Alcohol Advertising and Symbolism

A familiar phrase is, “art imitates life.” It defines life as essential to art, but can we say the reverse? Could life imitate art? The phrase suggests that art reinforces cultural and social beliefs. Art is more than a product of reflection, it is a method by which we shape the world. Advertising is a good example to use with this theory for two reasons: first, media art caters to a broad diverse audience; and second, it is easily accessible and we see it everywhere: on television, in magazines, posters, and on billboards. Art both reinforces and constructs social and cultural categories, directing people to respond to it in predictable ways. So what does that look like?

Absolut Vodka’s long-running campaign is an example of how a broader message can be adapted to speak to specific cultural groupings. At its most fundamental level, it caters to an extensive audience and is very accessible. The standard image of the Absolut bottle is recognizable by most people, and has purposely been reproduced in every ad establishing it as a social symbol in America. Each advertisement includes a culturally significant person, place, object, or idea alongside the standard bottle. Absolut Vodka ads reveal mixed messages about culture to their various audiences masked on the surface by a culturally significant artifact.

The individual, tailored ads are separated into genres. When looking at a series of ads, we have a better idea of the collective cultural significance attached to the images. The text exists in relation to others. The image of the Absolut bottle has become a cultural icon, and the advertising aim is to make it recognizable as a distinct symbol of class to everyone who sees it. In order to make sense of the ad, the reader must identify the vodka bottle within the text. This expectation relies on the network of ads that have preceded it and the bottle-as-symbolic emblem of the brand. Instant identification of the symbol makes the reader of an Absolut ad a member of an exclusive club. The Absolut Vodka ad campaign aims to enroll everyone as a member of this club by stating that their “art” form, the vodka bottle, carries significant cultural reflections of society associated with the upper class that are relevant to all members regardless of their real class status.

The different genres of Absolut ads carry distinct cultural messages, and contain a universal class claim that is associated with the image of the vodka bottle. Absolut Vodka ads reinforce the cultural myth that American culture is defined in terms of class structure. However, it offers a mixed message about class that is defined and liquid: class can be bought. The Absolut campaign contains the idea that American culture is defined in terms of class by way of the object, setting, audience, and camera angle in the advertisement. The promotion challenges this idea by publicizing in a variety of magazines that reach people in all class structures. In effect, they are bridging a cultural class gap, by allowing such a diverse audience membership into an exclusive ad campaign. Not only is the advertisement selling the reader vodka, it is also selling the illusion of an earned societal position associated with the upper class.

The symbolic theme of class is exemplified in Absolut’s 2001 “Absolut Voted Off” campaign”. This ad was published in Entertainment magazine the week of October 19, 2001. The ad is very basic and shows four bottles of flavored Absolut Vodka grouped together on the left side of the page. The bottles are characterized by bright, warm colors such as yellow, orange, and purple. On the far right side of the page, not facing the audience, is the original Absolut Vodka bottle that is only revealing half of its cold, blue label. The text, “Absolut Voted-Off” appears at the bottom of the page. What does this ad reveal on the surface? At first glance it seems to be selling the new flavored vodkas, representing them as important and associated with a distinguished category. However, this advertisement is characteristic of the mixed messages portrayed by the Absolut advertising campaign.

When looking deeper we must ask ourselves as readers, relating to the theory art imitates life and life imitates art, what is the advertisement imitating here? The advertisement is imitating the American act of voting. This cultural activity is political at best. The objects, setting, audience, and camera angle of the ad all reinforce the belief that American culture is defined in terms of class structure, and that class can be bought. In this case, the four flavored vodkas are in a distinct class that the “Voted-Off” original vodka is not a part of. However, the original vodka is related to the others: it shares the same bottle, the same vodka, and the same text. The advertisement suggests that the original Absolut vodka bottle could gain acceptance into the distinct class by becoming flavored.

The setting of the advertisement builds on the cultural belief that America is class defined, but that movement within class structure is possible. The spotlight in the middle of the page is not highlighting either group specifically, but leaves a void that needs to be filled. But filled by whom? The ad suggests that the original vodka bottle can have a place next to the rest by leaving a space that is the appropriate size for such a transaction. However, the gap in the middle of the page can also hold a spot for the reader to fill. This involves audience participation by buying the product.

The audience of the advertisement plays a specific role in the ad, and supports a mixed message of class definition and mobility. The reader of the ad associates himself/herself as a member of the Absolut “club” by recognizing the image of the bottle within the ad. In the case of “Absolut Voted-Off,” the reader must choose which party to support, the flavored group or the lone original bottle. If the reader fills the gap in the ad he/she will be joining the class specific group that is associated with wealth: bright colors, strength in numbers, and security. The reader will also become a part of the majority that has voted off the minority. The ad is revealing a message about how culture is defined, in part, by class and is suggesting that as voters and consumers we have a direct say in which class we want to be associated with. In other words, Absolut isn’t just selling a taste, it’s selling a deeper cultural construct.

The theory art imitates life and life imitates art reveals important connections between symbolic structures and cultural beliefs. Media is mirroring important parts of American life and selling the images back with a product attached. However, the cultural and social myths that are being promoted are not always evident on the surface. And it’s at that point, at the symbolic interpretation, that meaning is made and brands are born.

 

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AI, Advertising, and Culture

In an ever-increasingly connected world, artificial intelligence is beginning to find its way into every aspect of our lives. We are “on” 24/7and we rely more and more on our  devices, particularly our mobile devices, to help us make decisions. That rapid increase in computing power has done more than help the user. It has equipped companies with an unprecedented capacity to automate processes that previously required hours, days, and weeks of human effort. AI has allowed companies to target, adjust, and adapt at an unimaginable pace. In the same way that Siri acts as a personal assistant for its users, marketing companies are now tapping into AI to act as a personal assistant in the creation of highly effective marketing campaigns.

Currently, agencies (and their clients) use AI to sort Machine-Learning-AI-in-Finance-11-04-2016-A-1200x1200.jpg
through assets to determine and/or refine the target audience, to gather data about how to best position a brand in various contexts, and to create varied advertisements intended for a wide variety of mediums, including everything from billboards to social media. The final piece is still largely in its infancy, but will no doubt continue to grow and evolve as AI become faster and smarter. Today, the goal of AI in advertising is to optimize campaigns by placing ads in front of the right customer at the right time. As technologies evolve, advertisers will be able to limit their ads on the basis of a huge array of parameters, most of which we’re all familiar with. Targeting an individual will be based on hundreds of parameters and actions, all quantified and measure in the blink of an eye. And creative (and its placement) will adapt in near real-time. In other words, they’ll be able to micro-target at a faster pace than we can imagine.

All of that makes sense, but humans are more than individuals, we are part of broader cultural systems, which means context and cultural cues matter. Yes, each customer is unique and therefore each customer journey is unique. However, there are broader social, symbolic, and cultural forces that guide our behavior depending on the situation at hand. So, the question is, can AI account for those cultural patterns and processes?

Considering the rapid developments in machine and deep learning, these systems will become increasingly capable of teaching themselves to make more precise and effective decisions based on a broader set of inputs. Ultimately this means that for AI to be truly move beyond transactional relevance, it will need to have a more balanced approach, which is to have a robust understanding of people’s aspirations, interactions with each other, and social connections. What are they trying to get done, what are the barriers to that, how do they create a sense of belonging, etc.?

We create culture, interact with it, are affected by it, and can even be destroyed by it. Culture applies its own logic, has a memory, endures after its makers are gone, can be repurposed in supple ways, and can induce action. Because culture can do things we cannot do as individuals, like fostering collective action or making life easier by providing unspoken assumptions on which we can base our lives, AI will need to evolve to do more than react to clicks.

 

 

Shades of Blue: Marrying Art and Science

When chemists at Oregon State University4.jpeg discovered a brilliant new blue pigment serendipitously, they were not thinking about
creating art. But in a true art meets science moment, an applied visual arts major bean using the blue pigments in her artwork as part of an internship in Subramanian’s laboratory. This was also her first foray into the world of chemistry. Human history is filled with examples of innovation that occurred at the juncture of art and science, whether it’s as profound as Leonardo da Vinci’s explorations of anatomy or as mundane as liquid nitrogen ice cream. The point is simple – creative inspiration, whether in product development, advertising, or any other activity, is a matter of rethinking how we look at a problem.

Driven by CEOs that want to see ROI and engagement for every cent spent versus the equally valuable but often nebulous idea of “brand impact,” campaign and branding initiatives can be particularly challenging for CMOs today. Seemingly competing world views clash in large part because we take a binary position – it’s an either/or mentality where art and science are somehow in conflict. But is that fair or is it a modern construct? Are art and science so divergent or have we slipped into a lazy pattern of thinking.

Brands that want to take advantage of the intersection of art and science can start by simply acknowledging the fact that creative and metrics are not mutually exclusive concepts. By blending these two components of the creative process (and yes, science is a creative enterprise) and giving them a common goal to work tow
ards, we see focused innovation. We see new expressions of a common undercurrent.

Blending art and science is about collaborating in ideas generation: the inter-relationship is critical, you can’t have one thing without the other. Code or data are
just a bunch of numbers without the art. A visual masterpiece that produces no action is inspired but not inspiring. Science enables us to be more creative, and creativity allows us to get the most out of our data. But consider “the multiplier effect”. If either the data or creative are bad, the idea will fail. Or worse yet, if they work alone, without the cross-pollination that happens when different ways of experiencing the world come together, then the result can be flat out detrimental. It’s not one or the other that we need, it’s both. It’s not science plus art equals results, it’s more science times art, so a zero for either means failure.

That is where the interesting ideas are – at the intersection of exploration. The future is all about ideas connecting. Those who can bridge art and science will be in demand, will be powerful. If our ideas are going to change hearts and minds, then we need to find expression that can move freely between the boundaries of art and science.

 

Big Data vs. Insights

Over the last 20 years and the emergence of digital as a central element behind marketing and advertising, the industry had gotten smarter and smarter, creating an expanded set of new metrics: dynamic segmentation modeling, click-through rate, impression share, engagement rates, share of voice, bounce rate, etc. Even with these, it is still very hard to measure success in a clear, distinct way. With technology and consumer behaviors evolving as fast as they do, we face new issues every day, from different attributions models to cross-device measurements to connecting online activities to offline sales.

Out of this barrage of metrics grew the messianic promise of Big Data. Add to that the rise of business intelligence tools, and suddenly every agency, no matter the size, needs to have a data scientist. Don’t get me wrong, talented data researchers and masters of analytics have helped shape since the earliest days of advertising data scientists have revolutionized the advertising industry. However, the work has also left many in a situation where they are unable see the forest for the trees, let alone align metrics with creativity and business objectives.

As much as I love data, and I do love it, the whole Big Data movement has come with a hefty price tag. We have lost the ability to tell meaningful stories or insights in favor of huge reports filled with analyses and pivot tables. We have all the data can’t make sense of it in a new, dynamic, enlightened way that makes for advertising and marketing that make brands sing and become part of the broader social fabric. We can target the living hell out of people, but that doesn’t mean what we tell them resonates.

The data we use should help us to create the story, answer questions, and find moments of inspiration. Furthermore, the data should be a tool rather than an object we roll out in lieu of light-bulb moment. Too many agencies have fallen under the data spell and have forgotten to turn those results into stories that align to a client’s objectives and strategies. It’s like talking to a customer about product features (empty of emotion) without selling them on the benefits (the emotional hook).

Quite simply, we need to get back to delivering meaningful consumer insights instead of only data. Delivering insights means telling the brand what is going to happen in their industry, how something we did had an impact on their bottom line, or how we discovered something that will change the way they do business. Simpler still, an insight produces positive change, regardless of whether it comes from data, an interview, or a poem for that matter.

 

Do Awards Matter? Hell Yes They Matter!

I read recently that awards in the ad industry have lost meaning, winner.jpgthat they now longer matter. While I would agree that their relevance has changed, overlooking their role in landing (and retaining) business shouldn’t be ignored. So how important to advertisers are the creative awards in reality? In this era of data and technology, one might expect marketers to talk about creative awards through gritted teeth. After all, much of their time is now spent trying to justify the value of every aspect of marketing at boardroom level.

The rational debate is not over creativity versus effectiveness, but about connecting the dots between creative prowess and advertising effectiveness. The obsession has fallen to data, with some justification. But with more data and more media channels, it is important to have a glue to keep the brand, campaign, or communications strategy together – that glue is fundamentally a great idea, which goes through a creative process to deliver an effective business result.

I certainly understand the nervousness that exists in the minds of our clients, who are trying to look good in front of their bosses. They need to demonstrate their value.  Makes sense. They would rather win effectiveness and not creative awards, which can be seen to carry a greater element of risk. But if an idea is not brave or does not grab attention, how can it be effective? It would be like walking into French Laundry and being served on paper plates. OK, that may be a bit extreme, but you get my point. For work to really cut through and drive a significant change in performance, it has to be highly relevant at an emotional level. And one of the primary ways of achieving relevance is through creativity. Creative awards are a benchmark against which not only great work, but also effectiveness, can easily be measured.

Creative awards also help drive innovation, explore new ways to touch the consumer, encourage the sharing of best practices. Being recognized externally for great work means that the people we employ, from strategists to designers to account folks, can be even more proud of the work they produce and know they are world class. Awards attract better talent, while keeping the best we have from looking for greener pastures elsewhere. Even the smallest shops can raise their profile with some lions, Addys, etc. Metal on the shelf and a mention at Cannes puts everyone involved on the ad world radar.

Awards are a shot in the arm, both for the agency and the clients. And clients, at least those we all dream of working with, have started to take notice because awards do heavy lifting for them as well. They raise their profile, they make them look smarter, edgier, more innovative, more effective. They make them relevant. Clients know that if you are pushing to create award-winning work for them, you are pushing to make the best work possible. And that’s a win/win for everyone.

 

Presentation as Storytelling

The goal of any good presentation is to change thinking, to shake the client’s foundations of belief, to rattle his or her assumptions, to create a new state a awareness. The presentation serves to evoke a feeling in the viewers, whether a client or a project team, and bring them into the moment of experience, compelling them to consider new ways of classifying and thinking about their world. It’s about the story. As with the impressionist tale (see VanMaanen  1988), the story is recounted including all the “odds and ends that are associated with remembered events.”  An audience should be drawn into the story created both by the author/editor and participant(s).Brand-Storyteller.png

Selective packaging of information to exemplify generalized constructs is a standard practice, even though the precise empirical situations in which the information is developed is perhaps far less coherent or obvious than the concepts they serve to illustrate.This is doubly so when addressing the needs of business and design teams with distinct,
targeted problems and limited time.  Our editorial choices make points clear in what might otherwise be murky waters – we make learning sexy.

The key to successful engagement is to move from structural aspects of a story to the symbolic, uncovering systems of meaning that resonate with clients and compel them to action. It should never be a series of bullet points. Why? Because a brand is a signal that triggers a field of meanings in the consumer’s mind. These meanings are conveyed directly and inferentially through stories. By harnessing the symbolic power behind these meanings, strong brands move beyond the codes governing a product category and enter the personal space of the consumer.  The same holds true for the client.  Through storytelling and presentation of symbolic codes, clients move from fixating on the product line and can rethink what the brand means in a wider context.

So what should we do?  First, strip it of text. The media tool is the comforting factor, not the content.  PowerPoint serves as a frame around which to build behavioral norms, but what appears on the screen should augment the story and add color. Second, just because you’re using PowerPoint, it doesn’t mean that you can alter the stage. A presentation is like a play – so why not do it “in the round?” Promote physical interaction and direct interaction between the audience members.  Finally, give people small tasks throughout the presentation so that they are not passive recipients of information but co-creators.  The more they engage the more they will take away.

 

Finding Balance: Data, FIeldwork, and Creativity

There is perhaps nothing new about the ongoing battle between data and qualitative work, and the influence they have on creativity and design. Data is everything, creativity is dead vs. the argument that creativity is paramount and data is a distraction. Neither position is true, though there is some truth in each argument. The goal is to deliver insight that inspires creativity, regardless of the methods by which we gain those insights. The central need is to determine how data and inspiration work together to drive change.

As advertising, marketing, and design come to rely more on technology, we are forced to reconsider what constitutes creative quality. It also means being honest with ourselves and recognizing that data is not a panacea. It, like qualitative work, is part of a thinking process that helps identify the underlying story we need to divine and craft tools that inspire action. At times that can be found in the data alone, but more often it’s found among outliers. Without the two sides working hand in hand, we get half truths.

For marketers, nothing could better define both the essence and preeminence of creativity than empathy. We all recognize the pace of technological change and changing customer behaviors. And we all recognize there is tremendous opportunity in being able to derive greater targeting from the data we collect. But behavioral measurement shouldn’t lull us away from using the creative process to intuit what customers will experience, whether we’re trying to convince them to take an action or building a tool to meet a need. Data underpins everything, but meaningful success will come to those who can augment data with a deeper understanding of the audience. What role does symbolism play? What metaphors connect? How does the object we create make sense in their lives? These are the sorts of things we come to understand through deep immersion.

As an example, some years ago I did work on a medication used in treating schizophrenia. Based on the success rates and data collected about patient behavior, it should have been an easy product to market. However, the sales were flat. It wasn’t until we began examining the process of schizophrenia that we were able to tease out where the problems were. Access to transportation, difficulties with case management, distrust of the psychiatric community, and the role of friends and family all had a significant impact on how the medication was understood. This wasn’t the sort of thing you could get at via data analysis. And yet, using the two methods together allowed the team to develop creative work that resonated deeply and was targeted at the right place and the right time.

What we need to be doing is rebooting brand planning as a qualitative and a quantitative art. What designer, strategist, etc. tasked with building a tool or developing an engaging brand experience wouldn’t want to know a bit about how the audience for their art behaves? How they engage with content? How they engage with a device? But the trick is not getting caught up in the numbers at the expense of the human being behind them.