When we first began to replicate reality at reasonable resolution, it was such a novelty we confused it with the real thing.
Famously, early moving pictures of trains speeding towards the camera would frighten audiences so much they would leap from their seats. Orson Welles' War of the Worlds radio broadcast sent the populace into paroxysms of hysteria.
When everything you experience is real, you assume reality. Jean Baudrillard predicted the counter position – when more of existence was mediated than not, as a 'hyperreality', where we can't tell the difference between illusion and everyday experiences.
We now consume media more than doing anything else, including sleep. The illusory power of verisimilitude is still strong – the suspension of disbelief when watching film, the sense that the camera can't lie – but the modern media literate knows to trust nothing he or she sees. Photoshopped, framed, edited and excluded, all media is susceptible to manipulation, in manifold ways. The assumption of truth becomes the suspicion of falsehood.
It is in this media environment that we now work and live. Every person is a brand, creating a mediated version of their lives, carefully filtered and slightly falsified. Trust in institutions, companies and advertising is at an all-time low, and trends downwards. Why? Because we assume brands lie, just within the boundaries of legality, dressed in the defence of metaphor. Which makes it a whole lot harder to convince her that your detergent washes whiter, your toothpaste makes smiles brighter, your meal plan makes him lighter.
One solution to this problem emerges from reality television. Everyone knows reality television is not reality. It is scripted, produced, manipulated and edited. But we watch it because, despite all of that, the emotions that such orchestration can elicit still feel real. We can tell. We can smell crocodile tears at a distance. A friend of mine was recently on Masterchef and explained how they do it. Since you aren't in a union, they make you work 18-hour days. They isolate you and take away your cell phone. And then they unleash Gordon Ramsay on you. So, yes, those are real tears.
As advertisers, we don't want real tears, for the most part, because advertising is about deep human emotions, not emotional torture. But real smiles are gold, real laughter is platinum, and real awe is, well, awesome.
Brands have begun to understand this. Instead of creating a slice of family life with a punchline, there is great power in creating a real slice of life, with a pleasant surprise, that creates real emotions, and capturing that on film. It has become a compelling modern genre of advertising.
Coca-Cola has a decent claim to kicking off this trend in earnest with its original 'Happiness Machine' piece. Originally, this was a tiny activation, part of a larger campaign that also included Myspace applications and Windows screensavers. An agency called Definition 6 installed the surprise vending machine in a cafeteria in St John's University in New York City. As you know, the machine dispensed some nice surprises and everyone loved it, especially on the web. This format became the core of Coke's digital video strategy from then until now. The format is starting to evolve, beyond surprise and delight, to rewarding desired behaviours.
JetBlue and Coca-Cola just released a piece in this vein, masterminded by the agency Rokkan. In the film, a Coke vending machine at a railway station 'accidentally' serves two bottles instead of the single one ordered. The digital screen on the machine cycles through sharing messages, telling people in general to share a Coke. If the 'unsuspecting' customer (it occurs to me that people seeing Coke vending machines do strange things nowadays must at least suspect something is afoot) shares the Coke, the welcome committee is activated and they are awarded JetBlue return flights to somewhere.
This, then, is a build on the 'do nice things for random people and film it' genre. It requires a specific behaviour from the subject who is rewarded. So be nice and the branded fairy godmother might make your dreams come true.