Compulsive content: when Netflix is competing with sleep are we entertaining ourselves to death?

Compulsive content: when Netflix is competing with sleep are we entertaining ourselves to death?

When consumers are constantly available via digital devices, but anxious about losing that link, the opportunities - and ethical implications - for brands are seemingly endless.

Are we entertaining ourselves to death? Now that any given moment can be populated by a wealth of distracting, diverting and increasingly divisive content, consumers’ relationship with technology and the content they encounter through it is under the microscope. 

"Always-on" equates to "always anxious" for some, and the thirst for connectivity is so great that "phantom vibrations" – when someone mistakenly thinks the phone in their pocket is buzzing – are experienced by nine out of ten people, according to research from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Consumers sacrifice living in that moment to instinctively reach for the empty promise of the omnipresent phone.

According to the research, by leaving a phone in our pocket, it becomes "part of the body". In effect, the phantom vibrations are therefore akin to muscle spasms. These "digital muscle spasms" are just one side effect of a relationship with technology that is increasingly compulsive.

Sharon Whale, chief executive of agency group Oliver, cites a growing body of evidence suggesting that, while under-25s are drinking less alcohol and taking fewer illegal drugs, they are addicted to online communications. "The sheer volume of content they consume can be directly linked to the surge of ‘fake news’," she adds. Emerging issues about privacy and ambiguity regarding truth itself have put compulsive content at the top of the marketing agenda.

Addictive behaviour

The notion that constant connection has an effect on people similar to narcotics may at first glance seem hyperbolic, but the language of addiction is increasingly being used to interpret consumers’ relationship with technology. 

Nicolas Roope, founder and ECD of Poke London, draws an analogy with heroin. The drug wasn’t always viewed as inherently dangerous. Synthesised in 1874 by a British scientist, it was developed by Bayer, which started selling a product under the name Heroin in 1898. Initially hailed as a non-addictive wonder drug, it was only in 1913 that Bayer ceased production, after it became clear that Heroin was far from harmless; by the mid-1920s, the League of Nations was bringing in controls on opioid drugs.

In the case of technology, we are beginning to understand how social-media use releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, an organic chemical, into the brain’s pleasure centres. "Adults are struggling to control their addiction [to this]," Roope warns. "As a culture, a society and individuals, we need to develop better coping strategies."

Despite the rise of tactics such as "digital detox" and mindfulness classes, the system appears to be stacked against consumers – indeed, Facebook is among the global media platforms that thrive on, and fuel, compulsive behaviour. "It is so geared up for maximising its inventory – a media format literally driven by addiction," Roope explains. 

Consumers’ preoccupation with their smartphones is also having a big impact on wider society. In Reclaiming Conversation: the Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist and sociologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argues that an over-reliance on devices is harming our ability to create a valuable face-to-face community. The failure to give anything or anyone our full attention diminishes our capacity for empathy. 

Anti-social behaviour 

At the same time, social media is losing the "fun factor" – not only are your parents now on Facebook, but uploading content to the platform is increasingly viewed as "a job to be done". UM’s Wave 9 social-media tracker survey shows that, compared with seven years ago, people are 40% less likely to see social networks as a place for fun and entertainment and 30% more likely to see them as platforms on which to promote themselves – much as brands do. 

The research underlines a growing sense of anxiety surrounding digital connectivity, with consumers wanting to always be "in the know" and experiencing high levels of "digital stress" when feeling cut off. Almost half (49%) worry about "missing out about something on my social network", while 59% feel anxious when they don’t have internet access.

In his book Technology vs. Humanity: the Coming Clash Between Man and Machine, Gerd Leonhard warns that "digital obesity" could be the next pandemic. 

He reminds us that, in our rush to upgrade and automate everything from computers and wearables to brain-computer interfaces, we must pause to ask whether human control is safeguarded. 

Just as the food industry had to tackle the ethical issues implicit in the rise in physical obesity, so the media and tech industries face the prospect of content consumption coming under the same level of scrutiny as foods high in fat, salt or sugar. 

Harjo Singh, chief strategy officer at McCann Worldgroup Europe, says: "It is the same thing with creativity. We think there is [a] difference between what you can do and what you should do." So people and businesses need to consider carefully how and why they adopt new platforms and tech, and use them responsibly.

Everything on demand

On-demand formats are thriving, and experts attribute their success not to complex algorithms, but the simple strategy of investing in creating great content and listening to what consumers want. 

Christian Ward, head of media and marketing at research and advisory company Stylus, says: "Subscription services have usurped traditional TV channels by throwing vast amounts of money at content – Netflix reportedly has $6bn [£4.9bn] to play with this year. Not only that, it’s aggressively expanding into new markets such as Brazil, where it’s building infrastructure in areas where internet connections are spotty." 

Netflix has one big advantage over traditional media channels: it doesn’t need to mimic outdated schedules. "Online subscription services don’t need to fall back on ‘filler’ – the reason that traditional TV channels are littered with talk and reality shows," Ward says. "Instead, they can plough money into riskier content."

Sergio Lopez, head of integrated production at McCann Worldgroup EMEA, contends that algorithms are the new channels. "TV is not dead; programming as we knew it is. The concept of programming revolved around the idea of broadcasting programmes to appeal to a certain audience. Understanding things such as when that audience was available was critical. Think of the range of programmes that a network like ITV or NBC used to run ten years ago. The model has changed – now the audi-ences are the ones looking for content, when [and] where they want and for as long as they want to. Unless traditional TV channels become curators and producers of on-demand content, they won’t be around much longer."

Lopez believes the Netflix algorithm is just the tip of the iceberg, with the "watch next" function becoming more sophisticated now that viewers are using voice to interact with devices. He predicts that the shift from on-screen menus to conversations will take the experience to a new level. At the end of an episode, the viewer’s device of choice will ask whether they want to watch another episode, or whether there is anything specific they liked about what they just watched. In the latter case, it will offer content specifically tailored to the viewer’s tastes.

The global roll-out of the subscription- content model is at different stages in different markets, however. Netflix still has a long way to go before it wins the heart of consumers in much of Asia, for example. Kelvin Yim, general manager of mobile-first agency Fetch Hong Kong, says Netflix’s proposition is not yet strong enough in this region due to licensing restrictions, censorship and competition from local providers. 

"Facebook is a media format literally driven by addiction" Nicolas Roope Poke London

According to Yim, binge-watching has long been evident in the region – it’s just the medium that has changed. "Ten years ago we were bingeing on VHS, VCD and DVDs, now it’s via mobile and tablets," he points out. He believes the time devoted to it has also changed. Citing a recent Netflix study, he says that Singaporeans tend to devour an entire season of a show in three days, compared with the global average of four. 

Supersizing content

The prevalence of binge-watching raises several ethical issues for brands. McCann Worldgroup Europe’s Singh says marketers must guard against "supersizing" consumer data in order to increase their propensity to consume content. He warns that, just as McDonald’s upselling increased consumers’ tendency to eat more food, digital content is following the same path. While a viewer used to look forward to those 30 minutes of content, whether it was Neighbours or The Bold and the Beautiful, now they can watch 17 episodes in a row. 

Calling to mind developments such as the drone tech used by skincare brand Nivea last year, for an ad in which a remote-controlled seagull targeted children who were not wearing sunscreen on a beach and then "pooped" the product onto them, Singh warns that brands should think carefully. "It is an example of just because you have the technological means, that doesn’t mean you should do it."

Nonetheless, James Champ, chief strategy officer at customer-acquisition and engagement agency Stack, thinks that content consumption is unlikely to face the same scrutiny as potentially damaging food. "Fat-shaming relies on the existence of thin people; when we’re all online, nobody will be ‘digitally thin’. And if anyone is, they won’t be able to communicate with the world, because [they’ll be too busy] on Instagram," he says. 

Champ’s scepticism is shared by Dan Calladine, head of media futures at media network Carat Global, who believes it is easy to get overdramatic about the negative in-fluence of platforms and their potential impact. "Just look at Pokémon Go – it actually got more people outside," he says. 


With consumers being constantly connected, brands have a growing number of touchpoints where they connect with them – but this should not be used as a rationale for pumping out more marketing messages.  

"A lot of brands believe content is the answer, but 60% of consumers don’t believe the content they get is useful" Yvonne O’Brien Havas Media Group

Ather Gattami, chief data scientist at customer-dialogue platform Wiraya, says consumers are becoming accustomed to a world where repetition is an anomaly and having to find relevant content themselves is an inconvenience. This is putting brands that create too much content under the spotlight. 

"Brands trying to cater for all the possible screens their customers [could be] on are losing sight of the fundamentals of customer value," he explains. "Video, social, web, messaging – there are so many communication channels that brands are over-messaging and customers are switching off." 

Gattami says brands need to ensure they gain trust, but to do so in a way that adheres "to the customer’s communication preferences, and delivers a personalised experience".

Looking ahead, all trends point toward more platforms for brands (even ad-free formats such as Netflix are awash with product placement), but fewer active choices for consumers to make. 

"Our choice and the will of the market is getting blurred by artificial intelligence," explains Yvonne O’Brien, group chief insight and data officer at Havas Media Group. This creates a challenge for brands as consumers head toward a voice-activated content ecosystem in which potential for discovery is limited.

Brave new (ad-free) world

As the smartphone has become an extension of ourselves, so the ways in which content is consumed and shared has changed irrevocably. Nonetheless, many brands remain wedded to traditional advertising. "When you look at the way that most brands are trying to connect, they still stay out of the stream," says Poke’s Roope. 

Freed from the constraints of schedules and formats, content marketing is growing significantly. Pepsi, Unilever and Procter & Gamble are among the big names setting up in-house content divisions. According to Calladine, brands are taking content more seriously as the gatekeepers of it are no longer in place. "Premium increasingly means ad-free," he adds. 

Brands are therefore thinking about how they reach consumers in new ways – from product placement in Amazon’s The Grand Tour to the idea that a brand could feasibly finance the return to our screens of a much-loved programme. 

While innovation is on the agenda, however, many brands are guilty of simply adding to the digital fog in people’s lives. "A lot of brands believe that content is the answer, but when you talk to consumers, 60% don’t believe the content they are getting is useful," says O’Brien, citing data from the Havas Meaningful Brands Survey.

A crisis of content

If there were any doubt as to the compelling power of content marketing, one recent media phenomenon should put it to rest. "Fake news is a symptom of the fact there wasn’t enough content to feed the frenzy," says Roope. "People read their preferred media to reflect their preferred reality, from The Guardian to the Daily Mail." This preferred reality has now entered the realms of an altered one – fake news powered by compulsive behaviours; a cycle in which every brand, and society as a whole, loses. 

A draft of a forthcoming paper from the Oxford Internet Institute, "The Ethics of Algorithms: Mapping the Debate", highlights the ethical issues surrounding information diversity and the vulnerability of the individual when third-party interests are placed above their own.  

The report assesses algorithms’ transformative effects, and declares: "Semi-autonomous decision-making can be questionable yet appear ethically neutral because [the algorithms] do not cause any obvious harm. This is because algorithms can affect how we con-ceptualise the world and modify its social and political organisation… in new, unexpected ways, and triggering and motivating actions based on the insights [the algorithmic activity] generates." 

"Brands are over-messaging and customers are switching off" Ather Gattami Wiraya

Among the criteria Facebook’s EdgeRank personalisation algorithm uses to prioritise content are the date of publication, frequency of interaction between author and reader, and media type. Altering their relative importance changes the relationships users are encouraged to maintain. The social network may have distanced itself from recent political upsets, but it is nonetheless capable of engineering users’ content ecosystem.

The personalisation trend brought with it the construction of restrictive choice architectures. The report states: "Similar to explicitly persuasive technologies, algorithms can nudge the behaviour of data subjects and human decision-makers by filtering information. Different content [is] offered to groups or classes of people within a population according to a particular attribute, eg the ability to pay."

So personalisation algorithms tread a fine line between supporting and controlling decisions by filtering information presented to the user, based on preferences, behaviours and, perhaps, vulnerabilities. Significantly for marketers and media-owners, the report concludes: "The subject’s autonomy in decision-making is dis-respected when the desired choice reflects third-party interests above the individual."


These concerns are not the sole preserve of academics. "I sense a backlash from the millennial audience, which wants greater control of the web," O’Brien says. "For the past five years, media has been about creating platforms, but for the next five, it’ll be about controlling that space." 

The tech-as-addiction analogy breaks down quickly; communications technology might not endanger our physical health, but with the way we live today, it is difficult to reduce or cease our use of it. As Turkle writes, it makes sense to confront this reality. "We are faced with technologies to which we are extremely vulnerable and we don’t always respect that fact. The path forward is to learn more about our vulnerabilities. Then, we can design technology and the environments in which we use them with these insights in mind. For example, since we know that multitasking is seductive but not helpful to learning it is up to us to promote ‘unitasking’." 

Creative people have written powerfully on the need to disconnect digitally to get the mental and physical space necessary to connect with their inner selves. Notably, in the acknowledgements of her book NW, the novelist Zadie Smith thanks Freedom and SelfControl, apps that block specific email and websites to minimise digital distractions while working.

Smartphones and social connections are integral to the fabric of our lives. But for consumers and brands alike, the goal must be to use these devices and platforms with greater intention. With limitless opportunities to create and serve up content, to connect and perform, brands must beware of being, at best, extravagant with consumers’ time or, at worst, exploiting their vulnerabilities and compulsive behaviours. 

This industry is built upon metrics that demand ever-more content, click-throughs and communication touchpoints, yet the value of switching off is increasingly apparent. In order to thrive, brands and consumers alike need to wake up to the world around them. The alternative is to have their senses dulled and capacity for listening and empathy drowned out by meaningless distractions and phantom vibrations.  

Generation Z:  content - consumption  in  numbers

They are tethered to their phones. 

Among Gen Z, 74% spend more than an hour a day on their mobile device, compared with 66% for Gen Y and 55% for Gen X.

They like ads to be shorter than ten seconds. 

Gen X is more tolerant of videos up to 20 seconds. Among those who skip online video ads, members of Gen Z skip three seconds faster per ad than Gen X, on average. Gen Z are slightly more likely to have an ad-blocker on their desktop computer than older consumers (31% vs 30% for Gen Y and 22% for Gen X), but no more likely to have installed a mobile ad-blocking app (13% vs 14% for Gen Y and 12% for Gen X).

They are more receptive to traditional media. 

Gen Z is more positive about traditional ad formats than standard digital alternatives. Net positivity (the percentage that is positive about a format minus that which is negative) is as high as +43% for outdoor ads, but as low as -19% for mobile video.

But they spend less time with traditional media. 

TV, radio and print consumption are all lower, with 51% of Gen Z watching an hour or more of TV each day compared with 59% for Gen Y and 74% for Gen X. So Gen Z may be tougher to reach via traditional media, but these ads can still be well received. They are more discriminating about online ads and video.

Globally, 36% of Gen Z access Instagram several times a day and 24% access Snapchat with the same frequency, versus 21% and 10% respectively for Gen Y, and 9% and 4% for Gen X. Members of Gen Z are more likely to enjoy sharing what they do online (29% versus 22% for Gen X). 

They like to receive rewards for viewing content 

Net positivity is +41% for mobile rewards video. They are also more positive when given control over whether to play an ad (net positivity to social click-to-play videos is +20%, and to skippable prerolls is +15%). By contrast, Gen Z is more damning of intrusive formats such as non-skippable prerolls and mobile pop-ups (-36% and -42% respectively).

Source: Kantar Millward Brown: "AdReaction: Engaging Gen X, Y and Z"

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