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Five Advertising Truths I Learned From Punk Rock

Ed Morgan By Ed Morgan

When it comes to captivating and connecting with an audience, nothing beats punk rock.

You don’t have to like punk music to know what I’m talking about. Go to any rock club on a Friday night with a punk band playing and you’ll see one thing: a group of like-minded people who value their musical taste as a defining part of who they are. I’ve been into punk all my life, and I’ve generally assumed that those ideals were at odds with my career in advertising. But lately, I’ve taken some time to examine how the things I learned from screaming Vandals lyrics in my car have actually shaped the way I think good advertising is made.

If we want to make great work, we need to follow the rules of punk rock:

1. The world is broken and in need of change.

“Where the [Sex] Pistols were just…screaming about how something was wrong, The Clash would kind of say ‘This is wrong, but what are you gonna do about it?’” —Bob Gruen, Photographer

Every punk song is fighting against something. Whether it’s social ills, political issues, or simply living in a world that looks down on your leather jacket and spiked hair, punk music stands up and says, “Here is what’s wrong with the world, and here’s how it should be.”

We should be no different. Offering just another product in a saturated market doesn’t do much. You’ve got to show how you’re fixing something, no matter how small it may seem. Think of it this way: nobody was particularly concerned about the thickness of their laptops and phones until Apple started saying that they made thinner ones.

2. The individual is most important.

“To me, punk is about being an individual and going against the grain and standing up and saying, ‘This is who I am.’” —Joey Ramone

Punk is all about being unapologetically unique. We like to pretend that our consumers fit into neatly organized demographics. But that’s not how human beings work.

Every consumer in the world believes they’re unique. And they are. As marketers, that means we have to leave behind the days of big generic messages that “target everybody.” Instead, we should be creating real multidirectional conversations with the human beings who buy our stuff—and letting them guide the conversation.

3. Do it yourself.

“A guy walks up to me and asks, ‘What’s punk?’ So I kick over a garbage can and say, ‘That’s punk!’ So he kicks over a garbage can and says, ‘That’s punk?’ and I say, ‘No, that’s trendy!’” —Billie Joe Armstrong

Punk started with a bunch of kids making tapes in their garages and selling them out of car trunks after shows. They didn’t have official merchandise, so they painted band names on patches and covered every inch of their clothing in homemade logos. They didn’t wait for someone else to make something happen for them. They just did it.

Advertising is notoriously guilty of “waiting around” for someone else. How many times has a big original idea been set aside because it’s “too far out there,” only to hear “We wish we’d done that”?

We don’t make great work by hopping aboard trends. We do it by accepting the risk of doing something new and creating the trends ourselves.

4. Make the right people uncomfortable.

“When I was nine years old, I started playing guitar, and I took classical guitar lessons and studied music theory. And played jazz for a while. And then when I was around fourteen years old, I discovered punk rock. And so I then tried to unlearn everything I had learned in classical music and jazz so I could play in punk rock bands.” —Moby

I have never understood advertising that tries to speak to everyone. Brand managers have their hearts in the right place; you want to gain as many customers as possible to make as many sales as you can. But those numbers aren’t worth a whole lot if people don’t care about what you’re trying to give them.

Talk to the people who matter. Who cares if everyone else doesn’t get it?

Think of it in musical terms: manufactured one-hit wonders make a big paycheck up front, but you never hear from them again. Meanwhile, the bands from the 1980s punk scene are still playing to sold-out audiences today. We don’t need everyone to know our product. We want the right people to love our product.

5. Be loud.

“When the punk thing came along and I heard my friends saying, ‘I hate these people with the pins in their ears,’ I said, ‘Thank God, something got their attention.’” —Neil Young

In the end, it all comes down to finding a way to make sure people hear what you have to say.

The things you learn in portfolio school or business school are good guidelines to teach you how to “play your instrument.” But once you know how to play it, you have to learn to play in a way people actually want to listen to. And it’s more than just “You have to learn the rules to break them.”

Something people get wrong about punk is that it’s all about breaking the rules. It’s really more about changing the rules. You protest something because you want the world to be more like you. If you feel strongly enough that your work is good, and you’re loud enough about showing it, people will listen.

And they’ll probably want to hear what you do next.