Blog: The age of living dangerously

Be real, embrace risk, and people will love you, says Alex Smith, planning director at real world agency Sense.

Sense's Alex Smith on the age of living dangerously
Sense's Alex Smith on the age of living dangerously

The walls that surround traditional ‘fictional’ advertising media – the edges of a screen or a page – are not just a frame that allows creativity to flourish within, they’re a cage. They’re meant to protect us, the public, from the idea within, and protect the idea from us.

When you take an idea out into the ‘real world’ (calling it experiential, physical, live, or whatever), this protection disappears. No longer is the creative cosily incubated in a climate-controlled bubble – things can and will go wrong.

And people being people – they love it! That’s why brands should make taking risks a priority.

In risk there is titillation, the buzz of pleasure at the unfolding of shocking events, the guilty familiarity of schadenfreude – pleasure derived from the misfortune of others - and the adrenaline of fear. When an idea has to perform in the real world, all these things are possible, delivering far more impact.

This can be seen in any piece of ‘prankvertising’, such as the ad for the Carrie movie remake.

Conceptually, it’s basic – someone with Carrie-esque powers throwing people around a coffee shop. What makes it interesting is the belief (unfounded apparently) that these were real people, with all that this implies. Real fear, real bodily harm, real potential for a screw up. Now that’s interesting.

No room for compromise

Normal agency and brand behaviour generally revolves around diminishing risk… of consumer disappointment, of imperfection, of unpredictability. This sterilises the power of ‘real world’ ideas, in a way that subconsciously repels people. Your compromise that seemed entirely reasonable on paper will ultimately act as the thimble of poison that makes a great campaign fail. And you’ll probably never even know why.

Instead, manage risk to your advantage. Pizza Hut recently tempted disaster in a smart way by launching a "subconscious" menu, using eye-tracking technology to "read people’s minds" and choose a pizza for them.

I discovered this idea through an email doing the rounds entitled "Isn’t this stupid", because people generally assumed it wouldn’t work, and that you’d end up with a pizza you don’t want – cue the dreaded customer dissatisfaction!

But that’s the point. Pizza Hut essentially issued a challenge saying: "Drop by and prove us idiots!" But it’s a challenge that still requires you to buy a pizza. If the system was flawless, who’d be interested? In its superfluous crappiness lies the sex appeal. And judging by the "98% satisfaction rate", which I doubt is a strict measure of pizza choice quality, their customers get that too. It’s a bit of fun. Beats ordering the pizza I actually want in a boring way.

Fail with style

The extreme end of embracing risk would come in a brand deliberately staging a horrible ‘fail’. There are few recorded official examples, because owning up to it would break the spell. But we can imagine it through recent Twitter storms.

The archetype of these was the infamous "I shop at Waitrose because…" ‘debacle’, which made it too inviting for people to finish the sentence with comments like: "…I don’t like to be surrounded by poor people." I doubt this was intentional, but in an obtuse way this still reinforces what lots of people kinda like about Waitrose. And the brand itself can innocently hold its hands up, free from culpability in this class skirmish.

You can flip the risk too, piling it on the consumer’s head, not the brand’s. Take KLM’s Monday Mystery Ticket initiative. Every Monday people were invited to buy a plane ticket for €99, the catch being they didn’t know where to. Following their purchase, the destination would be revealed, and they’d be expected to fly that very Friday.

There was no risk for the brand here – they were transparent and people knew what they were letting themselves in for – but there was considerable risk for the buyer. And that’s exactly what today’s consumers want. And even if they don’t, they want to hear about it. Which adds up to a superb campaign – ‘customer satisfaction’ be damned.

Basically, people are sick. They want failure, embarrassment, blood and tears. But they’re also realistic – more so than agencies and brands – in that they appreciate that participation is optional, and that uncontrollable campaigns reveal a refreshing good faith on behalf of the brand, the kind that its stage-managed competitors simply can’t compete with.

More The marketing war can never win

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