How can brands help build better people?

The Family of Man - the democratic surround in action

So I’ve been deep in a fascinating book, Fred Turner’s ‘The Democratic Surround’. It describes how European mass media societies enabled the deeply destructive politics that led to WWII, and what the US did when it realised that it was a very similar kind of mass media society.

It’s got a lot of lessons for us today.

How to build better people

The Americans were lucky – they had a combination of Bauhaus refugees and brilliant psychiatric, sociological, anthropological and artistic thinkers to draw on. ‘The Democratic Surround’ tells their story.

Together, they analysed pre-WWII European politics, looking to understand how certain kinds of mass media could create and support a certain kind of self – the fascist self. Then they asked themselves how those media could be used to create its opposite – the democratic self.

That led to the development of a certain kind of public event, which reached its peak in the internationally successful ‘Family of Man’ exhibition. It was first shown in 1955 in New York, then toured the world for eight years. It was seen by millions and widely acclaimed. There’s a picture of it up at the top of this post.

You were largely free to make your own way through it. Words and images arranged in free-floating groups surrounded you, encouraging you to shuffle them together in your own way and create your own interpretations of them. And those words and images were carefully curated to engage with the full diversity and shared experiences of human life.

You can read more about it here.

The exhibition as a whole was a machine for building empathy and encouraging freedom of choice. And that style went on to inform the next decade or so of US public exhibitions. It was a direct contrast to totalitarian comms styles, which remorselessly imposed absolute, divisive, individuality-eradicating us-vs-them experiences on their viewers.

Asking a very important question

It was also a model for a broader US media experience. Across all media, freedom of choice and interpretation, and active encouragement of diversity, would build up people’s democratic selves.

As the US’ visionary public comms people developed their events, they started with a very important question:

  • How can we help people build up the best in themselves?

It was a very important thing to think about then. And it still is now. That’s because we live in a society far more shot through with mass media than 40s Italy or Germany ever were.

But it’s one that we very rarely ask ourselves.

Instead, we tend to be much more instrumental. As modern comms people, we ask questions like:

  • What are the people we’re talking to already like?
  • How do we want to change their behaviour?

We take who they are as fixed. Then we look at some small aspect of what they do, and try to change that.

Perhaps we try and get them to choose our fruit drink over someone else’s, or switch to a new bank account, or feel a little more enthused about a particular kind of tea.

Having read about ‘The Family of Man’, that doesn’t really seem like enough.

What kinds of selves do modern brands create?

Every piece of comms implies a certain kind of reader or viewer. By talking to that kind of person, it supports the growth of that kind of self. Generally, it’s not a very impressive kind of self. It certainly doesn’t match up to the kind of person that the visionary thinkers of the 40s and 50s wanted to seed.

Of course, some brands push against that.

I’ve written before about the excellence of the Weber BBQ brand. They’re very clearly trying to do more than create people-who-buy-BBQs. They’re looking to help people who might not have seen themselves as food preparers become highly-skilled BBQ chefs, confident, thoughtful and inventive users of a very sophisticated set of cooking tools.

That new understanding of the cooking process can be transformative, changing how people see each other’s roles and shifting domestic relationships accordingly. I’ve seen it happen myself.

In fact, the Weber self is something close to the democratic self. The brand helps you freely choose from a wide range of options to assemble your own response to the world in an open, democratic fashion. Along the way, you gain a wider respect for expertise and experiences you might not have previously thought or cared too much about.

And of course, Weber aren’t the only brand working like that.

What about your brand?

From Which? to Tesla cars, from Innocent Smoothies to Howies clothing, the world is full of organisations that want to support better ways of being human rather than just modify some short term consumer behaviours.

In these challenging, divisive times, it’s a question worth asking about your own brand communications too. Rather than thinking about reaching the consumer types most likely to buy your product or service, imagine the kinds of people you’d most like to build relationships with.

Ask yourself what they’re like at their best. And then think about how your brand can help them become an even better version of themselves. Go back to that very important question that all those Bauhaus refugees and US deep thinkers asked back in the 40s and 50s:

  • How can we help people build up the best in themselves?

And then start to make that change happen.

Digging into ‘The Democratic Surround’

You can find out more about ‘The Democratic Surround’ and move on to Erik Davis’ and Clay Shirky’s podcast interviews with Fred Turner over on his website. And here he is being interviewed by the ever fascinating Doug Rushkoff on the highly recommended Team Human podcast.

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