What Can Black Mirror Teach the Advertising Industry?

If you’re like me, with so much great content out there it’s hard to prioritize the shows you’ve committed to watching. Right now, I have Queen Sugar, This Is Us, How To Get Away With Murder, The Good Doctor, and Blackish. My Netflix list has The Crown, Friends, Prison Break and now, Black Mirror.

Black Mirror is a science fiction anthology series on Netflix focusing on the relationship between humans and technology. Critically acclaimed and Emmy-awarded, Black Mirror is must see television, especially for people who work in advertising.

Here are a few reasons you should not only add, but also bump Black Mirror up on your watch list.

People-driven, not tech-driven. One of the greatest misconceptions about Black Mirror is that it’s simply about technology. But despite the memes, Black Mirror is not about pushing tech-paranoia, nor is it about the sinister side of innovation. A close look at the show’s format affirms this. Each episode asks two questions: what does the character tell us the technology and what does the technology tell us about the character?

Let’s consider the first question: “What does the character tell us about the technology?” How is the tech used? Who uses it? Is it made available to everyone? Is it only available to the elite? What purpose does the tech appear to serve?

In “The Entire History of You” (Season 1, Episode 3), the viewer is introduced to a memory-lens implant called The Grain, that documents everything you see, hear, and do. The Grain comes with a small controller that allows the user to rewind and project memories in order to share them with others. The Grain is optional but widely adopted because people fear others will inaccurately remember life events.

Now onto the second question, and this where Black Mirror truly shines: “What does the tech tell us about the character?” How do they use the tech? Are they always on it? Are they intrigued by it? Are they skeptical of it? Why do they use it?

We are introduced to The Grain through Liam, the show’s protagonist, who is in the middle of an interview for a premier law firm. In a cab on the way to his wife, Liam keeps replaying a moment where one of the firm’s partners says something that makes him uncomfortable. It’s here we learn that Liam is both observant and critical. He picks up on the slightest of nuances and then obsesses over them. Throughout the episode, these tendencies are magnified when Liam suspects his wife is having an affair. Initially, the viewer dismisses Liam’s suspicions but soon realizes that there may be some truth to his claim.

Each episode of Black Mirror is a window into who we are, and the wonder and horror we are capable of. The series is always exploring when and why we use tech, and how we treat people as a result of acquiring it. Technology then becomes the lens used to critique our desires, instincts, and fears, leading viewers to the realization that the scariest thing in the Black Mirror universe, is them.

As an ad person, these are the questions we should be asking ourselves as we engage in our work. Recently, it seems that we have fallen victim to shiny object syndrome. New tech captures our attention and we rush to be the first agency to market with it. We have done this with 3D printing, labs, and so much else, each time forgetting that tech is the tool, not the message.

Our stories should always be people-driven rather than tech-driven. Next time a conversation about virtual reality comes up we should opt for the Black Mirror approach, and strive for a balance between cautiously examining the technology and relentlessly interrogating the effect it will have on us.

Diverse stories are the best stories. Black Mirror is about the relationship between humans and technology, so it is of no surprise to me, that while exploring those relationships, the creators discovered that every group has a different relationship with technology. While some technology has been used to exploit certain groups it also protects others. While technology has been used to connect communities it is also known to destroy.

Black Mirror creates lanes for those divergent stories by having episodes that address the harm done to communities in the name of innovation. Episodes like “Black Museum” (Season 4, Episode 6), showcase how the African American community has often been experimented upon without their consent — see the Tuskegee trials, Henrietta Lacks, and the founding of modern gynecology.

In Black Mirror, women and people of color aren’t relegated to episodes depicting systemic oppression. They also tell rich stories about love, loss, and revenge. Of the 19 episodes, 10 are led by women and 6 by people of color. People of color live full lives on screen. The beauty of Black Mirror is that not only are their characters diverse but so are their writers and producers. There is so much power in being able to tell their own stories.

In advertising, diversity is over-discussed and under-implemented. Too often, diversity is a talking point and not an action plan. It’s considered as an afterthought and that is because this industry is comfortable; comfortable with the stories being told and comfortable with allowing the same people to tell them. The industry’s comfort comes at the cost of great storytelling and if Black Mirror has taught us anything, it’s that great stories should make us uncomfortable.

A dystopian science fiction series, Black Mirror teaches us about how to create and tell powerful stories. I hope we are listening.