Life Is For Connectedly Sharing Better – The Advertising Myth

Experts predict that, if current trends continue, by q4 2010 all advertising will feature groups of people making something big and impressive.

Recent examples of the genre are:

A big domino toppling thing,

a big, unfolded newspaper,

a ‘hand made’ internet,

a big picture,

a rainbow,

an orchestra (forget for a minute that orchestras are made up of people collaborating and doing things together, this is an orchestra with a twist)

a big picnic,

Or milking a massive 80 foot udder. Actually that last one is a lie – or it might be a premonition.

I actually genuinely admire a number of these adverts. But put that aside for a couple of minutes…

Groups of people having fun together has always been good advertising fodder. We all want to be social and do fun stuff with our friends. It’s just that the groups featured in ads now have to be much bigger because technology has delivered us bigger groups of friends and contacts. In fact, everyone is now our friend, potentially.

As a technique it works especially well for brands that are about communication. Or socialising. Or simply not being on your own. Which is pretty much everyone. Apart from the Samaritans.

I guess it’s inevitable that we should end up with a bunch of not-dissimilar ads when everyone’s briefs contain words like sharing, or connection, or enablement. And given that infinite, always-on connections have changed the world in untold ways your brand would look a little out-of-touch if you didn’t at least nod to these things.

Then you’ve got the challenge of bringing things to life in 30s film. Which is far from easy. And let’s face it people outside, in the real world, doing something active is always going to be more visually interesting than the slightly dull reality.

Who wants to watch a bunch of people sat in their bedrooms, physically alone? Their only connection through wires? A girl sitting at her computer looks just like a girl sitting at her computer. She could be IMing her friend with an OMG because she’s unproved Fermat’s theorem, or because she just heard what Debbie said about Suzi. It’s the things that are in heads, on screens and coming down wires that are interesting and important. Not stuff a camera can easily capture.

293 people might be collaborating right now, on their computers, and be seconds away from ending climate change. But they’d look exactly the same as 293 people playing World of Warcraft. There would be no visual clues.

Which is, I guess, why advertising has to dial-up the excitement. To create quick, easy-to-grasp metaphors for collaboration and combined human effort.

But there’s a part of me that feels like the point gets overlooked for the sake of a nice colourful ad.

If you’ve ever actually been a part of something online, there’s something nice about the initial non-physicality. The fact that you’re not compelled to be a good looking, smiling stereotype that works as part of a human chain gang. You can be ugly, grumpy and totally asynchronous and still a hugely valuable part of the effort.

Every day millions of people experience comfort, pleasure, excitement, joy, anger, sadness, love, loss, hatred, passion, enlightenment, the horn and more. All online. All virtually. But this gets glossed over in ads. Because it’s not easy to represent in film. So we revert to metaphors of physical closeness and connection. Ideally in a sunny field. Which is kind of like the internet. In a way. Kinda.

That’s not to say that online relationships and collaborations don’t end up in real, solid, actual-world friendships and meetups. They do. But that typically comes later. And it’s more of a case of checking-in, sizing people up, and seeing how it goes. Not getting together to unfold a big newspaper.

But sometimes people do arrange to meet up with a large group of people to do something together. Sometimes it’s an incredibly useful and important thing, like a political rally. But sometimes it’s spontaneous and frivolous and pointless. And these latter things became known as flashmobs.

And now, inevitably, there’s an advert about a flashmob…

You can’t escape it. It’s on TransVision screens at all the London stations, escalator panels on the underground, the telly, and on the YouTubes (with a huge number of variants including the 2.41s mega-ad above). It’s pretty much everywhere. I’ve tried hiding from it. But it keeps on finding me.

Again. To be clear. I don’t dislike it as an advert.

But the truth is it couldn’t not have happened. It’s got the hip-but-not-too-hipness of flashmobs combined with looking just like one of ‘these ads’ should. And by creating this spectacular advert using choreography, trained dancers, etc. etc. etc. The ad becomes just an ad.

But it’s not surprising that they have to fake it, when an actual flashmob looks like this:

(I recorded this at the ‘Rick Rolling’ Flash Mob last year – I was not proud to be there)

Spot the differences:


  • 98% observers – with absolutely no chance that any of the watchers are going to join in, they’re just watching
  • No audible music whatsoever
  • No one being quite sure what’s going on
  • A total lack of any kind of choreography
  • Just fades out when people get bored (very quickly)


  • 30% observers dropping to 22% as a load of people spontaneously join in
  • Loud and jolly music to dance to
  • A core of people knowing what they’re doing and a bunch other people who get swept along
  • Nice choreography
  • A wonderful moment in time

The one thing that they have in common is people filming / photographing it. And to give it credit the T-Mobile ‘event’ does a great job of continuing the illusion by getting a bunch of assorted ‘real’ people to talk about their experiences of the flashmob:

Enthusiastic folk who’ve just seen a TV ad being filmed + editing = magic! If you’d done it you would though wouldn’t you…

I don’t dislike any of the ads above. I think they do a nice job of capturing a feeling and a vision of collaboration. And of course I’m not suggesting that advertising has to reflect reality. Otherwise it wouldn’t be advertising anymore.

However, my suspicion is that we’re seeing adverts made by people who haven’t been collaborating deeply online. Who haven’t been a part of these things. Who don’t understand the subtle, emotional things that happen in online relationships and groups. Another part of the reason we end up with big, generic, broad-brush, advertising. Things that work, in general, for some of the population.

But maybe broadcast media isn’t the place to tell the (more) interesting, deeper stories. The stories that happen quietly, inside the wires, over the airwaves, through the devices and in people’s minds.

Perhaps stories of togetherness and collaboration are best told in places where people are together, collaborating. And perhaps they should be told in ways that reflect the brilliance, excitement and usefulness of what doing things together using tools and technologies – not metaphors – is actually all about.

Or maybe in those places it’s not about telling stories at all.

Maybe. Just maybe.

Anyone got any thoughts?

42 thoughts on “Life Is For Connectedly Sharing Better – The Advertising Myth”

  1. This whole trend of making ‘Big Budget’ YouTube’ ad spots leaves me cold. Orchestrated joy is a very hard thing to pull off; so even if the ads pull you in on first watch, they ultimately leave you with a feeling of disappointment once the realisation you’ve been hoodwinked sinks in.

    Bring back Collett Dickinson Pearce and their overly pompous (galaxy size budget) ciggie ads. At least you knew somebody was trying to flog you something even if it was veiled in faux art pretensions.

  2. Most storytelling has to condense and exaggerate and loads of other stuff.
    I guess it’s how you do it.
    Am I missing the point?

  3. Yes, bloody good point/question. I’m a bit over all this faux “let’s get together” theme too. That’s why I think BK was on to something ball with Whopper Sacrifice. Connect with some people, disconnect with others. The top Guinness one really gets my goat because, of course, some poor undeveloped village saps have nothing better to do than join in on a Sunday morning and build an expensive real-life game of Mouse Trap as a mural to some multinational mega brand. And bugger off T-Mobile, too. It’s like they’ve gone and gone an advertising spot version of a reality show. The kind of thing that purports to be real and full of genuine moments, but is all actually scripted and polished behind the scenes. Which makes the whole thing even less genuine. And there’s a bunch of people’s mums out there that think it was all actually done for real. Of course they’ll win some awards. Which I guess is granted in some ways cause they’ve continued to step outside the industry notion of what a 30 second spot should look like. But yeah, bout time we all stopped pretending we want to get up early on warm sunny days and build a trojan horse with papier mache for Orange whilst listening to Joanna Newsom.

  4. This is a great article Iain. I haven’t got time to read it now, I have to go to Playgroup (I know, rock and roll). But I wrote something similar the other day on my blog although nowhere near as comprehensive.
    One thing that I concluded was that whilst I admired the execution of the T-Mobile advert I could think of other ways to execute it. What ruins it is that it resolves with the usual ‘end screen logo’. I’d have had more respect for the brand in question if they’d have commissioned four of these filmed more discretely with no logo resolve. air those on TV and get people talking, accompany that with an online campaign (if applicable) and only reveal the brand on the fifth and final advert.
    Just an idea.

  5. Maybe I’m missing the point here, but I don’t get what the correlation is between these ads and online communities. Or why this is relevant when critiquing them.

    For me it’s pretty straightforward stuff. Yes, they are all metaphors. But fairly credible one’s. Booze brings people together, physically. Food brings people together, physically. Same with maps, and music (although perhaps not on a Walkman). I could argue a newspaper does too, by a shared point of view on the world and as a catalyst for debate. None of these have had to find an alternatives to showing lonely teenage girls IMing in the bedroom, as none of the insights are born out of anything to do with this.

    I agree that ‘sharing’ is a pretty crowded space for brands. I also agree that some have greater permission to occupy this space than others. But beyond there being a bit of an ad-folk-love-in for this ‘style’, I don’t really see what the problem is.

  6. “Experts predict that, if current trends continue, by q4 2010 all advertising will feature groups of people making something big and impressive.”

    Good spot. I’d suggest that in q4 2009 all advertising will feature 80s/90s anthems E.g: all of the Cadbury’s Glass And A Half Productions, Drench’s Brains, Virgin Atlantic’s 25 Years Ago, Argos’ Less Fuss Christmas ad, Coco Pops’ Dancing Milkman.

    (There’s no doubt a decent post to be written about the recession, community, nostalgia, belonging, comfort, and little guilty pleasures – and it could even be explored through previous recessions and music used there. Nick Kamen’s Levis ad springs to mind).

  7. They’re Meta-ads, they all share the sharing thing.
    Now don’t you go adding one of those sharing buttons under this blog post or the universe *will* implode.

  8. Interesting, which is a good place to start.
    You make quite a few interesting points here:
    – Technology ads are all following a very similar cliché
    – …because it’s tough to dramatise a very particular (‘let’s enjoy sharing’) type of brief in a new and different way
    – You don’t have to be in a park with friends to enjoy yourself
    – A lot of ads re-present fun, anarchic acts like flash-mobbing in a shit, sanitised way
    – People making these ads don’t understand online ‘connectedness’ and aren’t working in a medium which should try and ‘talk’ about it (maybe we’re better off ‘doing’ this in a real way i.e. online).

    I agree with a lot of this.
    Talking about the impact of how connected we are is getting arse-clenchingly boring. The last good campaign on this theme (and by campaign I mean one with a thought that goes beyond a single ad) I can even think of is “Who would you like to have a one2one with”. Which had nothing to do with the internet.

    You could (fairly) blame a lot of this decline/lack of novelty on poor craft skills: naff writing, dodgy production, lazy direction; but there’s also much-needed finger-pointing in the direction of client and agency planners. If you’ve basically received the same brief for Pringles as you have for Orange, Nokia and T-Mobile, maybe it’s time to have a sensible argument.

    Easily the most controversial (and interesting) of your above points is the one about lack of understanding of digital and misuse of medium.

    This unfortunately has the potential to be a long, boring, insoluble argument.

    So I’ll offer up a couple of simple thoughts people have put to me I the past:
    – If nearly every Head of Marketing taking you through his Brand Vision says he wants to be ‘the most loved and admired X’, then how do you become loved and admired without making people laugh or argue?
    – If being good at marketing is about (and you may disagree) good storytelling, who tells the best stories? Copywriters? Web designers? Creative directors? In advertising, maybe, but if that’s you’re measure of good, you need a new measure.
    – When was the last time a website made you cry?

  9. I love the post. Much to think about. What comes out for me is the lack of authenticity in the ‘togetherness’ in all of the above. It’s all wonderfully superficial (but when have ads not been?).

    Now what am I meant to do on seeing this? How can I belong – by buying the product? Joining the network? Is there not a real danger that I am going to feel even more alone now.

    Nor can I help compare these examples to how the Barack Obama’s campaign allowed you to really get involved and be a part of something bigger.

    An unfair comparison – I don’t think so.

  10. LOL good post.
    The thing with everyone crapping on about sharing this-and-that and togetherness, is that it stops be meaningful for the brands involved. You could interchange half of those logos and endframes, that can’t be good for the people spending the cash.
    A lot of the time if these films were genuine I think I’d quite enjoy them, but as advertising they feel a bit like our generation’s breakdancing grannies.

  11. Remember those giant outdoor works of art Tony Heart (RIP) used to do? I think these ads appeal for the same reason – people playing together, outdoors, in a slightly sappy fashion – fun to do if your there, and ‘real world’, all very touchy feely. The products have little to do with togetherness really, not in a mass/simultaneous way that online events can. Not sure how you show groups of people collaborating online in a compelling way though. Second Life? (Eeeek!)

  12. Great article Iain, liking your thinking. For me, it came across as a real missed opportunity from an advertising point of view as much as anything (see my blog – posted yesterday about it too).

    But I think the point you make about the unsexiness of the reality of the social web in terms of how it looks, combined with how the ad comes across as though by people who aren’t necessarily that into the whole social web thing much themselves is an interesting one.

    And blimey, that last sentence was a long one. I think I need some lunch.

  13. “Or maybe in those places it’s not about telling stories at all.”

    Maybe those places are for people to escape to, who don’t want a faux-feel good moment proudly brought to you by xyz-global-mega-corp?

  14. Thanks for all the comments. Some interesting points of view. Additions and a couple of people making it clear that I didn’t make myself clear.

    I suppose I didn’t really have a big point to make. But I think all of the comments might be helping me to get to one…

  15. So they dumped a few tubs of advertising sheen on “mass connectivity”. As you say – no surprise.

    It’s classic TV mainstreaming. Sanitising what’s live, complex and messy in real life to slip blithely down the gullet of the sofa surfer.

    But I get the feeling your issue is more with TV spots than orchestrating the masses?

    Tried to arrange some ideas about ‘The Arranger’ here:

    It has nothing of your expertise, I’m afraid. But I hope it shows how a looser – or even tighter – approach to mass orchestration doesn’t have to feel so false. Just depends on what’s being orchestrated. And who’s doing it.

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  17. I found myself unconsciously nodding my head in agreement to passages like the following:

    “my suspicion is that we’re seeing adverts made by people who haven’t been collaborating deeply online”

    The best post I’ve read here in some time, in fact. It seems to me that the fresh sheen of collaboration is undercut in nearly every example by the relative brand anonymity inherent to the message – which is to say that (the T-Mobile spot excepted) none of these spots can be uniquely owned by the brand (or the mob).

  18. I buy.

    re: comment string: the argument of interactive v TV is specious.

    TV done well, stirs emotion. done. check. but historically that’s been the endpoint, and its been a bit of a crapshoot as to where YOU, the watcher, actually are in your own personal buying cycle, emotional state, etc. Interactivity provides an outlet for the emotion stirred by the “film”, bridging the gap between inspiration and ‘enabling’. What we do with THAT opportunity is where we can shine – but a lack of imagination on this front nets the old “I’ve never seen a website that can make me cry”.

    Until you sailed the boat past the horizon, you could make a pretty swell case for the earth being flat, too.

    Look, I’ve read emails, text messages, tweets and comment strings that have made me cry. So maybe I’m a softie. Or maybe we aren’t pushing ourselves hard enough.

    We are at the “pretty trinket” phase of interactive marketing, I’ll grant that. But the change interactivity is fueling is changing our world – literally and figuratively, and if we get our knickers in a twist re “TV v. online” we’re missing the point.

    Our challenge is to turn brand engagement points (regardless of channel) into a rich contact with the potential to ‘engage’ as deeply, relevantly and personally as you’d like – to influence purchase decision making and build powerful brands who’s premium (v. generic) is compelling.

    And to that end, the power to connect is transformative, regardless of how reductivist and lame we can make it look using a linear piece of film.

  19. Ian, I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to quote your last few paragraphs in a short presentation I’m giving tomorrow on social networking (compliant with your CC license of course!). Email me (or tweet me @chrisdymond) if you want to and I’ll tell you more about it in private and when I don’t have a presentation to complete :-)

    Warm regards, Chris D.

  20. Awesome post Iain, thanks! Really liked it, and a bunch of interesting comments on the back of it as well.

    A few thoughts…

    ‘Another part of the reason we end up with big, generic, broad-brush, advertising. Things that work, in general, for some of the population.’

    I don’t know if it’s specifically broadcast media that doesn’t allow for deeper, more interesting stories – it’s just a classic talking to the lowest common denominator and try to please as many people as possible.

    We might see deeper and more interesting stories elsewhere but story and narrative is a pretty recent thing to talk about in advertising anyways – or at least it relatively recent that it became sort of a trendy thing of itself, or for which the time has come (I might very well by wrong about that, dunno).

    I agree that this trend of the big event ads looks like they are made by people that had ‘digital stuff’ explained to them by others in it and they haven’t experienced it that much themselves.

    I think great stories happen everywhere – it’s just actually really tough to mix it with advertising. It’s not what advertising currently is, even though it might be transforming and getting closer to that.

    How do you currently calculate the ROI on a story, or on a particular music track you love..? Tweet value ( tells me my Twitter is worth $110 – so if I recommend a product I love, is that what my media value is or what a brand might look at..? Isn’t it completely messed up to think like that?

    Don’t know where I’m going with this, just more questions – it’s an ongoing conversation after all!

  21. There are lots of people dislike the flash mob t mobile ad. But I do like it, come on, let’s face it. People doesn’t do advertising dont give a S about ads, as long as they can engage with the idea, it’s fine. There are numbers of flash mobs can be found on youtube, but the thing is, none of them are actually spreading the idea outside from youtube. I think the use of music and dance which are so powerful can actually make people engage with it a lot more than any of those ads you put above, yes they are nicely filmed, but they arent real. Perhaps, all of us should think, when people see a piece of big budget tv ad they just got so used to it, and think the ads probably is not real and is it’s worth talking about.

  22. hey Iain.

    The t-mobile ad is great work, and I am sure that it will prove to be effective too. I hate it though. I would hate to be involved with it, and it turns my stomach. Just not my kind of thing.

    Consider a new DFS door drop leaflet campaign which pulls 175% more response than the last. Also great work, but also not my cup of tea.

    I want to do clever work that’s based on fresh insights, targeting smart creative people who might then do unpredictable things and make the campaign even better, or take a new turn in direction.

    People like me, and I suspect you, who might prefer this latter type of work are very different types of people to those who made the t-mobile ad.

    We are in this game for different reasons, and go about business in a very different way.

    I think you mentioned it in your “why digital is better” post ages ago.

    I also think this is why digital agencies sometimes appear to suffer from think-small syndrome, or inability to win big through-the-line accounts… the kind of people you find in small(ish) digital agencies, want to make interesting slightly nerdy stuff — they don’t want to make big fake flashmobs which sacrifice thier own odd ideas about creative integrity.

    Linked to this, these kind of agencies also sometimes don’t have the personality types that clients are used to from trad. agencies, they are a bit too ‘nice’ sometimes.

  23. My problem with these collaboration themed ads is that most of them do little to nothing to communicate the message. The human connection is merely slapped onto them to incite a positive feeling into viewer. Is the purpose to reflect on people’s connectedness, or is it merely a temporary fix for the crave for human interaction.

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