One of my favourite books is Wild Swans, by Jung Chang.
It’s the true story of three generations of Chinese women.
Before, during, and after the Communist Revolution.
I read the book pretty much open-mouthed.
If it was fiction you’d say it was just too ridiculous.
For instance, when Mao Zedong took over China he was impatient for change.
He wanted it to become a superpower to rival Russia or America almost immediately.
His main plan was called ‘The Great Leap Forward’.
Three of the main policies were as follows:
1) The people must sacrifice everything metal to be smelted down to make modern industrial goods.
2) No private ownership of farms was allowed, everyone must be relocated onto massive collective farms.
3) All the sparrows must be stopped from eating the seeds, by any means.
Of course, these three planks also had three massive flaws.
1) The Chinese people sacrificed absolutely everything metal to the smelting project.
Including all farming tools: ploughs, harrows, rakes, shovels, forks, scythes, hoes, sickles.
Which meant they had no way to harvest the grain.
So it rotted in the fields.
2) Hundreds of millions of people were moved from towns to the countryside to work on farms.
Since they had no knowledge or ability they were useless.
Just millions more unproductive mouths to feed.
3) Farmers scared the sparrows away with noise, they wouldn’t let them land. The sparrows eventually fell dead from exhaustion.
Without the sparrows to eat them, insects destroyed the crops.
The Great Leap Forward created one of the worst famines in history.
30 million Chinese died.
You would have thought someone would have told Mao that his policies weren’t working.
But anyone who dared try was jailed.
So everyone was scared stiff, and told Mao that his policies were great.
When he visited a farm they would arrange to have all the grain from every farm around stacked into a massive pile.
Mao would see this and be pleased at the success of his policies.
As he moved on to inspect subsequent farms, the same grain was quickly taken ahead in lorries.
It was unloaded and restacked for him to inspect yet another massive pile of grain.
Everywhere Mao went there was evidence of the success of his policies.
Mao said, as they were doing so well, China should export its excess grain abroad.
So China exported grain, while millions of Chinese starved to death.
While I was reading the book, I was thinking this kind of behaviour is crazy.
We’d never do anything like that.
We’d never pretend someone’s policies were working just to keep them happy.
Especially if we knew they were wrong.
We’d never deliberately hide the facts from them.
We’d never be frightened to tell them the truth.
Then I thought, how about a client who wants to do something to the advertising that we know is wrong?
Something that doesn’t make sense.
What do we do?
Do we say it’s wrong and risk losing the account?
Or do we do what they want and find a way to pretend it’s working?
Just like the Chinese under Mao, what are the options?
Tell the truth and be imprisoned (lose the account).
Or do what Mao (the client) wants us to do.
Just to stay safe.
We all know the answer.
I don’t think the way we behave in advertising is so very much different to the way the Chinese behaved under Mao.
And if that’s how we behave when the stakes are relatively low, why should we think we’d behave differently when the stakes are much higher?