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.

Hashtags;

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);

Yes.
Yes.

Junk food;

Yes.

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:

Eesh

 

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.

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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. 

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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The Uncanny Valley of Brand Tweets

There’s a concept familiar to tech nerds and fans of sci-fi called the Uncanny Valley. It posits that, as robots become increasingly human, individuals will feel increasingly empathetic towards them. People’s reactions will be more and more positive. There comes, however, a point at which the likeness becomes too close for comfort; the just-more-than-barely human entity becomes repulsive and terrifying and remains so until it is engineered to become indistinguishable from humans again. The dip in positive reception of robots (or other designed entities) that fall between almost human and totally human is the uncanny valley. Here, a graph from an academic paper by Karl F. MacDorman on the topic:

From MacDorman, K. F. (2005). Androids as an experimental apparatus: Why is there an uncanny valley and can we exploit it? CogSci-2005 Workshop: Toward Social Mechanisms of Android Science, 106-118.
From MacDorman, K. F. (2005). Androids as an experimental apparatus: Why is there an uncanny valley and can we exploit it? CogSci-2005 Workshop: Toward Social Mechanisms of Android Science, 106-118.

 

This concept is what springs to mind when reading Kate Losse’s excellent piece in the New Inquiry about #weirdtwitter being co-opted by brand twitter feeds. She starts off by pulling up Denny’s feed, which I’ll admit caught my eye recently. To be blunt, it’s on point. Here are a few examples:

Losse’s thesis, essentially, is that this type of casual, on-meme tone traverses traditionally acceptable brand voice and transgresses a niche realm of digital communication. In doing so, a brand stands to yield significant positive feedback (as we’re unaccustomed to hearing brands in this way) while becoming, in Losse’s words, “cuter than any person” in its ageless hip-ness. Her concerns center primarily around power, resistance, and intimacy. Through conversing this way online, brands hedge in on the social capital of individuals and assert the fundamentally uneven power dynamic between corporations and consumers. In concluding, Losse writes:

“It isn’t enough for Denny’s to own the diners, it wants in on our alienation from power, capital, and adulthood too. While we giggle at corporate #weirdtwitter tweets, the corporate invulnerability that makes them easy to follow is also what makes their assumption of a human, familiar voice feel, despite our laughter and faves, cold and a bit pathological. Denny’s too wants to belong.”

While I primarily agree with Losse’s analysis, I think that this can more profitably be analyzed from a far simpler angle, namely the quest for brands to become more human.

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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: http://napkinbacks.tumblr.com/

 

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: http://connectedlife.oii.ox.ac.uk/

Co-creation, Clients, and Consumers: The Case of the Evolving Advertising Industry

Haven’t posted in a while (don’t worry; there’s quite a lot of interesting stuff in the works). In the meantime, here’s a quick (well, not so quick) take on the evolving nature of working relationships in advertising and how digital connectivity is transforming their orientation and direction:

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