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.

Exploring Innovative Storytelling

At some point you recognize the tipping point. You know, when in just about every business conversation you have, someone eventually says the “magic word.” For a long time there it was “viral,” wasn’t it? You just knew at some point somebody would throw that out there. It was usually followed by enthusiastic head nodding by the others involved in the conversation. Now storytelling has become that magic word. Everyone loves to talk about the power of storytelling. It’s fascinating because neither the word, nor the concept, are particularly new to marketing communications. We’ve seen ourselves as storytellers for a very long time, and in fact we’ve been storytellers for a very long time. So, why now do we seem to be talking about storytelling with extra gusto?

There are probably several reasons for this. Perhaps it is in part a reaction to the metrics-driven approach that the marketing industry has been caught in for the last decade or so. Let’s face it, none of us — client-side or agency-side — got into this business because we loved taking statistics courses back in school. Maybe stories are our way of telling the bean counters to back off. Or could it be that the answer is more culturally-driven than that? Maybe this golden age of television we are in (Mad Men, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, Homeland, Breaking Bad…) has reminded us how compelling good storytelling can be. A third cause could be that the democratization of storytelling tools has made it easier for anyone, and everyone, to be storytellers. Virtually anyone can be an author, poet or filmmaker today, and share their stories with the world. As a reaction to that, maybe we feel the need to re-establish our role as cultural storytellers by flexing our narrative muscles.

And yet, if you were to watch an evening or two of primetime television, you wouldn’t see much storytelling happening during the commercial breaks. Why is that? At a time when people are less likely to watch commercials than ever, shouldn’t we be trying to make more compelling content? Why is it that T-Mobile spends millions of dollars on ads that feature the same character, yet those ads have absolutely no connection to each other? Why does Progressive feature Flo in every ad, yet we’ve seen no real narrative advancement? With YouTube available to everyone, it’s not as if having a narrative thread would make it impossible for people coming in late to catch up.

How many of you remember the Taster’s Choice (Gold Blend for UK readers) ads? Yeah, these ones. They first ran twenty years ago and I vividly remember them. They captured the imagination of the countries they ran in with their “will they / won’t they?” storyline that lasted for six or seven years and nearly a dozen spots. And they sold product as well.

Today, storytelling seems to be for online only, and then for extended length films rather than episodic storytelling. Sure, we all love Chipotle’s “Back to the Start” piece or Johnnie Walker’s amazing, do-it-all-in-one-take “The Man Who Walked Around The World” but those seem to be the exceptions.

With all the tools available to marketers, and all the channels through which people are consuming content, I think there is a greater opportunity available to us. But what do I know? I’m certainly no novelist. I don’t own an agency that specializes in innovative storytelling techniques. I don’t run a website that uses novels as a jumping off point for cultural discovery. That’s why I’ve reached out to Jim Othmer, Jeff Gomez and Richard Nash, who, respectively, are all those things. This Thursday, January 31st at 3pm, Othmer, Gomez and Nash will be my guests for IGNITE NYC, Y&R New York’s very own live talk show. Jim, a Global Creative Director at Y&R has written a number of books; Jeff is the CEO of Starlight Runner, a transmedia storytelling agency, and Richard works at Small Demons, a brilliant little website that no description would do justice, so go check it out.

But this show goes up to 11! We’ll also be joined by Y&R planner Matt Colangelo, who has recently put together a report on storytelling, aptly named, The Story Behind Storytelling. He also studied the role that early modernist authors (such as James Joyce and Ezra Pound) had in innovating traditional storytelling techniques while at Oxford. So,yeah, he’s got game.

You can participate by joining the conversation on Twitter, using #YRNYignite.


Futures Of Entertainment 5

November 11-12 will see the Futures Of Entertaintment 5event, held at MIT in Cambridge, MA.  FoE tends to bring together a great mix of marketing/brand type people with some academics who bring a different perspective to the subject. The program includes discussions with titles like Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Society, and Here We Are Now (Entertain Us): Location, Mobile, and How Data Tells Stories. 

Sam Ford, Director of Digital Strategy with Peppercom Strategic Communications, is one of the featured speakers and he was kind enough to share some of his thoughts about the futures of entertainment…

Rick Liebling: FoE seems very academic in nature, looking at many of the speakers. How does that affect the approach to the event and the dialogue that is created?

Sam Ford: Our goal with each conference is to have panels that are a mixture of academic and industry perspectives. We want to create an event that is as much an academic conference as it is an industry event and to reap the rewards of what happens when you bring the perspectives of academics from a variety of disciplines who study the media into conversation with one another and with representatives from a range of media and marketing companies. It creates a unique environment where the goal is neither to present a paper or research project (the focus of many academic conferences) nor it is a place to display a slide deck or present a corporate case study. We frown on presentations and don’t use PowerPoint or Keynote unless someone has something specific they need to show in order to further the discussion. And no one’s coming to read papers. We want to take advantage of one of these few opportunities to have the people who study media in a room with those who make media, and we want to put the focus on the dialogue that can happen when these groups come together and are willing to have a dialogue to one another, to listen to one another.

As a result, we have had research collaborations arise that came out of this event and the community surrounding it. We have had new businesses launch from people who have met at Futures of Entertainment. I believe it’s a unique event that draws an audience of academics interested in dialogue with industry representatives and marketing and media industries people who want to listen to and learn from those involved in media studies.

Rick Liebling: Crowdsourcing, gamification, social TV… Are these trends simply fads, or mainstays that content producers need to understand and incorporate?

Sam Ford: We try to stay away from focusing on fads and focus our panels and discussions around larger cultural patterns. I’d say that some things currently being called, or which have been labeled as, “crowdsourcing” could be trends that wax and wane, the purview of “trendspotters” who get people excited about a shiny new object, only for everyone to realize after the fact that it was hype. The same has happened with gamification and social TV. To define these patterns too narrowly and expect one small, gimmicked version of this to be “the way” this trend will take shape can be a mistake. That’s the purpose for our event. To step back, look at what’s developing, and discuss the larger cultural patterns underneath what we’re seeing. And that’s what we see as the role of the academy in this, as media studies academics are often trained to look at developments within their larger historical context.

Rick Liebling:  Where is the most innovative storytelling happening right now?

Sam Ford: It’s perhaps not surprising to see indie media makers driving some of the most innovative storytelling. That’s why we have a large number of people speaking in this year’s panels who are indie musicians, filmmakers, journalists, serialized storytellers, etc., and people who are studying spaces like soap opera, where series are moving to the web. You’ll also notice that we have a greater number of panelists from outside the U.S. than ever before: Brazil, India, The Netherlands, Finland, Chile, Mexico, the United Kingdom…Our goal is to bring together media creators from Harry Potter to Christian music, from Mexican television to the U.S. journalism industry, to learn from people who are driving innovation. And it’s key to realize that, while some media markets outside the U.S. (like Brazil) might be fostering some of the most innovative forms of storytelling and while indie creators have more flexibility to try new models and methods, we have media and marketing industries more willing than ever to engage with audiences in new ways and find new ways to tell stories. That’s why we’re happy to collaborate with the likes of Viacom Media Networks, Petrobras, The Alchemists, and Samsung as our sponsors of the event and draw on a variety of speakers who are in, or who come from, more “traditional” media companies.

If you’re interested in checking out Futures of Entertainment 5, you can still register here.

Social Media, Storytelling and the Premature Burial of Ad Agencies

Most people agree that ad agencies have been wrong-footed by the shift towards Social Media. The big agency business model, for so long such a profitable venture, now looks slow and bloated.

But business models aside, what ad agencies do best is tell stories. I’ve just read a couple of great posts from Gaurav Mishra that reminded me that stories are indeed at the very heart of Social Media.  In this post, Gaurav talks about how storytelling is a key to Social Media success. Here, he relates his experience at November’s TedIndia conference and the fantastic stories he heard there.

If you believe that people like to hear, and crucially share, stories; and that ad agencies are some of culture’s best storytellers, then it is easy to see that the future of ad agencies might not be as bleak as they may seem here at the end of 2009.

Ad agencies have the storytellers and they understand how to use mulitple mediums – print, still, video, audio. It should be easier for them to add some key personnel who understand Social Media than for those that understand Social Media to add all the things ad agencies do well to their arsenal.

DINU brands // Transmedia Storytelling

I continue to discover more about Transmedia Storytelling and think about how it matches up with my concept of the Deeply Immersive Narrative Universe. In addition to the work of Henry Jenkins (find out more here and here), I’ve recently read the work of Jason Mittell. Both of these guys are crazy smart, and if you are interested in the future of storytelling, on TV and the movies, in video games and the 3rd and 4th screen, you should read their stuff.

You may also have seen the May issue of Fast Company, where the creators of shows like Heroes, Lost and Battlestar Galactica talk about the future of storytelling. Like Jenkins and Mittell, the talk is about storytelling across multiple media. I think this is an essential key to creating loyal fans.

I think ultimately there is another piece to the puzzle. The last several years have seen a clear desire amongst consumers to be more than passive recipients. The successful properties and franchises of the future will figure out how to harness the creative power of fans to help enhance the product.

Over my next several posts I hope to provide some examples from a variety of brands that effectively use their fans to push their narratives.

More on the DINU Brand Concept

Rather than use this blog as a vehicle to distribute fully formed, ready to go concepts, I feel this is a good forum for developing ideas and hopefully receiving feedback from readers who can build upon the idea, and together something better is developed. I’m still wrestling with the concept I termed, “Deeply Immersive Narrative Universe” (DINU). While I obviously believe it has merit, I don’t presume that it is a 100% original idea. I’m sure on some level it comes from the same vein as Seth Godin’s All Marketers Are Liars which is subtitled: The Power of Telling Authentic Stories in a Low-Trust World. Also, the super sharp and genuinely hospitable (must be a Canadian thing) Grant McCracken turned me on to Henry Jenkins and his Transmedia Storytelling.

Telling authentic stories across a variety of media channels is definitely part of the DINU idea, but there is another element that I believe is crucial and has only become so in the last year or two. Brands (people, teams, products, companies, cities…) need to not just develop a story, but also provide an opportunity for others to take that story to new places. The users experience with a brand is unique and their perception of the brand is just as important as the marketers in today’s world. Sure, you can put out ads and change your logo, but today consumers can do that to your brand as well. The key is creating an environment that is so authentic and compelling that when consumers do generate their own content that utilizes your brand, they do so in a way that is in line with your existing messaging. I can almost guarantee that no matter who you are – Google, Nike, Apple, Starbucks, WalMart – there is a consumer out there that can create something better than what you or your agencies are currently doing.

So, here are the first couple of steps to building a DINU brand:

1. The core product itself has to be good. You can’t fake that.

2. Take the time to develop a narrative framework. You don’t have to fill in all the blanks, in fact you don’t want to fill in all the blanks. There should be some mystery, some intrigue for people to discover later, or create their own mythology.

3. Be open to consumer content, incorporate it into your narrative. You’ll have a much deeper connection with the consumer if you develop the narrative, and the brand, together.

4. Be adaptable. New technologies, new storylines, new brand utility, you don’t know what opportunities will arise so create a broad Universe that can accomodate multiple viewpoints as long as they align with the overall narrative.

I’m sure this idea will continue to evolve. I hope to have more examples of DINU brands posted shortly that will further this conversation.