Designing for Social Causes: The ‘Healthy Sausage Sizzles Less’ Paradox

That famous advertising mantra “sell the sizzle, not the sausage” brings attention to the fact that so much consumer spending is governed by our hearts rather than our heads. The art of skilful advertising, branding and marketing (different disciplines of the same game in my view) is to locate and exploit that very specific point where the inherent qualities of a product or service intersect a basic irrational human desire.

Red Bull is my favourite example of sausage playing distant second fiddle to sizzle. Their logo doesn’t represent a beverage. It represents the highest, the strongest, the fastest, the most daring. It’s base jumping, rock climbing, snowboarding. Formula 1, number one, win win win. Look at their homepage and see how long it takes to locate a reference to the actual drink on what appears to be primarily a sports news website. Yes, drowsy shift workers may well justify that fizzy caffeine hit as a rational purchase, but it’s on the shelves because Red Bull is in the business of selling action, and business is good.

Even tediously rational products are sold in the same way. The brochures for gas combi boilers come stuffed with images of healthy family lifestyles in designer houses we all aspire to inhabit. That ubiquitous mundanity the headache tablet isn’t a mix of chemicals designed to reduce fever or inflammation in humans; it’s targeted pain relief that heads straight to the heart of the problem with knowing, pinpoint precision. Toilet roll isn’t absorbent paper designed for the removal of post defecation faecal matter; it’s quilted decadent luxury or the soft fur of a faithful, playful puppy. Throughout my entire youth I assumed sanitary towels were something to do with rollerblading.

The task is simple. Find the easy sell. Turn the inherent qualities of your client into a sizzle that’ll be an easy sell. Forget the mashed eyeballs, minced testicles and artery clogging cholesterol of a sausage the head knows it should avoid. Make the heart aware of the sizzle instead and watch the world chow down on the pig giblet.

It’s all so easy. Appealing to the heart is easy. Do you know why? Because the heart is an idiot. Listening to our hearts is why people stay in abusive relationships. Why we continue to piss away the resources we rely on as a species. It’s why our homes were transformed from necessities to commodities and now have monetary values far in excess of what they’re actually worth. It’s why we continue to spend money on goods we don’t need despite facing ever increasing levels of forced austerity.

Yes, the heart is an idiot easily swayed. Deeply ingrained human desires are easy to exploit, they’re the easy pickings on which the capitalist system is hinged. But the head is something altogether different. The head is sensible. The head is cynical, logical, analytical, and this is where the paradox lies. It can be much, much harder to convince people of the worth of something genuinely, measurably, quantifiably worthwhile than it is to convince them there’s worth in something genuinely, measurably, quantifiably worthless.

The fact that heart rules head is why designing for the social sector is so much harder than it is for the commercial sector, despite seeming on the surface to be a far simpler task.

We tend to buy irrationally yet give rationally*. When we give, we want assurances that our money or our support will be used wisely. We’re cynical about where our charitable donations go and we like to hold the recipients to account, while the private corporations to which we give far more get to behave how they like. The corporate world has half the battle won before it starts because we all want to believe our selfish, frivolous spending has some value, so we disregard evidence to the contrary and convince ourselves it does. But we need to know our philanthropic endeavour has some value, and feel wronged if the evidence shows that it doesn’t.

Which is where I get to the key point of this post. It can be very easy to market your way out of a sales problem, but it’s impossible to market your way out of a social problem.

Over the past year or so in my efforts to spend more time designing for social cause clients than for purely commercial ones, I’ve ended up talking myself out of what should have been straightforward design jobs and into more complex ones well beyond my comfort zone. I’ve found myself frequently offering input that perhaps moves beyond the traditionally recognised realm of the designer. People approach me when they want design, that’s the service they expect. But providing a mere service is pointless without the promise of a result, and for the money they pay me a client deserves a result.

A brand is the clothing an organisation wears. Our favourite high street brands look great in their fancy clothes, but stripped naked they’re typically grotesque cynical monsters of ugly exploitation and devious dealings. The capitalist system rewards such behaviour, but the social and charitable sector isn’t so lucky. It also needs to look good naked.

What all designers working in this area should bear in mind is that the traditional smoke and mirrors approach has no place. There has to be real substance behind the work we do for such clients, otherwise we might as well not do anything. We need to dig deeper in order to do our jobs because the clothes we provide simply can not cover up unsightly things like they so often can in the corporate world.

The corporate world is built on polishing turds. The social and charitable sector is built on shitting gold. That is a key difference designers must recognise. Those who don’t, those happy to do the beautification work, go through the motions, take the money and run aren’t doing their job properly. Design is creative problem solving, and beautification alone can’t solve many problems in this sector.

The client may already look fantastic naked, they may well just need the clothes. If that’s the case then great, we designers can do what we’re most comfortable doing. But the onus is on us to first ensure that is the case; to make sure that we have that starting point. Otherwise we’re just taking money from a social cause and offering nothing in return, which is parasitic and immoral. I see it often and it really boils my piss.

*Last week I had to think about the merits of donating a fiver to a museum’s voluntary donation bin, then just an hour later I blew a tenner on a Chinese restaurant’s lunch menu without a second thought. Though I recall enjoying it I can’t remember now what that meal tasted like, yet I can remember all kinds of stuff I saw at the museums, from the posturing of rival crabs to the hollow bones of the pterosaur skeleton, to the beautifully engineered directional thrusters of space craft to the regimented discipline of ants collecting leaves for their nest. I learnt about global shipping, the exploitation of cotton pickers in Uzbekistan, took a virtual ride on a long dismantled railway, saw actual contents raised from the actual wreck of the actual Titanic. Many hours perusing incomprehensibly ancient artefacts, learning about the wonders of nature and the bafflingly complex technology of man was worth half as much to my logical head as a hastily prepared and consumed set meal was to my stupid heart. Indulgent, momentary and fleeting pleasure won out over countless hours of mind expansion. Idiot.

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