Focus On Human Behavior, Not Media & Tech Trends

 UPDATE: This post has been nominated as a Post of the Month over at Neil Perkin’s Only Dead Fish blog. If you liked this post please consider giving it a vote. The other nominees are really excellent, I recommend giving them a read as well.


As Creative Culturalist at Y&R New York, I’m often asked about trends in media and technology. It’s an easy question to ask, and relatively speaking, an easy one to answer.  Some quick curation via a Google search will reveal that the consensus tends to gravitate around things like Big Data, the Internet of Things, 3-D printing and wearable tech. Of course these really aren’t predictions anymore, as all these technologies are available now.

Risky Business: Predictions

I tend to be weary of predictions or forecasting for a number of reasons, primarily because we humans aren’t very good at it. In 2006, one year before the launch of Twitter, was anyone touting the emergence of social networks? Before the first iPad hit stores in 2010, were people claiming tablet computers would be huge commercial successes?  We must also consider that not only do successful predictions only come to fruition occasionally, but what we often claim will be the next big thing rarely is. Why are we so bad at making predictions? As psephologist and author of The Signal and the Noise Nate Silver deftly points out, the problem is often the mindset of the people who make them (watch a terrific video with Silver here).

Experts in a particular subject aren’t always the best at seeing the bigger picture and often miss key factors.  Isaiah Berlin’s 1953 essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox, brought the notion of deep knowledge in a specific field versus the more beneficial general knowledge across a variety of subjects to the public’s attention; and more recently Dan Gardner’s book Future Babble expanded on this idea, applying it to our modern age and deftly illustrating that the prediction emperors rarely have any clothes. From sports to politics to finance, and especially pop culture, the so-called experts have a success rate no better (and often worse) than flipping a coin.

Besides, asking “what is the next big trend in media and technology?” is probably asking the wrong question of the advertising industry. Rather than focus on that, I believe it’s more important to ask:

How does the advertising industry react to the media/technological advances and cultural shifts that will shape consumer behavior?

By analyzing the meta-trends of media and technology we can examine the likely trends in human behavior that are a result of recent trends in media and technology, and how emerging human behavior is likely to shape future trends in media and technology.


The connection between human behavior and media & tech trends

The connection between human behavior and media & tech trends

Here’s where having an understanding and familiarity with everyone from Marshall McLuhan to cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken to speculative fiction author William Gibson (whose latest trilogy featured a what was in essence a planner as the main heroine) – is of vital importance to people in the advertising industry. Trying to guess at technology trends without understanding culture and human behavior is a bit like complaining about the crispness of the sheets in your stateroom on the Titanic. You’re focused on the wrong thing.

Failing To Plan is Planning to Fail

From this perspective, more useful perhaps than predicting trends is the science (art?) of Scenario Planning. Rather than guess what is going to happen and stop there, let’s think about what our response, as marketers, would be to certain future situations.  If we posit that 10 years from now the Internet of Things will disintermediate many aspects of advertising, what will our response be? What will happen three, five and seven years from now to lead us to that 10-year prediction, and what steps can we take in the intervening years to prepare, or perhaps make a strategic pivot, for the proposed disintermediation? Alternatively what if the Internet of Things opens vast new opportunities for advertisers and their agencies? What will we do between now and then to position ourselves to take advantage? Understanding human behavior can help us think about how potential consumers will gravitate towards, or away from, these possibilities.

It’s this sort of rigor that author Nassim Nicholas Taleb encourages in his book Antifragile. The key is not in accurately predicting the future, an impossible task, but rather in being agile enough to seize an opportunity and resilient enough to rebound from setbacks. This is exactly the position the advertising industry finds itself in right now. The only thing we can know for certain is that existing boundaries are being demolished. If Brand X needs a 30-second TV spot, who is capable of creating it?:

  1. Consumers
  2. Advertising Agency
  3. Media Agency
  4. Production House
  5. The Brand itself

If you answered, F: all of the above, you’re right. And so ad agencies need to adapt. But that’s easier said than done. Last year on FastCo.Create I wrote about the need for agencies to have ‘makeable ideas’ before they can make things. I’m excited to see, seven months later, that people at my agency are making that evolutionary shift, as evidenced by the 90 Days of Making project, which I covered recently for PSFK.

“The Internet is a chameleon.”

Frank Rose’s The Art of Immersion dives into the dramatic changes we’ve seen in storytelling, driven by the Internet. He states:

It is the first medium that can act like all media – it can be text, or audio, or video, or all of the above. It is nonlinear, thanks to the World Wide Web and the revolutionary convention of hyperlinking. It is inherently participatory – not just interactive, in the sense that it responds to your commands, but an instigator constantly encouraging you to comment, to contribute, to join in. And it is immersive – meaning that you can use it to drill down as deeply as you like about anything you care to.

The evidence is clear from Hollywood to Silicon Valley, and everywhere video games are made. Now Madison avenue must find their own solutions to what media theorist Douglass Rushkoff calls Narrative Collapse in his recent book, Present Shock.

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 storytellers, this to me is the fundamental question of our times that we must grapple with as marketers. How do we tell stories that resonate with people in this environment? In just two short years we’ve gone from the long-form branded content stories of The Man Who Walked Around The World, a brilliant 6:27 single-take film, and Chipotle’s animated insta-classic Back to the Start (2:21), and replaced them with meme-defining images during the Super Bowl and seven second Vine videos. Yes, it seems this evolution has been driven by both technology and consumer behavior, but is this really best for the industry? By feeding people what they seemingly want, are we limiting the potential and power of what we do best?

Cultural Singularity Paradox

Ultimately the speed with which we are asked to do things – develop insights, create ads – prevents us from stepping back and analyzing much of what we do, before or after the fact.  Modern culture has warped our relationship with time, as Rushkoff explains in the chapter entitled “Overwinding – The Short Forever” in Present Shock:

When everything is rendered instantly accessible via Google and iTunes, the entirety of culture becomes a single layer deep. The journey disappears, and all knowledge is brought into the present tense. In the short forever, there is no time to prepare and anticipate…  It is also unavailable to the cultural creators. No sooner is a new culture born than it is discovered by trend-setting Vice magazine; covered by the New York Times Style section; broadcast on MTV; and given a book, record or movie deal.

And so we in the marketing communications industry are stuck in this temporal quicksand, unable to step beyond the now. As a result we lament the loss of those things that could truly advance the industry, if only we had the time. The Cognitive Surplus that Internet guru Clay Shirky writes about seems a fantasy to those of us in advertising, as we struggle to deal with what I call the Cultural Singularity. The Internet, and certainly social media, has sped up the rate of adoption, lowered barriers to entry and provided access to the mainstream for formerly niche groups to the degree that, despite all the tools at our disposal, we can’t possibly keep up. Yes, we have access to vast amounts of knowledge, and yet we are more uncertain than ever – the Cultural Singularity Paradox.  And so we look to attend Cannes or TED or SxSW for an opportunity to hear our colleagues and compatriots share their thoughts, only to rush back to the office, never allowing for metacognition – thinking about thinking – to take us to new places.

But the challenges keep mounting, and while many are in the Shirky camp — including Being Digital author and MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte and journalist and TV critic Jeff Jarvis (author of Public Parts) — seeing technology, and its effects on people as a boon; others, such as Evgeny Morozov see dangers in Technological Solutionism. His book, To Save Everything Click Here, paints a darker picture of where technology may take us. Similarly, the problems Edward Tenner wrote about nearly two decades ago in Why Things Bite Back – Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences haven’t been alleviated, if anything they’ve been exacerbated. And so as marketers, how do we deal with this? Are we making people feel more anxious? Are we truly serving their needs?

Books such as the aforementioned Future Babble and Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan address the challenges of predictions and our inability to see highly improbable events before they happen. I believe focusing on just such challenges, understanding our biases and learning to be adaptable to changes, as Taleb writes in Antifragile, are key factors in the success of agencies in the future. If our world is one of constant shift and change, characterized by words such as disruption and complexity, then gatherings such as WPP’s Stream unconference are the ideal place to hold such lively discussions. 

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.

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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.