Advertising in Present Shock

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There’s no time for advertising anymore. I mean, literally, no time. The communications industry is in what I call “present shock”—the inability to contend with the everything-happens-now landscape in which we have found ourselves.

This is going to require some adjustment.

Consider how television has changed since the good old days of linear time. Back when most of us were growing up, TV shows had beginnings, middles, and endings. There was rising tension, a reversal, an “aha” moment, and finally relief.

With the advent of the remote control, the DVR, and Netflix, people don’t have to sit through linear stories. They can fast forward through the awesome bits, change channels when a character’s plight gets too frustrating, or watch forty episodes in forty hours. The storyteller’s control over narrative is all but lost.

In reaction, television had to move beyond the traditional narrative arc. The joy of the Simpsons isn’t over whether Homer gets out of the nuclear power plant before it blows up; it’s over the many connections we make between a scene in the show and whatever it is satirizing. One moment is an Alfred Hitchcock movie, the next is an MTV video.

Meanwhile, epic shows such as Lost or Game of Thrones have no singular, linear plot. They move more like video games, in which everyone is figuring out the rules of the world in the present tense. This demands patience and attention rather than traditional narrative. While the entertainment industry is figuring out how to adapt just fine, advertisers seem afraid to do so. The time has come. There is no room for brand mythologies in a world without linear stories. Your product’s strength in the present marketplace derives less from its history than its current value. Just as more forward thinking Christian organizations have adjusted their pitch to youth from the historical “this is the story of what Jesus did for you” to the more participatory “what would Jesus do?”, companies today must learn to speak in the present tense. This means abandoning the terrific but story-based advertising campaigns and characters of the past, and turning to reality-based communications in the present. Like the ever-increasingly dominant reality TV, branding today must be non-fiction, as spontaneous as possible, true and – most of all – relevant. Consumers will tweet about your carbon footprint, your manufacturing practices, or your ingredients.

You’ll have to share something real and positive about your product or at least your process. Back in the old days, such details were called “product attributes,” and ultimately derided by frustrated creatives looking for an excuse to make short narrative movies at the client’s expense.  Today, the most creative thing about an ad campaign should be the subject: the product, the company, or whatever it is you’re actually advertising. awesome, I know. Second, communicating in a presentist landscape means accepting that the traditional feedback loop between your company and your consumers has tightened to the point where you can’t tell the difference between call and response, or cause and effect.

Gone are the days when you could launch a campaign and then test the response six weeks later. The Tweets about your campaign may as well be the campaign. Most of your audience will see them first, anyway. This means you can stop communicating to your customers, and begin communicating with them. Social media is not merely an opportunity to advertise or data collect; it is the interface between the people inside your company and those on the periphery. They’re communicating already. It’s your job to make sure your employees and vendors are saying great things about you.

To do that, you simply have to give up on selling some illusion of the culture to which your customers are aspiring and instead exemplify the culture of your core community. Walk into an REI sporting goods store, or a Guitar Center, and you’ll remember what it’s like to be in a place where the employees live and breathe the culture they are enabling. For companies without retail presence, this social interaction happens online on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and everywhere else people connect. This is the reverse of what advertising was for before the digital age.

Brands originally emerged as a way of hiding the industrial reality. It was a way to put a face on the new products coming out of faceless factories. Brands were a kind of camouflage. But now they’re the opposite: a brand is just the truth. The ad-man who used to teach companies to tell stories now has the job of helping companies to become proud enough of who they are to tell the truth.

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