I’ve had enough. You’ve had enough. Way back in 1936 even George Orwell had had enough. ‘Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket’ he wrote, presumably whilst strangling a plush meerkat toy and adding to his repertoire of bestial allegory. Such a complaint seems rather quaint now. Orwell might have had a few Pears’ soap print ads to swallow, but at least he didn’t have to sit in front of an IMAX screen and endure the Three Kitty advert in 5:1 Dolby Surround. For whilst advertising has always been unavoidable and tacky, it’s the advent of viral content that has caused companies to abandon any pretence of sales in favour of the sort of deafening swill-monsoon that would’ve surely caused Orwell to leap from the nearest balcony window.
To see how far we’ve come, have a look at some of these commercials from a late-90s ad break. Note the rotating cast of bland, happy faces; the inoffensive background jingles; the pastel graphics and demonstrative voiceovers. No hashtags. No following the adventure online. No skateboarding CGI goats. Just straight-up ‘buy our shit.’ Where advertisers once led viewers to their products by the scruff of the neck; the user-driven power of social networks means the tables have now turned. In 2014 it seems that many advertisers are caught in an increasingly desperate game of catch-up, with the rapid turnover of online content leaving huge companies flailing in the dust.
Meet Vimtoad, for example. He’s the soft-drink peddling CGI meme-phibian and mascot for the new Vimto ads. He’s got 4,300 followers and his tweets include things like ‘Sun’s out. Anyone fancy a game of croak-et?’ and ‘I’m luvin’ being Vimto’s croaksperson! #vimtoad.’ His status as a toad is further affirmed through dozens more tweets, each one largely grappling with the same basic toad-centric views we’ve by now come to associate with the fruit-flavoured cordial. If the Vimtoad isn’t already making significant inroads into your daily routine then there’s always the ‘Vimtoad Yourself’ app. Here you can toadify your face, uploading a head-shot and watching as it’s stretched to fit the corporate avatar template we’ve come to know and love.
For argument’s sake let’s try and imagine what set of circumstances would allow you to derive any enjoyment whatsoever from Vimtoading yourself. I’d have to be around six years old and it’d have to be one of the first times I’d ever used a computer. It’d probably have to be a free CD-ROM that my school got from saving enough Weetabix tokens (sorry, toadkens) and even then I’d only be distracted for a couple of minutes before pursuing more worthwhile tasks like making fart noises with my armpit. What’s stranger is to think of all the ideas that must have been rejected before this one was settled upon. The sheer amounts of revision, tweaking, scrapping and brainstorming that must’ve happened before it gets anywhere near your iPhone screen.
Perhaps it’s unfair to pick on Vimto when what they’re doing is only symptomatic of a much wider trend. Take a look through the ‘Promoted Tweets’ on your timeline and you’ll notice the laggards behind huge domestic products have decided that memes are the sole currency on which ideas are now traded. For your 2014 ad-executive, customers are little more than rats scurrying around in an online maze who’ve learned to repeatedly click ‘like’ at the sight of a silly singing cat. The reason for this line-of-thought is neatly summarised by Three’s most recent slogan ‘We All Need Silly Stuff’, and further expanded upon by Walls ice-cream, whose adverts urge us to say ‘Goodbye Serious.’ It seems that in this age of austerity advertisers have decided that we’re all trudging into the head-wind like figures from a Lowry painting. Here we are, head bowed under slate-grey skies, hoping for a crumb of happiness fed to us by the giving hand of Unilever.
Not only are these gimmicks desperately insulting to anyone possessing critical faculties, they’re also frequently an abject failure. Head on over to Kellogg’s Krave Twitter account and bear witness to tweets like ‘RT if you’re krushing on #krave’ which attract less retweets than one of Dave Schneider’s Photoshop efforts. In a somewhat subdued response to this, the account is now mostly dedicated to posting generic #TeenProblems like auto-correct fails and GCSE revision jokes. In a way you have to feel sorry for whoever these companies are handing their password over to, the task being about as fruitful as picking up a pay-phone and flirting with the dial-tone.
This bizarre digital landscape calls to mind the ‘Itchy Scratchy and Poochie Show’ Simpsons episode where a sweating PR executive is wringing his hands in panic about why their latest character isn’t a hit when all the focus-group research has promised it would be. These guys have all seen the Gangnam Style video, people love bright colours and flashing images don’t they? So where’s it all gone wrong?
The answer lies in the simple unpredictability of what racks up the hit-counts and what doesn’t. Whilst this picture of a photogenic runner is instantly-recognisable, the £6.5 million pound Vimto campaign languishes in obscurity. The only real consistent factor here is that viral content doesn’t originate intentionally, and it’s rarely the work of multi-national corporations. Much like how anyone going out of their way to write a hit single is unlikely to do so, corporations trying to go viral are doomed to failure before they’ve even begun. Perhaps advertisers will soon learn that lesson, but until then let’s keep away from the retweet button and keep the silly stuff firmly to ourselves.