Marching Toward Culturally Relevant Advertising

Today I went to the Women’s March with a friend and Hugo, his black lab puppy. Hugo had a sign on his back, “The Future Is Bitches”. I kept joking that so many people were taking Hugo’s photograph he would be on the cover of tomorrow’s Times.
On the way to the March, which started by Trump Tower near Central Park, I noticed a few impressive examples of contextual advertising – two digital, one in-store, one on a bus wrapper. The first two were on those Link NYC stations where you can charge your phone, under a digital billboard with ads that change every few seconds. (I wish I had in situ pictures but my phone had died, hence these scrappy screenshots…whoops!)
1. Spotify
Spotify promoted a Feminist Friday Playlist by the Resistance Revival Chorus, a group of women singing protest songs, with “album art” featuring a black and white photograph of women against a white background with hot pink typography — the colors of the Women’s March. As I made my way to the March, I wished my phone was alive so I could tune into these jams and get even more in the mood.
Screen Shot 2018-01-20 at 8.56.12 PM
2. The New York Times
Next, I encountered a highly appropriate placement of the NYTimes’s “Truth Is Hard” campaign, with its iconic gothic typography against a clean white background.
Truth is hard NYTimes ad

Truth is hard NYTimes ad

Of course, the march itself was full of clever messages and signs, summarized by “Grab Him By The Midterms” – a call to action to register and vote in the November midterm elections (I went home and made sure I was registered!)
3. Jet.com
After the March, a bus drove by, with a bold purple Jet.com wrapper and a provocative statement, “Set the table for discussions about politics” featuring kitchenware available on the e-tailer site. This kind of honesty is not typically seen outside of Superbowl TV ads.
4. Lululemon
Finally, the Lululemon store on Broadway had posters up in their windows proclaiming their support for the Women’s March. They even offered free coffee, for marchers to recharge. The brand posted their support on Facebook earlier in the day:
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Cultural Relevance Sells
These are four examples of compelling advertising. They’re culturally and contextually relevant. This type of marketing is good for business and consumers, as it offers something deeper than a promotional message; it offers a point of view.
But…this is only possible by brave, purpose-led brands with a sense of identity and a values system that guides branding and communications decisions. Actually, you could criticize Lululemon for inauthentically hopping on a bandwagon to course correct damage done following derogatory statements about women’s bodies, by their controversial former CEO.
As the Superbowl draws near, we’ll see more brands putting politics and gender at the forefront. It’s up to consumers to detect whose doing it from a place of truth, and who’s simply producing lip service.

Are Paradoxes Trending?

Digital detox.

Authentic brands.

Advertising for social good.

Each trend contains an undeniable tension almost to the point of oxymoronic. For culture enthusiasts and market researchers these concepts are ubiquitous, provocative and irresistible. To read about online. To dream about. To wait for some form of acknowledge on a grand scale, that would enable modern culture to progress to the next chapter. If only Walter Benjamin could help us navigate this stuff.

At a macro level, these trends may connect to the rate of change we’re experiencing in the Digital Age. Perhaps the tension it all creates with human nature is finally coming to a head. Maybe Steve Jobs underestimated how dramatic the 2007 iPhone launch would become in hindsight. He introduced it as an iPod, a revolutionary phone, and a “breakthrough internet communication device” but back then who knew what that truly meant?

Watching visions of the future from the past is a trip.

Watching the 2007 iPhone launch in 2016 feels like watching a sequel to the 1927 silent film Metropolis. I remember meeting at the library one night in college to watch it for a Literature course — Modernity and Fin de Siècle. The psychological and emotional gymnastics of watching a 1927 dystopian film as a college junior a few years post-9/11 was disorienting. I remember leaving the library in tears I was so disturbed, and called my mom for comfort. It took a few days to shed the strangeness the film cast over me.

The mindfulness movement, the struggle for brands to sound authentic, Michael Porter’s idea of “shared value” to fix capitalism, the interest in B-Corporationsall of these trends align with a rising need for meaning. The kind of meaning that escorts the realization that you’re small and the world is large. It’s hard to grasp this when instead of contemplation we insert social media and apps into any down time.

According to an upcoming trend report by JWT, 78% of  respondents “believe that we’re losing some important human qualities by spending so much time immersed in technology”.

I’m inspired by this statistic. It will exist as a benchmark. Which means we can propose solutions to lower it. To start, I will unpack each apparent “paradox” from the top of this rant in a weekly post…as soon as my graduate thesis is done. Stay tuned!

 

NYC AdWeek From A Comms Student Perspective

I’m attending AdWeek NYC for the first time. (That’s a career milestone, right? Adding it to my resume.)

Starting my master’s in Communications has already opened doors and my mind; I wouldn’t have known about AdWeek’s student rate had a classmate not mentioned it during a lunch break (thanks Anthony!). Both panels I attended today reinforced key concepts from a course in Organizational Strategy:

We Have A Plan, #AWXII

Concept 1: Success Isn’t Defined By Competition Alone

In a discussion about entering “the millennial music stream” moderated by a FastCompany Senior Editor, Rob Brunner, the CMO’s of Spotify (Seth Farbman) and Pandora (Simon Fleming-Wood) discussed how each company views the other as a “complementary” rather than competitor brand. Normally I would have felt this was lip service. And maybe it was. But the discussion definitely swam into Blue Ocean territory when Apple Music came up. When asked about their thoughts on Apple Music, each CMO stated if the service is a “category expansion” or an innovation, they view it as a good thing for the entire industry. The prevailing attitude was one of healthy competition and a deep mutual respect. Farbman expressed his appreciation for Apple as a brand that provides “something for others to measure themselves against,” which challenges other brands to remain clear about what makes them unique.

A love of music was tangible throughout, as Pandora’s CMO used a beautiful metaphor, comparing music to an “emotional sherpa”. He explained, “We know where we want to go throughout our day. We rely on our music to take us there.”

 

Concept 2: Social Responsibility as Strategy, Not Afterthought

The last panel I attended was called “Global Brands, Global Goals, Igniting Social Good“. We watched the newly launched #WeHaveAPlan ad for GlobalGoals.org and listened to a discussion of the campaign strategy by its co-creators, film-writer and director Richard Curtis CBE and BBH founder Sir John Hegarty. Also on stage was the CMO of Getty Images, a partner in the campaign. She introduced the panelists as “men who are not only great in their fields, but are also good men. And when great and good men come knocking on your door, you open it.” Immediately I knew I picked the best panel for that time slot.

Again, concepts taught in class were reinforced by the conversation.  Specifically that it’s no longer enough to think of Corporate Social Responsibility as merely an initiative or a campaign, tacked on as an after-thought. Rather, the most successful companies and organizations bake sustainability into their core business strategy.

Perhaps most compelling was the discussion of whether the #GlobalGoals campaign can actually produce deep, meaningful change or if it’s just glorified slacktivism – and if this even matters, so long as the Global Goals are achieved. It was a healthy debate, as another audience member asked how the campaign plans to sustain itself over the next 15 years, after the initial media push from last weekend’s Global Citizen’s concert.

The response was an honest acknowledgement by Curtis that many people in the business world consider sustainable development to be naive, liberal or too left-winged to be taken seriously. Yet…revolutions start when a few like-minded, passionate people band together. That getting a Facebook Like is better than doing nothing. And that “revolutions start on the edges, not the center”. And that “we mustn’t forget the power of broadcasting” – a quote by Sir John Hegarty I will take to heart as I navigate my career in communications.

How “Surround Audience” at The New Museum Blew My Mind Twice

Oh hey. I’m going to write a blog post about the most recent mind-blowing cultural shit I’ve seen in New York because it makes me feel like I’m getting more value for my rent.

Frank Benson, "Juliana"

Frank Benson, “Juliana”

My first impression of the New Museum back in 2007 was of dismissal; it felt too conceptual, postmodern and obnoxious. The art was not accessible; it made me feel dumb for not “getting it” – for not having any emotional response to “artwork” made of children’s toys and colored planks of wood with pieces of garbage tied to a string.

Last year I gave it another shot for Chris Ofili’s “Night and Day” exhibit. Massive, colorful, collage-like paintings and intricate, obsessive pencil drawings showcased an impressive range of materials. Infamous for his elephant dung paintings, Ofili is more than shock value and envelope-pushing. He is inspired by the human experience and his contemplation of socio-economic inequality. The New Museum redeemed itself for me with that exhibit. It was edgy, modern and relevant – but was also authentic, relatable and accessible. I appreciated it.

Then I heard about this year’s Triennial. I assumed it would include more of the earlier kind of art: conceptual, postmodern…and obnoxious. I then discovered this video online by artist and comedian Casey Jane Ellison. I highly recommend watching it and her entire series, “Touching The Art”.

I had to see for myself what was going on here. I ultimately visited the exhibit twice because I couldn’t absorb it all in just one visit. I felt more inspired and connected to not only the artwork but the concepts and motivation behind the artwork, that I only made it to two out of the four floors of artwork on my first visit. The work, collected from 51 artists from 25 countries around the world, explored how digital technology is connecting and separating us as a society more than ever.

Surround Audience intro 

My Favorite Pieces

Each floor of the exhibit was introduced with a warped, enigmatic poem. A choppy yet effortless stream-of-meta-consciousness meditation. It expresses the way we communicate today, with common anxieties, typos, symbols and misspellings marked by our text-based culture. 

Ryan Trecartin, "Time Pend"

Ryan Trecartin, “Time Pend”

 These poems saved me. They made me think “OMG someone else gets how ridiculous everything is.” I smiled while reading each one.

Indian artist Shreyas Kahle’s work left the biggest impression on me after my first visit. He explores “the distorting effect of the male gaze” as seen in the marble sculpture below: are they mountains or boobs? I love his cerebral sketches and “pseudoscientific” symbolic drawings; they evoked a Magritte-esque surrealism in a more raw expression. (“Surround Audience”, New Museum Triennial, Feb-May 2015, p. 188)

Shreyas Kahle, "Kashmir Or The Alps, It Doesn't Matter"

Shreyas Karle, “Kashmir Or The Alps, It Doesn’t Matter”

The shameless honesty and self expression of artist and comedian Casey Jane Ellison made me laugh out loud while watching a video installation of her avatar performing a standup routine. (Her YouTube interview series, which got me to see this exhibit, was playing on a flat screen TV in the museum lobby.)

Casey Jane Ellison, "It's So Important To Seem Wonderful"

Casey Jane Ellison, “It’s So Important To Seem Wonderful”

These dreamy, haunting paintings by Chinese artist Firenze Lai left me breathless. These figures with warped proportions, to express the way our relationships with others (and ourselves) are often similarly warped with modern technology. We’re always available, we’re always able to connect with everyone everywhere…yet we don’t fully feel “connected” at the same time. I think this is a universal symptom of modern life and I loved every minute I felt like there are others who feel this way – and can creatively express the ennui of the digital age.

Firenze Lai, "Tennis Court"

Firenze Lai, “Tennis Court”

Firenze Lai, "Argument"

Firenze Lai, “Argument”

Firenze Lai, "Alignment"

Firenze Lai, “Alignment”

 

The perfect mix of truth, beauty and intellect.

Art that explores how disconnected we are as society has the effect of subverting that very feeling; it makes you feel connected to the brave artists who felt compelled to visually express their own dissatisfaction with the state of things. It’s all very cerebral and conceptual, but not overly so, with just the right balance of meta-consciousness and visual aesthetic.

“Surround Audience” ends today…but good news! I bought the coffee table book of the exhibition so if we’re friends IRL I’ll let you look through it if you wash your hands and tell me how cool my apartment is both before and after looking through my cultural coffee table book of cool-ass, mind-blowing artwork.