Peter Knight argues that IBM’s Smart Planet campaign doesn’t have the cleverest of names

Whiter teeth, sweeter breath, enhanced body parts, curlier eye lashes, slimmer waistlines – Madison Ave knows how to sell us these aspirations. But what about sustainability? Will this join the list of emotional triggers and desires that get us to open our wallets?

IBM thinks so, or rather its advertising gurus who have devised the Smarter Planet campaign do. More than a simple one-off campaign to flog a few services, Smarter Planet is a deep branding and communications exercise that appears to be designed to change fundamentally our view of the giant brand we used to call Big Blue.

Communications people like to talk about the benefits of “owning” things in the public domain – things that can’t really be owned. Dove lays claim to the real beauty space, Heineken to the “refresh” space. Marlboro used to have the great-outdoors space.

IBM, it seems, wants to own the “planet” space. No one has ever accused it of lacking ambition and by the sheer size, breadth and depth of its advertising-cum-rebranding effort based on sustainability, it’s not passing unnoticed.

There’s the regular prominent newspaper ads with lots of copy – strangely adjectival copy that harks back to the old Mobil public affairs essays in the Economist that would confuse non-American speaking readers with colloquialisms such as “lightning rod”.

But the bulk of the advertising is to be found on the web, on IBM’s own website and also on sites such as the Huffington Post which carries sponsored content authored by IBM sustainability functionaries. These link you to IBM’s site, which has been reconfigured around the Smarter Planet theme. Even the sustainability report has been Smarted.

It has a clean ring, but as a global advertising campaign the Smarter Planet tagline has some problems.

First is the word “smart” and its ability to travel outside of America. In the US, smart is wholly positive and means good-clever. In the UK and elsewhere, smart has a more complicated meaning, more like dodgy-clever.

Language confusion

It’s a bit like the word “scheme”. In the UK, scheme is used to describe a programme devised by government and big institutions. In the US it is the thing that fraudsters create.

If you want to annex the planetary space, it may be better not to colonise it with blatant Americanisms, certainly not in the current international political climate.

And there’s a deeper problem in the notion that IBM is going to help us make the planet more clever. The implication is that the planet is stupid and we need the eggheads from IBM to make it brighter.

The planet is smart enough. A “smarter planet” is an oxymoron. We are the ones that are harming it through pollution. And if anyone needs to be smarter it is us, and not the Earth itself.

Maybe I’m being a bit picky. So let’s move on to the real issue. Behind all the ad copy is the notion that we can save our world by managing its data better. This is the same hoary chestnut that the IT industry has been using since its inception: if you can’t measure, you can’t manage.

IBM’s objective is to sell software, consultancy and computers, now using sustainability as the lure. If in any doubt, dig deeper in the links on the Smarter Planet website and you will soon be immersed in incomprehensible discussions on the benefits of IBM databases compared with those from Oracle and other competitors.

This is all about data management. And yes there is a lot of data to be managed, and the efficiency of that task will certainly keep traffic flowing freer, water purer, air cleaner: a better-run planet.

But what is laughable is the notion that you can simply plug in a mass of IT and you’ll make a stupid planet smart. It’s like smoking for most of your life and then expecting the medical profession to fix your lungs and heart.

Technology will of course be necessary to help us adapt to a different climate. But, like the smoker, we cannot expect a miracle cure if we continue inhaling so much, so deeply and so regularly. We have to stop smoking.

You don’t have to be very smart to work that one out.

Is the Smarter Planet smart advertising? It’s great to see sustainability centre-stage and up there with the whiter teeth and curly eyelashes. But the Smarter Planet tag line will never beat Lucky Strike’s “It’s Toasted”.

After all, without achieving sustainability, we’re all toast.

Peter Knight is president of Context America.

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