YouTube turns 10: how the platform created a 'dirty, democratic place' for brands

'Carrie'-inspired coffee-shop prank
'Carrie'-inspired coffee-shop prank

A decade in and marketers have still yet to fully adjust to the new marketing reality created by YouTube, says Alex Smith, planning director at brand experience agency Sense.

Out in the playground, glory goes to the kid who eats the worms.

Sure, it’s a bit of a race to the bottom, but that’s what you get in such a democratic market. You have to earn respect, and that takes originality, bravery, and more often than not, a strong stomach.

In the last 10 years, YouTube has brought these rules to advertising. It has created a democratic playground where brands have raced each other to get down in the dirt, and in doing so totally redefined how we approach creativity and ideas.

Unsurprisingly, it all started with peer pressure.

Advertising tends to mimic the characteristics of the media that surrounds it. Back when ads were stuffed between episodes of Coronation Street and Morse, creativity meant polished production values, fictional narratives and fantasy scenarios only achievable within the secure confines of a studio.

None of these things will save you on YouTube’s turf.

We’re now competing with happy-slapping teens, GoPro daredevils and 'world record kick to the groin'. There are new currencies at play here, currencies defined by the amateurs: shock, bravery, risk and above all, realism. These are the new standard in great advertising ideas.

Carrie coffee shop prank

An obvious example is prankvertising – itself simply a repackaging of a YouTube staple that’s existed for years. If we look at the comments under a famous example of the genre, like the Carrie coffee shop prank set up to promote the movie, we can see that the millions of shares aren’t a reaction to the wit of the idea, or the scale of the effects; they’re a reaction to realism – the horror of the real people caught up in it, the boldness of staging such mayhem in an unpredictable real world environment:

"Lmao at the woman screaming while recording the scene"

"The first lady customer was my friggin science teacher omg"

"What if some guy was like OH SHIT and hit her with a shovel?"

…it’s just a shame no-one suffered serious injury, because then they’d have had a real winner on their hands.

Bigger picture, anything that prompts the reaction of "I can’t believe they really did that" can fly in this new media environment, from the spectacular stunts of Red Bull, like Felix Baumgartner’s supersonic free fall from the edge of space, to the bizarre product launches of Canal Play, the video on demand service of Canal+, which unleashed an ultra-high caffeine coffee onto the market called Insomny to help people stay up all night to watch it. The only rule is that emphasis must be on the "really", because it’s from this that all titillation and authenticity flows.

Baumgartner’s supersonic free fall from the edge of space

The truth is however, that even after 10 years of YouTube, few marketers have fully adjusted to its new reality

For brands, briefs need to change, encouraging agencies to create real world actions first and foremost, trusting that there will be a media approach appropriate for that idea (with YouTube almost inevitably in the mix of course).

Video on demand service of Canal+

For agencies, especially those in the experiential space, there needs to be greater familiarity with what their new competitors (YouTube content producers) are up to. What really flies on the platform today? What are the latest themes? What can be repurposed? These questions are rarely asked, but hold the keys to tomorrow’s creative.

But never mind that, this is a schoolyard, and we’re all still kids. The most exciting thing about YouTube is that after 10 years, we’ve barely begun to scratch the surface.

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