News & Views

The Advantages of Hiding in Plain Sight

by Arif Haq

This week you’ll be glad to hear that I will be the only British columnist in the world that won’t be talking about that John Lewis Xmas ad. Even though there would be much to discuss, not least the decision to make the star of the show a young boy obsessed with a penguin with whom he shares not only his sexual coming of age fantasies, but also his fish fingers.

Instead I’m going to talk about a small shop in Terminal 7 of New York’s JFK airport called Brookstone. Even if you don’t know the chain, you’ll probably know the type of place I’m talking about. Crammed full of the type of gadgets that, for anyone with testicles, arouses a compelling urge to browse, it has HD projectors the size of your hand, iPad covers with integrated reading lights and what one can only assume is the most complete range of headphones and headphone accessories, earphones and earphone accessories and earbud and earbud accessories, in the world.

Basically it’s the real-world equivalent of the ‘Gifts for Men’ supplement that falls out of your subscription to The Week around this time of the year which, along with the Robert Dyas catalogue and a ten year old copy of Reader's Digest while you're waiting for the dentist', forms the bulk of the 'Male Browsing Catnip category.

And in this Brookstone store, next to the headphones, earphones and earbuds, is a stand devoted entirely to what are labelled ‘personal travel massagers’ but which I strongly suspect would be more truthfully called ‘mini vibrating sex toys’. Quite how the store gets away with selling these in so brazen a manner is beyond me, but I wholeheartedly applaud the chutzpah involved in the endeavour. I know New York is geographically and culturally a long way from Alabama, whose 1998 Anti-Obscenity Enforcement Act means that anyone found guilty of ‘distributing any device designed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs’ will find themselves with a $10,000 fine and a year in jail, but this is still the USA, right? A country where only a few years ago the sight of a woman’s nipple during the Super Bowl caused national meltdown?

Brookstone of course is following the tried and tested tactic of ‘hiding in plain sight’. The act of seamlessly blending into the surroundings of your environment while doing little to hide your presence has traditionally been the domain of spies, snipers and ironic racists. But, it struck me, while staring at a particularly daringly designed OhMiBod ‘stress wand’, that this strategy also lies at the heart of good marketing content; that is, work in which the brand sits proudly within the content, seamlessly integrated throughout the work. It’s so much more powerful (and much harder to produce) than the other type of work that is so common, produced by what I call advertising apologists, work in which the brand logo appears reluctantly for a few seconds after the ‘generic sponsored joke’ that appeared in the 30 seconds before it.

It’s a point that my colleague Chloe Markowicz eloquently discussed last month after speaking to Karen Nelson-Field at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute (also home, lest we forget, to Professor Byron Sharpe, whose work, along with Daniel Kahneman’s, must surely rank as the most quoted in advertising blogs and presentations this year). Their recent research casts doubt on the wariness that marketers feel about pushing a brand too obviously in the content they create, fearing that audiences will be turned off. The Institute proved that in fact prominent branding does not have a negative effect on how happy people are to share your content. This makes sense. The devil of course is in the detail: how well is the brand integrated into the story – how well does it hide in plain sight? How much has the audience been emotionally primed to engage with that brand and, of course, is it any bloody good to watch?!

But it’s not just a misguided over-estimation of our audience’s disdain for marketing that creates the glut of advertising apologists’ work we see so much of. Part of it, I’m sure, is down to the apparent reticence of the industry to actually describe its work as ‘advertising’, instead using proxies like ‘films’, and ‘content’ that remain coy about the commercial objective, which in turn can lead to an embarrassment about featuring a brand or product in the work.

Perhaps it reflects an inherent unease to be associated with an industry that – let’s face it – is not really ‘cool’ for anyone outside of it. I mean, yes, it’s ‘cool’ in the sense that we consistently get the chance to bring great ideas to life with bigger budgets than the average creative industry professional has access to. And there's the member's clubs, I suppose. And Cannes of course. But ‘I work in advertising’ is not the type of thing you might first blurt out at a warehouse party in Hackney Wick or a grocery co-operative in Williamsburgh (and certainly never at a ‘we are the 99% percent’ march anywhere).

While this attitude may be understandable considering how the recent economic crisis has supercharged the divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ in society, with many seeing the advertising industry as the key agent of a consumerism-obsessed dystopia, it’s also a shame because advertising remains a highly challenging and satisfying craft that should be respected. Wrangling the abstract power of creativity to drive behavioural change is a specialised and expert area of creative endeavour all of its own. An industry that could better articulate this value to ourselves and the wider world might in turn lead to a renewed pride in the work we do and the brand messages we use to do it.