Ad narcissism: Why our industry should put down the mirror

Kate Nettleton, a strategy director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, on why advertising should end its obsession with the reflecting pool

Who am I?

One of my childhood books, The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek, started with this question (a touch existentialist for a kids' book). The story opened on an amorphous blob of a creature, who then went on a search for his own identity. Along the way he encountered a mirror, asked that question, and received no answer.

The moral? The answer never lies in our own reflection. 

Yet, as an industry, we’ve become obsessed with trying to answer that question by holding a mirror up to consumers. Transfixed by a desire to reflect who we think they are, and arrogant enough to presume we’re creating an accurate reflection.

Like Narcissus, we have fallen in love with the image of our consumers beamed back to us from the glow of our TV screens and tablets.

But before we become fully soused in this reflective pool and descend into the sediment of forgettable advertising history, we should spare a thought for the capacity of human imagination.

By obsessing over the real in a sadistically circular search for relevance scores and believability, we’re forgetting the innate ability of human beings to connect with the unreal.

Imagination is capable of so much more than conjuring mere images of reality. Stories, fictions, imaginings: they have all engaged the human species for centuries, from the earliest artistic fiction (the 32,000-year-old lion man of the Stadel Cave) to Pixar’s Minions.

So let’s regress to the sandpit of childlike imagination where anything is possible, where fragments of reality mix with imagined possibilities.

And like the lion man or the bunyip, these hybrid fusions hook us with claws of creativity but also the whisper of truth, inevitably engaging our subconscious minds and irrational hearts.

It’s in these borderless playgrounds that great ideas emerge. Ideas that transcend debates of the future of social and digital utility. Ideas like Levi’s head-banging puppets, the fairy tale of The Guardian’s Three little pigs or Southern Comfort’s recent brilliantly surrealist music video.

Yes, narcissism is a cultural zeitgeist; consumers are holding a camera up to themselves constantly while TV programmers contribute to this docu-wallpaper with their wall-to-wall fly-on-the-wall.

But by joining in, we’ve becoming indistinguishable. Just another selfie-obsessed sheep in the herd of "real life reflected."

There’s a reason consumers who once thought TV ads were better than the TV programming itself are now worshiping at the alter of celebrity. It's precisely because they inhabit a world they don’t relate to, a world that’s aspirational, out of reach.

In this age of authenticity we’ve forgotten our inherent desire to dream bigger than the confines of who we are now.

So let’s put down the mirror, because the answer to what they want to see doesn’t lie in their reflections, it lies in our imagination.

Kate Nettleton is a strategy director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

This article first appeared on

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