Character and winning

I find Nike’s decision to use an uber dose of swagger and to fuel controversy with its winning takes care of everything ad campaign a mesmerizing exercise in social culture.

So are responses from some sportswriters:

  • Jay Busbee sharing the truth he believes many of us are missing, “Nike is doing this to get under your skin. Come on. They knew the sanctimonious types would get upset about this. It’s just an ad.”
  • David Gianatasio offering his soothing advice that “this is a blip that quickly stirs passions but has no lasting effect. By next week it will be all but forgotten.”

Well, it’s now next week, and I haven’t forgotten.

Perhaps understanding unintended consequences is the domain of sanctimonious (goodness, never thought I’d embrace that word!) folks who take a broader view of how character is developed and the insidious impacts social culture – those “blip” things like ad slogans – can have on it.

In “The Distorted Mirror:  Reflections on the Unintended Consequences of Advertising,” Richard A. Pollay writes:

  • “[Advertising] is designed to attract attention…to change attitudes, and to command our behavior.”
  • The goal of advertising is to persuade people to buy so it’s a “process of change for cognition, attitudes, behaviors and values.”
  • “Advertising provides us with vocabulary:  a set of words and the concepts they express with which we structure our perceptions and judgments, defining in large measure how ‘reality’ is conceived.”

Attitudes, behaviors, values, perceptions, reality.

Some heavy hitting areas that impact our orientation toward winning, toward leading ourselves and others.

Many of us make a determined effort to ignore ads and blow off their messages. But, despite those good intentions, we may not be immune. Studies into advertising persuasiveness led by John T. Cacioppo and Richard E. Petty unfortunately reveal that the:

“…circumstances under which people are the least sensitive to the quality of an argument are the same situations in which they are most likely to be swayed by very superficial cues such as the attractiveness of a speaker, his or her reputation, or even how many arguments are made – regardless of their content.”

Christian End, a psychologist at Xavier University, points a finer point on how people think about winning:

“The tendency that we tend to find over and over again in the research is that people like to associate with winners, because if I associate with a winner others are going to perceive me as a winner, too.”

Using Tiger and saying winning takes care of everything implies that the ends justify the means; that everything’s fine provided one wins; that winning is the ultimate success and cure-all; and that ethics and integrity are irrelevant provided one is on top of the winning heap.

Character has been defined as our “inward values that determine our outward actions.” We’re exposed to anywhere from 300 to 5,000 ad messages a day.

That’s a lot of opportunity for unintended consequences. For children, for adults, for leaders.

So what’s a character-based leader to do?

Stay aware that unintended consequences work both positively and negatively; aim always for the high road. Recognize the psychology of advertising; be vigilant in resisting its efforts to modify our values and attitudes. Take charge and take care in educating those around you who get sucked into the culture of consumerism at the expenses of principles.

Be content. Be enough.

Be skeptical; your mom was right when she told you if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

“It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.” ~Mark Twain

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