Debunking the happiness myth

by Angela Natividad , Hurrah

Today someone in my Twitter stream shared the following quote:

"Advertising is based on one thing: Happiness" - Don Draper

Let's ignore for a moment that Don Draper is not a real person, and that his merits in the actual world of advertising are debatable depending on how big the "Mad Men" fan is in front of you.

If you buy into the idea that we make purchases in order to be happy, the quote could stand to be more precise. It should probably also be limited to purchases we don't think we strictly need (deodorant, toothpaste and Lysol): "happiness" buys probably only really refer to things that are distinctly pleasure-oriented (your morning latte) or things that you don't actually know much about (that new TV or computer, which promises SO MUCH MORE! than your tired old edition).

In these contexts, and to correct the crappy semantics of the cheap Don Draper phrase above, we can say at best that it's the promise of happiness, our pursuit of it, that drives purchases. It's in the US Constitution! By hook or by crook we deserve to be happy, and if we can buy it, all the better. We'll buy as much as possible to get to that goal.

Then I started thinking a little harder about that phrase. Do we really pull the trigger for "happiness"?

Most people who call themselves happy would agree that happiness is a state of mind (another proverb worth stitching on a pillow, but in this case truer than Don Draper's lazy platitude). Whatever they may buy to contribute to that feeling, they generally believe that a reasonable state of lasting happiness has more to do with you deciding to be happy than with something you just bought. You can't slot-machine the feeling.

And while we worry about how happy we are, I don't think many of us really care much about happiness -- not enough to prioritize it mindfully, although we all consider it a "nice-to-have".

So let's assume, for now, that happiness isn't really at the heart of all advertising.

When I think about compulsive shopping, I think about sex or a good meal. The acts of eating, making love and going shopping are supposed to be fun, but they're still work: you do them for a more pleasurable payoff. But how many partners turn to you over that postcoital (or post-coffee) cigarette and ask, "Have I made you happy?"

The real question, asked or not, is whether or not you feel satisfied. Which brings us to where brands find themselves in this increasingly social, too-honest world: to what degree do you satisfy people?

The nice thing about satisfaction is that it lets us off the "happiness" hook. When you're aiming to satisfy, you're not responsible for the entire mental and emotional well-being of a person. How many people have said you shouldn't base your happiness on people or things? It's a dangerous prospect that generally leads to disappointment.

Satisfaction, though, has no such responsibility. Everyone knows that satiety isn't a lasting state; it's something you pursue, attempt to prolong, and that generally fades with time, leaving positive memories that keep people coming back.

How do you satisfy? The rules are simple:

  1. Start by making every engagement with your brand, whether through ads, online or in-store, a pleasing one. The journey toward purchase should feel like a reward in itself; this sets you up nicely for that last climax.
  2. Ensure the product or service you're offering extends that sense of pleasure. Does it work the way people expected? Is it pretty good? Most of the time this is plenty … if you're selling a hammer or an analytics suite. If you're selling something like an Apple computer or a spankin' new social platform, you'll need to go the extra mile: does it surprise and captivate?
  3. If you fall short on either of these things, you don't have to worry too much if you get this right: when people aren't satisfied and come complaining about it (which they will -- from all sides!), how do you make up for it? Be honest in your responses and swift in your compensation. Nothing's uglier than an unmasked swindler faced with confrontation. And that's what you'll look like if you feint, avoid, get defensive or insist that you're right and they're wrong.

Maybe then you'll win the coveted Second Chance.

We're rational people; we all know that sometimes the second time's the charm. (There's even a phrase for a foiled Round 1: performance anxiety.) Many loyal clients and partners are won in Round 2. Second chances are precious indications that people want to choose you. Take advantage of that opportunity to seduce anew and secure whatever lustre was lost the first time around. And it's simply not worth praying for a third chance (unless you're the IRS, and that person is a taxpayer).

People have less and less time on their hands. They judge more swiftly and may not see the value in putting All of Life! on pause to extend you a second chance. So work hard to get all three right the first time. It's the secret of the best brands -- the brands with the most admirers, the most fawning (and returning) lovers.

Get it right: you don't have to make somebody happy, but aim to satisfy.