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.

An Actual Response to the Unskippable Pre-roll Ad

Have you seen this? It’s a little ditty slapped together by an agency in the states that’s designed, in part, to get people to ask you just that–no one straps a puppy to a bunch of wires and can say otherwise. Beyond the obvious sensationalist leanings, however, is a message from one ad agency to the wider ad and marketing community: we’re wasting our precious preroll time. Start being smarter about how you use it.

I’ve been asked by multiple people what I think of this thing. My answers have been non-committal and positive-ish. Literally, my answer to the friend who asked about this on Facebook was, “These people are correct, mostly. Or this statement is more true: they are correct for now.”

I recognize that the above is a classic copywriter move; say something that sounds smooth and clever but contains zero content. So I’m remedying that.

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Side Notes: Napkin Backs and Connected Life 2014

When I’m not writing about the Internet here or writing about the Internet for school, I’m working on creative projects and coming up with ideas for ads. Here’s a bit on two things I’ve been working on lately, with links to check them out.


Napkin Backs

I’ve come up with a bunch of ideas for brands that fit on the back of a napkin. Each has a blurb and strategic breakdown provided in the caption, but I held myself to the requirement that the meat of the concept needed to fit in the napkin-allotted space. You can check out the collection here:


Connected Life 2014

I’m on the Marketing, PR and Web team for Connected Life 2014, the first iteration of a student-run conference for emerging Internet research. It’s being held at the University of Oxford on June 12th, 2014. Registration is open, and we’re still accepting submissions for student presenters. Learn more here:

Is Content King?

Another day, another article about content marketing and brand-as-publisher, this time from Sam Slaughter at Contently (via Adweek). He argues that the content that a brand produces needs to be genuine and good. SHOCKING.

Here’s an excerpt, which comes after a paragraph that acknowledges and then accepts the premise that “content is truly king”:

“Broken down to their core elements, every brand’s content aim is actually the same: creating positive connections with its customers and potential customers. And accomplishing that is deceptively simple —give the user something compelling and of value that they can associate with the brand. Whether that’s a story that informs and helps drive decisions, or simply something that brings them delight…..  Cutting corners here creates cheap brand publishing, makes for a lousy story and, by extension, the perception of a brand that doesn’t care.”

1) Good lord. Is there still really any confusion about this? Or, rather: I can’t believe there’s still any confusion about this. If you’re choosing content marketing as a content strategy, for the love of God, make sure that your content is good. Not “good” in a way that causes the brand manager of your luxury dish soap client to exclaim “Nice use of our value proposition!” (necessarily), but in a way that your target audience will see, appreciate, and link with your brand in some valuable way. Don’t stop at good; make sure it’s also genuinely, believably attached to your brand. This last part is key, and is why getting your college intern to slap together a listicle or find cute pictures of cats looking sad probably won’t cut it, either. If content shouldn’t be coming from your brand, people won’t ignore it; they’ll notice it, and then be bitter or annoyed that you put it in front of them. Be good and be genuine.

So, yes. Slaughter’s right. There’s a part of this that is, in fact, incredibly simple. Of course, there are other things to consider, which leads me to…

2) Is content really king?

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