Introduction: Regarding Emotion and Regarding The Pain of Others

AdAutopsy, Mediating Thoughts

“Shock can become familiar. Shock can wear off. Even if it doesn’t, one can not look. People have means to defend themselves against what is upsetting.”

“There is nothing wrong with standing back and thinking. To paraphrase several sages: ‘Nobody can think and hit someone at the same time.’” – Susan Sontag, Regarding The Pain of Others

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(Ash over shoulder as if you’re mind is too weighed down with all the injustice and inconsistency in the world to worry about the state of your carpet = Generic Philosopher Pose No. 7)

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This post has been incubating for over two months. Bloggers will be familiar with those odd pangs of guilt that come from not writing for a while. For those who don’t blog, it’s a bit like putting off your full-body (and eventual personality) transplant whilst continuing to scoff yourself silly, sloth about, smoke like a small chimney and haemorrhage money at your local boozer on a daily weekly daily basis. We are masters of procrastination and of cheating ourselves in the process. I suppose the general theme of the next few posts is about how we can know what the right thing to do is but don’t feel like doing it. It’s about how we are masters of ‘legitimising’ our actions or inactions to make ourselves feel better.

Susan Sontag is perhaps the broodiest philosopher I can feasibly tolerate. Of course, she’s a lefty (as in left-wing, not left-handed), as let’s face it, there are very few philosophers who come from the right. She’s an activist. She says the wrong thing at the wrong time (evidenced by her comments on 9/11) and her ramblings are riddled with contradictions. I tolerate her because these contradictions are undeniably human. She knows that only self-awareness and humility allow her to reassess her personal views and experiences. Such self-criticism prevents intellectual and moral conservatism. More importantly, I tolerate her because she rubs people up the wrong way, as all intimidatingly intelligent women do.

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Sontag’s ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’ ponders on the effects of emotionally engineered and manipulated photographs on society at the hands of the media. She examines how we can sloth-out in front of the 10 O’clock News, get terribly upset about Ebola’s grip over West Africa, compare the scenes to a zombie apocalypse or a medical dystopian thriller (like Contagion) that we saw on Netflix last week, then cynically berate the American media for it’s histrionics and wind up posting an article on Facebook about how you’re more likely to spontaneously combust than you are to catch Ebola.

Sontag identifies that photography’s claim of ‘eye-witness’ authenticity is false – after all, #nofilter wouldn’t have caught on if Instagram snaps were more likely to be un-filtered than filtered. Photographs are manipulated to be more effective emotional tasers. Sontag considers our growing immunity to photography-as-emotional-taser as we are exposed to more and more of it’s ‘shock therapy’ and we are more savvy as to the methods engineered and used to elicit an emotional response.

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Sontag explores how and why we crave the emotions aroused by shocking and horrifying images of suffering (so often used in those “for just £2 a month” adverts). Why do we simultaneously wallow in guilt, pity, shame and disgust whilst displacing and alleviating this plethora of negative emotions through media-cynicism and pointing (rather than lifting) fingers? She believes that such a craving for shocking images has led to their commodification and this in turn is lessening their emotional impact. The mass production of such images has degraded shock into cliche. Perhaps the manufacture of ’emotionally engaging’ pictures, films and adverts is also degrading a whole plethora of emotions into cliche?

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Sontag’s book has never been more relevant. Emotion is the advertising buzzword of the decade, followed closely by ‘engage’ and ‘content’. Selling moisturiser to women now entails making them cry about their low self-esteem and body image as a not-too-subtle-reminder of why they should buy the product. Emotion is incredibly important in brand building. Unless you have forged an emotional connection between consumers and your brand then you don’t really have a brand. The whole point of brands is to justify a price premium for that emotional connection. However, I have three problems with how ’emotion’, in the broadest sense, is used in Adland:

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1.We tend to just pull out the above graph from the infamous IPA Databank, nod knowingly, then reiterate to our clients how important it is to be ’emotionally engaging.’ Emotions are complex, and one big fat descriptor, ’emotional’, is hardly adequate. In advertising we have a morbid fear of complexity, of nuances. As a result we often swing violently between gormless positivity, cracking jokes or (usually for Christmas) we try and make people cry. With charity adverts, we tend to know only one emotion: guilt. I am privileged to work with creatives who create great adverts with fantastic emotional range. There are, however, too many adverts out there that have the emotional range of a teaspoon.

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2. Sometimes we confuse emotion as a ‘input’, when really it’s an ‘output.’ Showing a lot of happy smiley faces and people dancing around elated or crying african children does not constitute emotional advertising. If anything, my emotional response to this kind of advertising ranges from sheer indifference to overcome with annoyance (and the desire to throw the nearest object to hand at the telly). Sometimes rational inputs have a more emotional output, as is with the case with the UN’s Open Defecation campaign. 

3. We assume that ’emotional’ is diametrically opposed to ‘rational.’ It’s not that simple. It’s the connection between our emotions and our rational thoughts that is currently under-explored and under-valued. Although our emotions often lead the way when it comes to decision-making, we’ll dismiss our emotions as ‘irrational’ if we cannot post-rationalise them and make sense of them. We need to feel that our emotions are rational to justify any actions they have led to. Screen Shot 2014-11-16 at 21.35.47

Emotional disengagement is perhaps a rational response to advertisers going whole hog emotionally. My boyfriend argues until he is blue in the face that he is immune to advertising’s emotional manipulation. He’s part of a growing population of advertising-cynics who are willing themselves to be emotionally disengaged. People are consciously emotionally disconnecting and this is disconcerting. I loathe to be a portent of doom, but when you deal in emotional manipulation somebody needs to ponder on some potential consequences of such a manipulation:

1.  Is the emotional one-up-manship going on in advertising inadvertently fostering a coldhearted cynicism? Does shock therapy work well enough for us to keep administering it despite our continual desensitisation?

Part I: Emotional Desensitisation and The Ugliness of Shock

2. What if we came to think that love had to be “like the movies”? What if we came to think that love was just a concept manufactured by advertisers to sell De Beers diamonds and boxes of chocolates? What if the media owned our perceptions of what emotions should be like?

Part II: What is ‘Real’ and What is ‘Represented’ Emotion?

3. What would the world look like if we never thought about our actions and just went on emotional autopilot, reacting to everything without thinking? What if, in wallowing in guilt, pity and misery we feel like we’ve done enough when in fact we’re just relishing in the spectacle of it all from our couches?

Part III: Apathy is Not The Only Cause of Inaction

As ever, as much as I loathe to be a portent of doom I loathe more being unprepared for that potential doom. Here are some ‘ways in’ to the ‘ways out.’

Part IV: The Known Unknowns

Animals in Adverts

'Brand old' thinking on Brands, AdAutopsy

“Pets are indeed an intermediate category between human beings and objects.” – Baudrillard, The System of Objects

If adverts are an intermediary between people/consumers and objects/products then, by (il)logical deduction, adverts are pets. I know you’re thinking that I’ve finally lost it, that I’ve cracked up. That statement, however, seems less mental when you consider how many advertising campaigns and brand logos feature animals; Barclay’s horse, PG Tips’ monkey, Cadbury’s Gorilla, Andrex’ puppy, Frosties’ tiger, Playboy’s bunny, Lacoste’s alligator, Le Coq Sportif’s cockerel, Penguin’s penguin, Dove’s dove, Jaguar’s jaguar and Puma’s puma to name just a few.

Animals have been used to carry metaphorical and symbolic meaning since, well, forever. The first caveman paintings, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Roman and Greek mythology, Medieval heraldry, horoscopes, artistic iconography and now brands and adverts all use animals as a way of articulating complex ideas and adding a layer of meaning. Animals can aid people’s memory of a brand or product’s qualities without the need to bash them over the head with a brand proposition. A Platypus is the new mascot for First Direct as ‘The Unexpected Bank.’ A bunny is a sexually suggestive (“at it like rabbits”) symbol for Playboy without being overt. A jaguar is the perfect metaphor for a car that prowls about the urban jungle as it’s engine purrs smugly.

AMV/BBDO freaked me out in my first ever interview with the question, “If you were an animal, what animal would you be?” They weren’t just trying to keep me on my toes, they were trying to see how good I was at constructing a metaphor. I probably should have said a platypus rather than a puppy. Brands are metaphors for inanimate products and intangible services. Animals are living breathing metaphors. Their marriage is one of common sense.

A ‘Woof’Wagen over a ‘Volks/Folks’Wagen. 

Other than that dogs look hilarious with their chops flapping in the wind in a moving car, Volkswagen’s Woofwagen campaign by Adam&EveDDB centers on that old saying that dogs are like their owners. Put different breeds of dogs in all the different car models that Volkswagen have on offer and you have the message ‘There’s a Volkswagen for all of us’. Volkswagen can broadcast that they have many different cars whilst portraying a unifying message: Variety is the spice of life and variety enables us to define ourselves. Our dogs and our cars are suited to us, as the soundtrack ‘Me and You’ by Barry Louis Polisar reminds us, and luckily there is the breed of dog and breed of Volkswagen car for each and every one of us.

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The campaign, like many adverts featuring animals (The Bear and Hare John Lewis advert, also by Adam&EveDDB, being the most obvious) pulls at our ‘awww’ muscles. This isn’t just because dogs are cute. It’s because we can load animals with more emotional energy than we can humans. We are sceptical of human emotion, particularly when it is acted out in adverts. Their happy little faces, their tongues lolling out in 60mph winds are somehow more expressive than some loony tune grinning moronically and smugly as he winds his brand new VW around country roads.

We realise how much we love our dogs, how much we go through life with them by our sides. Oh yeah, shit. We do a lot with our cars too. People judge us by our cars as much as by which dog is sitting in the backseat. This advert is perhaps the truest manifestation of Baudrillard’s statement: ‘Volks’, meaning folks or people, has been transformed into ‘Woof’ signifying dog or pet. “Pets are indeed an intermediate category between human beings and objects.”

Human + Car = Volkswagen

Pet + Car = Woofwagen

Car <—-> Pet <—-> Human

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So what if Volkswagen had decided to represent the diversity of their range by putting different people in their cars? We might have been judgemental of the human equivalent of the Afghan Hound in a red open-topped sports car. We might have considered the human equivalent to be a bit of a poser or a cliché (Bridget Jones’ mini break moment above sprung to mind). Similarly the dreadlocked creature (please comment if you know the breed) is wholly appropriate to be sitting in the hippy Volkswagen Beetle. Even if we hate hippies or posers in sports cars, we still liked the dogs that represented them in the ad.

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When animals appear in adverts there is usually something a bit more interesting at play than mere association, metaphor and pulling on our ‘awwww’ muscles. There’s a reason why you can take a buzzfeed quiz telling you what your ‘Inner Dog Breed’ is (courtesy of Volkswagen). There’s a reason why most viral memes and youtube clips feature animals. There’s a reason why a Guardian article exists on ‘The Growing Economy of Cat Videos.’ This is, quite simply, because we almost prefer animals to humans.

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We trust animals more than humans

“The pathos-laden presence of a dog, a cat, a tortoise or a canary is a testimonial to a failure of the inter-human relationship and an attendant recourse to a narcissistic domestic universe where subjectivity finds fulfilment in the most quietistic way.” – Baudrillard

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‘The Cat Spinster Lady’ is a fantastic stereotype. To be honest, I reckon I wouldn’t mind being one. The tragedy is that ‘The Cat Spinster Lady’ is portrayed as an eccentric loner, who, too bizarre to hook a fella and have children, has ended up filling the void of human affection in her life with tens of cats. She gives them all different personalities and names, she is acutely aware of how they interact with each other. She settles their clawing scraps with each other like a mother would bang her children’s heads together. She watches out for the weaker one in the pack, making sure it has extra food. She knows which one is a bit naughty and enjoys shredding the curtains.

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Animals are passive receptacles for our emotions (The link here is for my good friend Joel’s piece on Cat Cafés, possibly the best description of cats ever written). We can project our feelings onto animals. This is why talking dogs, donkeys, meerkats and ‘Grumpy Cats’ are almost larger than life than real humans. We give animals dependable caricatures and turn our furry four-legged friends into psychologically predictable sort-of-human-beings. Grumpy Cat isn’t really grumpy. We have projected a human emotion onto the animal. We can put words into their mouths.

Humans, however, respond with their own words and their own feelings. They aren’t passive receptacles. Humans formulate their own meanings, they have their own emotions. Humans respond to things. Humans can hold back emotions too, they can say one thing and mean another. An animal, however, can only ‘say’ what we want it to ‘say’.

Perhaps, consequently, we are more likely to trust a talking cat telling us to ‘Carpe Diem’ than we would a human being. O2’s ‘Be More Dog’ campaign tells us to embrace, with the mindless enthusiasm of a dog chasing a ball, new mobile technology, to sign up to O2 Priority, to keep texting and mobile internet surfing without due care or cynicism.

If a person came on screen and told us to seize the day on behalf of O2 we probably would have a degree of cynicism. Humans have motives. Animals don’t. If my one-eyed geriatric cat pissed out of his litter tray then I wouldn’t think that he is doing this to annoy me. If my boyfriend pissed out of the toilet then I would probably question his motives (unless he was really, really drunk and then I would probably consider him to be something of an animal). This is because we know (or at least I hope we know) that animals actually do not have the same complex psychological mechanisms as our own. Animals are motivated by food, sex, a tummy rub and that’s about it. When an advert puts words into an animal’s mouth you forget about the human aspect of what it’s communicating. It puts one more dividing line between the marketeers in the boardroom talking about brand propositions and USPs and you as a potential consumer sitting in front of your TV. “Pets are indeed an intermediate category between human beings and objects.”

I would argue that mobile phone providers, like O2, have experienced the “failure of the inter-human relationship,” despite many of their brand propositions harping on about customer service and connecting people. This isn’t O2’s fault. Like as with energy, internet and public transport, consumers do not want to pay their mobile phone bills. These kinds of things are seen as ‘negative purchases.’  We expect to flick on a light switch without having to pay for it. We don’t see how people can put a price on texting your friends, but they have to. This, unfortunately, makes these kinds of brands seem untrustworthy in the eyes of the consumer. They’d rather listen to a cat giving them a pep talk about getting out there and enjoying life than they would some crusty CEO with pound signs in his eyes.

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Similarly Aleksandr is so loveable that people actually buy cuddly toy versions of the comparethemarket.com meerkat. He’s made buying insurance feel less boring and less like you aren’t actually buying anything tangible. So much so that Aleksandr’s ­autobiography A Simples Life: The Life And Times of Aleksadr Orlov had more orders before publication than the life stories of Tony Blair, Cheryl Cole, Russell Brand or Dannii Minogue. The Go Compare man, Gio Compario, by contrast, is fucking annoying. Simples.

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The Go Compare man even received death threats. I think we all would have liked him to have been mauled by a pack of wolves in the advert below, but I can see why they thought that Sue Barker would be more ‘on brand’ and resonate better with their target audience.

Andrex: Because it’s embarrassing to talk about wiping your arse.

I used to feel a bit peeved when the Andrex Puppy would bound onto my screen in one of the 130 ads the little fucker has featured in. I used to think, “Jesus, do they really think we are going to choose Andrex over a cheaper brand just because they use a cutesy iccle puppy in their advertising?” Turns out yes. Yes we will. 

When JWT invented Andrex’ mascot in 1972 they were crafting an elaborate metaphor to give bog roll meaning beyond ‘the stuff we wipe our arses with’. Soft, loyal, a little bit mischievous but ultimately endearing is the perfect brand image to craft for bog roll. 1 in 3 people who buy Andrex will not buy any other brand of toilet paper. In the UK alone they sell 1.5million rolls of the stuff each day. That’s enough to circle the earth one and a half times in shit tickets. When I see a labrador retriever I think of Andrex. Andrex is the puppy. Andrex without the puppy would be unthinkable. Screen Shot 2014-06-20 at 17.07.53

But, for some reason when the Andrex puppy bounds onto the screen I don’t think about the loo. In fact, when consumers were reminded of the fact that Andrex sold bog roll (you know, the stuff you wipe your arse with) in their ‘Scrunch or Fold’ campaign there was a bit of an outcry.

Vice’s Alex Miller hailed it as ‘The Worst Advertising Campaign in History.’ Personally I can think of much worse adverts (or not think of them – arguably the worst adverts are the ones that don’t even make an impression), but Mr Miller had a perfectly valid point. He objected to the inclusion of real people in adverts about shit tickets. 

Remember: “Pets are indeed an intermediate category between human beings and objects.” When we find it hard to talk about something, like wiping our arses, we might get an animal to mediate the discussion, to sugarcoat what that object is actually used for.

About the farmer-type 13 seconds in: “This paternal nod from an earthy farmer type? A nod that advertisers normally use to reassure their customers that the sausages are organic is now being used to assure us that yes, those thick, working hands sometimes put down the shovel to fiddle with perforated paper so thin he can barely feel it between his calloused fingers.”

About the seductive woman 14 seconds in: “She’s a character straight from hell, a woman so depraved and overly sexualised that she even tries to turn wiping her arse into an erotic escapade. Imagine her beckoning you into the bathroom: “Oops, I left the door open and now my fake nail has burst through the seductively folded Andrex, I’m getting all dirty…” Jesus, this character is definitely the worst in this advert. No competition. I think she just made my dick grimace.”

5202024113_206397647cThe Andrex puppy has come to mediate our relationship with what is, quite frankly, a bit of a gross but necessary product. Its a strategy that Cushelle also adopted with their sickeningly cute koala bear and by Saatchi & Saatchi (Stolkholm) to flog Lambi. 

To conclude, animals can help flog boring products that are otherwise difficult to sell. It’s hard to get interested about PG Tips’ teabags, but a bunch of monkeys drinking tea is much more exciting. A cute puppy accidentally unravelling all the toilet roll and sprawling it across the house is much better than asking people to describe how they use the product. We can refer to the product’s benefits by using an animal as a metaphor that is informative, tugs at our ‘awww’ muscle and makes things a bit more interesting.  More importantly, an animal can do all these things much better than a human can simply because an animal will immediately appear to have fewer motives than a human. I’m fed up of skinny models telling me that ‘I’m worth it’ and celebrities telling me that if I drink Pepsi I’ll be like them. So bring on the cat videos. Bring on the talking dogs. Somebody get me a stuffed compare the meerkat for my birthday.

“The object is in fact the finest of domestic animals…In a word, it is a dog of which nothing remains but faithfulness. What is more, you can look at an object without it looking back at you. That is why everything that cannot be invested in human relationships is invested in objects.” – Baudrillard