One night, when I was a teenager, I’d been to the pub with a mate called Pat.
On the way back, we passed a motorbike parked in the street.
Pat reached over and took the petrol cap off the tank.
He said “That’s handy, I need one of those for my bike.”
As we walked on, Pat said “I’ll have to confess I nicked it, at Church on Sunday”.
I said “Put it back now, then you won’t have to confess it”.
Pat said “No, I need it”.
That always fascinated me.
Pat was Irish so he was Catholic, I was always intrigued by their rituals.
It didn’t seem that the purpose was to stop you doing bad things.
You could get away with doing bad things as long as you were willing to pay the tariff.
A small bad thing was a small penance, a bigger bad thing was a bigger penance.
It was called an ‘act of contrition’, this seemed very transactional to me.
Like most things, it started out as a good idea.
If you truly regretted your transgressions, you didn’t have to burn in hell, you could confess and receive absolution, so that was comforting.
Years later I visited cathedrals in foreign countries and saw what looked like cupboards, I’d see lots of people, mainly old ladies, waiting in line.
It turned out these cupboards were confessionals with a priest sitting inside, a person would whisper their sins through a grill and the priest would administer an appropriate penance.
And these people took a lot of comfort from it, because ordinary people understand transactions, it’s how life works.
I want something from you, what can I give you in exchange?
We see it everywhere, in Italy, the churches sell candles for you to light and pray.
In Malaysia, the temples sell joss-sticks for you to burn and pray.
In Thailand, the temples sell gold-leaf to rub on the statue of Buddha as you pray.
In Singapore, the temples sell paper-prayers to burn as you pray.
In Britain, the collection plate is circulated as you pray.
This is a simple understanding of the way people think the world works.
I want something from you, what do you want in exchange?
Of course, money isn’t always the answer, it’s just what most people understand.
The point is, it’s transactional: I want something from you, what can I give you in exchange?
That shouldn’t be too difficult for us sophisticated advertising folk to understand.
If we’re clever enough, we’ll find out what our audience wants and offer that in exchange, then we have a much better chance of having a successful interaction.
If we want them to pay attention, we’ll be entertaining.
If we want them to listen, we’ll be interesting.
If we want them to understand, we’ll make it simple.
If we want them to remember, we’ll make it catchy.
If we want them to do something, we’ll be convincing.
That’s how the exchange works, but we don’t do any of that.
We want their attention, but we don’t work out what they want in exchange.
We just tell them what we want, so there can’t be any exchange.
They want to be entertained, and they want useful information.
But the strategists, and marketing people, and clients, and creatives, aren’t interested in any of that, they’re only interested in what they want.
They want to write a complicated brief to impress the client or win an award at Cannes.
They’re going to do what they want, like it or lump it.
So, not surprisingly, the audience lumps it.
Ad agencies want something but they aren’t willing to give the audience what they want in exchange.
Which is why most advertising doesn’t work, there is no transaction.