Brands reaching for quotes of their past advertising successes hints at our continued failure to think about the future and start investing in assets for the long term, argues Faris Yakob.

The science fiction author William Gibson, famed for his vision and coinage of ‘cyberspace’, recently suggested that we have grown weary of the future. “All through the 20th century we constantly saw the 21st century invoked,” he said. “How often do you hear anyone invoke the 22nd century? Even saying it is unfamiliar to us. We’ve come to not have a future”. He dubbed this “future fatigue” and suggested we have retreated from the techno-utopian ‘Californian Ideology’ - a mix of technology, free market economics, and counter-culture libertarianism - and that the backlash had brought us to the present moment and the explosion of mindfulness. This is, however, not the only evident cultural reaction. 

When faced with an increasingly complex present in which various core cultural narratives seem to be in question, there are two distinct human responses. One is to imagine a better future, which is loosely progressive, and the other is to harken back to an imagined past. Focusing on the present is inherently difficult for human minds, they roam past and future while we make tea, hence the reason meditation was invented: to calm our monkey mind. This, combined with the ever increasing fragmentation of media, which makes it harder to make new things famous from scratch, is partially why culture seems unable to resist the lure of nostalgia, in movies, music, television and politics [which seem increasingly blurred]. Nostalgia comes with built-in audiences and awareness.

Inevitably, any trend in media and culture will find its way into advertising, which faces its own complex present. The recent batch of research from Binet & Field and System1 both suggest a ‘crisis in creativity’ - specifically that there has been a decline in the effectiveness of ideas that are winning creative awards over the last decade or so. When considering that, one avenue to explore is going back before that to modern classic campaigns and assets that have performed in the past. 

Ten years ago, Old Spice and W&K caught the ‘lightning in a bottle’ they strive for with an ad that dominated the Super Bowl and advertising conversations for years, despite not airing during the game. They followed up with the Responses campaign, perhaps the apotheosis of ‘real time marketing’ and the start of its decline. This year the Man Your Man Could Smell like returns to embarrass his son, who favors the more reserved Ultra Smooth line, with his magical masculinity. At the time, there was a typically polarized debate about the efficacy of the work, in comparison to its social media and cultural impact, but the Effies award paper shows that sales more than doubled during the campaign. Another ‘modern classic’ campaign that had substantial momentum on the early web was Budweiser’s ‘Wassup.’ It became a ‘winged word’, flying out of the ad into imitative parlance. 

‘Wassup’ returns with a remake featuring Alexa and various internet-enabled devices talking to each other, jumping on the voice bandwagon with a message to avoid drunk driving, in a co-promotion with Uber. In the UK, one of the most famous poster campaigns of all time has just returned. The Economist has resurrected its classic white-on-red letterbox posters originally written by the legendary David Abbott. The new work also features Alexa, because it is a ‘sign of the times’. 

The campaign most obviously drawing from the nostalgia wave, which means that the movies currently playing at the cineplex are Star Wars, Bad Boys, Jumanji and Top Gun, is ‘Sequels’ from Geico. The strategy might be showing but it’s one of the few brands with the creative breadth and heritage to make this idea work. The insurance giant ran some of its modern classics and then asked fans to vote for their favorite characters, doing some large scale likeability research on their underused brand assets. 

This brings to mind the differences between ads and assets. Assets require investment and accrue value slowly, they are elements of brand. Characters like Progressive’s Flo become more valuable the longer they run and they can do a lot of creative heavy lifting. This requires longer term thinking and investment in the present, which is where our future fatigue fails us.

Another way of thinking about future fatigue is short-termism, which is an ongoing challenge. Measuring ads solely for their immediate effect, rather than for their potential as assets, means it’s less likely we will keep investing in them, even if they are gaining strength. Brand characters and distinctive formats are assets, whereas Wassup is an ad. True, true. 

I read a column this week in which the author explains that the song he listened to most in 2019 was ‘The Happy Song’, developed by Imogen Heap for Cow & Gate to make babies happy. The author reports that it works and because babies love repetition he has heard it many times every day, despite his concerns.

“What we are talking about here is, in some unavoidably literal sense, mind control. There is something creepy, too, about the way the song attempts to achieve its ends, leveraging the emotions of babies to increase parents’ awareness of a baby-food brand. And you wouldn’t have to lean too hard into this interpretation to start seeing the song — which was conceived as a corporate-branding exercise, germinated in a mulch of data and audience testing, optimized for maximal engagement and delivered via algorithmic targeting — as a troubling intensification of existing trends in the production of culture under capitalism.” 

The author consoles himself with the fact that he and his wife haven’t bought any Cow & Gate products whilst doing some excellent PR for them. However, this PR won’t help as much as it could because the song and surrounding campaign happened in 2016 and have since been abandoned. The song still lives online, like everything does, forever. The asset is out there, providing the right consumers value, but isn’t being leveraged by the brand, because they have moved on. Being too enamoured of the present means we aren’t considering the future and investing in assets to plunder in 2030. We forget that, due to significantly higher exposure, we get tired of our ideas much faster than consumers do.