Disconnect to reconnect: putting the human back into advertising

Ex Machina: culture is abuzz with stories about how a tech-focused world is causing us to lose emotional connection with our ‘inner selves
Ex Machina: culture is abuzz with stories about how a tech-focused world is causing us to lose emotional connection with our ‘inner selves

John Murphy, a semiotician and cultural insight strategist at Simpson Carpenter, argues how brands can win by tapping into cultural tensions.

All brands operate within the cultural tensions that occupy us, and are defined by how they engage with them. They achieve their broader relevance and meaning by helping consumers identify with those tensions and telling their own story about them.

But by the time a brand jumps on a cultural tension train, it has probably already left the station. Once recognised, the tension is not so tense anymore. It becomes a story, a safe position for brands. It’s also a passive one – not only because it deals with a something that has happened, but also because it’s based on reconciling people’s behaviour with an already established cultural frame.

But tensions are interesting.

They are their most interesting when they are still brewing. That’s the moment before they become a culture and a behaviour – the moment of suspense, ambiguity, and murkiness. And that’s when brands need to capture them: before it’s clear what’s going to emerge and well before there’s a story to be told.

Luckily for us commercial semioticians, cultural tensions are brewing all around - letting us help marketers exploit those tensions and, by consequence, nurture connections between their brands and the ever-changing cultural context in which they exist.

Cultural tensions

So what cultural tensions are brewing right now? Well a new survey from Intel is creating headlines about how young adults find technology dehumanizing. One line from the press release describing the findings of the survey, reports: "A majority of millennials agree that technology makes people less human and that society relies on technology too much." Nearly 90% of young adults questioned in the poll admitted innovations in technology make life easier, but about 60% said people rely on it too much and that it can be dehumanising, with Italians and Japanese reporting the most negative attitudes towards technology.

More and more of the things we do every day are mediated through technology. We live more of our lives through digital systems, and automation is infiltrating a greater part of our existence. In the past 12 months, I’ve lost count of the number of films, reports, events and talks debating the social, relationship and emotional intelligence impact of enabling online technology to be so omnipresent in our lives.  

From Alex Garland's brilliant psychological thriller Ex Machina (pictured, above) to Adele recently telling audience members to enjoy her show in real life rather than through a camera, culture is abuzz with stories about how a tech-focused world is causing us to lose emotional connection with our ‘inner selves’, with others and with the world around us.

Enhancing the real

Automotive advertising has been quick to tap into this cultural tension. In an age of self-parking cars, we have offset most of our basic driving tasks to machines, gadgets and apps. That leaves today's car brands looking for ways to stimulate the consumer’s senses through real experiences and by placing human experiences at the heart of their brand communications.

When Toyota launched its new GT86 the advertising campaign was set in a computer game-style city, one of ‘pixels, pretence and driver assist’. But, significantly, the hero turns to the underworld in his search to feel alive and finds the Toyota GT86, which he uses to break free of his dissatisfying, inauthentic existence and escape into the real world.

More recently Peugeot’s "Driving sensation" campaign perfectly captures the tech/human tension with its refocus on the intimacy between car and driver, and on how driving makes us experience our human senses. Design features are linked to human engagement with visual cues of organic shapes and textures and with intimate close-up shots of hands, lips and hairs-on-the-back of-the-neck moments.

And it's not just automotive brands that are exploiting that tension. North Face’s #Seeforyourself campaigns are all about stimulating consumers to spend time in the mountain for a weekend or holidays; there is Serena Williams in Rise, for Beats, in which the 21-time champion of tennis Grand Slam tournaments shows the personal cost of defying hate on daily basis. Unusually, the ad is full of long, sensitive shots of Williams openly displaying pain and doubt, the 'human interest' element behind performance.  

Similarly, Reebok's latest campaign, "Be more human", confronts cultural tensions in consumers lives by questioning what it means to be human, pondering the real-life consequences of what will happen if humans continue to let machines intervene to the point of no return.

What does this mean for brand strategy?

All the brewing micro-tensions give brands a unique and unprecedented opportunity to capture this underlying antagonism, turn it into a zeitgeist, and elevate it to a topic of a conversation. Brand strategy becomes less about tension-solving, and more about tension-setting;  taking a cultural current that’s not known enough, broad enough, or mainstream enough and turning it into a bigger cultural movement.

A perfect example of this type of tension-setting comes in Audi’s latest campaign, "Birth", in which Audi’s R8 model gives birth to the new sleek RS3 Sport back in a futuristic and atmospheric birthing chamber, a mixture of Transformers and nature’s oddity in one fascinating clip.

But more importantly Audi, like all great brands, goes beyond just telling a story about our cultural tensions in a "help people participate in culture" way.

The true usefulness of brands is to help us recognise and exploit all the micro-tensions around us. They let us explore the white space that cultural tensions open and make us an active part of any conceivable story that comes out if it. And the commercial opportunities have never been greater for brands which successfully identify and exploit those tensions.


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