When ads reflect life very closely
Recently I’ve seen some things on TV that have got me thinking. First of all, an episode of the TV show “The Gruen Transfer”, (http://iview.abc.net.au/programs/gruen#playing) (Series 9, Episode 1) mentioned two different ads which I thought summed up much of the current Australian zeitgeist. The first ad was for Hungry Jack’s, a fast food chain. The second ad, which dates from around two years ago, is for the National Broadband Network (NBN).
The first ad (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nxw7zL-02xw) involves a young man called Patrick, who is sitting in a trendy café, and a waiter has just served him a tiny meal. Suddenly, a plastic hamburger telephone rings nearby, and a surprised Patrick answers the call. The voice on the other end of the line makes all sorts of suggestions to him about “keeping it real” –ironic, as the ad turns somewhat surreal. The answer to “keeping it real” of course, is for Patrick to arrive at a Hungry Jack’s store where he can order a substantial burger.
As funny as the ad is, though, for me its brilliance comes from what it reflects about our society. Patrick is a young man, and the fact that the voice on the telephone scares him so easily suggests he doesn’t yet have a strong sense of self. The rest of the ad reflects him running wildly from a series of hipster clichés towards “salvation”, which is being marketed as “real”. Of course, the sting in the tale (pun intended) here is that Patrick is following another voice that is telling him what to do….a voice from a multinational corporation….
I think this ad brilliantly sums up how modern Australian culture works to a degree. Each of us is trying to find a balance between being expressing our individual selves and keeping in line with trends. But where do the trends come from….and just how individual are we?
The second ad (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4EaGl_gazjw) is about the NBN. This project is currently rolling out internet services across Australia. On a personal level, I’m using the NBN and have no complaints about it. However, its rollout progress has been slower than expected, and the network is facing a lot of criticism about its service quality as well. The ad for the NBN shows a family facing slow upload and download times, and suggests that a fast NBN connection can solve this.
For many people, though (as suggested at around the 20 minute mark of the Gruen Transfer show here (http://iview.abc.net.au/programs/gruen#playing) the frustrating, patchy, slow Internet that the NBN was meant to improve appears to have been their actual NBN experience.
To make matters worse, the NBN is a wholesaler, and is simply in charge of the distribution side of the network; not the retail side. The Gruen Transfer comment at the 11.03 minute mark – “can’t someone else do it?” rings so true not only for the NBN itself, but many Australian service providers. Many people may understand that the network is complicated, and understand that finding answers is not always easy. But I think that many people are fed up to the back teeth with companies who don’t in fact think things through from a customer perspective. Worse, they do not seem to care; many firms do the minimum possible under the law, and then simply gouge customers without making any effort to improve.
Australian businesses often compete on price, and it shows. Poor customer service repeats itself throughout corporate Australia; in banks, telcos, insurance firms, airlines, energy retailers, and internet service providers. At almost every step of the way, things appear set up to screw customers over rather than to help them. Call centres are invariably understaffed, (whether domestic or outsourced overseas), and the customer service staff there are casual and poorly paid. As a result of this, staff turnover is ridiculously high because the staff (understandably) see little point in learning more about the systems they work with, and have little agency to actually follow through and get things fixed on a customer’s behalf. This turnover of staff means that customers need to explain their problems over and over again, leading to frustration and anger.
Put that together with an advertising campaign about how wonderful this shiny new service will be, and along with the politics involved, it’s no surprise that many people are grumpy. While customer service was not necessarily any better in the pre-digital era, much of the rest of life was predictable and stable. As such, bad customer service was a nuisance, but it wasn’t endemic. Also, as not everything was connected, life wasn’t so fast-paced.
These two ads encapsulate much of what many people are feeling. Life is faster, and more connected, and our service expectations are higher. This is, in part, because many of us are under time and financial pressure ourselves, and so we need things to work well in order to relieve such pressures. Many people feel that individuals are keeping up our end of the deal, but that governments and corporations are not.
Similarly, thanks to social media, we are bombarded with the idea that we have to “keep up” – whether that be in terms of our skills, our houses, or our finances. It is no coincidence that the expression “FOMO – Fear of Missing Out” has come to prominence in the digital era. This is why Patrick is sitting in the hipster café in the first place; he likely wants to be where the action is. However, as the telephone call shows, he doesn’t really know why he’s there…and it plays on his mind.
The hamburger ad then talks about “something substantial” and needing to “keep it real”. Ironically, this is (to my understanding) the ethic the hipster culture sprang from in the first place. At some stage, hipsters have been associated with slow/organic food, fixed-gear pushbikes, and handmade goods. But our compulsive collective neurosis about who we are (and perhaps even more about who we are perceived to be) seems to have overtaken the idea that it is OK just to be ourselves – whatever version of ourselves we are at any given moment.
The other side to this phenomenon is that some people consider being “average” as a kind of social death. If you buy and use mainstream brands, essentially, you’ve given up on the zeitgeist, and are hopelessly out-of-date. The real fear in FOMO is actually about one’s peers leaving you behind …and it reflects the idea that we should all follow the crowd. It is insidious, immature, and (ultimately) damaging. So where has such an idea come from? Plenty of people in the media, fashion and advertising industries make a living out of spotting new trends, based upon watching what’s “new” and “exciting”. The kicker here is that in trying to become more “individual” in how we look and act, the more interest the cutting edge shows in us – but to keep them interested, we have to keep moving.
I think that these trends reflect a great deal of cultural angst and uncertainty. The digital era has magnified human fears and upended a lot of familiar beliefs. As such, I think the desire for “real” products and services reflects a nostalgia for previous certainties, and above all else, for a sense of agency and control.
If my take on the situation is correct, then it helps to explain why politics is so turbulent – and why so many people want to kick the elites whom they feel have led us into this situation. While I strongly suspect many of these elites had no idea where the digital era would actually take us, many of them also seem to be able to take advantage of it. By contrast, the broader public may well feel that they have no control over things that used to be stable and predictable. In the absence of any solutions to this feeling, there are opportunities for populist parties offering nostalgic fantasies. Such parties may sound more credible to many voters, especially if it allows the public to express their anger at the establishment.
Likewise, for business, there is a real opportunity here. If you can consistently offer good service and certainty, customers will recommend your firm because you are helping to scratch this itch for agency and control. On the social media side, you also allow your customers to feel important, because they can offer your brand to their social circles as someone who can help relieve their stress.
How do you do that? Well, you look at the companies doing it best, and not only in your own industry. You market yourself on the basis of service, not price. Just as importantly, you look after your staff. Try to offer stable conditions, and pay better than the alternatives your staff would look at if they were unhappy. If people feel appreciated and inspired, they will work harder – and most importantly, they will stay with you.
What I’ve written is a lot to extrapolate from two television ads. But the ideas hit me so strongly that I wanted to share them. What do you think?