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Along with most of the media agencies in London, my colleagues and I are already mentally preparing for this year’s main event- the mega-pitch happening sometime in autumn featuring the UK’s “number one advertiser”, the COI.

Even though I’ve yet to start any proper work on it, something has already started to mentally niggle me- and it’s to do with the efficacy of social advertising.

Now I (and I think most planners) LOVE working with COI briefs. This is for a number of different reasons; not only do they offer a chance to flex some planning muscles we don’t get to use that often (hard to reach audiences, meaty messaging challenges etc), they also provide a subtle sort of catharsis… we get to feel like we might be using our advertising powers for good rather than for evil.

I think that deep down, most of the time we feel like Nick O’ Teen rather than Superman, and when we work on COI campaigns, we get to change sides.

This can create a pretty heady sense of self-congratulation, and I’m starting to wonder whether the giddiness that results from working on something that actually matters might be blinding us to something more fundamental- that social campaigns are often very poorly served by advertising.

Of course there are some great individual pieces of creative (the DfT’s cameraphone ad by Leo Burnett is a standout example) and some pretty cool media stunts- like this from Ogilvy & Mather Mumbai:

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Using public swimming pools to physically manifest a vision of a globally-warmed future is a pretty nice idea. But is it anything other than a nice idea?

I’m wondering whether we celebrate the cleverness of these ideas because of their appropriateness to the task at hand or because we like the fact that they are cleverer, more daring than the average piece of messaging. The fact that they’re good in both a qualitative sense and a moral sense makes them doubly worth celebrating (and probably explains why they do so well at events like Cannes).

Whilst this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it is worth remembering that  for every one of these exceptional pieces of insight or execution, there is mountain of mundanity within the category – for example:

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I don’t know what you think about this particular ad (and who knows, it may be working) but for me, the fact that it’s for a good cause doesn’t excuse the essential lameness of the idea. The camp-sinister imagery lurking within the typical smiley-happy veneer of ‘lifestyle’ advertising isn’t shocking or unsettling; it’s as expected and as dismiss-able as the glossy ads it apes.

Is there a problem here? Most people already know the message content of any given social campaign and are unlikely to disagree with its core premise – don’t drink too much, stop look and listen, giving blood saves lives, smoking is bad for you and so on and so on. What agencies seem to do by default is attempt to find ever more ‘creative’ ways of dramatising the stuff we already know.  However diverting the stunt, however carefully orchestrated the shock- does any of it actually address the cognitive dissonance that’s at the heart of these issues?

Even celebrated work like TfL’s ‘spot the rollerskating bear’ viral fits the same template – it’s an old dog with a new trick. If the our objective is to change behaviour, why is so much money being spent on telling people stuff they already agree with? The issue that we need to address won’t be solved by dramatising various tragic things that can happen to us if we don’t do what we’re supposed to- the problem is that people agree with this stuff but still don’t act in accordance with what they believe.

This is why advertising might be a bad choice for social campaigns per-se; advertising rarely makes people think, it more often absolves them from thinking. Advertising works (in the main) by fulfilling expectations rather than confounding them. The advertiser’s toolbox is stuffed with tropes. We work within an accepted vocabulary that allows us to make reference, analogy, allusion and the occasional sleight of hand- all techniques that rely on the audience’s media literacy, their expectations of how advertising behaves.

So what happens when the art of creating comfortable fallacy collides with the need to convey genuine and meaningful intent?

Quite often you get weird and unhappy marriages, like this:

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Even without the ‘UGC’ adorning the site, this ad connotes all the wrong things for me.

Conversational wit is not something people generally associate with police officers, and it’s employment here creates a strange sense of remoteness – the copy-writing makes it clear that you’re dealing with advertising, not any kind of direct consumer promise. Given that, the choice of words actually does seem inappropriate, particularly when combined with a medium that excels in creating a direct, physical presence you have to walk around. It’s supposed to be friendly, an avuncular invitation to you to share in a joke, but instead it’s in your face, encouraging you to laugh at something that’s not funny in a vaguely threatening way. Bizarre.

Moreover, this communication exists in a medium with no obvious means of interaction. The public can text in to a shortcode, but are fundamentally unable to see themselves represented in this campaign, to feel part of it, unless they take the very direct route of actually writing on it- of vandalising it. Promoting ‘talking’ with a static poster. Hmmm.

Social advertising like this is weird. It’s like the notes that appear on appliances and doors in a shared flat that become the site of contrasting claims.

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People leaving announcements in communal spaces aren’t actually having a conversation with someone, they’re playing out a performance in public- a performance that sacrifices the efficiency of actually dealing with the issue for the appearance of dealing with it. Advertising of this type dramatises a relationship whilst simultaneously avoiding the kids of actual, embodied behaviours that are important in relationships – like listening, being respectful, finding time to talk to someone on their terms and so on.

There could be all sorts of reasons why someone felt compelled to write “I’d like to stab you in the face” on this ad – but I think a contributing factor may well be that people actually resent being communicated with in this way when its about stuff that matters. Behavioural stuff. Moral stuff. Responsibility stuff. The double-whammy of a high-handed tone and the sense that a dialogue is being avoided rather then sought tends to annoy – exactly as it does on the fridge door of a shared flat. Often the most immediate urge is to reply, right there, on the annoying note itself. Otherwise, as I’m sure anyone who’s ever left a ‘please clean this’ post-it can attest, a note is much easier to ignore than a conversation.

Obviously the average social campaign is slightly more sophisticated than a note left on a fridge- good insight, inspiring artwork, copy-writing, layout and such can achieve much. Also, there are many iconic examples of social advertising that have left their mark on our shared culture. However, despite (perhaps because of) their well-meaningness, the majority of social ads seem to me to occupy the same region of attention bandwidth as high-handed notes- somewhere between ignorable and annoying. Having flicked through a few pages of ads over at Osocio, it seems to me that a lot of NGOs could have spent their money more effectively by avoiding advertising altogether.

I snapped this in our office kitchen the other day – and I think it’s a pretty apt summation of the effectiveness of this approach. Scroll down for the punchline…

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The nameless one offers ‘many thanks’ which are meaningless in motivational terms.

‘Helping to keep the kitchen tidy’ is clearly not enough of a shared or meaningful objective – and given the proximity of the crime to the warning, one almost gets the suspicion that the offenders actually enjoy the failure to comply.

No-ones behaviour is being impacted positively here.

It seems we need more creative ways of thinking about the context of the action and the use of incentives, disincentives and social norming pressures to make the right course of action seem more desirable, or in fact seem the natural thing to do, so we don’t even think about it. Advertising should not be our default.

By way of contrast to the swimming pool stunt above, I really liked this project from Bristol, mostly because of the context in which it’s encountered. To see the Mumbai ad, you have to be going swimming at a pool anyway (which in Mumbai probably puts you in a minority I guess), or be a reader of advertising blogs. To understand the threat of global warming in Bristol, you just walk around town as usual, but you see the familiar made strange as your own personal landmarks and waypoints start to tell you a new and disturbing tale.

In an instant, your perspective is altered.

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This isn’t advertising delivering a message to behave better, this is a behavioural intervention. Perhaps tellingly, it came from the arts sector rather than the commercial.

Images sourced from Osocio, Inhabitat and Flickr user Vinnie Drake
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I was in San Francisco last month. It’s really a little depressing that I’m not still there now. It was beautiful and hot- see?

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Mmmmm… ice cream sherbet…

Anyway, I’m drafting a different post to round up all of the brilliant things I saw while I was there. This post is meant to single out one particular event for special bloggy attention; the 2008 SECA award at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

SECA is an acronym that stands for “Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art”; a local art interest group that bi-annually selects four local artists worthy of special attention and features them in an exhibition at SFMoMA. This year, the recipients were Trevor Paglen, Desiree Holman, Tauba Auerbach and Jordan Kantor.

Charlotte and I were just really lucky that this exhibition was on, as we stumbled into the gallery with no plan and only an hour until closing time (for anyone who can feasibly get there it runs until May 10th). Apart from Trevor Paglen who has achieved relatively substantial web-fame, I didn’t have prior knowledge of any of the exhibited artists; a fact of which I’m now ashamed as this was a thought-provoking and entertaining exhibition, choc-full of great work.

The aforementioned Paglen is probably best known for his photographic project ‘The Other Night Sky‘ where he meticulously locates, ‘captures’ and identifies classified US surveillance satellites as they orbit the earth. The image below exemplifies this series of works, which look like they could’ve been liberated from the pages of an issue of National Geographic.

Without the context supplied by their titles, these images appear to be well-crafted yet essentially innocent time-lapse photographs of celestial bodies. They look like nature photographs, and they evoke the appropriate set of associations and responses as a result (the sense of awe, the sense of one’s own inconsequence, etc) until the works’ titles- which are literal, scientific, flat and factual- impinge upon the reverie.

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Four Geostationary Satellites Above the Sierra Nevada

These are not marvels of nature, but man-made machines. Machines with a purpose.Machines constructed here on earth and forcibly blasted into orbit by millions upon millions of $$$ worth of political and military will.

Moreover, they’re machines that you’re not supposed to know about.

The image hanging on the gallery wall is a mute witness to countless hours of investigative effort: contacting amateur ‘spotter’ communities, matching sightings from enthusiasts all over the planet, building mathematical models of prospective orbital paths, eventually identifying a space and time window that might yield a photographic capture.

It is this effort that the art work – that Paglen’s whole practice, in fact- is really concerned with: the surveiling of the surveilors. The fact that the images recall the conventions of nature photography serves to make their tortuous back-story all the more sinister.

Paglen’s other project featured in the SECA exhibition is Symbology, which documents the rich visual language of ‘black operations’ in the US military. Given that the projects, places and departments immortalized in this work do not officially exist, these meticulously collected decorative patches (displayed single-file in one long horizontal frame) are a strangely kitsch physical remnant of an unknowable world.

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They are surprisingly decipherable, demonstrating camaraderie, bravado and no shortage of black humour. They could be doodles on a schoolboy’s notebook.

They are all the realer for it – unexpectedly characterful, human and mundane where they ought to be secretive, obscure and glamorous. It is this supreme recognisability that unsettled me – their surfeit of everyday-ness seemed to crystallize a hard and frightening reality from the realm of playful, enjoyable conspiracy theories and harmless TV drama paranoia. These little objects are powerful- physically and culturally real in a way the sealed manila folder of popular imagination ever could be.

Desiree Holman was only showing one work, The Magic Window. This mixed media installation was a playful (if a little creepy) meditation on the role of Television in creating and fulfilling popular fantasy.

The centrepiece of the work was a video triptych. The centre panel was blank when we first walked in and sat down. The flanking panels each featured a roughly-assembled stage set designed to resemble the living room of a well-loved sitcom family; that of the Connors from  Roseanne on the left, and that of the Huxtables from The Cosby Show on the right.

In each set, actors wearing masks went about enacting typical interactions between these familiar characters: on the right, ‘Cliff’ and ‘Theo’ engaged in horseplay with a basketball, whilst on the left ‘Roseanne’ sat on the sofa, chatting to ‘DJ’ as ‘Darlene’ moved about the room.

What was immediately striking about these films was the deliberation with which Holman drew our attention to the artifice – to the tell-tale exposed edges of her representation. Her sketch of the ‘Roseanne’ mask below, clearly shows its ‘mask-ness’ as well as being recognisable as Roseanne Barr – as others in the gallery noted, the masks are more than a little reminiscent of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The same attention to lack-of detail was true of the sets the action took place in.

Click on the image for a video clip:

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Holman seemed to want us to buy in to the fiction, but at the same time remain always aware of her purpose- her presence in the re-staging of these familiar (yet warped) scenes.

Soon enough, the two families invade each other’s worlds (oddly recalling the Run DMC/Aerosmith ‘walk this way’ video) and wordlessly interact via hand gestures and the domestic ritual offerings of cookies. Subsequently, the central panel of the triptych comes alive- showcasing a bizarre ‘third space’, a sort of space disco where the characters dance together in jerky, awkward rhythms to a pounding electronica track- whilst glowing green.

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It was pretty odd.

At the same time however, it was interesting and entertaining: the blending of these two sitcoms that both dealt with different forms of social prejudice in their different decades seems obvious in hindsight. Also, highlighting the role-play that takes place in family relationships (which also provides the dramatic impetus in sitcoms) via the donning of masks seemed to me to be asking more profound questions than the pantomime performance initially suggested. In its deliberately rough-shod presentation it referenced the DIY video aesthetic of Youtube, an important platform for video art and as prevalent a force in popular culture as each of these sitcoms were in their respective heyday.

Tauba Auerbach seems to be an artist fascinated by systems, whether visual, mathematical or cultural. I thought her work was completely brilliant.

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This image shows some pieces from a series dealing with Auerbach’s interest in randomness, particularly the difficulty associated with simulating randomness through algorithms. She has created a whole series of images of Television static – analogue noise that at first glance appears random, but when captured in a photograph…

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…actually contains patterns. Patterns which can be extracted and made into beautiful, decorative works in artistic media like paint…

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…or through printmaking techniques like this aquatint:

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which are the antithesis of randomness – deliberate, precise and authored.

Another series also on display featured her various experiments with language; interrogating the alphabet as a visual system (as in The Whole Alphabet, from Centre Out, Digital V below) or playing with anagrams, letter subtraction games and the physical appearance of letters to highlight the essential ambiguity of these fundamental components of our culture.

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If you’re interested, the exhibition catalogue is available here, and Tauba Auerbach’s “50/50” book can be ordered here. Trevor Paglen has books to sell on Amazon.

Sadly, my rather lengthy enjoyment of Paglen, Holman and Auerbach’s work meant I had somewhat less than 5 minutes to look at Jordan Kantor’s stuff. I’ve got nothing to say except that he seemed to borrow more than a little from Gerhard Richter – but in an obviously deliberate way.

Anyway; a really great exhibition in a really great gallery. Also, if you are inclined towards podcastery, SF MoMA makes a generous amount of the audio guides to its exhibitions available for downloading, which aside from being edifying, can be used very effectively to transport oneself out of London bendy-bus hell to a calm, white-walled gallery of the imagination.

All images were sourced from the artists’ websites

So here is a rather belated third episode of my four-parter devoted to tip-top time-travelling televisual treat, Lost.

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In parts one and two of this rather indulgent series of posts I suggested that Lost will come to be seen as the defining TV show of the decade (and not just because it will have lasted for most of it). This will be, I believe, due to the ways in which it tells its stories (vaguely and deliberately without signposting) and the way that those stories are written (generative and emergent), amongst other things.

The aspect of the show I wanted to spend a little time on in this post is the role of Lost‘s writers, and the space they occupy in the ecosytem surrounding the show.

When reading other posts, comments and messageboards about Lost, I’ve found that its often compared unfavourably to Twin Peaks , a show which more than any other tends to be held up as the zenith of enigmatic mystery programmes. I have to admit I’m not a huge fan of mister D. Lynch – the only films I’ve  managed to sit through without feeling annoyed are The Elephant Man, The Straight Story and Eraserhead– but I do think it’s interesting to compare the two series. If I’m going to claim that Lost is worthy of being held up as defining of our current media culture, then a comparison with Twin Peaks should throw any alleged innovations into sharp relief, coming as it does from its own very different televisual milieu – that of the early 1990s.

It’s strange how dated the graphics look now, though the Badalamenti score still sounds eerie and brilliant.

Now whilst I think the concerns of the two series are poles apart (Lynch is primarily an auteur translating his signature concerns into a new medium, whereas Cuse, Lindelof and Abrams seem like far more pragmatic TV people) they do bear some similarities:

  • Twin Peaks is credited with introducing filmic cinematography to TV, with each episode costing over $1m to create. These high-production values are now part and parcel of the televisual landscape (see also the short-lived Carnivale) with Lost as the most obviously ‘cinematic’ of recent big-budget shows – the opening episode of the series featuring the crash of Oceanic 815 cost a reported $14 million.
  • both shows are were commissioned and broadcast by the Disney-owned ABC network, one of the ‘big-three’ US networks. Given the tortuous, mazy nature of the plotting of the two shows, the aforementioned expensive production values, and both series’ propensity to defy the tropes of genre (particularly in the case of Twin Peaks) this is surprising. As it was, both were big ratings successes for a mainstream broadcaster that has traditionally been amongst the more conservative forces in US television.
  • The themes around Lost‘s peculiar mode of storytelling that I identified in parts one and two of this series are also true of Twin Peaks. In both shows the main story is told vaguely, generating theories upon theories about the possible direction of the plot and engaging the audience in an active mode of consumption more akin to playing a game than passive viewing. Also, Lynch (as is his wont) kept things interesting by improvising on-set, famously casting set decorator Frank Silva in the fabulously scary role of ‘BOB‘ after he was accidentally filmed in a scene. This sort of free-form approach is mirrored in the writers’ and producers’ approach to Lost, and is something I wrote at length about in part two of this series of posts.
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BOB being SCARY

Now this is where we start to look at some of the differences between the shows.

I’m going to ignore the Lynchian queasiness of Twin Peaks versus Lost‘s seemingly more earnest approach, as this stylistic difference is so obvious it goes without saying: Lynch wasn’t really making a TV show, he was making ‘David Lynch’s take on TV’ – a series that attempted to transcend the strictures of genre television. Lost on the other hand is very definitely primetime mass audience fodder, and whilst there’s nothing wrong with that as far as I’m concerned, any comparison of the respective shows’ unique artistic vision would be likely to see Lost lose out.

What I’m interested in is less about the content of the programmes or even what appears on the screen, and more about the differences between the shows’ internal engines and their relation to what I’ve referred to as their ‘ecosystem’ – essentially how they were concieved, created and consumed within their respective cultural environments.

Both are mystery shows that refuse to give anything away too cheaply (driving hordes of fanatical viewers to speculate wildly on possible explanations) and because of this both series’ also became part of culture more broadly; both were satirized and celebrated in mainstream media and referenced by numerous other TV shows, movies and comic books. However, where Twin Peaks was perhaps the ultimate in ‘watercooler’ TV programming, igniting debate about what was actually happening in the show, it remained essentially tied to one man’s vision, a creator who remained very much aloof from his audience. Lost is fundamentally different in that it is a child of the internet age, and as such is part of a changed media environment.

In short, Lost has the web.

Twin Peaks had many committed fans (and still does) but it didn’t have forums, chatrooms, blogs, and wikis – the focus for mass fan conversations and theory-swapping, as well as the site of interesting interfaces between the viewers and the creators . It also didn’t have access to new digital distribution and storytelling platforms that have become important parts of the Lost ecosystem- Youtube, podcasts, and ARGs, DVDs and PVRs.

One of the most important shifts that this digital ecosystem has allowed lies in the potential for writers to experiment on, commune with and draw inspiration from the audience for their show.

Remember this?

The dharma shark!

The dharma shark!

The ability to pause, rewind, examine and then post, share and discuss the content of the show with potentially millions of other dedicated LOSTies allows the writers to increase (by an order of magnitude) both the amount and the obscurity of the ‘clues’ they provide. The celebrated DVD easter eggs, the clues and hints in the official podcast, the two (at last count) Lost ARGs- as well as what actually happens onscreen frame by frame- are all pored over by fans producing hundreds of thousands of hours of analysis. This then results in many long and complex theories (this is one of my favourite theories actually- that Lost is actually generated through a complex game being played between Lindelof and Abrams– though the writer lost me with his revelations about eye colour as his evidence runs to hundreds of pages). These theories are ultimately what fuels the show’s ecosystem, providing the necessary nutrients to support the diversity of content provided by the writers.

Now Twin Peaks generated loads of discussion too, with one important distinction – the discussion between fans of Lost happens in public, and is closely observed by the writers of the show. In fact, popular site the fuselage is an official Lost fans forum sponsored and frequented by Lost’s creative team.

In previous posts I’ve looked at how the characters of both Ben and Desmond were plucked from the supporting cast and put centre-stage because of the power the actors brought to their roles. The audience’s immediate recations to them were also very important, however, as demonstrated in this quote from Cuse:

“you’re right about Michael Emerson [Ben]. He’s the biggest example of a character who we just fell in love with beyond our expectations. I would say Desmond would also be in that category. The audience really fell in love with him right from the get-go and he quickly moved right into the mainstream of our cast.”

The fact that the writers and producers of Lost allow themselves room for this type of improvisation or ‘generative storytelling’ (as I termed it) allows them to be highly reactive to the characters or plot elements (i.e. Hurley’s numbers) that grab the fans’ interest. It also works the other way however, moving characters introduced by the writers from the centre to the periphery when the elements just don’t seem to ‘click’…

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The ill-fated Nikki and Paulo are a good case for what makes Lost such an interesting series to me. The writers made the decision to introduce these new characters, handled the introductions badly and then acted swiftly and resolutely when it didn’t work out. It is the way in which they decided to write off the Nikki/Paolo experiment however that really demonstrates Lost‘s special kind of brilliance.

The episode of their demise, Expose, is one of my favourite Lost moments- not because of the noirish theme and the gruesome finale, but because the whole episode is basically a gift to the fans of the show. The new characters that the viewers loathed were killed off in a hilariously OTT double cross (with spiders!) which served as both apology and admission of failure by the writers- but the show also integrated them, by way of flashbacks right into the first episode of the series, giving us all-new perspectives on some pretty old Lost lore, and resolving one dangling plotline (Sun’s kidnapping by Charlie)- a rare and satisfying occurrence.

This kind of ‘easter egg’ doesn’t come cheap. The cost of returning to the spectacular crash that opened the series, editing in the new characters (to the extent of bringing back actors who had been killed off in previous seasons) only to kill them off at the end of the episode must have been considerable. At the same time, they gave the actors they’d hired to play the ill-fated Nikki and Paolo a whole episode to themselves in which to shine. Way to turn a crappy situation into a win/win for all involved.

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Nikki is edited back into the crash of Oceanic 815

I don’t know another programme where this kind of relationship would even be attempted, let alone pulled off with panache. For me this demonstrates another aspect of what makes Lost worthy of comment – not only is Lost a game, not only is it an experiment in generative storytellling, Lost is also a property shared between writers and viewers. Lost is a conversation.

So whilst Twin Peaks blazed a trail that Lost is deeply indebted to (openly admitted by the writers), it is a markedly different beast in my opinion, with different artistic concerns and a new mastery of a different media ecosystem. Also, unlike most things involving David Lynch, Lost will have an ending that at least goes some way to satisfying the fans who’ve sat through it.

For my fourth (and definitely FINAL) post in this series, I’m going to look at the blurring between the fictional world of Lost and the real world of the viewer, and also consider the particular challenges the show faces as a primetime ratings driver.

Apologies for the length of this one, I got a bit carried away!

me

I work in media as a strategist. I like art, robots, comics, interaction design, karaoke, wildlife photography, indian food, campari, gaming, American TV (teen drama included), reading non-fiction, reading fiction and listening to music. I also have a tenori-on because I'm so rad.

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