Blue Steel – By @robinsanderson
By Robin Sanderson
I have a habit of grasping for a movie metaphor whenever I’m struggling to articulate my thoughts.
When I first received an offer to study at the SCA, I used the story of ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ to write about how it feels to win a ‘golden ticket’ to an exciting new world.
When I split with my partner midway through the second term, the plot of ‘The Bodyguard’ provided a strangely fitting analogy for our odd couple partnership, and all of its attendant highs and lows.
And now, after returning (somewhat unexpectedly) to study at the SCA, I found myself reaching for another movie metaphor.
The only problem was, I couldn’t think of a suitable movie. It felt like there’s too many themes for me to parse.
There’s the disorienting experience of being back in a place I didn’t expect to return to.
But the biggest theme of all is the state of Advertising in the year 2017. Or rather, Year Zero for an industry irreversibly tarnished by Pepsi-gate, with all events before and after to be designated B.C. (Before Cringe) and A.D. (Advertising’s Death).
I mulled over the direction advertising seems to be headed, and then it hit me.
I appear to find myself in an industry fast disappearing up its own backside, populated by pretty young things so disconnected from their audience that they’ve started to believe their job is not to sell stuff, but rather to build the next Centre For Kids Who Can’t Read Good and Who Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too.
Cynical? Moi? Hear me out. Because perhaps the industry needs to start listening to the dissenting voices of those not fully absorbed in this mad world to understand how it got to this point. And to the people that dismiss Pepsi’s efforts as an in-house aberration but in the same breath try to piggy back off another social cause, I’m looking at you too.
(And for what it’s worth, I believe there’s a difference between cynicism and healthy skepticism).
Three things I’ve seen recently, aside from Pepsi’s sterling efforts, brought my latent skepticism to the surface.
The first was a sketch by SNL, so piercing in its satire of advertising that it only needs three words to puncture the absurd bubble we currently inhabit:
“Hard cut; Cheetos”
‘Pitch Meeting’ depicts snack brand Cheetos hosting a competitive pitch for their next advert, one they’re hoping will make as big a splash as recent Super Bowl efforts.
Representatives from two ad agencies take it in turns to pitch ad ideas. Alec Baldwin’s agency presents sombre and socially conscious ideas that are absurdly tone deaf for a bag of cheese dusted cornmeal. And it’s music to the client’s ears. At the same time, the competing agency’s more prosaic but tonally appropriate ideas don’t appear to be registering.
And that’s pretty much it. Every “Hard Cut; Cheetos” serves to illustrate the ever more ridiculous juxtapositions that brands seem intent on drawing between themselves and the latest cause du jour. (Note: the sketch pre-dates Pepsi’s ad by a couple of months)
It also encapsulates the current culture war raging in advertising between traditional and non-traditional methods. SNL’s conclusion? We’ve strayed dangerously beyond self parody.
Which brings me to the second thing I saw, an ad for New Zealand milk brand Anchor:
I can’t fault the craft of the ad. The writing is beautiful, the choreography fabulous.
It’s also so po-faced and cripplingly devoid of self awareness that I wouldn’t be surprised if Alec Baldwin tottered into shot in heels and a leotard, then proceeded to vogue like his life depended on it. And then perhaps – hardcut – Anchor Milk.
But the self awareness never arrives. The people that conceived this ad, hearts undoubtedly in the right place, had arrived at an execution indistinguishable from parody.
I thought about the average Kiwi milk consumer watching the ad and it immediately conjured up the bar scene in Zoolander, where post-shift coalminers look on incredulously as Derek’s latest ad plays on the bar television. https://www.youtube.com/watch?
That’s about the size of it for 99% of modern advertising. We appear to have receded into a self referential echo chamber just like Derek’s world of male modelling, while the audience looks on and snorts with derision. Tell me, when was the last time your Mum said she saw a good ad?
Which brings me to the third thing I saw recently: Steve Henry’s showreel.
Now, I really don’t want to fall into the trap of harping on about the ‘good old days’ before I’ve got my first job, but… you can go onto Steve’s site and judge for yourself (stevehenry.co.uk).
When was the last time an ad moved you that much? When did you last see an ad that made you want to ram-raid the nearest cornershop and make off with ten cases of Blackcurrant Tango? If you played me a showreel of the latest Cannes case studies, the only thing I’d be inspired to ram-raid is the nearest Dignitas clinic to demand immediate euthanasia.
I think of the three things I’ve mentioned, and I genuinely worry if there’s a space for someone like me in the industry anymore. I find myself increasingly surrounded by people that aren’t considering the reaction of a coal miner in a dive bar (y’know, consumers), and are instead considering the reaction of their peers, or an awards jury.
I wanted to get into this industry to make shit that spreads beyond my peer group. To solve someone else’s (real) problems with my ingenuity, and get paid for it. That’s a worthwhile vocation, I figured.
I didn’t get into the industry to sit on a yacht in Cannes and have loads of nobheads blow smoke up my arse about how I’m, like, totally making a difference in the world.
Or to use the client’s money to prop up my fragile conscience.
Or to literally exploit issues with the sole purpose of increasing my status:
All of those things seem to me to not be ‘good’ or socially responsible, but instead outlandishly cynical and amoral.
Of course, the leading obscurantists in this brave new world of Marcomms would present my position as charmingly antiquated. That in our increasingly fragmented media landscape, traditional forms of talking to consumers are losing their efficacy. That we need to create conversations in new places, that we need to be a “force for good” to win consumer affection.
Presumably they view this ‘soft’ influence of brands as similar to the ‘soft power’ that nation states use to exert their influence internationally. Which sounds wonderful in theory, but until I see any concrete evidence of this ‘soft power’ influencing the public’s behaviour in any way, or having any discernible effect on a brand’s reputation or bottom line, excuse me if I choose to retain at least a modicum of my skepticism.
And while I don’t dispute the notion that traditional forms of media are being drained of their power, I also don’t also blindly swallow the notion that ‘camouflaged advertising’ is the panacea. What I do know is that humans react well to being charmed, to being spoken to plainly and honestly, and that they react less well to someone pretending to be something they’re not, to being tricked, hoodwinked or subjected to bait and switch ploys.
Ultimately, what I think it boils down to is not traditional vs. non traditional, or rampant consumerism vs. social responsibility, but rather the thing I have referred to multiple times – the bubble.
I genuinely believe ‘the bubble’ is why we no longer seem to make great work anymore.
In this bubble, we’ve completely forgotten the language of our audience because we’ve only been talking to ourselves. And not only have we forgotten the old ways of communicating with the audience, in our isolation we’ve also created a nonsensical new ‘sophisticated’ language that no one else understands either, like the secret language that twins create when they spend too much time together.
That’s why, in my opinion, Pepsi-gate is not an isolated example of in-house folly, but rather a symptom of the failure of communication that our industry is suffering from, analogous to the failure of communication on a much greater scale represented by Brexit and Trump.
We need to pull ourselves together. Advertising is already being laughed at for its ‘blue steel’ (Pepsi can = blue steel, geddit?), so let’s climb out of our bubble, have a conversation with a coal miner and regain a sense of perspective.
Because if we don’t, it’s only a matter of time before our industry becomes a bigger laughing stock than Derek and Co.