Schema Incongruent Advertising

Quick Read: A dollop of ‘schema incongruence’, strategically thrown into an ad, could sometimes serve as a powerful stimuli.

Did you know that Reddit put together its recent Super Bowl ad in less than a week?

The ad is remarkable.

Quoting the NYTimes article..

The Reddit ad started out like a clichéd car commercial, with two S.U.V.s racing across the desert. Then the signal seemed to fry, and Reddit’s orange-and-white alien-head logo commandeered the screen, followed by a lengthy printed statement that left viewers scrambling to grab a photo or screenshot...

The Kellogg School Super Bowl Advertising Review, an annual ranking from Northwestern University’s business school, reported shortly after the game on Sunday that Reddit’s commercial was among the most effective commercials of the broadcast. The Kellogg School’s list measures the execution of the commercial, the quality of the attention it generates, its memorability and other factors...

When one analyses this ad from Reddit and attempts to theorise the ‘how and why it worked the way it did’ one is sure to run into the concept of ‘schema incongruence in brand messaging’.

Schema incongruent advertising

When incoming information can be well organized into one’s existing knowledge structures, it can be called as schema-congruent information. When the information does not easily fit into the existing knowledge structures, the information is schema-incongruent.

In a seminal paper in 1982, George Mandler from the University of California, San Diego proposed his Theory on Schema Incongruity. His thesis centered on the notion that although people generally like things that match their expectations, moderate incongruity can be arousing and thus intriguing. Furthermore, because moderate incongruity can be resolved with minimal effort, it tends to result in favourable evaluations. (source)

Over the years, several researchers have validated the impact of schema incongruence on brand messaging. For example, in an oft quoted research paper by Halkias, G., and Kokkinaki, F. (2012) titled ‘Cognitive and affective responses to schema-incongruent brand messages‘, the authors empirically investigate and validate that incongruent stimuli may attract more of the recipients’ attention, increase their cognitive arousal, and may finally elicit more positive judgements.  

And in another research paper by Hye Jin Yoon (2015) titled ‘Understanding schema incongruity as a process in advertising‘, the author states that strategies evoking schema incongruity have often been used in advertising because information incongruent to schema has the potential to increase interest, memorability, and persuasiveness in consumers.

And to help elucidate this further, she proposes a four-stage process model (see below) and discusses each stage in detail with a focus on the impact factors that need to be addressed for using a successful incongruity strategy in advertising.

A process model of incongruity in advertising, Hye Jin Yoon (2012), Source

So the next time you see an ad that seems irreverent, fun and provocative (the tropes most often employed by ‘impulse brands’ like candies, chewing gum etc) you know the method to the madness behind their creative work – a dollop of ‘schema incongruence’ strategically thrown in to serve as powerful stimuli.

And yeah, by the way, just in case it didn’t come to your notice, Robinhood (this is a quick follow up to the previous post, remember?) also aired an ad during this Super Bowl. And let’s just say that it did get some attention.

Mainstream, not meme

Quick Read: The next time you see something labelled as a meme, ask yourself if it is actually actually the expression of a mainstream culture (or counter culture) albeit within a specific societal context. Calling something a ‘meme’ strips off the necessary nuance and clouds comprehension. So – it’s mainstream, not meme.

1: r/Wallstreetbets

Would I expect to find Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates or Warren Buffet on r/WallstreetBets?

Unlikely.

After all, why would some of the world’s richest people fancy a speculative bet on fundamentally weak stocks? So I would be surprised if they’d even know, much less care about stonk memes.

Park that thought and we’ll be right back.

2: The 3-Ladders of Social Class

Alex Danco’s “The Michael Scott Theory of Social Class” has been one of the most thought provoking posts that I have read in the recent past. A highly recommended read in case you haven’t yet.

In it, he speaks about ‘Michael Church’s 3-ladder system’ and how once you recognise it and its constituent dynamics, you cannot unsee it play out across demographics and domains all around you. He writes:

Several years ago, Michael Church wrote a neat summary of the American social class system, and how the traditional metaphor of “climbing the ladder of social class” is wrong in an important way. There isn’t one single ladder; there are three – each with different values, norms and goals. You have the first, and largest ladder, Labour. Next, you have the “Educated Gentry” ladder that corresponds to what we typically call the Upper Middle Class. And finally, you have the elite ladder.

Climbing the labour ladder means making more money. At the bottom are really tough jobs, typically paid hourly, informally, or with tips. Above that there are stable, but modest blue collar jobs; then high-skilled or good Union-protected careers. Finally at the top you find “Labour leadership”, which doesn’t mean being a union boss, but means, “You’ve made it. You own stuff. You drive a new F-150, you have income properties, you enjoy nice things.”

If you’ve made it to Labour leadership, you are by no means hurting for money. But you have not actually escaped the category of “economic losers”, because the Labour ladder does not create paths to leverage. That is the fundamental difference between how the labour ladder works versus how the elite ladder works. The people on the labour ladder fully understand this. (…)

Skipping the middle ladder for a second, we move to the Elite ladder. The Elite ladder has a lot in common with the Labour ladder: it’s straightforward. You move up by getting more money and more power. The only fundamental difference is that you climb the Labour ladder by working hard, whereas you climb the Elite ladder by acquiring leverage. (..)

The middle ladder works completely differently from the other two. This ladder isn’t about money or power; it’s about being interesting. You climb this ladder by being more educated, and towards the top, by having costly habits and virtues. 

At the bottom is also a transitional layer: it’s how you get onto this ladder if you weren’t born there, often via Community or 1st generation College. Above that is the upper-middle class Petite Bourgeoisie. Higher up the ladder are “elite creatives”, people with obscure or virtuous-sounding PhDs, notably interesting lives, or Blue Check Marks on Twitter. (They may well earn less money than those below them on the ladder – this ladder isn’t about income.) At the very top of this ladder is an exclusive group: “Cultural leadership”. The litmus test for attaining this group is, “could you write an opinion piece in the New York Times.” 

Source: The Michael Scott Theory of Social Class. By Alex Danco

When I accept this construct even at a broader level, I’m tempted to posit the following.

Just as there is no single ladder, but three – each with different values, norms and goals, there is no single cultural construct, but (at least) three – each with different values, norms and goalsthat correspond to each of these social/societal ladders (this is diversity in cultural constructs that is over and above the conventional manifestations of cultural diversity that we usually recognise around the dimensions of region, religion, ethnicity etc). The idea here is that culture is contextual to its underlying societal ladder.

This might sound obvious (and it is to a large extent). But when we accept this thesis, one should also accept the corollary – there is no one counterculture. Because, different people relate in different ways to what is labelled as counterculture in popular discourse. For, what might resonate with me as a ‘cultural norm’, or what might appear to me as an artefact of an emerging counterculture in my social/societal context, might appear as an entirely different thing (or sometimes might not even be evident) for someone on a different societal ladder living with different constructs/conceptions of culture. So the emergent idea for me here is that counterculture is contextual to its underlying ladder (vs being a universally applicable relic of time).

Caroline Busta in her thought provoking article recently said that The internet didn’t kill counterculture—you just won’t find it on Instagram. I’d add a little further to this argument and say that I may, after all, perhaps find manifestations of counterculture on Instagram – but only I ; while others may perhaps find that on Reddit and others on Clubhouse.

The Internet has only siloed the contexts where the drivers of the (counter) cultural forces emerge and the canvas on which the strokes of (counter) cultural expressions takes form and shape. That’s why for people who worship at the altar of NYT Op-eds or meticulously follow the blue checkmarks on twitter, the Gamestop short squeeze would have come as a sensational meme or ‘breaking news’, while for those that are on r/Wallstreetbets it was just another day when a topically relevant cultural expression found its restless voice.

Gully Boy, Source

That’s why when the rest of India was enjoying it as a Bollywood movie on Netflix or Amazon Prime, the artists in the slums of Dharavi were discovering and finessing their craft through TikTok (now banned in India) and ShareChat.

3: Gamestonk!!

And that’s why I find Elon Musk’s tweet revealing.

When even those like Hedge Funds that have an existential stake in the emergent buzz cooking up in the worlds of Reddits and Robinhoods were caught unawares of the power of the ‘Gamestonk’ phenomenon, an unlikeliest person seems to have not just understood but also arguably played an influential role in the unraveling of a grassroots phenomenon on r/Wallstreetbets.

After all, that’s the world’s richest person showing that he is more culturally attuned to what is cooking up among the crowds versus anyone else that one may expect to care. He seemed to be able to see something as a mainstream force of a cultural expression – that has just been waiting for its time within a societal context – versus just as some amusing meme unleashed by Robinhood frenzy.

In a parallel universe he might have been a true blue marketer (which he perhaps already is albeit a wealthy one) or better still ……….. a President of a nation state*.

*Did you know that Elon Musk holds triple citizenship? US, Canada and South Africa. (source)

Narrative Violations and Narrative Primitives

Quick Read: Sometimes narratives could have ‘violations’. And sometimes, what might at first appear to be a ‘violation’ could prove to be intrinsic to its narrative. Knowing the former from the latter could help unlock great value – across verticals or contexts.

Making sense of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” is said to be difficult.

It is considered by many to be one of the most revered and feared compositions in Jazz history. In fact generations of Jazz musicians are known to approach ‘Giant Steps’ as the pinnacle in Jazz improvisation.

Why? This video could provide a delightful crash course of an answer.

Or take Afrobubblegum – the new film genre redefining on screen representation of Africa.

It refers to fun, fierce and frivolous African art that has joy and hope at the centre of it. The pioneer of this style, Wanuri Kahiu a TED fellow and a Kenyan filmmaker says “We’re so used to narratives out of Africa being about war, poverty and devastation. We believe that Africa is joyful and full of pride and respect and hope,” and continues to champion the need for such art that captures the full range of human experiences to tell vibrant stories of Africa.

And tell she did!

In 2018, Wanuri Kahiu’s story of young lesbian love, Rafiki, made international headlines for being the first Kenyan film programmed at the Cannes Film Festival in 71 years of French Riviera cinema history.

What is common between Wanuri Kahiu’s ‘Afrobubblegum’ and John Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’?

The genre of Afrobubblegum or the Jazz track ‘Giant Steps’ standout because they ‘violate’ the popular narratives around their respective art forms or subjects. They are examples of what venture capitalists call Narrative Violations.

Narrative Violations

While the term could seem like a fancy jargon to reference the essential characteristic of what makes something a ‘contrarian bet’ to a VC, I should admit that it serves its semantic purpose of helping us put a label on something specific through descriptive and non ambiguous terminology.

Perhaps it is this pull that made Geoff Lewis and Eric Stromberg – the founders of Bedrock Capital – write a manifesto for their firm titled ‘In Search of Narrative Violations‘ stating the following..

Some recent ‘Narrative Violations’ listed on Bedrock Capital’s manifesto letter

The letter in its entirety is eloquent and makes for a great read and ends on an inspiring note saying..

“..As our keystrokes hunt for the next narrative high, thousands of possibilities that will never be remain trapped beneath our fingertips. When we allow popular narrative to dictate who, where, and what is worthy of our time or capital, breakthroughs that could transcend remain overlooked, underestimated, or simply fade away.

Against all odds, a few brave entrepreneurs violating the narrative today will come to define profound new truths tomorrow. We’re on a mission to find them

To be clear, the concept of ‘Narrative Violations’ has also had its fair share of critiques for being too reductive. It was even declared 2019’s ‘VC Bingo’ buzzword of the year.

Nonetheless, I find the concept to be a clarifying filter that helps me process or question most things with a healthy dose of scepticism and encourages me to seek out edge cases in popular rhetoric, including say even that around the concept of ‘Narrative Violation’ itself.

Why?

Consider this question.

What if, sometimes, narrative violations are part of the narrative?

i.e., what if a ‘violation’ is actually an inherent part of a larger pattern that constitutes the narrative itself? Like say, a recurring motif that becomes apparent if only one were to step back and consider the big picture. Being able to see if and when that is the case could help us identify emerging paradigms and recognise how such paradigms propagate.

For e.g., after the dotcom bubble burst in 2000, Carlota Perez published her seminal book Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital arguing that the ‘burst’ was completely normal and qualified it by drawing patterns from four similar epochal periods over the last two centuries: the industrial revolution, steel and railways, electricity and heavy engineering, the automobiles and mass production.

Across each of these periods, she pattern matched its associated moments of ‘crash’ (the equivalent of the dotcom bubble burst from 2000) and recognised such instances as inalienable parts of larger cycles that play out over several decades (as opposed to say some inexplicable violations to the popular narratives of their times).

Source: Carlota Perez, Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital,2002

The master stroke of her framework is that it inherently provisions for moments of ‘big bangs’, ‘bubbles’, ‘crashes’ and then again necessary ‘recompositions’ as part of a single unified narrative that cohesively explains the interplay between financial capital and technological revolutions. And then continues to shine a spotlight on how this narrative seemed to have repeated itself across ages almost inviolably.

(Bonus reads: Two of my favourite thinkers, Alex Danco and Ben Thomspon have recently used Carlota Perez’s framework to write about Debt Financing and Paradigm Shifts in tech. Highly recommended reads indeed.)

To reiterate, a key takeaway for me here is the idea of the narrative as a paradigm that propagates.

Such a narrative construct that propagates needs to be essentially indivisible, should have a full self contained arc of a structure to serve as a standalone story if need be and be able to play out as a cohesive whole even with trivial variations in contexts or actors.

Matthew Ball has a term for this – The Narrative Primitive.

In one of the most intellectually stimulating podcasts I have listened to in the recent past, Matthew Ball joins Patrick O’Shaughnessy to discuss movies, the Metaverse and more and refers to the concept of ‘Narrative Primitive’ to explain why the worlds of the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the Star Wars stand out as expansive and immersive. The following lines from the podcast’s transcript shine light further.

… “how would you have told the story 80 years ago if you had all the tools available? How are those stories going to change in the next 10 years?” And in some instances that is unlocking what you might call a narrative primitive, that’s perhaps some of the reasons why the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the tales of Star Wars are so expansive today, so immersive.

Now, when I consider these two concepts – Narrative Violation and Narrative Primitive – together, I am tempted to posit the following.

The essential insight that rock star traders, venture capitalists and story tellers possess is this – they know a good narrative when they see one. And more importantly they have an eye for a narrative violation. Because they think in narrative primitives.


Noteworthy ingredients – that may or may not have gone into the making of this blog post:

[Featured Image: Pendulums on freepik]

The Liminal Space

Quick Read: Motion blur in animation, the current pandemic times and quadratic voting systems have one thing in common – they magnify and normalise that moment in time/space/perspective that’s neither ‘here’ nor ‘there’. And that could have its own benefits.

Motion blur is an interesting concept in animation.

In fact it’s a unique technical challenge that consumed Ed Catmull and his team during his early days leading to Pixar Animation. Quoting from his book Creativity, Inc.

Another technical challenge that occupied us was the need for something called motion blur. With animation in general and computer animation in particular, the images created are in perfect focus. That may sound like a good thing, but in fact, human beings react negatively to it.

When moving objects are in perfect focus, theatregoers experience an unpleasant, strobe-like sensation, which they describe as “jerky.”  When watching live-action movies, we don’t perceive this problem because traditional film cameras capture a slight blur in the direction an object is moving. The blur keeps our brains from noticing the sharp edges, and our brains regard this blur as natural. Without motion blur, our brains think something is wrong. So the question for us was how to simulate the blur for animation. If the human eye couldn’t accept computer animation, the field would have no future.

-From Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull

Today, motion blur has its own place in the craft of visual expression across still photography, film making, animation and video games.

Figure-Animation2 (1)
Two animations: with motion blur (left) and without (right) Source

Without that, we’d have no way to capture and process the concept of ‘something being in a state of motion’ – that state of being neither here nor there, that state of ‘in-betweenness’.

At its purest, motion blur could be said to be the visual expression of an abstract concept called ‘liminality’.

What is liminality?

In anthropology, liminality is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete. (wikipedia)

Evidently when liminality as a concept was first developed, it was more in the anthropological contexts of rites and rituals. But today, the usage of the term has broadened to describe socio, political and cultural changes across contexts. Sample this, again from Wikipedia..

During liminal periods of all kinds, social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt. The dissolution of order during liminality creates a fluid, malleable situation that enables new institutions and customs to become established.

Wikipedia on liminality

Reminds you of something?

To be in today’s pandemic crisis is to be betwixt and between. Our conception of space and time is unmoored from the conventional constructs of ‘home’ and ‘work’.

What does this liminality mean to our individual and collective consciousness? How does this change our relationships with institutions – our offices, schools, places of worship? How does this redefine our notions around concepts like commute, entertainment, socialising? Who knows?

But at least these liminal times are forcing us to question our deeply held assumptions and mental models and be a bit more tolerant to well considered alternatives while arming us with a better compass to help navigate our complex world.

In fact, I tend to wonder if the current Covid times and the recent mass mobilisations in support of movements like Black Lives Matter have a good degree of causality associated with them. Which leads me to..

Liminal Thinking

It might be instructive to take a closer look at the word liminal. It’s a derivative of a Latin root that means threshold – which literally means doorway.  Seen with that lens, a threshold is essentially a boundary that marks a point of transition between one state and another.

How do you then find, create and use ‘thresholds’ to create change that matters? How do you deliberately create those opportunities to make a transition from one world view to that of another? What is obvious to you that is not so obvious to someone else? And how do you recognise that?

Liminal Thinking is Dave Gray’s answer to this question through his book by the same name. A quick whiteboard version of his book here.

Our world today, a boiling pot of divisions and polarisations could perhaps do with a dose of liminal thinking so we seek out and normalise that middle ground versus prying it out of shape and character in an attempt to take one side or the other.

And speaking of polarisation

One just needs to look at the democratic politics today to see that one of its key problems is the lack of a middle ground. The result: political polarisation and amplification of extreme views.  Now juxtapose that with another key element of our reality – that while we may seem more divided than ever before, many people on all sides of the political spectrum care about the same handful of issues — education, healthcare, pensions, and etc.

So how do we make a provision for the expression and capture of a more nuanced voting preference in a participatory democracy.

One potential answer: quadratic voting. Unlike a binary “yes” or “no” vote for or against one thing, quadratic voting allows a large group of people to to express the degree of their preferences, rather than just the direction of their preferences through a decentralised voting system.

In fact, the Colorado’s legislature has successfully become one of the first test cases for quadratic voting in the public policy realm. This is the remarkable story of how it deployed Quadratic Voting to normalise the middle ground (vs amplifying the bi-partisan extremes) and how it managed to get a ‘better signal with less noise’.

Seventy-second General Assembly first regular session.
Chambers of the Colorado Capitol where the quadratic voting took place. Source

So there we have it, while we see ourselves stuck in an unfavourable state of liminality in the current times, sometimes it is these very liminal spaces that could potentially make allowances for solutions that magnify and normalise perspectives that are unfettered by extreme/bi-partisan imperatives.

And just sometimes it might mean that we become a bit more tolerant, a bit more inclusive in our beliefs and a bit more optimistic as we hope to see our world become a better place.


Noteworthy ingredients – that may or may not have gone into the making of this post:

[Featured Image: Motion Blur expressed through Still Photography, Source: BGU

Pixels to Pronouncements

Quick Read: Pixels – the building blocks of our digital edifices – could be assuming an influence of mammoth proportions across verticals. For e.g., an interesting wave of ‘virtual dressers’ is catching the fashion world by storm.

30 Rock..

..or 30 Rockefeller Plaza is a skyscraper that forms the centrepiece of Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan, New York City. When walking by its Sixth Avenue entrance one might find something curious. It has four sculptures – bas reliefs, carved in stone by Gaston Lachaise, an American sculptor  – placed all the way up on the third floor.

One might ask, “What are they doing all the way up there?”

15kimmelman-rockcenter18-superJumbo
Sixth Avenue Entrance of 30 RCA Building. Source

The answer is that when Rockefeller Center was built, the elevated train still ran up Sixth Avenue. The Lachaise reliefs were placed so these ‘El riders’ passing through the station could see them.

This happens all around us. 

When real estate is at a premium – from facades of iconic buildings to the shelf space in our neighbourhood grocery stores – one can make an entire career out of optimising the design/layout of the underlying physical space for our attention, so it delivers on its intended ‘return on placement’.

These days it could almost be trite to state that it is actually the ‘digital real estate space’ that arguably commands a greater premium vs that of any physical space. And the job of the UX/UI designer thereby becomes one of the most influential (and in my opinion – one of most fulfilling) roles in Product Dev/ Management. In fact, the ‘pixels that they design’ essentially become the gateways to digital products/services shaping the user experience for millions of us around the world. No wonder great UX/UI designers are in great demand.

ux-design-book-combined

And never is the product designer’s* significance more evident than in the current Covid times when the design/layout of an app could be a true window into its product’s soul. (*’product designer’ as a catch all phrase for all design functions in the service of a product) 

For e.g,. given these unprecedented times, how does a product balance its rational (product/services) promise with that of its emotional (empathy/sensitivity) narrative? What are its core values and beliefs and how does the product reconcile it with its commercial underpinnings – its core reason for existence?

Check out a highly recommended read here on this very topic. Post reading it, one could even be tempted to take a walk down one’s playground of pixels (a.k.a one’s apps on their phone) to try and infer those subtle truths that govern their design.

These days, pixels don’t just make for subtle commentary, but also influential pronouncements impacting the zeitgeist of the times.

When pixels become fashion pronouncements

In what now feels like a different meta verse, human beings used to gawk at outfits on the streets or ogle at chic strangers’ coats to see what new brands/designs/designers people are into while designers used to organise their new expositions through coveted fashion shows and had hordes of fans waiting in lines for their exclusive pop up sales. Well now (or rather here in this current meta verse of social distancing) some designers have still been able to do this and more.

For e.g., on a recent weekend, the fashion designer Sandy Liang held an extremely exclusive pop-up sale. Only six people were allowed in at a time, with attendees (the list that swelled to almost 100 people at one point) waiting in line for over two hours.

Before you panic about the potential social distancing violations involved, know that this sale took place on a completely virtual plane: an island in the video game Animal Crossing.

sandylianganimalcrossing2-1588626066
Enter a captionScene from Sandy Liang’s Animal Crossing pop-up. Source

For the uninitiated, a quick crash course on Animal Crossing below:

With the Nintendo game Animal Crossing: New Horizons, players can customize their looks to show off outfits that reflect their personal style, something that piqued the interests of fashion enthusiasts playing the game, who quickly began designing custom looks that riffed on the trendy designers of the moment. Coupled with social distancing and less opportunities to show off fits in-person, it’s created an unorthodox, but amazing opportunity for Animal Crossing users to show off their outfits — so much so that many real-life fashion designers are creating official clothing codes so users can cop designs from their latest collections.

–Time

Today there are entire Instagram communities centered around Animal Crossing fashion. Marc Jacobs even created his virtual fashion line available for gamers through codes.

And if I’ve run out of style codes or ideas, there are even virtual stores like nookazon (a fan built enterprise) where I can buy clothing for in-game characters. And we have not even scratched the surface of this trend of fashion-conscious people using the game as a platform for style expression by dressing their avatars in pixelated versions of clothes by Gucci, Celine, Supreme and more.

For many, it could even look like Animal Crossing is the only place where people seem to get dressed up for now. Clearly ‘pixels’ seem to have become our canvas for self expression like never before.

Could this change the way fashion works forever?

[Featured Image: Animal Crossing illustration on The Washington Post]

The Sci-Fi Pay Phone Fallacy

 

Quick Read: Future predictions could sometimes just be past projections – repurposed to fit the current context. Sometimes that could make for a liberating realisation – especially in current times.  

3.15.20

That’s the name of the latest album by Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino – an American actor, comedian, writer, producer, director, musician, artist and DJ – a polymath in the entertainment business.

What’s unusual about this album?

It has no title except the date of release, 3.15.20; no artwork; and except for 2 songs, none of the 12 tracks has a title. Quoting Sanjoy Narayan on mint:

On Sunday, 15 March, Donald Glover Jr, better known by his stage name Childish Gambino, launched a new website called Donaldgloverpresents.com and released a new album, which streamed on a loop on the site for most of that day. There was no fanfare; no announcements; no publicity.

For an artist as high-profile as Glover, this was an unusual approach….

…Shortly after his new website stopped streaming the album and went blank, Glover’s, or, rather, Gambino’s, new album got more conventionally released on music-streaming services where you can hear it now. It has no title except the date of release, 3.15.20; no artwork; and except for the second and third songs, Algorhythm and Time, none of the 12 tracks has a title. Instead, Gambino has chosen to title his tracks by time codes—the points in time that they come up on the album. For instance, the first track is labelled 0.00; the fourth is 12.38; the fifth 19.10; the sixth 24.19; and so on.

donald-glover-presents
The album initially played on a loop on the site ‘Donald Glover Presents’, accompanied by an unfinished illustration depicting a very modern scene of rioting, fiery chaos and selfie-taking. (Source)

What’s truly unusual about the album, however, is how it mocks at our assumptions and shatters our accumulated biases about his music. Quoting Sanjoy Narayan again:

It’s an astonishingly experimental album on which Gambino is, in parts, a rapper, a soul, funk and R&B guy, and a sonic innovator who composes melodies and harmonies and melds them to make songs that push every boundary…

..It’s a super ambitious album that traverses so many genres and styles that it would require multiple listens to try and list out or even describe. Funk and soul collide with electronic music; modern hip hop gets to mate with elaborate orchestral arrangements; and smart lyrics comment on the state of the world and other serious issues.

Unique juxtapositions, delightful blends, unexpected connections, inventive remixes and surprising twists. That’s always been the recipe for great story telling across formats from stand up comedy and sci-fi thrillers to food and fashion.

It is compelling how consistently it works every single time – get people to default to their baseline expectations and add in an unexpected twist to move the carpet off their feet and presto, you have a winner! In fact an entire movie was made literally off this very premise.

Turns out getting us to default to our baseline world views/expectations is not that hard after all. Simply because we tend to base our assumptions of a likely future basis our previous experiences. In fact, research suggests that humans predict what the future will be like by using their memories.

Imagining the future then becomes a kind of nostalgia. 

This fallacy could sometimes be evident in sci-fi movies.

Let’s take a classic example: the original Blade Runner from 1982.

In the film, Harrison Ford’s character Deckard makes several calls to other characters using a “videophone,” which is essentially a glorified payphone with a VHS-quality video screen glued on top. Incidentally, the film is supposed to take place in a futuristic 2019, but it makes a faulty assumption that human beings will still be using pay phones as their primary form of communication by then.

payphone
Video Pay Phone in Blade Runner (1982), Source

Back to the Future II also prominently featured payphones and fax machines—both of which were prevalent at the time the film was made, but are obsolete today.

Writers even have a name for this – the science fiction pay phone problem. It essentially refers to how we often assume the continuity of our previous experiences, and subsequently bring our accumulated biases with us, when trying to predict the future.

This could perhaps help serve as an instructive reminder to us that even though we can dream up detailed, novel scenes of things yet to come, our imagined futures could sometimes really just be projections of our past.

And nowhere is this reminder more relevant than in the current times when we are inundated with predictions and discourses about what a post Covid future could look like and how it could potentially impact us, our educational institutions, organisations, cultures, traditions, industries, economies and nation states at large.

As the sci-fi pay phone fallacy reminds us, the future always holds more surprises than we might predict. So instead of stressing about and losing our minds on what a post Covid scenario would pan out to be, sitting back, relaxing and enjoying some Childish Gambino could just be what the doctor ordered for us.

Stay safe. And here’s hoping we all come out of this better, stronger and together. Real Soon.

[Featured Image: Payphone from Back to the Future, digital wallpaper source]

 

Santa Claus and Peppa Pig

Quick Read: If ‘brand’ is a story and if ‘we’ constitute a culture, interesting things begin to happen when a culture seeks a story or when a story seeks a culture – all in that classic quest for resonance. 

When a Culture Seeks Out a Story

Rovaniemi – is a Christmas lover’s dream. It is a Finnish town that has – over the years – established itself as the home of Santa Claus. This sleepy town of around 60,000 inhabitants manages to attract over 500,000 visitors annually from all over the world all seeking the story of Santa Claus, or in other words the experience of the brand Santa Claus. 

It has the Santa’s office where people queue up for a brief 3 minute meeting with him, Santa’s post office that receives a flood of letters from all around the world addressed to  “Santa Claus, Lapland”, the Santa’s official elves and you get the drift – essentially the entire Christmas package that you could ever ask for. 

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Santa Claus at Rovaniemi. Source

While this could constitute a fascinating case study in itself about the power of an iconic brand as an enduring story, the last 18 – 24 months have seen an interesting phenomenon emerge. 

Let’s start with the letters. The Santa’s post office is said to have received upwards of 500,000 letters in 2018. Till 2017, most of the letters used to come from the UK. But now China is said to be way ahead. Apparently the Post Office is said to have received more than 100,000 letters from China alone last year. (source)   

Now the visitors. By some accounts in 2017 alone, close to 580,000 visitors flew into Rovaniemi (double the number in 2010) and much of that  growth is said to be driven by visitors from China. In fact as per this article..

Now, just about everywhere in Rovaniemi accepts Alipay, Alibaba Group’s mobile payment system, which is also available on Finnair flights from seven Chinese cities to Helsinki. …At (hotels) you can pay in Alipay and communicate with reception using WeChat, the ubiquitous Chinese social media/messaging service.

 

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Xi Jinping with Santa. Source

Now this is the interesting thing. 

Christmas is not an official holiday in mainland China, and has in fact increasingly been banned in various cities in recent years. On Dec. 15 2018, security officials in Langfang, a city in Hebei province, issued a notice prohibiting the display of Christmas materials and spreading of “religious propaganda” in public areas including schools and plazas. The notice also warned against selling Christmas products and instructed local workers to ensure a “healthy and orderly environment” during the Christmas period. One city even said it would fine individuals caught selling or making fake snow. (more on that here)

But Chinese visitors and letters addressed to Santa from China constitute the majority. Why?  

Most Chinese children may not be fully aware of Christmas’s religious background nor of China’s complicated relationship to the holiday. But the story of Santa Claus and Christmas –  the universal values of generosity, hope, and gratitude, could be what’s driving them to write to Santa Claus or visit the town of Rovaniemi. 

In many ways this phenomenon could be said to be the classic example of a ‘culture’ seeking out a ‘story’.

Nothing represents this sentiment better than the following lines from a letter written by a 19 year Chinese girl to Santa (as quoted in this article)  

“In China, we don’t have Christmas, and family is more important than gifts,” she wrote in both English and Chinese. ”But you know, one small present can mean so much to a child, and bring so much happiness. Although you don’t really exist, kindness does. In my heart, you represent kindness.”  

When a Story Seeks Out a Culture 

If you are not a parent, let me quickly get you up to speed on Peppa. 

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Peppa Pig. Source

Peppa Pig is a British preschool animated character that has spawned a multi billion dollar worth empire of TV series, toys, books, films, theme parks, merchandise and even video games. Each day this muddy puddle loving pre-school character has been winning legions of little fans from all over the world.  

In 2018 Peppa’s memes were banned from social media platforms by Beijing. So its chances looked dicey in China.

Well that was till early this month. 

By mid January 2019, Peppa Pig has been experiencing a huge boost to its popularity in China after the runaway success of a trailer released to promote a Peppa Pig film.In fact the trailer’s Mandarin hashtag #WhatisPeppa had been viewed more than 1.45bn times on popular microblogging platform Sina Weibo and the official video had garnered hundreds of millions of views across various streaming platforms. (source)

This short video, co-produced by Canadian media group Entertainment One and China’s Alibaba Pictures story has supposedly found its best resonance with the Chinese audience given the timing of its release –  the Chinese New Year marking the start of the year of the Pig – and for realistically depicting how societal changes such as urbanization and generational culture gaps have had an impact on Chinese families.

Given this, the short video makes for an uplifting story of the potential that could be unlocked when we have a story that successfully seeks cultural resonance. 

Now Try This Exercise

Think of a phenomenon gone viral or a campaign that back fired. And for each such example that comes to your mind: 

  • Identify if the brand or the central theme has a clear story to tell, a positioning that it seeks to carve out in people’s minds with a clear and a consistent narrative. Is it coherent or half baked? Is that rooted/ does it seek to root itself in the zeitgeist of the times or does it look like it is pushing its luck by tapping into a topical trend
  • Now, look at the recipients of the story (or sometimes the seekers of the story). Is there a tenet that unifies them –  a common characteristic, a cultural theme that binds them? Can there be a common story that could appeal to this culture? Or is the underlying cultural theme too fragmented or too nuanced that no single story could have a satisfying chance to resonate with it?  

Chances are that, a successful campaigns/ popular phenomena would always be rooted in strong stories appealing to strong cultural themes or the other way round. Have either one of these stand on weak or flimsy grounds you have a recipe for a backfire. 

[Featured Image: Peppa and Her Family Dress up as Santa Claus for Christmas, Video thumbnail

Of Similarities and Split Screen

Quick Read: There are ads that try and communicate a message of ‘contrast’ and there are those that communicate ‘similarity’. While the former type of ads ride on a diverse set of story telling devices, there seems to be an interesting trend in the story telling devices deployed by the latter set. It’s the ‘Split Screen’.

A lot of advertising is meant to tease out / explain / amplify an element of a brand that is supposedly in contrast w.r.t the competition. Think about it for a moment and think of the core narratives behind most of the ads that you see around.
A lot of advertising narratives tend to fall into this camp, where they try to land a message through a narrative that is designed to communicate a contrast – sometimes in a straightforward manner or sometimes in perhaps a tongue in cheek style.
A few share worthy ads of that kind below.
1. Jeep,  Anti Manifesto
(Agency: Arnold Worldwide. H/T: Bhatnaturally)
And oh, btw just for fun, see this one and it’s hard to not think that the Jeep’s creative team didn’t have this in mind while conceptualizing the above work.
2. Fevicol, Ezee Spray
(Agency: Ogilvy)
3. Eko Kom, Flight Attendants / Garbage Collectors
 
(Agency: Havas, Prague. H/T: Bhatnaturally)
As you can see, ads that have ‘contrast’ as the core message, ride on a diverse set of story telling devices.
Interestingly, this is in contrast with ads where ‘similarity’ is the core message.
When similarity is the core message..
.. there seems to be an interesting trend in the story telling devices that most of them seem to draw upon. Most of such narratives are rooted in a singular story telling device – the split screen.  
Sample the following examples.
1. The Day Before 
(Agency: Leo Burnett Chicago)
2. McDonald’s
(Agency: Agency: Leo Burnett Chicago)
3. John Lewis
(Agency: DDB Worldwide)
4. Coca Cola UK
(Agency: David The Agency, Buenos Aires)
For the record, the split screen as a story telling device has also been used in ads that seek to communicate a contrast.
Like this one from Apple.
In fact this entire campaign for iPhone (in May 2017) had creatives that all used the split screen.
What other story telling devices have caught your eye in the recent past?

 

Counterfactual Thinking

Quick Read: We have all seen those ads that start with “what if…”? But did you know that behind the facade of their deliberate wacky-ness there is a method to their madness. 

In a world where Rhinoceros are domesticated pets who wins the second world war?

Or sample this..

In a world where a piano is a weapon, not a musical instrument, on what does Scott Joplin play the Maple Leaf Rag?

Counterfactuals. That’s what Amy and Sheldon call them.

First the definition. 

Counterfactual thinking is a concept in psychology that involves the human tendency to create possible alternatives to life events that have already occurred; something that is contrary to what actually happened. (source)

It turns out that counterfactual thinking can have a huge influence over us.

To help us find greater meaning in our lives

In her book, ” The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters ,” Emily Esfahani Smith suggests that counterfactual thinking can be a way to find greater meaning in significant past events, be they positive or negative.

The Power of Meaning

In one experiment referenced in the book, researchers had asked participants to think about a turning point event in their lives – be it positive/ negative /or neutral.

Subsequently these participants were segregated into three groups.

  • Group 1 (counter factual thinking): these participants were asked to describe how their life would look if the turning point event had never happened
  • Group 2 (factual thinking): these participants were simply asked to recount the turning point event in detail
  • Group 3 (meaning association): these participants were asked to reflect on why the turning point event was meaningful.

The researchers then asked these participants to respond to two statements about their turning point event: “It made me who I am today” and “It gave meaning to my life.”

Results showed that that participants in group 1 perceived the turning point events as more meaningful than those in group 2 (those primed towards factual thinking) or even those in group 3 (those primed towards meaning association)!

As Esfahani Smith points out in the book, research suggests that counterfactual thinking helps us find meaning in our lives for two reasons:

  1. We’re able to attribute greater benefits to significant past events. Participants in the study mostly imagined that their lives would be worse if the event hadn’t happened.
  2. It helps us tell more coherent stories about our lives – as though everything we have experienced has happened for a reason.

Influence on advertising response

As per (1) and (2) above, if counterfactual thinking indeed makes us better story tellers and helps us become more cognizant and appreciative of our own narratives, could it also have an impact on how we assess and internalize the narratives and stories that we are exposed to on a daily basis a.k.a advertising and marketing?

That’s exactly the hypothesis that these two researchers had set to validate and presented their learnings in the paper titled Counterfactual Thinking and Advertising Responses.

In a nutshell their research proved that invoking counterfactual thinking before an exposure to the advertising message can prime us up to be more receptive to and become more critical of the (key persuasive) message that follows.

No wonder many NGO marketing messages are structured around counterfactuals.

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Agency: Droga5 New York

Or even those ads like the following recent ones from Amtrak that are made with the objective to persuade the viewers and drive a behavioral change.

Can you think of any other advertising examples that ride on counterfactuals?

(Featured Image: What If )

Nomadism

Quick Read: The idea of breaking free and getting lost has always fascinated us. Interestingly this idea manifests itself not just outdoors but also indoors. 

Ajatashatru the fakir, renowned conjurer and trickster, lands in Paris.

His mission? To acquire a splendid new bed of nails. His destination? IKEA.

And there he decides to stay, finding an obliging wardrobe in which to lay his head. Only when he emerges from his slumber does he discover that he is locked in, unable to free himself and heading for England in the back of a truck.

So begins The extraordinary Journey of the Fakir who got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe – a book by Romain Puertolas

Book1

Or let’s take Allan Karlsson who’s sitting quietly in his room in an old people’s home, as his one-hundredth birthday party is to begin. The Mayor and even the press will soon be there. But for some reason he doesn’t want to attend his own party. So what does he do?

He climbs out of his bedroom window and disappears. And embarks on an unlikely journey involving criminals, murders, police and a suitcase full of cash.

That’s the theme of a book by Jonas Jonasson called The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared.

Book2

The idea of breaking free and getting lost seemed to have always fascinated us as a species. Call it our natural state of entropy or a throw back to our primal tendencies of being a nomad, we seem to have always nursed a flame for throwing everything away and becoming a nomad.

Naturally, the SUV category lends itself to both literal and metaphorical articulations of this yearning of breaking free.

Time to get out there

While typical ads for such ideas tend to showcase the spectre of seduction of the wild vs the boredom of getting chained amongst sterile urban landscapes, the recent Volkswagen campaign by DDB Berlin pushes the creative envelope by taking inspiration from the most unexpected – yet very apt –  sources.

The idea: The great majority of us are not as adventurous and well-traveled as we might think we are. In fact, if we think about it, we are surrounded by ordinary objects that have traveled way more than us. Based on this insight, DDB Berlin created a series of print ads that tell the exciting stories of a paper clip, a disposable lighter, a coin, and a pencil, in a way that pokes fun at our own sedentary lives.

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Volkswagen SUV range, Source

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Volkswagen SUV range, Source

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Volkswagen SUV range, Source

Each one is a copy writing gem on its own!

While driving off in an SUV is a natural expression of our innate nomadic tendencies, recent times have seen this philosophy seep even into the confines of our bedrooms or drawing rooms!

Nomadism within our homes 

Lidewij Edelkoort, a Dutch trend forecaster, believes that nomadism is a key trend that can be seen playing even within our homes. We no longer adhere to strict borders or rules even within homes: a formal drawing room to entertain guests, a bedroom to sleep in, a study to work. That’s not how the urban citizen lives, so there’s a need to design for a fluid home.

IKEA India’s creative director Mia Lundström in one of her recent interviews echoes this insight around nomadism and says “People live, eat, work, sleep a little bit everywhere in the home. So we make products that don’t have a specific destination but fit in many different contexts around the home. We don’t tell people this cushion is for the sofa. It could be for that or the Rattan chair on the terrace.”

Earlier this year Ikea even launched two collections ostensibly designed for today’s modern nomads living life on their own terms.

A chair that is your own little cocoon? Check.

IKea - cucoon
IKEA, Source

A chair to sleep on? Check this out chair with 18 cushions!

IKEA-chair
IKEA, Source

And many more such designs (see here).

It will be interesting to see how ideas and products across categories adopt this philosophy of nomadism, i.e., those that are designed for fluidity – so they don’t necessarily adhere to categories but contexts.

(Featured Image:Volkswagen Lighter Ad, DDB Germany. Source )