Why adland needs to stop pushing the pursuit of happiness
A view from Grace Francis

Why adland needs to stop pushing the pursuit of happiness

The industry has shifted from attaching emotional benefits to goods to implying the goods are a shortcut to the happiness.

In 1971, Coca-Cola released the utopian spot "Hilltop", better known as "I’d like to buy the world a Coke". Bill Backer, the adman behind the idea, took inspiration from a moment of shared humanity in an airport, noting that frustrated passengers were soon laughing and joking together in the café with a Coke in hand. 

Backer recognised the emotional resonance of positioning his client’s product not just as a refreshing drink, but also as a shared moment of happiness and commonality; whatever our current situation or lot in life, we can all enjoy a Coke. That abiding sentiment, and even a nod to the track itself, is echoed in Coke’s 2019 Super Bowl spot, "A Coke is a Coke". 

Between "Hilltop" and now, adland has shifted from attaching emotional benefits to material goods to implying the goods themselves are a shortcut to the happiness and wider emotional fulfillment we’re all so urgently pursuing.  

This is particularly problematic for an industry that is accustomed to selling products that answer wants, not needs. We might have a deep need to be accepted and loved in society and also a want to improve our running time. How did we find ourselves in a position where a sports brand – or even a pair of running shoes – is expected to credibly answer both? 

We’ve got here because many of us are interrogating what it means to be happy and finding ourselves short. We’re seven years into the annual World Happiness Report that this year led The New York Times to ask if we’re living in a post-happiness world, while McDonald’s is running a US spot that guarantees joy with any $1 soft drink. The world has changed and adland is trying to answer our unfulfilled pursuit of happiness – but it is an impossible task. 

When we left behind the era of brand as a promise and moved into brand as purpose, the products and brands we advocate took on the burden of answering deeper societal and individual human needs, many of which ladder up to the elusive desire to be happy.

Our industry is under such pressure to deliver meaningful happiness that we’re turning to the specialists. In 2015, Diago and Anomaly worked with the Harvard-trained psychologist and expert in happiness Matt Killingsworth to create the tagline "Joy will take you further. Keep walking" and the accompanying campaign. A year later, Coca-Cola left behind the tagline "Open happiness", instead opting for "Taste the feeling", which put less pressure on the brand to guarantee an emotion, but also because the company felt the pursuit of happiness had pervaded popular culture and advertising.

In his new collection, An Emotional Education, contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton claims that brands are being asked to make us happy because culture has replaced scripture; the masses are no longer turning to religion and instead are seeking life’s answers through art, entertainment and even brand engagement. While religions are equipped to answer the big questions and sit with that discomfort, culture is not. He also believes that the unfulfilled pursuit of happiness is the very thing making us unhappy. 

What can we as an industry do? We can accept that individual happiness is elusive and certainly won’t be found inside a packet of biscuits and that our clients aren’t solely responsible for serving up jolts of positive emotions in a turbulent and ever-complex world. 

Instead, we can focus on what can be achieved by the organisations we serve and lean in when our clients consider how they can answer deeper societal needs beyond the products that they make. Perhaps "Hilltop" was less about securing our own moment of happiness and more about making sure everyone could be a part of that collective, if only for the duration of a drink.

This month, Business Roundtable, a US lobbying group comprising more than 180 leading organisations including Amazon, Coca-Cola and Apple, set down a statement that a company’s responsibility is more than maximising financial returns and should pursue social impact alongside profit. 

These chief executives recognise the need to consider their impact on consumers, communities and the environment, but they require support from their boards, their employees and their agencies to make it happen. If we were to achieve that, it might be something to feel happy about. 

Grace Francis is chief experience officer at Droga5 London