Orwell’s Legacy, Advertising and the Death of Narrative

So, here’s a little insight to how my mind works.  I suppose it’s always worked liked this, but I’m not sure if my mind has just aligned with contemporary culture, or if it is being shaped by it. Here’s what I mean by that: Right now I’m sitting at my desk at work and I have access to information via three screens – a desktop monitor, my laptop and my iPhone. Throughout the day I receive information from all three – and I push information and content out from all three.

As a result, I’m constantly sifting through signal and noise, exercising my powers of pattern recognition. Often various bits of data and info hit me and bounce off, at other times the right combination clicks into place in unexpected and surprising ways. Last week I experienced something known as Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, also called ‘Frequency Illusion” (hat tip to Gitamba Saila-Ngita for cluing me in on the term). B-M is the feeling that something or someone you had previously never heard of before suddenly pops up two or three times in rapid succession in completely unrelated circumstances.  This time it was Marina Abomovic, who popped up in Jay Z’s Picasso Baby performance art piece among other places.

Sometimes the pieces hang around, as if in a HUD like the one in Minority Report. Eventually I start to pull them all together and it forms an idea or, as in this case, a blog post. Perhaps in this case it might be interesting to deconstruct the post, strip it down to its elements first.  Here are the various concepts on my internal HUD:

  • I’ve just started reading Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock
  • Concepts of narrative and storytelling via advertising are of great interest to me
  • What would the iconic Apple 1984 ad look like if stripped of its narrative and repurposed using a content format popular now, the GIF?
  • How has popular culture mirrored (or driven?) the narrative collapse Rushkoff speaks of vis a vis Orwell’s 1984?
    • From Apple to Aeon Flux to Big Brother
  • Last year Google teamed up with several brands to recreate famous ads from the past.

Rushkoff’s book (read Faris Yakob’s review), begins with an insightful breakdown of narrative collapse in our modern culture.

present-shockStorytelling became an acknowledged cultural value in itself. In front of millions of rapt television viewers, mythologist Joseph Campbell taught PBS’s Bill Moyers how stories provide the fundamental architecture for human civilization. These broadcasts on The Power of Myth inspired filmmakers, admen, and management theorists alike to incorporate the tenets of good storytelling into the most basic frameworks.

It’s not difficult to read that and nod in agreement as you think about the 1984 spot.

If you can see this, then you might need a Flash Player upgrade or you need to install Flash Player if it's missing. Get Flash Player from Adobe.

Rushkoff speaks of the main elements of a narrative story arc, first identified by Aristotle and you can see them at work in this spot.  Even if you aren’t familiar with the Orwell novel, it’s pretty clear what is happening. A citizenry enslaved, hypnotized by some sort of evil despot. A lone hero is our only hope. She must escape her pursuers and liberate us from the tyranny of conformity. Just as all hope seems lost, the hero prevails. That the hero of the spot is a physical representation of a computer company is beside the point.

But ironically it is the advent of the personal computer that has certainly sped up the destruction of the traditional narrative. Hyperlinked text, multiple tabs in browsers and social media have all contributed to the shift away from the narrative as we new it towards a more in the moment, real-time engagement culture.

The impact of the novel 1984 is usually seen through the lens of politics or issues concerning personal privacy. But it’s a fascinating proxy for culture at large and this narrative transformation Rushkoff speaks of.  It’s interesting to look at Aeon Flux, originally an animated short series that aired during a program called Liquid Television on MTV in the early 1990s. In Aeon Flux, the eponymous heroine fights for liberty and independence against a totalitarian government in a science-fiction future world. But Aeon Flux also had an unusual narrative kink, as noted in the show’s wikipedia entry:

One peculiarity of the early shorts is the violent death of Æon Flux, which occurs in each installment. According to the commentary by Peter Chung in the 2005 DVD release, she dies in every short episode after the initial six part pilot because he never intended to make more episodes, the best solution was to have her keep dying…

It’s possible to dismiss this, arguing that in animated series characters often meet violent ends only to appear again in future episodes (see Coyote, Wile E.), but Aeon Flux is different I believe. It followed many of the other hallmarks of traditional storytelling while still being an incredibly innovative show. But by the 90s young audiences were no longer thrown by stories in which the hero died. They’d been playing video games in arcades for more than a decade (the cut scenes from Dragon’s Lair come to mind) and home video game console titles would soon see “respawning” enter the lexicon.

As we entered a new millenium, 1984 again entered the cultural mainstream via the reality television show Big Brother – a term derived from the novel which has become a sort of meme itself. With reality television we’ve now dispensed with most of the traditional narrative structure – backstory, world-building, closure, even the notion of heroes and villains in a traditional sense is gone. We’re simply watching people interacting without any real sense of beginning, middle or end. As a person who doesn’t watch the show, the sense of ‘never-endingness” is heightened by the fact that the show is currently in season 15. At some point, it’s not even about the actual individuals on the show, you’re simply watch a house full of personas (the bad girl, the jerk, the nice guy…) with occasionally changing visual representations. Rushkoff again:

It’s as if the linear narrative structure had been so misused and abused by television’s incompetent or manipulative storytellers that it simply stopped working, particularly on younger people who were raised in the more interactive media environment and equipped with defensive technologies.

As I thought of all this in the context of the industry I work in, advertising, it reminded me of Project Re:Brief by Google in which classic old ad campaigns are reimagined for current technologies and sensibilities. We’ve entered a new phase of storytelling, if that is even the right term. Perhaps un-storytelling is more accurate. GIFS and Vine videos have reduced content to a mere seven seconds, or an endlessly looping three or four seconds.  In this environment, what would Apple’s 1984 ad have looked like? Not surprisingly GIFs have been created of the ad:



Yes, that’s a bit unfair, but you get the point. Without your knowledge of the original commercial, and the Orwell novel, these GIFs would be all but unintelligible. Is it possible to make a GIF or a Vine video that would be an effective communication message for a personal computer? I would imagine so, but when we lose the narrative structure of traditional storytelling we lose something important. We lose myth-making, we often lose context and possibly the power to connect on a human, emotional level.

Ultimately here’s what I’m left with: As a marketer, should I be “leaning in” to the post-narrative world in which we currently live, encouraging clients to create smaller, non-linear pieces of content, or should I suggest they go against the grain, and look to create deeper, denser and longer story-driven communications?  It’s a tough question, and one worth debating.

When The Reality Show Went Meta: Culture Gone Wild

The Real Housewives of New York. Jersey Shore. Kate Plus Eight. I don’t watch these shows and yet I could probably tell you a great deal about them. More than I could about Burn Notice (but perhaps I’m not alone there). So how (and why?) do I know that Kendra has been betrayed! and what Lindsay Lohan had on her fingernails or what Mel Gibson said to his Russian arm candy? I know these things because I follow a different reality show. This show exists in a parallel universe, somewhere between reality shows and the reality that normal, sane people live in. It’s a collective program, one we’ve all agreed to watch – though it’s not quite like The Truman Show. This meta-reality show has no start and no finish, no set cast and no plot. You can’t turn it off because it doesn’t air on any one network (or medium). It’s more like the matrix – it just exists.

Better than watching the show.

Even Andy Warhol Would Be Surprised By Who Is Famous Today

We now live in a society where The Situation gets more publicity than people like Tom Hanks and Rachel Zoe (who?) is on my radar more than Julia Roberts. How did this happen? When did the incredibly pedestrian lives and ginned up dramas of nobodys, has-beens and other assorted mouth-breathers become the leading pre-occupation in this country? How did car crash television stake such a claim on the American psyche?

Although I find it completely baffling, I won’t dismiss it either. To simply write it off with a “these kids today” wave of the hand would be foolish. Clearly something is going on here, but what is compelling people to say, “watching Jersey Shore isn’t enough, I want to know what’s going on behind the scenes with Snookie and the gang.” How can the marital peccadilloes of Kourtney Kardashian be of interest to so many people?

I can see the appeal of reality programming. Proto-reality shows like the Up Series or An American Family were novel and provided an intimate look at contemporary life, and a mirror on our own. But by the time we hit The Real World can anyone say we were dealing with reality anymore? Do people watch Flipping Out and think it in any way reflects their lives? So let’s call these shows what they are: semi-scripted dramas and comedies (or more often horror stories). Great, that’s fine, that’s entertainment.

The Reality Program Owned, Programmed By and Starring… Everyone

But when People, US, InTouch and all the other magazines cover the ‘stars’ of these shows, we’ve crossed some kind of threshold.

Today on the Meta-Reality Network...

It’s as if we’ve layered another level of programming on top of the actual shows. And the crazy part is, all the participants recognize this and accept that they are now on another “show” in addition to the one they star in on Bravo, MTV, etc. Sure, sometimes they pretend they are at odds with the media, or put out by this (Kourtney Kardashian trashes the trash mags!) constant exposure and coverage, but just as often they are willing participants. Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live program is a pseudo talk show where the stars of AMC shows come on to talk about… their shows. Bravo has one of the real masters of this format, Kathy Griffin, whose show, My Life on the D List is to meta-reality television what The Sopranos was to crime drama.

The show, the after-show, the coverage of the show, the coverage of the stars of the show – it’s all one big mash-up now. And that’s where we smash right into current culture – the absolute blurring, if not elimination of boundaries. Food, music, fashion, you name it, everything goes and combinations that were once off limits, if not taboo, are now considered perfectly legitimate options. The finish line no longer exists. “That’s a wrap” isn’t part of the Hollywood vocabulary anymore. The cameras (or flipcams, or mobile phones, or twitter accounts) are always running, and so the content never stops. As a result, the content often isn’t very good. I watched 10 minutes of Showtime’s Big Brother After Dark the other night, easily the most boring 10 minutes of television I have ever seen. I thought to myself, ‘Jesus, if this is the stuff they can’t show on network TV(!) how boring must the CBS show be?

The New Reality Show

How Did We Get Here?

I think several factors have brought us to this point. Certainly cable television and the Internet form the bedrock of this paradigm shift. Gone are the days when television took the summer off. Original programming 12 months a year is now a requirement. Similarly, CNN and the Internet created the 24 hour news cycle. The idea of waiting a week for the next issues of TIME or Newsweek to come out seems crazy now.  Soon, the notion of waiting a week for new content from television shows will seem just as crazy. Actually, the idea of “television shows” will seem crazy. In the future, whatever the equivalent of The Wire will be, it won’t be called a TV show, it will simply be a content franchise that will produce new content, across numerous platforms and formats, all the time (so, like Law & Order then). It’s interesting to take a step back and realize that reality TV shows have brought this to us right now with the compliance of the magazine and blog editors. This tweet from Faris, which I just came across in the middle of writing this post, sums it up quite nicely:

[tweet url=http://twitter.com/faris/status/18290758656]

The ‘backchannel’ is not unlike the meta-reality show I’m talking about. For the celebrity magazines, the ‘thing’ is the shows and they are the backchannel. But the backchannel is just as much the ‘thing’ as the ‘thing’ now.

From Meta-Reality to Meta-Fiction?

So, if our current culture accepts (demands?) a 24/7 entertainment cycle, when will quality shows make the leap? Forget non-stop airings and assorted coverage of Bethenny Getting Married, I want wall-to-wall Mad Men. Not behind-the-scenes interviews with cast and crew, I want non-stop content. Mad Men twitter accounts (officially sanctioned this time), mini-episodes available only on the AMC website, a talk show which lives within the Mad Men universe and features guests from that era (characters? real people of the time?), a Mad Men-lifestyle magazine (featuring the actors, in character), A Mad Men movie… You get the idea, true transmedia integration, Henry Jenkins-style.

There are opportunities and right now it is the producers, creators and stars of ‘Reality Television’ that are taking advantage.