By Alexandra Crăciun
Assoc. Prof. Dapartment of Communication Sciences,
Faculty of Letters, University of Bucharest, Romania

Al Ries, one of the leading figures in advertising today, in his best-seller book: The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR, was pointing to one Aesop’s fables pleading for a new pattern of persuasion. In this Aesop’s fable, the North Wind and the Sun had a quarrel about which of them is stronger. They decide to compete by making the first traveller to strip off his coat. Aesop’s fable was ending in a – let’s call it – “strategic communication” conclusion: the harder the North Wind was blowing, the more tightly the traveller wrapped his coat around him. But, as the Sun started to shine, the traveller was taking off his coat.

Ries is proving thus, that the model of persuasion has changed since nowadays brands are no longer forcing their way into the consumer’s mind: ‘The harder the sell, the harder the wind blows, the harder the prospect resists the sales message.’ (Ries, 2002). Public relations according to Al Ries, are switching the roles. Its neither the wind, nor the sun but the traveller that acts, and generates change, because, in the core of the brand/corporate communication the consumer finds out, embedded, his own “agenda”. The roles of the wind or the sun become contextual – turning more and more into a sort of “media”, a vehicle for a conversation centred around the stakeholders’ issues.

In this context, McLuhan’s theory on media might become operational and descriptive for the new processes evident at the level of strategic communication.  In the Chapter II of the book Understanding Media, the Canadian Professor and philosopher proposes his famous distinction between the “cool” and the “hot” media.

“Hot” media – according to McLuhan – amplifies, enhances just one single sense, providing a low degree of consumer’s participation.  In comparison, a “low definition” medium requires a more important contribution, while the consumer needs to fill in its own details in order to “complete” the missing information.  “Any hot medium allows of less participation than a cool one, as a lecture makes for less participation than a seminar, and a book for less than dialogue.” underlines McLuhan (Understanding Media, 1964).

During the last half of a century, authors like Umberto Eco or Regis Debray (1) have raised critics, pointing out the fact hat McLuhan’s theory is lacking a clear distinction between the message, internal code and the channel/vehicle, but revisited from a recent, hypermodern perspective, McLuhan information theory might be reconsidered.

McLuhan’s distinction between the “high definition” and the “low definition” medium, about the cold and hot media is providing a framework for understanding an emergent paradigm of communication based on “engagement”.  A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in “high definition.” High definition is the state of being well filled with data. A photograph is, visually, “high definition.” A cartoon is “low definition,” simply because very little visual information is provided.”   –  writes McLuhan (1964).

Al Ries’ perspective  on the “fall of advertising and the rise of PR” – resumed by the Aesop fable – is putting forth a turn from a “high definition” corporate communication, filled with data, overwhelmed with company’s information, to a “low definition”, user-centred communication, providing more space for interaction, for participation and consumer engagement.

The “JFK Unsilenced” (2) campaign for The Times / News UK & Ireland using  “AI technology to recreate the speech that US president John F. Kennedy delivered in Dallas, Texas the day he was assassinated in 1963”,  or the “Palau pledge campaign”  – “requiring the visitors to Palau to sign a passport pledge to act in an ecologically responsible way on the island”,  or the “Trash Isles” announcing and providing citizenships for  “the world’s first country made from plastic pollution in the ocean so that other countries would be obliged to clean it up”  (to mention just few of  of them Grand Prix winners from Cannes Lions 2018) – are all of them “low definition” campaigns urging the consumer to participate, to interact, to fill in the own data in order to co-create the communication system.

Sebastian Charles in the  “Paradoxical individualism” introduction to the “Hypermodern times” of Gilles Lipovetsky was claiming: “hypermodernity is a liberal society characterized by movement, fluidity and flexibility, detached as never before  from the great structuring principles of modernity” (2005).

Its clear thus, that the new communication system, is lowering its definition, it is cooling down, becoming more fluid, and flexible by eliminating data, in order to provide more space for interaction.

Public relations as well as advertising, are gradually giving up the traditional strategies and tactics, becoming more and more a sort of vehicle, a platform, where the message is no longer belonging to the brand/corporation, but shared and developed together with the stakeholders.

Public relations system today might be reconsidered as a platform of engagement, a sort of hypermedia making used of other media within a holistic experience urging the consumer to fill in data, to participate, to provide together with the brand the corporate message.

As McLuhan was pointing out “our own time is crowded with examples of the principle that the hot form excludes, and the cool one includes” (1964). Cooling down the PR system means building up inclusive communication strategies, where the consumers are co-creating hyper-corporate messages in the realm of dialogue and multi-sensorial experience.

[1] “confusing technology itself with its use of the media makes of the media an abstract, undifferentiated force and produces its image in an imaginary “public” for mass consumption.” (Debray, Media Manifestos, 1996).

[2] The campaigns as well as the campaign descriptions are available at the following link: https://www.campaignlive.co.uk/article/view-grands-prix-winners-cannes-lions-2018/1485862.