Context and Advertising: the Next Frontier

I haven’t updated in a while, due to plenty of interesting projects diverting my attention. One such project is working with my agency (VCCP)’s innovation team to cover and analyze in-house talks given by industry leaders in various tech-y fields. I thought I’d share an excerpt of my latest coverage on Spotify. You can see the article in full context here.

Let’s go!

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Credibility and Crisis in Pseudonymous Communities

Last year, I did a Masters at the University of Oxford, studying at the Oxford Internet Institute. I focused on Credibility and Persuasion. My thesis has the oh so compelling name “Credibility and Crisis in Pseudonymous Communities.” I keep on intending to edit it for publication, but have yet to do so [edit: this was published as a chapter in “Establishing and Evaluating Digital Ethos and Online Credibility” in late 2016/early 2017]. As this is the case, I thought I’d put it out there.

Should you believe it? I’d say to take my results section with a grain of salt. The thesis was awarded a Distinction but had some pretty profound methodological limitations (I’m fairly sure the statistical models I used were not the optimal ones).

Thesis Candidate Number 417636

Content Marketing Ramble AKA Don’t Just Engage; Entertain

Given my job, I spend a lot of time looking at brand social channels. And a lot of the time, what I find feels lazy. By this, I don’t mean poorly made – often the content is actually quite well designed. What I mean is creatively lazy, a bit like checking a tick box off a list. Too often we’re just seeing the same block and tackle basics given a slightly different skin. Customer service efforts, giveaways, tutorials – these are all fine and necessary to an extent (I mean, it didn’t become the block and tackle for nothing) but when this is the totality of brand activity, in aggregate it begins feeling a bit stale.

This may in part be due to brand managers and agency people realising that people don’t really want to be their friends. From epic trolling efforts to platforms reducing brand post reach to placate users, one clear message rings out – people just want to be left alone. This is accepted to the point that incentives are nearly always talked about in social promotions; the default assumption is we’re going to have to twist a few arms to get the message across. When it comes to regular programming, brands often resort primarily to functional programming (how to’s, for instance), the logic being that it’s actually wanted and thus the branding is less offensive.

Is any of that thinking wrong? No. But it sure is limiting and not representative of everything that brands produce. That’s because some people recognise that there are more opportunities. I think some marketers can’t fathom why a coffee company would invest in 20 random crazy GIFs, a pizza chain would make a 6-second video about wizards, or a telecom would build a haunted house. They look at it all and just say, “Uh, why?”

The simplest way to describe it is this: the logic is the same as producing functional content. It’s giving people what they want, but instead of satisfying a functional need, it skews fantastical.

As a brand, the goal of social media advertising should just be to engage in conversations with customers. The bigger win is fuelling and informing the conversations they have with one another when the brand’s not even in the room (so to speak). Creatives should be aspiring the create content for brands that’s good enough to draw eyeballs on its own, funny enough to be shared, insightful, poignant, bizarre. We should just be trying to make things that are great, independent of context.

In a way, this aim brings social media marketing back into the remit of traditional advertising – seeking to populate pop culture. But the critical difference is that, unlike a TV spot or press ad, creatives have to assume that people won’t have the content shoved in front of them. Hell, customers will be doing anything they can to avoid it. So how are you going to draw them in?

It’s a high bar, but definitely the standard agencies and brands should hold their content to. Do the basics brilliantly, but go beyond that. Send a dude free falling from space, prototype stoner food en masse, lead social commentary, make a breathtaking film. Compete not with other brands, but with cinematographers, comedians, artists and sign your work instead of live in the middle of it. As for ROI, what you get out of it, well, that bit’s actually pretty simple: fame, consideration, and either solidified or adjusted brand positioning. Just like you’d get with a TV ad, but potentially even more effective if the customer is pulled in.

It’s a challenging task, sure. But it’s one that many brands are already rising to. Can yours afford to be left behind?

Don’t worry, we’re like you.

So, I’m not in the states right now, but this antismoking PSA apparently ran during the Grammys last night. For those who can’t be bothered to click the link, it’s a Tinder-themed music video urging young people to swipe left (aka reject) smokers. It’s an ad that’s got everything:

A girl group formed on the X factor;

Said girl group, dancing.
Said girl group, dancing.

YouTube stars;

Here, Grace Helbig groovin.


Yes, #perplexing.
Yes, #perplexing.

A Bound 2 reference;

Horses galloping in slo mo, of course.
Horses galloping in slo mo, of course.

An Azalea Banks rip off (itself arguably a Seapunk “rip off,” which, discussion for another time);


Junk food;


and an explosion transitioning into the end slate.

Generation Y & Z <3 explosions
Generation Y & Z ❤ explosions

It is… a lot to take in. And not just for the reasons that pundits are identifying, namely the fact that anyone born after 1994 will find the content disorienting and potentially inaccessible. The target, after all, was born after 1994. It’s a video made to speak their language, which is a task in and of itself riddled with potential problems. Erik Oster of Adfreak (via Agencyspy) writes:

Between the myriad cameos from YouTube celebrities and references to Internet culture in general, the ad tries really hard to present anti-smoking sentiment as cool and smoking as a turn off. Of course, as has always been the problem with anti-smoking messaging to teens, this has the potential to backfire. While it may scare some into avoiding smoking so they can get some action, more rebellious teens may resent being so clearly targeted and light up anew.

So, fine, there’s that. That’s a problem, sure, fine. But not the problem I’d like to briefly discuss, which is, essentially, about cultural appropriation in an attempt to speak to appeal to a specific target.

I fucking love the agency that made this ad; they’re consistently responsible for great work. And don’t get me wrong, I understand (and don’t see anything inherently wrong with) strategy at play here. That’s almost the problem, that the strategy is so blindingly brazen that I can practically see the brief over the video itself. It’s essentially a series of sharable GIFs linked together, something meant to be shown as a package but also to be chopped up into bits and thrown about on Tumblr. If this is the goal, however, it might be best to create rather than “borrow” elements of the culture, a la this thing:



A borrowed look and feel does not a genuine article make. In fact, sometimes aesthetic has nothing to do with it; see the George Glass/”Skule”  situation on tumblr. This is just random, broad application of fonts and backgrounds, without context or even real mimicry. And using so many of these cultural references so loosely has greater risks than simply putting off the target; it potentially makes the ones broadcasting the message look like sheep in wolves’ clothing. The effect is menacing instead of inviting, a “Don’t worry, we get you” delivered through far too sharp teeth.

I think that’s something that can be generalised to all audiences, not just teenagers. “Repackaging” cultural artefacts is not new, and is also not generally beloved. Surely not every ad can or will be a classic, but at the very least I’d assume we’d steer clear of certain tactics that are tried and untrue, so to speak.

There are ways to engage with specific audiences with ads and content that’s culturally resonant. It usually (but not always) involves producing brand new things that the audience would actually like to see. To stick to the youths, there’s a recent campaign by 180LA for HP that I thought incorporated the same type of Internet talent quite nicely and ultimately resulted in a socially valuable commodity, in this case a good music video. This isn’t to say that everything made for specific communities has to be driven and ultimately produced by group members, or that every campaign has to be a content campaign. It is to say that culture can’t just be ripped off. Doing so means you might end up with something… well, something like this.

Too Much Ads: Maintaining Delight vs Inspiring Fatigue

CES 2015 is happening in Las Vegas as we speak, and accompanying some cool new invention unveilings and generally bonkers tech demos, we’re being introduced to ad innovations. Like this one, from TapSense: wearable ads ready to run in a hyperlocal format.

Image via Adweek (and via TapSense).
Image via Adweek (and via TapSense).

This is tantamount to blasphemy in certain circles, but I tend to treat first forays into advertising on new platforms with a degree of skepticism. There are bragging rights associated with premiering an ad on a new platform – a far more sophisticated version of the “first!!1″s that at one point littered comment sections – with good reason; being able to master something new is impressive, worth talking about, and gets you attention in the greater ad community. But does it make these first movers effective, from an ROI standpoint or even from a creative standpoint? Well.

Now could be a time to rattle off a series of first movers on multiple platforms, from Facebook Poke’s first ad campaign to Twitter’s, but there’s little point in this. Primarily, it’s unfair to those who are brave enough to go first, as everyone else has a bit more time to figure out what’s what. It also distracts from the larger point I’d like to make, which pertains not to these first few to debut creative on new platforms but, instead, the dozens that immediately follow.

It is almost too easy to advertise these days. People are increasingly easy to target, reach, and re-approach/re-target. Correspondingly, the bar is set ever-higher for what work actually breaks through and captures attention. One way to do this, as has always been the case, is to throw money at a campaign. Louder = better, surely. But particularly as we start to enter more spaces that could genuinely interrupt people’s everyday life – geofenced text ads, for instance, or ads on Google Glass or wearables – this strategy seems shortsighted.

There’s a balance to be struck between maintaining delight and inspiring fatigue. Christopher Heine, in his coverage of TapSense’s wearable ad debut, correctly points out that the platform is ideal for direct response marketing efforts. These are coupons, buy-now-and-you’ll-get pitches, etc; effective, but highly recognizable as ads. While correctly deployed direct response may, in fact, thrill someone – an overheated mall shopper receiving a free soda on a hot day – incorrectly deployed direct response is likely to feel like spam. This is always a danger, but somehow feels more acute when content is being beamed directly to one’s wrist.

My gut reaction is that people will be more protective of wearables and more likely to view marketing missteps as unwelcome invasions, inspiring backlash like that against Facebook ads (but even more pronounced). When you’re reading a newspaper, you expect to see ads. Same as when you go online. But in such a new device category, such expectations may not exist and, consequently, ads may be received particularly poorly.

My hope is that advertisers, when considering how to approach dealing with devices that broadcast ads so intimately, move measuredly, balancing haste with a desire to figure out the best approach. By “best” I mean something that works for both company and consumer; something that’s measurable and meaningful; something that’s both creative and uncannily effective. There’s a chance that, with wearables, everyone will want in; customers who are frankly on the cutting edge of tech use will suddenly be bombarded with well-intentioned, quickly-crafted offers that, in aggregate, feel like some sort of advertising assault. Ideally, we’ll all balance our desire to be first with our respect for customers and our desire to put platforms to their best possible use. Doing so would spare customers the ad fatigue and agencies the headache of once again having to abandon a platform we accidentally ruin for ourselves.

Net Neutrality: To Rebrand or Not To Rebrand

Something interesting is happening on reddit that has the potential to impact the net neutrality debate. A California Congresswoman, Anna Eshoo, is running a contest on reddit to rebrand net neutrality. Here’s the video in which Congresswoman Eshoo outlines the task at hand, and here’s the primary thread where the contest is going on.

So let’s jump in. I have some preliminary thoughts. I spent some time writing about the pros and cons of using reddit for this sort of endeavor, but I worry that’s burying the lede (the writeup is tucked away at the close of this blog post). I’d like to focus instead on questioning Congresswoman Eshoo’s underlying assumption  that net neutrality is the concept that needs rebranding.

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Quick take: rapid cycling discourse and the state of popular debate

Part of this morning’s media feed was this article on detecting important things on the Internet (satire, of course). In it, Capitalization Practices, salacious slugs, sensationalism, and more are given their due in brief. It is not a revolutionary critique. It is, in fact, pretty passé. We have all already complained about clickbait, traced the history of clickbait, redefined clickbait, and told each other to shut up about complaining about clickbait. We conclude that there’s nothing new to see here.The conversation’s tired. The conversation’s done.

This seems to be the flow of a lot of contemporary populist criticism. Stage 1: Raise Concern. Stage 2: Interrogate Definition of Concern. Stage 3: Criticize Those Who Are Concerned (often noting that Nothing is New).

And then comes Stage 4, which is roughly Recede from Debate.

I harbor what I think are legitimate concerns about the rapidity of issue cycles and its effect on public memory, political and social discourse, and mechanisms of social control. In brief, if we allow our critique to be as thin, rapid-fire, and utterly predictable as it is today, we risk glossing over issues that deserve sustained, in-depth attention. In a world in which “thought pieces” about major events have to be online in less time than it takes to properly think and in which the success of publications and social clout of individuals is, in part, incumbent upon one’s ability to jump on the latest trend, we are encouraged to ask only the simple questions and shy away from less easily-digestible critiques. And since the world is a tremendously complex place, the reduction of ongoing issues to rapid-cycling soundbytes means that issues can continue, not even necessarily behind the scenes or obscured from view. In other words, an ADHD approach to what we, the public, espouse concern about degrades the quality of of our critique and the effectiveness of our complaints. 

This isn’t really about the death of long-form so much as it is about the half-life of a contemporary crisis. We’re constantly moving on to the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing because we can (really because the existing publishing, technological, and psychological/social structures we’re embedded in converge to encourage this type of behavior). Those who demonstrate sustained concern, or else revisit existing arguments articulated to their satisfaction, are maligned for their continued boo-hooing and told that their interpretation of an issue is insufficiently original or otherwise not worthwhile. At times, there may be some truth to these assertions; after all, those engaging in the conversation later have had a bit more time to mull things over. Nonetheless, it’s unfortunate that this is the direction our discussions so often take.

How to fix this, I don’t know. One might even argue that I contribute to the problem through my work. Ironically, I must be brief as I’m working on a longer response to a different issue, something that I fear will remove itself from public view before I’ve got around to it. It’s certainly easier to complain about the state of things than to propose actionable solutions, and I’d like to make sure that any that I might outline are carefully conceived. So we’ll leave this here for now. Proposals welcome in the comments. 

“The Scourge of ‘Relatability'” and Social Media: A Quick Hypothesis

This is just a quick thought, based off of Rebecca Mead’s recent piece in the New Yorker on relatability. In it, she laments the contemporary use of the concept as a yardstick of artistic virtue (apparently Ira Glass recently criticized Shakespeare as being unrelatable, a fact that is so deliciously just so that I can’t begin to unpack it properly). From the concluding paragraph:

“To reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize–because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy–is our own failure. It’s a failure that has been dispiritingly sanctioned by the rise of ‘relatable.’ In creating a new word and embracing its self-involved implications, we have circumscribed our own critical capacities.”

I too would hope that people look outside a work’s inherent relatability–familiarity–when judging its merit. I assume that my vantage point is slightly different than Mead’s, however, and I come down differently on the “scourge” that is this word. Allow me to contribute an entirely armchair analysis.

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