Fixing Vs. Facing

What is your reaction when confronted with human heartache?

Do you feel the urge to fix it? To prescribe the right book, the right prayers, the right slogan, or the right regimen? Or maybe you crack a joke to lighten the mood; maybe you put things in perspective with a comparison: “Well, at least you’re not like ____________________.”

Fixing feels good at the time. We tell ourselves that we are “helping” the other person – but we are probably helping ourselves. We don’t like that feeling of heartache, and we definitely don’t like feeling powerless – so we back away from the abyss by trying to fix it.

When Job’s friends arrived, they found him sitting on a pile of dung, scraping at his scabs with a shard of pottery. They sat with him for a time, but couldn’t abide his heartache for very long. They shifted to analyzing and fixing and thereby abandoned him in his pain. Indeed, they blamed him for it!

Giving advice is easy – and not nearly so helpful as we like to think. In some cases, it is our way of backing away from solidarity with the suffering person. In others, it is an arrogant way of saying, “If only you were more like me, your problems would go away.”

I have noticed that subtle message in myself and others – both at the individual and the collective level. I think of Casa Hogar Juan Pablo II – an orphanage in Peru founded by Fr. Joe Walijewski, a saintly priest from our diocese. I have been there five times, usually with a group of young people. The thought process at home is almost always the same – Isn’t it great that we are sending down some of our youth to go and help those poor people? We assume that our affluent American ways are better than theirs. We assume that we have the power, wisdom, and resources to solve their problems. If only they were more like us…

Fr. Walijewski actually saw it the other way around, dreaming of a “mission in reverse.” The mission is not our people going down to Peru. Rather, we go to Peru so that the children there can teach us what it means to be human!

And they have taught us – every time. Amidst material poverty, amidst government corruption, amidst heart-wrenching stories of loss or betrayal, we have encountered stunning beauty and joy. It exposes our own deeper poverty – what Mother Teresa called “the poverty of affluence.” Every single trip I have witnessed the shocked realization in our youths’ faces and tears: How can children possessing so little, children who have suffered so much, be so joyful? How can they love so tenderly and so vulnerably? How can we who possess so much be so joyless?

Jesus invites us to be with each other in communion – both in the agonizing sorrows of life and in the intense joys. As Paul puts it, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). That means that the human heart of a saint is never far from tears and never far from laughter. Those who are the most open to tears are also the most capable of joy. That is because, in the Paschal Mystery, Jesus has redeemed human heartache by investing meaning into it. He invites us, not to bypass suffering and the Cross, but to follow him through it to new and abundant life – to follow where the brave Shepherd has gone before.

It is only when we face the fuller depths of our humanity – in all its beauty and brokenness – that we can die with Christ and rise with him.

It is in such human encounters that the newness of the Resurrection breaks in. Those who learn to abide in the midst of heartache, staying vulnerable and receptive to God and others, will experience the surprise of the Resurrection and the joy of the Gospel. Jesus assures us that his Father blesses those who are poor, those who grieve and mourn, those who are willing to be vulnerable, those who hunger and thirst. Facing heartache allows us to receive the Father’s blessing. “Fixing” it closes us off and diminishes our receptivity.

Let’s face it – facing heartache is hard! As the great poet T.S. Eliot put it, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

I think that is why, when Jesus died on Good Friday, he said “Behold – your mother!” – not just to John, but to every beloved disciple. Mary was often in situations in which she intuitively understood that God was doing amazing things. She did not at all know how it was going to be okay. I am thinking of the Annunciation, Jesus’ birth in a stable, the flight into Egypt, the cryptic words of Simeon in the Temple, the losing and finding of 12-year-old Jesus in Jerusalem, his torture and execution, and the awful watching and waiting on Holy Saturday. Again and again, mother Mary faced heartache. Again and again, she waited with expectant hope and was surprised by the marvels of the Kingdom of God.

The last time the Bible tells us about Mary is in Acts 1. Following Jesus’ Ascension into heaven, yet again she abides in uncertainty and messiness. She prays with the apostles every day in the cenacle – nine days in all. It took those apostles many years and many failed attempts, but they learned to abide and receive. The Jewish feast of Pentecost arrives – the day to bring first fruits of the harvest to God. In a stunning and joy-filled reversal, God gives the first fruits to his Church in the person of the Holy Spirit. Mary recedes, and the early Church comes to birth, set on fire with the Holy Spirit.

The Church is intended by God to be a community that faces heartache vulnerably, open to the Father in holy receptivity and open to each other in true communal fellowship. Rather than trying to fix or advise others so that their story can fit into the preconceived mold of our own story, we expect the Holy Spirit to show up. We expect the Father’s blessing. We expect that the new life of Resurrection will surprise us. Fixing is too constrictive to allow space for God to do his work.

Do we have the courage to face our humanity together, and to abide together in Hope?

For Brands, Perfection Is Out and Authenticity Is In

Marketing
“It helps you seem more trustworthy and enjoyable, like a friend who is going to give you advice on what to buy.”

Michael Meier

As our lives move increasingly online, the ways marketers interact with us are evolving as well. The increasing adoption of AI is helping companies serve up more relevant ads—while deepening concerns about customer data. Brands are also realizing the benefits of coming across to customers as more fun and more personal than they have in the past.

What can we make of the new web-marketing landscape, and how might consumer interactions be transformed?

Jacob Teeny, an assistant professor of marketing at the Kellogg School, spoke with Kellogg Insight about advances in ad personalization, the ways tech companies are rethinking their privacy policies, and the rise of authenticity.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Kellogg Insight: Which current trends are you most closely following in the digital marketing space? How do you see those trends influencing the broader marketing landscape?

Jake Teeny: These days, I’ve become interested in people’s concerns about privacy.

Privacy is a little paradoxical, because while people say they’re concerned about the privacy of their data, most never do anything about it. Researchers attribute this partly to an evolutionary predisposition. When we lived in smaller groups, we had to be very concerned about our social standing, because we could be kicked out of the group, which could result in death. Nowadays, we still have the vestiges of that, even if the consequences of a bad reputation aren’t as terrible as they used to be. It’s this leftover effect of our evolutionary psychology that hasn’t quite adapted to the widespread pervasiveness of data today.

However, another important part to this “privacy paradox” is that some very fundamental websites leave us little choice to give over details if we want to use them.

This is changing somewhat, as companies like Apple and Google change some of the tools they use to track people. In fact, I was talking with a former marketing executive at Apple, and I asked him, “Why are you guys pushing for privacy? This doesn’t seem from the research to matter too much in terms of changing user behavior.” He said, “To be honest, it was a totally internal decision. We thought, this is an unhealthy way for consumer data to be treated, and we wanted to take a stand.”

Now, of course, Apple has definitely emphasized privacy a fair bit in its advertising, so I’m sure there’s a little bit more than just consumer well-being that they had in mind.

But whatever the reason, it’s going to make it a little more challenging for people to be tracked and for advertisers then to make money or personalize their ads, even though we’re now in the age of personalization.

Insight: How representative is Apple’s pro-consumer-well-being stance? Is it your view that many companies are trying to bolster their reputations and gain consumers’ trust?

Teeny: Not everyone is taking such an outward stance on privacy, as many companies benefit from access to that data. But I do think this question ties to another broad trend we’re seeing, particularly in online marketing, which is trying to develop a sense of authenticity as a brand. Pretty much every brand has to stand for something today. One way you can do that is by trying to take an authentic stand on an issue, whether it is fair labor practices or sustainability or in the case of Apple, privacy, in order to make yourself come across as legit.

Insight: If I’m a brand, what can I do to develop that sense of authenticity beyond just saying, “Yes, I stand for this social issue?” What concrete steps can I take with my online audiences to attract them with a transparent and coherent sense of what I stand for?

Teeny: Well, there’s some recent research to suggest that live videos or disappearing videos on social media are perceived by audiences as a bit more authentic.

But brands can also tell stories. I think there’s a big push towards storytelling now, not only because it helps to cut through the clutter of online advertising, but also because when you tell a story, it feels more authentic. It makes you seem more like a person and less like a third-party disconnected body. It helps you seem more trustworthy and enjoyable, like a friend who is going to give you advice on what to buy.

Insight: That sounds like brands are thinking a lot about—whether they are selling soap or soda—how to make customers feel.

Teeny: Yes, feelings are very important in marketing! In advertising, we often talk about “laddering” ads. For example, when introducing a product, you first describe its features, then you can “ladder up” to the functional benefits of those features, then to the emotional benefits of those functions, and then finally to the product’s higher-order purpose. But today, I think we see a lot more brands spending less time in that functional stage and more in that emotional stage, just because there are so many different products and markets out there that serve a similar function. You have to distinguish or differentiate yourself in some way right away.

In psychology, there’s a phenomenon called the Pratfall effect where essentially introducing a small character flaw makes you more likable, because people can’t relate to you when you’re just all shiny and perfect.

I think we’re seeing that with brands, where they’re being more open with their mistakes, which seems like a consequence of the ever-watching eye of social media. It’s a way to build realness, by being a little more off the cuff.

Insight: What factors do you feel are complicating brands’ ability to strive for authenticity? Are there regulatory or industry standards that are forcing marketers to adjust or companies to rethink?

Introducing a small character flaw makes you more likable, because people can’t relate to you when you’re just all shiny and perfect.

— Jacob Teeny

Teeny: Well, there’s a history in the U.S. and elsewhere of advertisers being manipulative. As consumers, we know marketers are going to try to tell us whatever we want to hear.

I think that was a big issue with ad personalization a few years ago. A lot of people didn’t like tailored advertisements at first. They felt like, “oh, you’re tapping into my data and trying to manipulate me with what I’d like.” Now, about 70 percent of consumers prefer personalized ads. They’re like, “if you’re going to show me an ad, at least show me something that I’m actually interested in.”

Insight: Is there a risk of companies overplaying their hand on that specificity?

Teeny: Well as I said earlier, at first, any form of personalization was offensive. Now, a moderate amount is okay, but anything too much is bad. For example, there is consistent finding that using data that people think should be totally inaccessible, such as your bank transactions or financial statements, to personalize an ad really sets people off. Something like, “We noticed you make 30 grand a year. Here’s our special.” People really don’t like that.

But it’ll probably get to the point one day where that’s okay, too. It’s all about our expectations. Once companies have a foot in the door, gradual increases are more acceptable.

Insight: Right now, personalization feels reactionary. I buy a pair of shoes and for the next six months I get sneaker ads everywhere on all my social-media channels. In what ways are companies looking to become more predictive about this on their end, so that they can become more relevant to the customer?

Teeny: The issue you raise about redundant targeting is one that is prolific throughout the marketing industry, and it’s really an issue of bad AI. The reason repurchase behavior is so prioritized now is because that’s what marketers have been able to intuitively—and even statistically—identify as a strong precursor of what people will buy again.

I think we’re going to see better forms of targeting as AI gets better and more widespread. Ultimately, more sophisticated algorithms are going to allow people to be much sharper and much clearer in the types of marketing and analytic tools they use. They will find factors that you might not have expected that can strongly predict a personalized sale.

“They Consider Us Inferior and Want to Rule Us”