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. 

The Delicate Art of Band/Brand Integration

My friend Grant McCracken has recently posted on the Hyundai – Pomplamoose ads which you most likely saw over the holiday season. For those that may have missed it:

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Grant, like many no doubt, felt the ad, through the brutal repetition that is all too common with TV adverts, went from fun and cute to “please God, not again” status.  I was never that much of a fan of the spots, but that’s a matter of personal taste. The interesting questions Grant asks relate to the subtle balance that must be achieved by brands and bands.  There are so many factors here, and so many ways to execute the band/brand integration. Here are some relatively recent ones that I liked that feature different approaches:

Probably the most comparable ad to the Hyundai-Pomplamoose was the Honda-Vampire Weekend ad (which also ran ad infinitum this holiday season):

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This one worked for me more (full disclosure: I’m a big Vampire Weekend fan). The reason? They took a song I loved that was totally relevant, rather than having a band I love cover a holiday tune. I think this is a critical issue. I’ll stop and watch a commercial if it’s playing a song I know and like. With Hyundai’s ad, they were playing a holiday song which I have no real connection to.

Perhaps the other big automotive band/brand play currently/recently in rotation is with Kia and Black Sheep:

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Fantastic! Classic tune + cute animals + humor = commercial gold.

Ok, now let’s move on to a different ad, this one for adidas featuring B.o.B.:

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Despite the questionable acting, I love this commercial. They’ve taken a song that not only feels right for adidas, but actually name checks the product. That’s a solid integration in my mind, and one where the brand and band are well matched. Adidas did there homework, no doubt seeing that B.o.B. had performed in Foot Locker’s previously (in support of another brand!)

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Now, one more from the shoe department, as Converse created a short film series that included this gem:

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This is the root Hyundai and Pomplamoose should have taken. Create a brilliant music video and put it online. Let it build so momentum there and then release :30 and :60 second versions for TV. Tag the TV spots with a call to action to watch the full video at or on Hyundai’s YouTube channel.

Part of me wonders if Hyundia and Pomplamoose are a good fit. Do hipsters by Hyundais? Is Hyundai going after the hipster market? I get the Kia/Black Sheep collaboration, Kia is clearly targeting a young urban consumer with the Soul.  I understand the adidas/B.oB. play and the Converse/hipster play as well.  I think Hyundai got a case of the “me too”s on this one.

Janelle Monae and the Artificial / Authentic Paradox

janelle monae archandroid

More Bowie than Gaga.

Over on his blog, Grant McCracken has written a post about Glee and American Idol, and if the ascendence of Glee signals a cultural shift. He talks about authenticity and the artificiality of musical theater, using the latter as a prism through which we can make all kinds of suppositions about the direction of Culture.

Indeed, it’s easy to see American Idol, Glee and the celebrity magazine culture as the other end of the spectrum from the late-80s / early-90s grunge ethos of the Seattle sound.  But those particular examples also need to be viewed through the looking glass of television, which adds its own layer of distortion as well.

Earlier this week Janelle Monae’s new album, ArchAndroid was released.  Here’s the trailer for the album:

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More like a movie trailer than an ad for an album. In fact, Monae has used the term “emotion picture” to describe what she is trying to create.  Here’s Monae on the concept behind the album:

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Total artifice. An android from the future named Cyndi is going to emancipate her android brothers and sisters. And yet this construction seems wholly different to me than that created by Glee or American Idol. Those programs are based on an artificiality that is agreed upon by the show producers, participants and viewers. There is a factory-style assembly line element to it. We know that next season on Idol we’ll have new contestants, and possibly new judges, but that the show will go on. Glee will have new students, teachers and guest stars.

But nobody could pick up where Monae has taken us with ArchAndroid. In this respect, she is more like David Bowie, early Peter Gabriel or even David Byrne, creating a new style, a language, that is wholly her own. Comparisons to George Clinton are not without merit as well, and certainly Grace Jones. The album, which is excellent as a piece of music, is simply awesome as a piece of art. It transcends genre to create something new, and in this way Monae distinguishes herself from another current female star, Lady Gaga.

Glee: The Culture of Artificiality

Lady Gaga certainly has talent, but it’s different. Musically, she can’t hold a candle to Janelle Monae who is not just a better singer (and dancer), but is so much more musically sophisticated. For all her costumes and unusual behavior, Gaga is a pretty traditional artist. How traditional? Well, next week her songs will be featured on, wait for it… Glee. I simply can’t imagine Janelle Monae’s music being featured on the show (or on Idol for that matter*).

My guess is that Lady Gaga, if she’s lucky, will have a career more like Madonna, forced into morphing into another role when the current one wears thin. While I believe Gaga inhabits her current role, I don’t think she has created it in the same way Monae has done with her Metropolis Suite. Monae is more like an author, or multi-media artist in this respect. Again, the comparisons to George Clinton seem apt here. And this isn’t to say that Monae won’t evolve and grow as an artist, perhaps at some point leaving her current fictional world behind. But it already has a permanency that Gaga lacks. Monae has taken the artificial so far and so deep that it becomes authentic.

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Levi’s Goes Forth. Finally.

levisA few weeks ago when I first saw the Wieden + Kennedy produced “Go Forth” ads for Levi’s I was immediately taken by their arresting power. A really terrific execution that combines bold visuals with a voice-over that was unlike anything I’d heard before, both in sound and content.

A (much) smarter man than I, Grant McCracken, wrote about the campaign and provided me with a bit of an education – the voice over is American poet Walt Whitman reading…Walt Whitman. Make sure you read Grant’s piece, he expertly describes how Whitman and Levi’s are a perfect match. Check out the W+K breakdown on the campaign here. Here’s “O Pioneers”:

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Again, hats off to W+K. They clearly dug deep to find the truly meaning of Levi’s. You can feel notes of director John Ford, There Will Be Blood, and even on some level a David Lynch or Quentin Tarantino in the spots American-ness. I’d love to see the idea board at the W+K offices with all the influences and inspirations that this campaign came from.

I think Levi’s is a classic example of a company that needed one of Grant’s Chief Culture Officers. Once a truly iconic American brand, on the same level as Coca-Cola, Levi’s lost their way as the denim market changed (based on changes in consumer behaviour, consumption and culture). The brand suddenly looked dated and old comapared to hipper brands, and they were more expensive than what you’d get from in-house brands at Old Navy.

They tried hard to chase the scene, using talented directors like Spike Jonze:

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or Michel Gondry:

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But this doesn’t jive with the true spirit of what makes Levi’s, well, Levi’s. Here’s where a Chief Culture Officer is different than a mere trend watcher. Yes, a CCO would have seen what competitors, both high and low, were doing and would have been aware of the cutting edge film being produced by the likes of Gondry and Jonze. But a CCO would have also understood the DNA of Levi’s and known what Levi’s can, and crucially, cannot be.

Now, the critical question for me is will Levi’s and W+K be able to keep this campaign going? Currently there is a contest on the Levi’s website that is extending the campaign. I’d really like to see this idea be extended, but at the same time they can’t over do it. Part of what makes this campaign so powerful for me is that it feels special. That feeling will disappear a little bit each time I see the ads. I hope they continue to bring this concept to life in new and exciting ways.

UPDATE: Michael Hastings-Black (see comments below) points me to an article written by Christine Huang on HuffPost regarding the campaign. Christine is super smart and I respect her opinions in this area. Can’t really argue with her points regarding where Levi’s missed the mark on this campaign. It still works for me though because, despite the issues raised, it repositions the brand for me. It puts Levi’s back in my consideration set.

Now, I can see this campaign isn’t going to work for everyone, I’ve seen comments on Christine’s article as well as the W+K blog that show some people are not buying what they are selling. I think Levi’s and W+K have to be ok with that. You can’t please everyone. Perhaps future iterations will expand the campaign to take into account some of the criticisms, but to do so at the expense of the powerful visual and emotional context they’ve created would be a disappointment for me.

You Can Tell When Brands Aren't Scared

Grant McCracken (who is firing on all cylinders right now, by the way) recently turned his McCrackenian lens (ooh, did I just coin a new phrase?) on the new Nip/Tuck promo spots. Great post, go read it now. Here’s the video. (Sorry, had trouble with the embedding)

This is a great example of a brand that has lost any semblances of fear. That’s a very powerful thing. When you aren’t scared that people won’t get it, or that they will be offended, or that they will hate it you can come up with really great stuff.

I know this isn’t exactly a revelation, but it’s amazing how few brands are able to get into that place.

A comment on comments

Marketing types, and I’ll generously include myself in this group, like to talk about ‘the conversation’ and ‘the dialogue’ between consumers and brands. I try to read a variety of marketing/branding/PR/Advertising blog and have noticed something: Many of the blogs have very few comments. Here’s a very unscientific survey – I looked at the front page of several blogs, looked at the number of posts and the total number of comments:

PSFK: Posts:36, Comments: 57 (Avg. # comments per post: 1.58)

Brand Autopsy: Posts: 30, Comments: 192 (Avg. # comments per post: 6.4)

Influential Marketing Blog: Posts 10, Comments: 36 (Avg. # comments per post: 3.6)

Murketing: Posts 15, Comments: 7 (Avg. # comments per post: .47)

Grant McCracken: Posts 14, Comments 65 (Avg. # comments per post: 4.64)

Eyecube: Posts 10, Comments 7 (Avg. # comments per post: .7)

Online Marketer Blog: Posts 5, Comments 24 (Avg. # comments per post: 4.8)

Again, this is a rather arbitrary analysis. I think all of the above are super smart people who all have a different approach and style.

Let’s take a look at the Top five blogs on the AdAge Power 150 to see what that looks like under the same litmus test:

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