04/02/15

The danger in the wilderness

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The walls that surround traditional “fictional” advertising media, the edges of a screen or a page, are not just a frame that allows creativity to flourish within – they’re a cage.  They’re fundamentally meant to protect us, the public, from the idea within, and protect the idea from us.  They guard against accident and harm.

When you take an idea out of a media space into the “real world” (calling it experiential, physical, live, or whatever takes your fancy), this protection is removed.  We’re free to attack them, and they’re free to attack us.  No longer is the creative cosily incubated in a climate-controlled bubble – things can and will go wrong.

And people being people?  They love it.

In risk there is titillation, the buzz of pleasure at the unfolding of shocking events, the guilty familiarity of schadenfreude, the adrenaline of fear.  When an idea has to perform in the real world, all these things are possible, and the creative becomes exponentially more impactful.

An illustration of this can be seen with any piece of “prankvertising”, say the Carrie example from last year.

Conceptually, this really isn’t an interesting idea.  They just have someone with Carrie-esque powers throwing people around a coffee shop. Well, duh.  What makes it interesting is the belief (unfounded apparently) that these were real people, with all that this implies.  Real fear, real bodily harm, real potential for a screw up.  Now that’s interesting.

Sadly, the industry doesn’t quite get this.  Normal agency and brand behaviour in these scenarios generally revolves around diminishing risk.  Not only things like the risk of injury (fair enough I suppose), but the risk of consumer disappointment, of imperfection, and of general unpredictability.  This kind of thinking sterilises the power of “real world” ideas, in a way that subconsciously repels people.  Your compromise that seemed entirely reasonable on paper will ultimately act as the thimble of poison that makes a great campaign fail.  You’ll probably never even know the reason why.

Tempting disaster
The better approach is to manage risk to your advantage.

Pizza Hut deserves congratulations for recently tempting disaster in a smart way.  It has launched a “subconscious” menu, using eye tracking technology to “read people’s minds” and choose a pizza for them.

I discovered this idea through it being passed around on email, accompanied by general commentary to the tune of “isn’t this stupid”.  People’s misgivings generally amounted to a belief that this probably doesn’t work that well, and you’re going to be delivered a pizza that you don’t really want – cue the dreaded customer dissatisfaction!

Now, they’re probably right. But that’s just the point. Pizza Hut has essentially issued a challenge to us – “drop by and prove us idiots!” – but it’s a challenge that still requires you to buy a pizza. If the system was flawless, who’d want to have a go at that?  In its superfluous crappiness lies the sex appeal.  And judging by the “98% satisfaction rate”, which I highly doubt is a strict measure of the pizza choice quality, its customers get that too. It’s a bit of fun. Beats ordering the pizza I actually want in a boring way.

The extreme end of embracing risk would come in a brand deliberately staging a horrible “failure” for dramatic purposes.  There aren’t many recorded instances of this, because hey, if they revealed their intentions the spell would be broken; however we can imagine it through the lessons of the brand Twitter storms of the last couple of years.

The archetype of these was the infamous “I shop at Waitrose because…” “debacle”.  Now, I don’t suppose this was deliberate, but when people attacking the brand finish that sentence with “…I don’t like to be surrounded by poor people”, it still, in an obtuse way, reinforces what lots of people kinda like about Waitrose, while the brand itself can innocently hold its hands up, free from culpability in this class warfare skirmish. Ballsy (though probably imaginary) stuff.

People are sick
You can flip the risk too, piling it on the consumer’s head, not the brand’s. We sort of see that with the Pizza Hut example, given that people risk spending their money on a pizza they don’t want – but ultimately there they can shift the blame to the brand and their shoddy product. A better instance would be KLM’s Monday Mystery Ticket initiative from last year. Every Monday people were invited to buy a plane ticket for EUR 99, the catch being they didn’t know where to. Following their purchase the destination would be revealed, and they’d be expected to fly that very Friday.

There was no risk for the brand here – it was transparent and people knew what they were letting themselves in for – but there was considerable risk for the buyer. And ultimately, that’s great, because today’s consumers want this, and even if they don’t want it they’re at least interested to hear about it, all in all adding up to a superb campaign – “customer satisfaction” be damned.

So, basically, people are sick.  They want failure, embarrassment, blood, and tears.  But they’re also realistic – more so than agencies and brands – in that they appreciate that participation is optional, and that uncontrollable campaigns reveal a refreshing good faith on behalf of the brand, the kind that its stage managed competitors can’t compete with.

So, let’s all go and screw with Pizza Hut.

Published here on Cream Global

04/02/15

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