PSFK New York Recap - Storytelling & Progress

What if objects could become "worth" more if they were imbued with imaginary stories?

Is it really called progress if we're just doing the same thing over and over again?

Both questions are incredibly useful to advertising, both are useful to society at large, and both were asked at the recent PSFK New York Conference.

The first question was posed by Rob Walker, author of the NYT column "Consumed" and co-creator of Significant Objects. The second by Colin Beavan, the No Impact Man.

What if objects could become "worth" more if they were imbued with imaginary stories?

Rob and his partner began a project called "Significant Objects" in which he would buy "useless" objects from thrift shops, yard sales, etc.; recruit professional writers to invent stories about the objects; and then sell them on eBay (the funds are donated to charity). The project has taken off - items are sold for significantly more than they were purchased for, and Rob's reflections on why were fascinating.

What I gathered from Rob's discussion was that not only are stories important, but it's the people behind those stories that are of worth. Rob asked the question, "What do you grab from your home if you have 30 seconds to do so?" The answers are rarely "My latest gadget"; rather, they are things like "My photo album" or "The card my wife gave me." We reach for things that carry emotional significance - we reach for things that have been imbued with story...stories made up of people.

This has relevance for advertising as well as society at large.

For advertisers: "In a way, Walker’s experiment is a parable for what brands do every day; they create narratives around products to give them meaning – which we both buy into and take part in defining (as Walker points out in his book Buying In)" (source).

For society: If we find objects more valuable based on an emotionally engaging narrative, how much more valuable would we find one another if we took time to learn one another's stories?

It struck me as both a call to create more engaging narratives in my work, as well as a call to more fully invest in those around me. Additionally, I wonder if we took more time for stories, would we consume less as we might find things/people more valuable, thus less expendable. Which brings me to...

Is it really called progress if we're just doing the same thing over and over again?

A few years ago we saw the greatest mobile phone the world has seen. This year we'll see another dozen "greatest mobile phones." Next year, we'll see another dozen greatest. "Is that really progress?" asked Colin Beavan. Colin's talk wove a meta narrative involving consumerism, marketing, sustainability, and environmentalism and suggested that instead of asking "How?" we need to be asking "Should?" (I wrote a post similar to this awhile back entitled "Being Better than Good").

This too has relevance for advertising as well as (Western) society at large.

For advertisers: Society is becoming more thoughtful regarding environmentalism, frugality, local living, and sustainability (perhaps it's small pockets, but it's shifting) - all of which is antithetical to consumerism. Now I'm not naive, and while I wish we could all become No Impact People, that's not going to happen anytime soon. However, brands may one day be playing in a space in which customers are no longer addicted to "stuff" - which for many 'a advertiser and brand, is a very scary thought. For others, it sounds amazing.

For society: For the large majority of western society, we've got more stuff than we could ever need, and we're still, not, happy. Is that really progress? Colin's talk challenged me to find areas in my life that I consider "progress" and reevaluate my metrics.

There were plenty of other amazing speakers, so if you have some time check out more in-depth recaps of the PSFK NYC conference here.

Josh Chambers

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