Burger King’s Autopilot Whopper campaign reminds me of a lot of the classic work that Crispin Porter Bogusky have done for Burger King over the years. The Autopilot Whopper is based on the insight that Tesla cars machine learning powered vision system that helps with self driving function mistakes the Burger King logo for a Stop sign.
Autopilot Whopper entertaining with this schadenfreude around Tesla technology. And it also lands the message that the Burger King drive through is as good a place to stop as any.
YouTube announced the winners of its 2020 YouTube Works awards. I would strongly recommend that any brand planners bookmark this in their browser and dip in on a regular basis.
The one that really piqued my interest the most was Hulu’s campaign for live sports that tapped into a growing consumer cynicism around influencers. The sports linkage was using NBA basketball players as the influencers.
Public Enemy came back when we most need them. Flavor Flav seems to have patched up his beef with Chuck D. Public Enemy have partnered with DJ Premier to capture the zeitgeist. Black Lives Matter, COVID19 and chaotic leadership feature in State Of The Union (STFU). DJ Premier’s product references earlier Public Enemy works scratching in sounds of early Public Enemy vocals in this track. The beat is more laid back than what one would expect from the Bomb Squad production team. But the Public Enemy fire in the belly is still there.
The step chickens are a meme driven ‘cult’ that have sprung up on TikTok. More accurately they are a directed community. Here’s the founder on how they came about. Their heat has been parleyed in a community for a new app. From a product point-of-view, this means that something like TikTok could lose chunks of its user base IF the step chickens phenomenon was widely and successfully replicated. Given that it was a mix of smarts, happenstance and pure luck it isn’t likely: sorry brands.
German China-focused think-tank MERICS had a thoughtful presentation put together on the Hong Kong national security law. The presentation focused on the impact for the financial services sector. But there similar lessons to be drawn for professional services (accounting, management consultancy, legal firms). And only for a a slightly lesser effect on the strategy and planning functions of creative agencies, or counsel based PR functions.
On reflection, I would be concerned about how some of the creative briefs for China-focused campaigns that I have written would have faired against the Hong Kong national security law. Probably not that well.
What immediately becomes apparent is the implications for quality research into companies and economics won’t meet international standards. Which means more fodder for the likes of Muddy Waters Research LLC. It likely indicates a conscious effort for China to decouple from the international financial system.
The calculus behind the Hong Kong national security law seems to be that the Chinese government think yet another (internal) market for Chinese stocks will be a better deal than the traditional gateway to and from China Hong Kong has provided. I am not sure what this bet will mean. Shenzhen already has a robust stock market by Chinese standards; would China really need Hong Kong? Without the gateway role, Hong Kong would also find it harder to be the point of capital departure from China for high net worth citizens. Dampening capital flight would definitely hold some attraction to the Xi administration.
Generations or lifecycles? – Why am I asking this as a question? I’ve had a bit of time to think about consumer behaviour. At the moment you can’t throw a stick without hitting ‘an’ expert in at least one of three generations:
Gen-Y or millennials
There are older generations that also exist but are mentioned in passing:
The principle behind this is that each generation would relate to the world in different ways. The implication is that each would require different marketing considerations radically different to anything that has come before.
This lens has a number of results:
It encourages marketers to segment markets in certain ways. This facilitates marketing assumptions that are unhelpful
It continues marketing focus on a set age group, rather than mining a portfolio for lifetime spend
It feeds into a wider marketing culture of ‘disruption’ that can be unhelpful
A history lesson in generations
Generational labels seems to have been started in journalistic essays. These essays tried to convey common experiences. For instance, the sense of loss and dislocation that many felt after fighting in World War 1.
The massive scale of the war meant that armed service touched more people. Over time they have been used to illustrative effect by governments, media and business.
This has meant that generations varied in length. I reviewed a raft of reports and media coverage and found that from Gen X onwards there has even been an variation in definition of what the generational length was.
Over time an industry of journalists and consulting firms has been built up. They point out the various flaws that are supposed to characterise each generation. They point out to company boards how their businesses will be disrupted if they don’t change the way they do business to meet the needs of a generation. This consulting mirrors the way consultants have preached a similar disruption message around different aspects of digital transformation and requires a regular cyclical refresh.
Is this a deliberate ruse? Probably not, but book publishers need books and consultants need to bill. Both of which are insatiable machines that require a ‘new, new thing’.
A final factor to consider in defining generations. Historically the definition of generations has been done with a global north, western-centric lens. If you look at markets like China the differentiation tends to be done in decades: post-90s generation, post-80s generation and so on.
Now, we’re in a time period where the bulk of young people are going to be born in the global south. There is likely to be emigration north for economic opportunity. There is likely to be a corresponding need due to population decline in developed nations. A trip to Tokyo or London already shows the impact of this. From nurses and care home workers to combini staff and baristas; many of the workers are young and foreign. A global north, western-centric lens makes even less sense.
Period trends and generation trends
One of the things that the generations stereotypes can blind marketers to is cross-generational trends within a period of time. One of the stereotypical characteristics that Gen X was labelled with was cynical. Researchers found that Gen X did exhibit higher levels of cynicism than previous groups of 18 – 29 year olds.
But Stanford University took the research one step further and looked the accuracy of this cynical label. What they found was that all generations at that time were exhibiting higher levels of cynicism. It was a period trend rather than a generational one. As a marketer, that might have a huge implication in the way you deliver messages beyond Gen X.
What are the causes of this increase in disaffection? “Media commentators may be right in emphasizing the malaise-inducing effects of ‘historical underdosing’,” the researchers said. The term refers to the belief that history has come to an end, with such institutions as the family and government becoming ever more corrupt and exhausted. It suggests that the great regenerative struggles of the past, such as civil rights and feminism, have already been fought, and all that is left is the winding down and decay of present institutions. “Generation X commentators have, however, glossed over the possibility that such disaffection can just as easily affect older folks as younger ones. If anything, older individuals are especially vulnerable to romanticizing the past and thus becoming disaffected and disengaged with the present,” Grusky said.
David Grusky, one of the two Stanford sociologists who conducted the study highlighted some great actionable insights that marketers at the time could have used when targeting older market segments. Unfortunately, the Gen X = cynical impression stuck, marketers failed to ask the right questions and got the wrong heuristic.
Grusky’s work and the rise of social media adoption across all age groups does make me wonder about Gen Y’s reputation for narcissistic behaviour – when we could be living in a more narcissistic time.
Stereotypes are heuristics that help us make sense of the world. If we constantly had to analyse everything, we’d have been eaten by large predators whilst in a state of analysis paralysis. In a resting state our brain accounts for 60 per cent of our body’s glucose consumption. So anything that can drive energy efficient actionable insight would make evolutionary sense.
It is unlikely that the modern marketer will be eaten by a pack of ravenous wolves. Yet stereotypical heuristics will make their way into the decision making biases of marketers and their management teams.
Generational labels lend themselves to stereotypes and some of the biggest of them are questionable at best.
Boomers are selfish and don’t care about the planet. The publication of Silent Spring by biologist Rachel Carson, could be considered the point at which the modern environmental movement was born. Counterculture figure Stewart Brand lobbied for the release of the iconic ‘blue marble’ whole earth in space photo by NASA which galvanised the environment movement. His Whole Earth catalog series also went on to influence the ‘back to the land’ counterculture movement that sprang out of hippydom. It is no coincidence that groups like Greenpeace and Friends Of The Earth were founded around this time. The first Earth Day happened in San Francisco in 1970. As the counterculture movement went around the world in the early 1970s, so did green-orientated political parties. Without Boomers there wouldn’t have been an environmental movement. Extinction Rebellion (XR) stands on the shoulders of direction action groups like the Greenham Common women and Greenpeace. There is however, anecdotal evidence to suggest that public interest in environmental issues dips during an economic recession and this seems to have been the case after the 2008 financial crisis.
Gen X are slackers. They came into a world that had much less economic opportunities than their parents generation. The lack of balance in corporate culture was as unattractive to young Gen Xers as it was to Gen Y and Gen Z first jobbers. As outlined earlier, the move to deregulation and globalisation led to increased cynicism thoughout generations at the time when Gen X entered adulthood. Yet on the flipside, their entrepreneurship has been lauded over the years. Though often that entrepreneurship was forced upon them as industries globalised
Gen Z are digital natives and are socially conscious. A classic example of how the truth is more complex and nuanced than this is a recent Kings College London research done into UK attitudes and behaviours towards COVID-19. In it is a group called resistors. They buy into the fake news around the virus, are more likely to violate the lockdown regulations and the majority are in the 16-24 year old category.
Massively parallel cultures
Cultural movements used to align in a serial manner to moments in time and space. There was a serial progression as one cultural movement was created in reaction to; and on the legacy of another.
The nature of media and connection changed with technology. Cheaper air fares mean’t that the world has become much more accessible. I am not saying that it is cheap to fly to Australia, Japan or Brazil – but it is cheaper than it was. In my parents life time in Ireland, families and friends used to hold a wake for members of the community emigrating to the United States or Australia.
The reason for the wake was that the distance was only likely to be bridged by the occasional letter and post-departure it was unlike that they would be seen again.
Media is no longer something that has a time slot like the morning paper, drive time radio or prime time TV; but a membrane that surrounds us. It is in our pocket with us everywhere. We are the media; we have a portable broadcast studio of sorts in our pocket and the means of transmission.
To give you an idea of how revolutionary this concept is, here’s a clip from Back To The Future which was released as a film in 1985. Note the sense of wonder that the 1950s era Doc Brown has when confronted with a 1980s vintage JVC camcorder.
The Victor / JVC GRC-1 camcorder had been launched the previous year and was the first all in one VHS camera and recorder – so at the time of the film release this was still cutting edge stuff.
The ‘Mondo‘ series of documentaries shocked and thrilled audiences with practices from around the world that would have seemed fantastical. At least to the average member of the public in the Italy of the directors, or mainstream audiences in the US. As the introduction to the English dub of the film says:
By comparison e-commerce and websites allow us to sample culture and products from around the world. You have access to Korean dramas and beauty tips, vintage Hong Kong movies, Brazilian funk carioca music from the ghettos of Rio De Janeiro or Chinese rap. The web isn’t a perfect memory, content disappears or often never gets seen.
Content is often mediated through algorithms governing e-commerce, search and social platforms. But despite those impediments; culture evolves and morphs in a massively parallel way. Which makes a mockery of generational stereotypes.
Consumption is becoming an attenuated concept
Part of the focus on generations is due to a focus on grabbing early life time spend. Brands want to get consumers as young as possible. An oft-mentioned heuristic was that half a consumer’s spend was done before they reach 35. There are a few things wrong with this approach:
Marketing science research has shown that consumers are brand promiscuous. Light consumers are more important for brand sales than heavy consumers. So an exclusive brand building focus of going after young consumers like a game of capture the flag isn’t the most effective approach.
We also know that there are a number of factors attenuating consumption patterns and spend along the generations so a youth focus makes less sense:
Older people tend to have more assets and the ability to spend. This is due to property prices, historic performance of pension investments, life insurance policies and a lack of student loans
Earning power in real terms has been declining over time. Taking into account a parity in education and inflation; boomers earned more than gen x, who in turn did better than gen y. Gen x managed to keep ahead of boomers only by having both partners in a marriage go out to work, to compensate for the man’s reduced earning power
Younger people are having to spend a larger degree of their income on somewhere to live. Student loan repayments creates an additional drag on their income
People are delaying life stages like marriage later due to the financial burden and have been having less children in most of the world
People are acting younger for longer and this reflects in their consumption patterns. Part of this is down to ageism in the employment market and part of it is down to them continuing to do what they love. I know Dads of college age kids who still skate or do martial arts. I know pensioners who love to buy lip gloss. An exception to consumer attenuation is the luxury sector. Luxury consumers have become younger, but that is also because the centre of gravity in luxury has shifted from US consumers to east Asia. Scions of first generation entrepreneurs from China, Korea, Singapore and Malaysia are not afraid to embrace their affluence
Life stages rather than generations
Culture is very important in making brand messages resonant. Culture is also adrift of generational labels. It is ethereal and finds its way to people, now more than ever. Being massively parallel in nature has made culture more democratic.
Thinking about the brand challenge in a consumer life stage way allows us to build strategic rather than short term communications. It allows to think about meaningful brand propositions across price, place, promotion and product. And then manifest it in a way that resonates culturally over time.
In an industry when marketing effectiveness is failing and campaigns are taking an increasingly short terms approach. Peter Fields’ report The Crisis in Creative Effectiveness for the IPA highlights the dangerous position that marketing is in. It’s a big hill to climb, but a good first step would be to ditch ineffective stereotypes as part of an effort to improve the quality of long term thinking and ideas.
Too much focus and analysis has been put in the new, new thing. Novelty gets the attention over human impact
Consumer movements or subcultures become fads when they lose sight of their purpose
Rushkoff thinks that netizens let go of the social / intellectual power of the web. This provided the opportunity for them to become yet another large corporate business
Bulletin boards, messaging platforms and email lists facilitated non-real time or asynchronous communications. Asynchronous communications channels allowed people to be ‘smarter’ versions of themselves.
The move to an ‘always-on’ medium has been detrimental Going online went from an active choice to a constant state of being. The resulting disorientation is self-reinforcing.
Rushkoff’s commentary is interesting for a number of reasons. He had been a herald of how online culture would change society and consumer behaviour.
But his essay posits a simple storyline. It wasn’t people that ruined the internet, it was big business that did it when people weren’t looking. So I wanted to look at the different elements of his hypothesis stage-by-stage.
Too much focus and analysis has been put in the new, new thing
With most technologies we see the thing and realise that it has potential. But it is only when it reaches the consumer, that we truly see its power.
Different cultures tend to use technology in very different ways. Let’s think about examples to illustrate this. Technology research giants like Bell Labs and BT Research had science fiction writers onboard to try and provide inspirational scenarios for the researchers. So it was no surprise that mobile wireless based communications and computing was envisaged in Star Trek.
These weren’t games machines, instead the crew played more complex board games. Vulcan chess seemed to be chess crossed with a cake stand.
Yes, but that’s just the media, surely technolgists would have a better idea? Let’s go to a more recent time in cellphones.
Here’s Steve Ballmer, at the time the CEO of the world’s largest technology company. Microsoft Research poured large amounts of money into understanding consumer behaviour and tech developments. In hindsight the clip is laughable, but at the time Balmer was the voice of reason.
I was using a Nokia E90 Communicator around about the time that Ballmer made these comments.
I was working in a PR agency at the time and the best selling phone amongst my friends in the media industry were:
The Nokia N73 I’d helped launch right before leaving Yahoo! (there was an integration with the Flickr photo sharing service)
The Nokia N95 with its highly tactile sliding cover and built in GPS
The Danger Sidekick was the must-have device for American teenagers. Japanese teens were clued to keitai phones that offered network-hosted ‘smartphone’ services. Korea had a similar eco-system to Japan with digital TV. Gran Vals, by Francisco Tárrega was commonplace as the Nokia ringtone, from Bradford to Beijing. Business people toted BlackBerry, Palm or Motorola devices which were half screen and half keyboard.
The iPhone was radical, but there was no certainty that it would stick as a product. Apple had managed to reinvent the Mac. It had inched back from the brink to become ‘cool’ in certain circles. The iPod had managed to get Apple products into mainstream households. But the iPhone wasn’t a dead cert.
The ideas behind the iPhone weren’t completely unfamiliar to me. I’d had a Palm Vx PDA, the first of several Palm touch screen devices I’ve owned. But I found that a Think Outside Stowaway collapsible keyboard was essential for productive work on the device. All of this meant I thought at the time that Ballmer seemed to be talking the most sense.
Ballmer wasn’t the only person wrong-footed. So was Mike Lazaridis of Research In Motion (BlackBerry) repeatedly under-estimated the iPhone. Nokia also underestimated the iPhone too.
So often organisations have the future in their hands, they just don’t realise it yet; or don’t have the corporate patience to capitalise on it. A classic example is Wildfire Communications and Orange. Wildfire Communications was a start-up that built a natural language software-based assistance system.
In 1994 the launched an ‘electronic personal secretary’. The Wildfire assistant allowed users to use voice commands on their phone to route calls, handle messaging and reminders. The voice prompts and sound gave the assistant a personality.
Orange bought the business in 2000 and then closed it down five years later as it didn’t have enough users taking it up. Part of this is was that the product was orientated towards business users, like cellphones has been in the 1980s and early 1990s.
But growth took off when the cellphone bridged into consumer customer segments with the idea of a personal device. There wasn’t a horizon-scanning view taken on it, like what would be the impact of lower network latency from 3.5 and 4G networks.
Orange had been acquired by France Telecom and there were no longer executives advocating for it.
In retrospect with the likes of Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant; Wildfire was potential wasted. Orange weren’t sufficiently enamoured with the new, new thing to give it the time to shine. And the potential of the service wasn’t fully realised through further development.
The reason why the focus might be put on the new, new thing is that its hard to pick winners and even harder to see how those winners will be used.
Consumer movements or subcultures become fads when they lose sight of their purpose
I found this to be a particularly interesting statement. Subcultures don’t necessarily realise that they’re a subculture until the label is put on them. It’s more a variant of ‘our thing’.
The Z Boys of Dogtown realised that they were great skaters, but probably didn’t realise that they were a ‘subculture’.
Shawn Stüssy printed up some t-shirts to promote the surf boards he was shaping. He did business the only way he knew how. Did he really realise he was building the foundations of streetwear culture of roadmen and hype beasts?
Punks weren’t like the Situationists with a manifesto. They were doing their thing until it was labelled and the DIY nature of doing their thing became synonymous with it.
The Chicago-based producers making electronic disco music for their neighbourhood clubs didn’t envisage building a global dance music movement. Neither did the London set who decided they had such a good time in Ibiza; they’d like to keep partying between seasons at home.
Often a movement’s real purpose can only be seen in hindsight. What does become apparent is that scale dilutes, distorts or even kills a movement. When the movement becomes too big, it loses shape:
It becomes too loose a network
There are no longer common terms of reference and unspoken rules
The quality goes down
But if a community doesn’t grown it ossifies. A classic example of this is The WeLL. An online bulletin board with mix of public and private rooms that covered a wide range of interests. Since it was founded in 1985 (on dial-up), it has remained a disappointing small business that had an outsized influence on early net culture. It still is an interesting place. But its size and the long threads on there feel as if the 1990s have never left (and sometimes I don’t think that’s a bad thing).
When you bring in everyone into a medium that has an effect. The median in society is low brow. This idea of the low brow segment of society was well documented as a concept in the writing of George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World. Tabloid newspapers like The Sun or the National Inquirer write to a reading age of about 12 years old for the man in the street. Smart people do stupid things, but stupid people do stupid things more often.
It is why Hearst, Pulitzer and Beaverbrook built a media empire on yellow journalism. It is why radio and television were built on the back of long-running daytime dramas (or soap operas) that offer a largely-stable unchanging backdrop, in contrast to a fast-changing world.
Netizens let go of the social / intellectual power of the web
When I thought about this comment, I went back to earlier descriptions of netizens and the web. Early netizen culture sprang out of earlier subcultures. The WeLL came out of The Whole Earth Catalog:
A how too manual
A collection of essays
Product reviews – a tradition that Kevin Kelly keeps alive with this Cool Tools blog posts
The Whole Earth Catalog came out of the coalescence of the environmental lobby and the post-Altamont hippy movement to back to the land. Hippy culture didn’t die, but turned inwards. Across the world groups of hippies looked to carve out their own space. Some were more successful than others at it. The Whole Earth Catalog was designed as an aid for them.
The hippy back to the land movement mirrored earlier generations of Americans who had gone west in the 19th century. Emigrates who had sailed for America seeking a better life. Even post-war GIs and their families who headed out to California from the major east coast cities.
The early net offered a similar kind of open space to make your own, not bounded by geographic constraints. Underpinning that ethos was a certain amount of libertarianism. The early netizens cut a dash and created net culture. They also drew from academia. Software was seen as shareable knowledge just like the contents of The Whole Earth Catalog. Which gave us the open source software pinnings that this website and my laptop both rely on.
That virtual space that was attractive to netizens also meant boundless space for large corporates to move in. Since there was infinite land to stake out, the netizens didn’t let go of power.
To use the ‘wild west’ as an analogy; early netizens stuck with their early ‘ranch lands’, whilst the media conglomerates built cities that the mainstream netizens populated over time.
The netizens never had power over those previously unmade commercial lands which the media combines made.
Asynchronous communications channels allowed people to be ‘smarter’ versions of themselves
Asynchronous communications at best do allow people to be the smarter version of themselves. That is fair to a point. But it glosses over large chunks of the web that was about being dumb. Flame wars, classes in Klingon and sharing porn. Those are things that have happened on the net for a long long time.
In order to be a smarter version of yourself requires a desire to reflect that view to yourself; if not to others. I think that’s the key point here.
The tools haven’t changed that much. Some of my best discussions happen on private Facebook groups. Its about what you choose to do, and who you choose to associate with.
In some ways I feel like I am an anachronism. I try and read widely. I come from a family where reading was valued. My parents had grown up in rural Ireland.
This blog is a direct result of that wider reading and the curiosity that it inspired. I am also acutely aware that I am atypical in this regards. Maybe it is because I come from a family of emigres, or that Irish culture prides education in the widest sense. My Mum was an academically gifted child; books offered her a way off the family farm.
My father had an interest in mechanical things. As the second son, so he had to think about a future beyond the family small holding that his older brother would eventually inherit.
Being erudite sets up a sense of ‘otherness’ between society at large and yourself. This shows up unintentionally in having a wider vocabulary to draw from and so being able to articulate with a greater degree of precision. This is often misconstrued as jargon or complexity.
I’d argue good deal of the general population doesn’t want to be smarter versions of themselves. They want to belong, to feel part of a continuum rather than a progression. And that makes sense, since we’re social animals and are hardwired to be concerned about difference as an evolutionary trait. Different could have got you killed – an enemy or an infectious disease.
The move to an ‘always-on’ medium has been detrimental
Rushkoff and I both agree that the ‘always-on’ media life has been detrimental. Where we disagree is that Rushkoff believes that it is the function of platforms such as Twitter. I see it more in terms of a continuum derived directly from network connectivity that drove immediacy.
Before social was a problem we had email bankruptcy and information overload. Before widespread web use – 24-hour news broadcasting drove a decline in editorial space required for analysis which changed news for the worse.
James Gleick’s book Faster alludes to a similar concept adversely affecting just about every aspect of life.
I propose that the dumb internet has come about as much from human factors as technological design. Yes technology has had its place; algorithms creating reductive personalised views of content based on what it thinks is the behaviour of people like you. It then vends adverts against that. Consumers are both the workers creating content and the product in the modern online advertising eco-system as Jaron Lanier’s You are not a gadget succinctly outlines.
The tools that we have like Facebook do provide a base path of least resistance to inform and entertain us. Although it ends up being primarily entertainment and content that causes the audience to emote.
But there is a larger non-technological pull at work as well. An aggregate human intellectual entropy that goes beyond our modern social platforms.
If we want a web that makes us smarter, complaining about technology or the online tools provided to us isn’t enough:
We need to want to be smarter
We need to get better at selecting the tools that work for us as individuals
We need to use those tools in a considered, deliberate way