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. 

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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Internet and Babies

Quick question: why is it okay for me to look at other people’s babies on the Internet?

Probably necessary context: I use my phone a whole hell of a lot.  My morning rounds, so to speak, involve a quick stop on my most-used social networks. This includes Instagram. I, like many users, follow some accounts not because of my connection with the user but due to my interest in the content that they publish. My enduring love of bento boxes (yes, I know. Enough already.) has resulted in my feed becoming littered with adorable little lunches and, increasingly, with photos of the children who will be eating them. So on any given morning, one of the first things I’ll end up doing is looking a pictures of children that I do not know.

Screen Shot 2013-11-07 at 3.58.37 PM

In one sense, this is not as strange as one might think. After all, there are a number of toddlers who are Instagram celebrities of sorts, and at least one account with over 1 million followers dedicated to the street style of the pre-school set (the Sartorialist for tots, if you will). There are people all over the world who look at random adorable children on an on-going basis. Some Instagram accounts have a sophisticated editorial style and marketing strategy, the pet project of various lifestyle professionals with little ones in tow. Others, not so much. There’s one account (responsible for the image above) that’s solely pictures and videos of a Japanese baby and a cat. No end game that I’m aware of. Just baby + cat. Baby + cat that you can check in on on a daily basis.

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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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