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.

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:


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:

Articulating the Need: Where Identity Marketing Falls Flat


Image from

“Products for women should be engineered, designed, colored, cushioned, and patterned to actually fit women and what we want; our music, our movies, and every sound.” This is the statement, smilingly recited by three women over a jingly, tambourine-laden indie rock backdrop, that surrounds SkullCandy’s launch of “headphones fine tuned for women.” And by fine-tuned, they don’t just mean color-coordinated and resized for comfort: they mean scientifically engineered to cater to differences in women’s hearing. Oh rly?

I take issue with a number of things here. The first is somewhat low-hanging fruit that, given past highly-publicized kerfuffles, one might think companies would avoid; the manufacture of products for the finer sex when use and enjoyment of said products is not actually dependent on gender. I had not realized I needed to coordinate my chromosomes with my choice of headphone or that the androgynous set I’m currently rocking isn’t adequately serving the “cleaner bass and very natural sounding vocals that… ladies prefer.” Thank goodness someone’s got my lady-like auditory predispositions in mind!

But diatribe be damned; I’m, for better or for worse, very used to sexism-masquerading-as-gender-catering in marketing campaigns. I won’t add to the slew of articles bemoaning this phenomenon. Instead, I’ve got a much more specific bone to pick.

Image from

Full disclosure: I’m an ad woman through and through. I watch commercials on my computer and trawl the net for neat print ads and interesting interactive executions. I’ve encountered my fair share of aggressively anti-female advertising that Skullcandy doesn’t begin (and wouldn’t want) to hold a candle to, as well as insipid, veiled appeals to femininity that some might argue more insidiously reinforce notions of gender divides. Despite my transient residence in the ivory tower, my stance on these sorts of things is less ideological and more pragmatic. Segmenting a market and defining a product’s target audience in part by gender is, in my book, not so objectionable. I don’t think marketing to women is bad or wrong, nor do I believe that explicitly labeling things as “women’s” products is inherently problematic. Advertising is driven on emotions and fulfillment of desires and needs; one’s portfolio of wants can be impacted by gender or sex. Sometimes, appealing to that angle is the smart path to take.

But there’s a right way and a wrong way to frame and phrase advertising. Exceptional production values aside, I think Skullcandy’s missing the mark. They’re closeso closeto knocking this thing out of the park, but there’s a tactical judgment they’ve made that has the potential to unravel the campaign altogether. What I’m referencing is the umbrella-strategy that undergirds the flowery patterns, exhortations to “#RAISEHELL,” and website callouts that read “you know you’re a dime”: identity marketing that explicitly articulates perceived beliefs of the target audience and, in doing so, reflects imagined needs and stances that may not align with what the target actually believes or wants. 

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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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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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