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Simon Carr 

Why so serious? 

Why so serious? 

All the data shows both humour and ad effectiveness are in decline. But why is this happening, and how can we change it, asks Hearts & Science CSO Simon Carr

Orlando Wood, in his fascinating new book Look Out, poses a disturbing notion: that in our technologically enabled world we have become inward-facing, anxious and drawn to look downwards at our screens.

He also notes similar behaviours throughout history, with leaps in technology causing an "inward turn" in art and culture, and that once again society’s attention has narrowed in the digital age.

Wood is not alone in spotting these trends; earlier this year the Journal of Adolescence reported that teenage loneliness and depression increased significantly across the world after 2012, in 'conjunction' with increased smartphone and internet usage.

Covid-19, Brexit, the climate crisis (and the long wait for each new episode of Succession) hanging bleakly over us – it’s a curious brew of anxiety, detachment and enmity, made even more potent when we examine the data behind it, and use that to understand what these trends mean for advertising.

Let’s start with Google Trends, which shows that between 2004 and 2021 humour has declined whilst anxiety has risen dramatically.

When it comes to how this plays out in popular culture, it’s evident the proportion of romance and comedy films being made is also in decline, while horror and thrillers are on the rise.

Even The Simpsons has – according to ratings data – become less funny over a similar time period, demonstrating an unfortunate cultural trend right across the globe.

And looking at advertising directly, evidence from System1 (see chart, below) shows humour is on the wane, while TGI data reports that TV ads – arguably the brightest jewel in the advertising crown – have become more "irritating" over the same period.

So what’s going on here?

One piece of evidence is striking: when we look at the UK TV advertising market between January-July 2021, online-born businesses invested almost £560m, according to figures from Nielsen for linear TV. This represents an increase of 37% compared with the same period in 2019.

Yet, according to System1, these businesses fail to make it above a "one-star" rating for their TV advertising in their first year with the medium.

Why? Well, bringing Wood’s argument back in, it’s largely because the creative styles that work so well for these businesses online are simply annoying when transferred to TV. The creative looks like something you’d expect from a social feed – a place already blamed for so much societal anxiety and enmity.

It’s a bit like taking someone who is very loud and popular in a busy pub to the theatre for the first time: the same rules for communicating simply don’t apply because the environments are so different.

Certainly, Wood’s proposition in Look Out is that brand-building skills have been lost in the fray. But if anything they are more important than they ever have been, especially if the influx of new-to-TV businesses want to secure growth via new audiences.

Wood is not wrong.  Yet while his argument rings true, the challenges Look Out lays down are ultimately aimed at creative agencies. Which is all well and good, but there are implications for media strategy too.

A full-funnel approach to channels and screens

One of adland’s eternal questions is how much to spend between brand and activation, top and bottom of funnel, or broad and narrow attention.

Peter Field and Les Binet landed on the 60:40 ratio at a broad level, but have since gone deeper on this by category, with online and subscription businesses needing 74:26.

This means the type of attention determines the creative style.

For most strategists, TV has historically been the best channel for broad beam attention, but the world (and our behaviours) are changing. Indeed, we have just spent the last 18 months locked-down, living our lives very differently and with a multitude of screens.

We have also witnessed Covid-19 accelerate some existing trends, including the increased use of Video on Demand (VOD), subscription VOD, social media, video communications and mobile use. By 2025 it is predicted subscription to streaming platforms could have doubled and viewing trebled.

As an industry we are already moving away from a single screen in the corner of the living room and pure TV rating points, and heading towards holistic screen-based strategies utilising new measurement tools like CFlight.

These trends will require media and creative to work more closely together, ensuring that assets are created for the appropriate contexts, whether through manual adaptation or dynamic creative optimisations.

Mood swings

Context (in somewhat a different form) is also becoming a more serious consideration for advertisers as we increase attention on mood and emotion.

You may have noticed platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music doing much more in this area with playlists for different moods, some of which are highly niche – "checking email" or "gratitude", for example, appear in Apple’s new list of 250 moods.

Meanwhile, as the trends lead for Reddit, Matt Klein notes content is becoming an “emotional drug”, with a 43% increase in conversations related to "moods" and "vibes" across TV suggestion subreddits over the past two years. Increasingly, it seems, what we watch is being decided by how it makes us feel.

This is useful knowledge, as we already know emotional connection plays a major role in the choices we make as consumers, and studies using fMRI scans have even shown that when evaluating brands, we primarily use personal feelings and experiences, rather than hard information and facts.

The implications for media strategy are clear, especially if we’re interested in approaching advertising with more nuance: if we can better link data about our emotional states, our targeting and messages can better match them.

A working culture of fun

Maybe we, as an industry, are also guilty of taking business challenges a bit too seriously.

Have we forgotten how to be funny, charming and witty? We seem to be obsessed with storytelling but are we trying to be Tolstoy rather than Tina Fey? How can we reintroduce more of a broad-range love of culture, comedy, music and art into our day-to-day work?

One notion – in all seriousness – is to commit to making our interactions between clients, agencies and media partners – the workshops and status meetings – as fun as possible. If we can change the working culture, perhaps we can change the work too.

For inspiration, let’s even look beyond our industry to what is happening within media. Platforms such as TikTok are becoming so popular because they’re all about fun and silliness, traits that are fast evaporating from other platforms. In my view, this is proof there is a clear desire to recalibrate.

A metaverse of trouble

Of course, there are multiple strands to this topic – including the tendency for algorithms to reward divisive or outrageous content in the pursuit of attention – but they’re for another day. I hope I’ve shared enough of a picture to show how the parts of this complex puzzle fit together, and the impact it is having on the work we do.

And at the risk of sounding droll, it is a serious business. Declining ad effectiveness is one thing, societal happiness is quite another. But we can all play a part in trying to fix our technology, creative output and media strategies to make the world a less anxious and divisive place.

And at a time when Facebook is under fire for its ethical behaviour and negative social impact, it is already talking of building a metaverse, signalling the next great technological leap. Meanwhile, Donald Trump is planning a ‘non-cancellable’ social media platform, fuelling concerns of more social division.

The moot question is whether we, as media strategists helping guide brands and direct adspend, really want to brave that new world without fixing the problems in this one first?

Simon Carr is chief strategy officer at Hearts & Science

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