In the 1950s, advertising was simple. You just wrote a jazzy little jingle, had a lobotomised housewife explain why she thought Betty Crocker Cake-mix/ Ivory Snow Detergent was the best and BAM: enough revenue to keep your secretary AND your wife in demeaning underwear for over a year. This pattern has persisted to some extent right up until the present day; you tell the people about Your Thing, you tell them it is the Best Thing, you suggest to them that they buy The Thing and imply that if they don’t buy The Thing they probably won’t ever get laid. Simple.
Worth watching just to hear a man say “romantic little breakfast frocks”
Now of course things have changed a little and the by-word in advertising is “branded content.” Ceaseless, endless, frothing tides of branded content, floating about the Internet like so much electronic toilet paper. Millenials don’t watch TV (34% only watch online now); they watch Facebook or something, so just stick it on there ok? No need for it to be good, just make sure it’s often. Keep it coming at their poor little eyes and eventually they’ll crack and buy a tennis-smock/cat-bra/personalized marshmallow hat or whatever you need to shift.
However we now live in a scary new era where consumers are wise to the fact that brands have broken into Facebook/Twitter/4OD and they’re STILL ignoring them. Unless they make something worth watching, that is. As Morgan Spurlock said in a recent interview with the Guardian, “It’s not about selling people things anymore, it’s about connecting with an audience in a way that’s meaningful.” As in why shouldn’t Oliver Peoples make a film instead of Paramount? Or Vans make a documentary? Or net-a-porter make a magazine?
It’s actually some people’s ENTIRE JOB to post cool Instagram pictures for brands of things the brands don’t even actually sell for Christ’s sake,(breakfasts, puppies, young love). Being perceived as trustworthy, engaging and cool is worth more to brands than overt product plugs and hard sells.
Of course branded cultural content is nothing new in itself. Pretty much every major music video and its mum has had some kind of sleazy product placement in it these days. We’re looking at you, Nicki Minaj (if you’re a fan of the Maker blog, you’ll realise that we never actually stop looking at Nicki Minaj). What’s that on the table? Oh that’s just a can of Coke you were drinking before you started singing your song, was it GaGa? Oh that’s cool; just leave it there, maybe face the label towards the camera? There, that’s better. Often when products are shoehorned into cultural content like that it all feels a little cynical, obvious and disingenuous. However more and more brands have started to do it right.
For example American restaurant chain Chipotle has it’s own comedy series. No one talks about Chipotle but the program is designed to reflect the brand’s values, so customers can go “oh hey, maybe they’re not assholes” and seek them out as a brand with a level of values and integrity that they can align to their own. And Leyland Palmer from Twin Peaks is in it…
Similarly in Guinness’ documentary “The Men Inside the Suits” last year, no one was drinking Guinness. But it was an interesting documentary, and as a consumer, we appreciated that Guinness had made something engaging, high quality, original and unusual as well as making dark brown, bitter liquid. It didn’t patronise the viewer in that, “see these cool people over here , well hey, they only drink Guinness” way that audiences are now just so immune to. Instead it sought to engage the viewer’s intellect and emotions. In other words, it treated them like intelligent, sentient beings rather than lobotomised ‘fifties housewives.
As with the above Guinness example, taking chances can really pay off. No one else had made a documentary about African dandies, so how would an accountable team of advertising execs know that it would work for that brand? They just wouldn’t. They took a risk. There seems to be a tendency in advertising to use what works again and again and again as a way of avoiding risk, with the obvious con of it getting old and tired quickly.
For example, there seems to be a trend in advertising at the moment for creating an emotional pull to a product by using the story of a child growing into an adult around that product. The first time we saw this done we cried our little eyes out in a public cinema. OF COURSE the man bought his youngest daughter the same brand of car he met her mum in thirty years ago. Of course! Volkswagen has always been there for them! Cue nostalgia, cue money, cue a group of ad dudes high-fiving in their golden boardroom under the sea. It bloody worked. They had created some 30-second content with an emotional pull, a story and a meaning and it all fit into a tiny little advert. Don Draper would have cut off his own nipples to be that good. However, then we saw this formula again with a different product, and then again after that, and then again. Children turning from babies, to toddlers to infants to young adults in the space of thirty seconds. We started to feel as manipulated and used as a back-up date invited late to a shit disco. And we were not putting out, uh-uh. Having a good story isn’t enough, it has to be a new story, or at least a new take on an old story.
Saturday Night Live have even parodied a different car brand’s take on the same idea:
So ok, take risks, be weird, change the format and never, ever underestimate the intelligence of your audience. Project your idea onto a building, make a short film, commission an instillation, heck just about anything that deviates from the banality of the landscape. Just don’t show us another advert involving a girl becoming a woman or we will vomit up our own pelvises.