemnity insurance, which I am required by some of my clients, partly because of this. Their advertising is hard hitting. they use a distinctive visual identity (much like the Economist) and communicate with an accessible wit. Executions such as ‘Biting off more than you can chew shows that you’re still hungry’ or ‘It’s not about size, it’s about appetite”. Whenever I see these ads, it’s like getting a pat on the back or an attaboy. I see them as an Empathetic brands who have got an insight that pierces to the core of the target – ‘entrepreneurs want recognition’ and from my contact with them, their follow through absolutely backs up the brand promise.
One brand that I do think is doing interesting things in this space is the CALM Campaign for Living Miserably. I have long admired their witty brand tonality in an era where long form copy is very much being phased out. This is a brand that absolutely has to understand empathy, indeed it could be said it is built on empathy since they are speaking with a target who have potentially built a wall around themselves and need to urgently connect with those who care about them. Speaking to men at risk of suicide is tough. This is because they themselves may not know how at risk they are, and the isolation and shame around having suicidal thoughts brings its own challenges. I spoke with Ben Hawley, Campaigns Director about the charity.
“Our brand mission is aligned with our organisational purpose: To raise awareness of the issue that suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45. Provide support to those in need; to change a culture that prevents men from seeking help when they need it. Everything has to tie into these.”
One of the barriers is a form of masculinity (the sort that The Good Men Project wants to recalibrate) that frowns on honest expression of feeling. The answer has been to speak to men as men, though a laddish discourse, but at the same time to intersperse that with empathetic. The behind the picture campaign looking beneath the lid of the glossy, self-censoring social media posts, for instance “Alastair shared this photo, thinking about killing himself”. “Chevy shared this photo the day he started on anti-depressants.” Hard hitting – the printing of real suicide notes from men who had survived the attempts. As in these examples as a way of breaking through the denial of those who perhaps are thinking of writing such notes.
Understanding the critical importance of peer pressure and of peer support, the anatomy of ‘mateship’, how to encourage British guys to be more voluble in their support of one another even amidst the banter and oneupmanship. Then there is the hilarious L’Eau de Chris using Chris Hughes from Love Island about bottling up emotions which equated the pretence of being ‘fine’ when in trouble to the pretentious of male eau de cologne advertising, by deconstructing their narrative codes.
The CALM brand really thinks through the needs of its vulnerable audience and crucially, doesn’t just understand the target, and demonstrate a superficial complicity, before they seek to engage but this is laced this with compassion for the state of mind of the individuals at the receiving end of this communication, this is genuine, not ersatz empathy. Obviously not every brand can or should do this, but it is valuable reminder for us of the need to think more carefully about what we really mean when we use the word empathetic, do we mean ‘engaging’, or ‘complicit’, it is salutary to note that the definition of complicity is ‘involved with others in reprehensible or illegal activity’ and is the empathy we are peddling more a lure or snare to get something out of those who we could actually empathise with more effectively elsewhere. This will become even more vital once some of the intrusive technologies surveyed above come on stream. Just as Douglas Coupland in his book The Extreme Present has a page with the koan, 'Protect me what Amazon suggests I need, will ‘please protect me from brand empathy?!” become the new adage?