‘The Sopranos’ and Personalization

I don’t have HBO.

That’s pertinent because it means that I haven’t been watching the second and third seasons of HBO’s “The Sopranos” as they air. Rather, I’ve been forced to buy the first season on videotape (that’s right, I don’t even have a DVD player) to catch up with America’s favorite family.

(Note: If you have never heard of “The Sopranos,” I have to ask, are you living in a cave? It’s time to get with the sweep of popular culture and catch up, OK?)

With the release of the second season on videotape (and landing on the top of my Christmas list), I’ve been spending a few hours each week watching the first episodes so I’ll be prepared to enjoy the second. In my recent viewings, one reason why America loves this show suddenly occurred to me.

Business is mortal. Corporations, while claiming to be grounded in reality, are nothing more than apparitions of our collective imagination, borne into existence by sheer will. Business does not know life — or death. Business is supremely uncomfortable with the idea of death. Witness the pathetic attempts of businesses to respond to the changed context brought about by September 11.

That’s why we’re fascinated with entities such as the Mafia.

As depicted in “The Sopranos” and “The Godfather,” the Mafia is business in the context of death. Large issues, such as honesty, honor, tradition, and the cycle of life and death, are underpinnings. In fictional Mafia portrayals, we find something we wish actual business could attain — a deeper connection to real life. HR departments provide grief counseling, conflict management, and organizational development courses, but their sunny dealings with the shadows of our collective underworld are, at best, inadequate.

Business operates in a state of denial about death. Companies don’t talk about the fact that most businesses end up in the dustbin of history. Are investors aware that GE is the only surviving member of the original Dow Jones? Showing sentiment for such facts runs counter to good marketing principles.

That’s why a gulf separates Human-speak and Corporate-speak. You can instantly differentiate advertising copy from the words of one human writing to another. People who communicate meaningfully do so in the context of real life and, by extension, death.

When we talk of personalization — one-to-one marketing — we’re making an attempt to keep real life and death issues out of our sunshiny business world. Real personalization scares business because it deals with real issues, including failure.

None of this is intended to be morbid. The human condition is complicated. If business is to achieve true personalization, it must deal with deeper, more profoundly human issues and talk to customers like the people they really are.

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