Tony Soprano was one of the most ruthless characters to ever amble across our collective television screen. He was also one of the most loved characters of all time. And the reason he could be the latter while being the former was primarily because, as David Chase created him and James Gandolfini played him, he was the walking definition of vulnerability. Tony Soprano—the fictional television character—let us in on more of what he was thinking and, more importantly, feeling than any other character in television. His work, his marriage, his shrink, his Oedipus complex, his daddy complex, his libido complex—he wore them all on his heart, sitting as stark and exposed as the napkin bib he wore on his belly sitting at Artie Bucco’s joint. And we loved him for that – in spite of the brutality and indiscretions—we loved Tony Soprano. The complexity that Gandolfini brought and the vulnerability with which he played it made it impossible for us not to. As David Chase put it last week, “The feeling was real…”
So here’s a statement I never thought I’d find myself saying—brands and advertising can learn a thing or two from a character like Tony Soprano. To show a little more raw emotion, not be afraid to think out loud or make a mistake, not be afraid to admit a mistake once it’s been made—and all of the other little things that make real people and real characters like Tony Soprano so interesting and real. We could use a little more of that.
I admire brands that aren’t afraid to show vulnerability. It’s one of the reasons I previously gushed about Southern Comfort and their willingness to celebrate their man-with-a-gut on the beach. It’s what I love about Dollar Shave Club and its founder/pitchman who is able to come off as both vulnerable and self-promoting at the same time. But the best example for me is still Dove. It’s hard to remember that we were first introduced to the “Real Beauty” campaign through a series of outdoor ads that showed women seriously older, seriously heavier and seriously more real than any models we had typically seen before—smiling proud and beautiful on billboards two stories tall. I remember thinking at the time how honest the depiction was, and how brave it was for Dove to align itself with this picture of beauty. Not because it was risky or controversial, but because by showing the vulnerability of these women in their ads, Dove was revealing its own vulnerability. It wasn’t trying to be Superman on a shelf, but a product that ages and expands just like its consumer. The brand has continued to express itself as real and as vulnerable as any product can be through a series of communications that stay true to what the original billboards created, the most recent being the breakthrough “Real Beauty Sketches”.
But don’t take my opinion on it—the only real opinions that matter is the consumers’. And if the Millennial Generation has taught us anything, it’s that the age of the pre-packaged, pre-tested and perfected message is dead. They’re just not buying it. Where previous generations took advertising on face value as advertising—it was real because it was supposed to be unreal—today’s consumers will only let you in on the conversation if you come clean, follow their dialogue and express a point of view that’s honest, immediate and yes, vulnerable when it needs to be.
The last episode of the Sopranos has been picked at to death, so far be it for me to add any new context to it. But in the abrupt way it ended was a palpable realness that we should all be able to relate to. This is how life, not Hollywood, ends things. Words left unsaid, business unfinished. Imperfection.
Cut to Journey.