Narcissism of Small Differences

By | November 16, 2017

How many times have clients asked us to change fonts, change colour shades, change layouts… I couldn’t count every time this has happened. 

Small adjustments get deemed important by those suggesting them.  And in conversation become more and more important.  Sometimes it allows people to think they have made some impact on the project.

It is often hard for anyone to step back and look objectively at how minor such comments are.  We get embroiled in the social conflict.

Advertising agencies tend to roll over on these minor requests because it isn’t worth the fight.  The client has bought a dog and decided to bark themselves.  They want to show they are in charge and this is one way of expressing it.  It is also a way for the client to feel they are, in some small way, a creative force.

And at the end of the day, these changes, more often than not, make absolutely no impact on the effectiveness of the advertising.  None. Nothing. Nada.

That is not to say that some small changes couldn’t totally change the impact of a piece of communication.  But we are talking here about the minor changes that create self importance in the change request.  As an agent for the client, we will honour such requests, especially if we are being paid by the hour and don’t think the change matters at all creatively.

These kinds of change requests are what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences.” 

Tiny things that get magnified in the minds of the participants as their ego overwhelms objective judgement.

Advertising is all about magnifying small differences with “new improved” products or small preferences that consumers may have.

Think about a set of twins you may have known.  To almost everyone they were virtually the identical.  But to them, the differences were huge – magnified.  Each has an ego that needs recognition.  The point being that differences seem larger the more invested you are in the difference.  But to the rest of the world, it often makes no difference at all.

Advertising’s job is to point out the differences and get the target invested in that difference.

My advice to those making small comments about advertising is – “Which is more important, your ego or inspiring confidence in the folks who did the work?”  Making those folks feel more invested in the work will probably create the greatest return.  The manager who has to make little changes, over time, discourages the worker from being careful.

It happens everyday.  We all carry some obsessive trait that makes us want to see things a particular way.  Recognize that each of us has different ways to expressing ideas, and that is an advantage for you.

We employ art directors for their eye.  They have the training and talent to see things others do not.  We employ copywriters because they are good with expressing ideas efficiently. Challenging them to explain an idea is one thing, and it is fine.  Suggesting solutions is another.

We all have slightly different makeups.  But it is counter productive to invest too much of your personal equity in requesting small changes for no good reason other than you have the ability to ask for them. Trust in your creative team. Keep your equity and good will for when you really need them.

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