There's a theory in advertising that suggests emotionally engaging your audience is more important than communicating information about your product. It argues that by establishing a bond with your consumer, you create trust and loyalty, qualities that transcend the product you're selling. Somewhat inventively, it's called "emotional branding".
Now, if you're the sort of person who reads theories and essays about marketing strategies, then maybe that's something you'll already know; personally, the day I start tweeting infographics about user engagement with buzz brands is the same day I renounce my own pulse. But even those without an in-depth knowledge of this world may have noticed the rise of emotional branding recently. Slowly but surely, adverts have stopped dealing in "stuff", and instead have begun concerning themselves with life, death, and slow piano covers of pop songs.
Obviously adverts are adverts and I'm not about to tell you to "stay woke because they are actually just trying to sell you things," but there's a difference between an advert mendaciously suggesting a product may improve your lifestyle - Lynx makes you sexy, Carling makes you a legend - and an advert mapping itself onto the veins of your very existence. We are now surrounded by commercial ploys that don't just gently tug on heartstrings, they yank them out completely and watch the blood trickle down our fronts until we lie dead, before overlaying a sepia montage of our funerals with an acoustic version of "Never Gonna Miss a Thing" in order to flog some kettles.
This really is John Lewis's fault. They're in a largely unique position, in that their adverts are reposted by every website as news stories in themselves, getting the kind of free publicity that other companies must dream about. It all started back in 2009 with this seemingly harmless ad:
A soft, lilting rendition of Guns N'Roses' "Sweet Child of Mine"—a song from everyone's favourite Christmas album Appetite For Destruction—accompanies dusty yellow shots of dewy-eyed children on Christmas morning. The focus is less on showcasing the products, or bragging about prices, but more on creating a feeling in the pit of your tired tummy. John Lewis never looked back. From moon nonce to Lily Allen and the cartoon bear, they are basically the OGs of selling home furnishings via soft focus and even softer chords.
Yet they have inspired legions of copycats, all attaching the same cosmic significance to their tat. I mean, check out Lloyds over here:
They are celebrating 150 years of being a bank by taking credit for loads of shit horses did. Horses die in wars, deliver children from flaming houses and offer solace to disabled people, and somehow that's an advert for a bank. It's as logical as Hastings Direct taking credit for the Norman conquest of England, yet soundtracked by a mournful slab of piano balladry courtesy of Birdy's "Wings," it's almost too self-important to argue with. And if you think "Wings" sounds familiar, you may be shocked to learn that it's not actually a cover. Although it does bear some resemblance to the soft, plodding, emotional song "Heartbeats" by Jose Gonzalez that soundtracked the bouncy balls advert, which was itself a cover of a song by The Knife. Proof if needs be that the hyper-sincere emotional-ad is nothing but a badly framed copy of every one before it.
It's not just Lloyds. Aviva are endorsed by your dead dad's ghost and Lidl-on-wings Easyjet have somehow played a role in rearing your kids. Yet perhaps the most flagrant offenders are McDonald's. Watch this, their latest campaign, "We Are Awake".
That, that right there, is surely the peak. Shots of "real people" working in "real jobs" on the "real streets" finding connections and communion under the yellow arches. It might be night, but McDonald's knows you're still working, shovelling shit into a barrel or digging holes or whatever it is you do, and because of this McDonald's wants you to know you can always count on them for a burger. McDonald's gets you so much, it's even gone to the effort of getting somebody to record a plinky, plonky, hyper-emotional rendition of 90s clubland smasher "Rhythm of the Night."
Let's get this straight: producing an acoustic solo piano rendition of a previously slamming pop song does not make it emotional. You hear me, Facebook? You cannot just cover a song to Grade 2 piano level and then pretend you invented friendship.
The arrogance of the John Lewis school of life and death comes from how massive corporations attempt to superimpose themselves into our experiences. McDonald's aren't just selling you a lifestyle any more – they're selling you a memory you never had in the first place. Except it's not quite right, not quite real life, not really. It's the Instagram version of real life. It's real life with lens flare, a world where all grandmothers look like Helen Mirren and everyone drives 4x4s. These are ads that rely so heavily on their constructed significance upon your life that you wouldn't know what they were selling, if a logo didn't appear at the end.
Complaining about adverts comes just under "Christmas stuff being in the shops earlier every year" in the tired old conversations stake. This isn't a rage against advertising, though, it's about this increasingly popular pseudo-sentimental strand of advertising. When films like Blade Runner or Minority Report predicted the future, advertising was always imagined as a dystopian affair with huge in-your-face moving billboards and lurid neon slogans blaring against the night sky. To be honest, I'd take that over this. I'd rather an advert smacked me bluntly in the face with its true intentions, instead of watching a little kid graduate, get married, have kids, grow old and die in the space of one minute, all set to a mournful piano cover of Fetty Wap's "Trap Queen".
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