Let’s Get Comfortable With Conflict

Conflict is captivating – Do something uncomfortable if you want to avoid becoming forgettable. Use giant, menacing robots to disrupt a peaceful island, for example.

Although conflict can make ad executives squirm, it’s more than OK to have an antagonist in your branded content. If you haven’t seen it, watch the movie Megamind. Bad guys are the reason good guys exist.

I remember pitching TV shows to Henry Ford Hospital in 1998. After they agreed to produce a show, I actually got seller’s remorse. Reality shows weren’t popular yet, so I thought to myself, “How are we going to make a reality TV show about a hospital interesting?” Where would the conflict come from? Then I met a 17-year-old girl who needed a heart transplant. I met her worried mother. Time was not on their side. The possibility she might not make it was very real. 

As part of the production team on The Minds of Medicine, I remember directing a camera on the physician assistant when the call came in. We witnessed the distress on his face as he said, “I’m sorry to hear that.” I never felt so awkward as when we followed him into the patient’s room with cameras as he told the mom and her daughter, “The heart is no good.” Conflict introduced the show. This represented the daily challenge at the hospital because they don’t have enough organ donors. When we shamelessly promoted organ donation at Henry Ford Hospital, no viewer felt used or sold. Viewers felt compassion.

Of course, by the end of the show, a good heart came in and the girl was saved. But, I’m sure viewers wondered for a moment. I sure did. That is the conflict that drove the show’s ratings to a No. 1 ranking for a prime time show on the local ABC affiliate. That’s also how an infomercial for a hospital won Emmy Awards and drove patient volumes up by 1,800 online appointments that year. The program paid for itself after the first referral came in from the TV show. 

Let’s get comfortable with conflict. In fact, our tendency to be uncomfortable with conflict is often cited as the number one reason team members water down great creative in advertising. Our job as the reviewers and leaders is not to resolve the conflict in advertising stories before we approve them. Conflict creates cognitive dissonance in the brain. This makes us all uncomfortable, so our brain seeks out a path to remove this conflict. Resist the desire to remove conflict from your advertising scripts. It’s there to engage the mind of your consumer. That means we should resist our desire to remove risky, strange, confusing or unexplained things.

It was risky to show potential failure at Henry Ford Hospital. It was tempting to let consumers know they shouldn’t worry, but life doesn’t telegraph the end of the story. Authentic reality holds tension, and allowing this truth to be exposed builds trust. Thankfully, we had a client who understood this.