Selling in a sea of Apathy

“I’m never bored. That’s the trouble with everybody — you’re all so bored. You’ve ‘ad nature explained to you and you’re bored with it, You’ve ‘ad the living body explained to you and you’re bored with it. You’ve ‘ad the universe explained to you and you’re bored with it! So now you want cheap thrills and like plenty of ’em, and it dun’t matter ‘ow tawdry or vacuous they are as long as it’s new, as long as it’s new!” — Johnny, Naked (1993)

So exclaimed Johnny, played masterfully by David Thewlis in Mike Leigh’s celluloid Hogarthian allegory Naked (1993). Johnny, in his scabrous diatribe, hit on something that I think those in the creative industry grapple with now and again: Consumer Apathy. Where Leigh’s anti-hero describes apathy as a function of boredom where people are compelled to discard the wonders of life and the treasures of knowledge with all the ceremony of a small child ignoring a once cherished toy and fixating on fresh flash.

What if apathy isn’t just an effect of a consumer culture saturated with content, but a defence against sensory overload? Take a horse race: You’ve bred a stallion for its speed, power, and grace. On any given day he can hold his own against any of the horses in the steeplechase, taking home the purse every time. Against nine other horses yours is a sure bet. What if 25 horses are running? What about 75? At some point your metrics dip below this event horizon and it becomes impossible to predict or measure your horse’s performance in the race. There are just too many variables! Besides, with so many horses running it all more resembles a train wreck in slow motion than a race!

Why should anyone actually care about a beautiful image? The answer may shock some of you: They shouldn’t.

Social Media guarantees that our engagement with say, “Photographic content” is fleeting. It boils down to a “like-and-run” micro-interaction between creative and viewer; the viewer stumbles upon your well-concepted, well-produced (often expensive) image* on Facebook/Instagram, clicks “like/♥” and that’s it. They’ve moved on to the next well-concepted, well-produced image in their feed. Ask them five minutes later and they might be able to describe to you what they saw in vague terms. Ask them a week later and you can forget it — Silence. Even the crickets are on holiday. Your content is already below their horizon, and who can blame them? They’ve been exposed to an average of 250 images per day including yours.

How to get your audience to care about what you produce, especially when what you produce is in constant competition with 91,000 other photographic images in a given year? When photographic art has commercial cachet — being a tool of the sale rather than the product to be sold itself, why should anyone actually care about a beautiful image?

The answer may shock some of you: They shouldn’t.

Care about what emotions the image evokes. When you spark a strong emotional reaction in a viewer, you’ve made a connection. Where you sustain that connection, you create a relationship. Where you create a relationship, you create an audience. Take a walk through any book store and you’ll see Homer’s Odyssey, Beowulf, The Tale of Genji, Gilgamesh. Ancient stories that speak to the universal journey to self-actualization that we all experience. Stories have been with us as a species for thousands of years. Using images to sell should serve a greater sense of story. Traditionally that’s been a staple of content we expect to be story-driven e.g. Hollywood, and Television, but given the shift away from episodics to on-demand content with sweeping, seasons-long narrative arcs, I think the case can be made that commercial advertising must also shift more in the direction of long-term narrative delivery.

I speak with many businesses who are struggling with using video and photography in an innovative and effective way in social media, and they all say the same thing: They’re following all the rules, they’re on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter. They’ve got a dedicated social media person. They do four to six talking head + B-roll = brand story pieces a year in house, and if they need anything bigger, well that’s what Agencies are for, amiright? Sales are good, but growth is meagre; there’s a creeping sense of stagnation at the margins and the younger generations just don’t seem to identify with the brand… Eventually they admit it: They feel stuck, with the pedal to the metal knowing they don’t have the RPMs to crest the hill, but that to release the gas will cause them to roll unceremoniously back to the bottom.

Challenge yourselves to save the branding for the last shot, to treat it as an afterthought.

I think it’s time to flip the script, take a deep breath and let the branding take a back seat to just telling a good yarn. Create content that builds an audience through emotional investment in a story, a character and his or her journey, and do it in an on-line space where people can interact and share in that journey. Challenge yourselves to save the branding for the last shot, to treat it as an afterthought — right now in the 30 seconds you have with your viewer touch them with a universal human truth, and leave them feeling that with you (and, yes ultimately your brand) the self actualization they seek in life is even more possible.

My thoughts on this are still coalescing, and I’m interested in fostering a open discussion about these ideas with creative directors, and marketing teams. What do you think? Does this ring true to your experience? Is it completely off base? Does it evoke fear? Uncertainty? Danger? Excitement?

Let me know what you think at