Madison Avenue and the 'Great Sorting' of America

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Facebook was originally a counterweight that balanced Madison Avenue's tribal sorting, writes the managing partner of Oberland.

On January 21st, millions of us will wake up asking how the hell we got here.

For decades, Madison Avenue has been making brands about identity, lifestyle and closed community. And for any individual marketer, that seemed to make sense. That approach effectively sells more products.

It started with identity campaigns—think Marlboro Man. They created an ideal of what a "real man" should look like, and tried to convince others to share that ideal. Those who were convinced lit up, and those who didn’t were relegated to the nonsmoking section.

Then, it morphed into lifestyle or cult brands. Think Saturn or Harley Davidson or Whole Foods. These brands didn’t create ideals of what individual people should look like, they focused on how people should live. The effect, however, remains the same. Some people get in the club, and some are left outside trying to bribe the bouncer.

Then came CRM, social media and other community building platforms. In our effort to protect market share gains and cross sell our other services, we built rabid brand communities and strict product ecosystems. These were effective bulwarks against the competition, but we made the "us and them" problem exponentially worse.

From the Marlboro Man to "Mac vs. PC," our brand campaigns have been built on what makes our consumers different from their consumers. That makes sense for an individual brand, but once every brand started doing this the collective impact intensified the tribalization of our culture.

Facebook was originally a counterweight that balanced Madison Avenue’s tribal sorting. In its original state, the Facebook platform brought millions of us together, and got millions more of us back together. But, in the search for financial viability, it morphed from connecting to sorting.

When Facebook started, the power of connecting was in our hands. We chose who we connected with, we saw everyone’s posts, and we could decide what to engage with. Now, Facebook recommends connections to us and decides whose posts we see, limiting our control over what to engage with.

Facebook has been deliberately feeding us only the things we like or hate, to keep us on the platform. While that may extend our use time, it’s not the stuff that keeps people connected to each other. It’s a default on the original promise of an open, globally-connected community.

In fact, this combination of forces is a major cause of the "Great Sorting" referenced by President Obama in his farewell address. It creates "Bernie Bubbles" or "Trump Bubbles" or "Ancient Germanic Language Bubbles." It keeps us buried in the small concerns of our own little worlds and distracts from the major collective challenges of our time- climate change, income inequality, race, religion and others.

Nothing will crystalize this sorting effect more for Americans than January 20th. On that day, we will inaugurate a man who thrives on and deliberately exacerbates this sorting. Whether on religious, racial, geographic, interest-based or socio-economic boundaries, he has continuously framed his arguments as "us" against "the other."

Stanley Resor, one of the original Mad Men at J. Walter Thompson said, "War and peace, religion, morality, and the new humanity of man towards man are all susceptible to the power of advertising properly employed." And, while the larger societal sorting effect was not Madison Avenue or Facebook’s goal, it happened. And we collectively have a responsibility to our country to respond and correct our ways. How do we do it?

Well, for Facebook, a good start would be converting the algorithm driving the Newsfeed into a setting. Allow users to select and toggle between "Facebook Classic" or "Facebook Bubbles" in real time. This way, we can take control of our connections, pop our own bubbles and stay connected to everyone in our lives.

For Madison Avenue, we should stop building our brands on the things that set our consumers apart, and start focusing on the universal human truths that bring us all together. We constantly search for messages that appeal to our target, but we don’t have to choose the message that only appeals to the target. Stop asking the question, what makes our target unique? Instead, ask why your brand exists in the first place, and go from there. It’s a slight shift in the approach to crafting the brief, but it will yield immensely different work, and a different cultural effect. And, next time you’re reviewing creative work, kill the idea that divides the market into us and them and come up with something better.

America has always been great because it has been the melting pot of culture, ideas, people and passions; but we led it astray. And, we have an obligation to fix it. To make America great again, we need to make America melt again.

—Drew Train is managing partner of Oberland.