Great entertainment is transgressive. It breaks the rules and provokes your emotions. Brands must overcome their need to be liked and challenge their audiences if they want to create entertainment that truly impacts culture, writes Richard Cable, Editorial Director at BBH London.
If great advertising and great entertainment have one thing in common, it’s that they both provoke a profound emotional response in their audience, be it delight, nostalgia, curiosity, love, empathy, righteous anger or desire. Indifference is the enemy of effectiveness.
Where advertising can only flirt with these emotions, branded entertainment gives you the time to consummate the relationship, building equity through sustained, positive emotional engagement. The same job just longer, right? How hard can it be.
Quite hard, as it turns out. The great branded entertainment revolution is pretty long in the tooth already, but still seems to be churning out an awful lot of what might politely be termed ‘brandfill’. Content that stirs no hearts and stops no thumbs. Entertainment that is unentertaining. More unloved stuff to add to the great slush pile of ‘meh’.
Which is odd, because it’s not as if there are any wheels to be reinvented here. Sure, some of the lessons are new to an industry whose output has been shaped by the constraints of 30 seconds, 48 sheets and double page spreads, but the knowledge of what makes great entertainment has been in development since homo sapiens first evolved the capacity for speech.
Story. Character. Empathy. Structure. Craft. Patience. These are the sort of fundamental principles most brands can really get behind. Yet try and name your top five examples of branded entertainment from the last 12 months and you’ll struggle to get past one. So why isn’t more of it better?
It’s because most brands are in the business of being liked. Their instincts, naturally enough, are to appeal to as broad a church as possible; to avoid discord and accentuate the positive; to veer away from anything that might tarnish by association. While this may serve you well for your next banner campaign, but when it comes to creating entertainment – the sort of entertainment that impacts culture – this ‘needy’ instinct is fundamentally flawed.
Great entertainment challenges. It transgresses. It upsets and bewilders, riding roughshod over your carefully cultivated social and cultural boundaries, and merrily lobbing hand grenades into your calm pools of emotional tranquillity along the way.
A high school chemistry teacher turns sociopathic drug lord. A corrupt president defies every law, including the fourth wall, in his pursuit of power. A repressed father experiences a late blossoming as a woman. A desperate teenager commits suicide and posthumously blames her friends.
What Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Transparent, 13 Reasons Why, and pretty much every other landmark entertainment moment ever has in common is a willingness – in some cases a compulsion – to break the rules, and in so doing take us to some very, very dark places, where the good guys don’t win, where the ethics are murky and where we are forced to ask questions about our own cherished beliefs.
And yet we don’t feel repelled by Netflix or Amazon for doing this to us. On the contrary, we are rapt. We await the next instalment with unrestrained enthusiasm and change the rhythm of our lives to accommodate their schedules. We discuss what it means in intricate detail, binge watching to be first to the finish and wishing bloody retribution on the propagators of careless social media spoilers.
The reason they take us into these dark places isn’t gratuitous. It has purpose. In his famous rant, design legend Stefan Sagmeister berates a rollercoaster designer for describing himself as a storyteller. “No fuckhead, you’re not a storyteller, you’re a rollercoaster designer.”
What the unfortunate rollercoaster designer may have been getting at was that his designs depict the emotional graph of a story well told – a series of climbs to accentuate the drops, constantly hurling you from one extreme to the other with the intention of fully commanding every fraction of your attention while you’re on the ride.
More often than not, brands’ instincts lead them to flatten out the rollercoaster, subordinating the power of emotionally provocative storytelling for fear of diminishing the brand’s appeal. To succeed in entertainment requires brands to reconcile these two instincts and get them pulling in the same, rather than opposite directions. Because a rollercoaster without the peaks and troughs is basically a commute, and nobody commutes for the pleasure of it.