Don't Be 'Starsky & Hutch,' Be More '24'

People Who Follow the Formula Drove Old Economy; People Who Rewrite It Drive the New

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Compare an episode of "Starsky & Hutch" from the 1970s to an episode of "24."

"Starsky & Hutch" had a handful of characters and a single linear plot line to follow; "24" has over 26 characters to keep track of, along with a multiple plot lines. "Starsky & Hutch" was really just a show about a Gran Torino that was never designed to be too taxing (OK, Huggy Bear made it a little more interesting); "24" has a narrative richness and complexity that asks the audience to connect a lot of dots.

Steven Johnson's recent book, "Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter," uses an abundance of examples like this to suggest that pop culture "is growing more sophisticated, demanding more cognitive engagement with each passing year."

In other words, a rising tide of popular entertainment is asking us to think more than it has in the past. While one can argue whether this development is making us "smarter" as a society (there are still a lot of people who still think pro wrestling is real), there is no denying that today's leading movies, TV shows and video games are less formulaic and pre-digested than their predecessors.

Judging by a lot of formulaic, "Starsky & Hutch"-type advertising, most marketing communication has not taken a cue from this shift toward more cognitive entertainment in pop culture.

While we've seen tremendous changes in the form of marketing communications ("new media" is no longer new), we've seen little change in the content of those communications that matches the increased sophistication in popular entertainment.

If advertising is meant to sell and popular entertainment is meant to entertain, should marketers care about creating communications that ask people to think? To answer that, it's worth considering what brought about this change in popular entertainment in the first place.

Ideas people
Just like advertising, much of popular entertainment is directed at the kind of people who can afford things like expensive premium cable so they can watch "The Sopranos."

And the nature of the (clumsily labeled) "mass affluent" has changed dramatically in the last 30 years.

Authors like Richard Florida ("The Rise of the Creative Class") and Daniel Pink ("A Whole New Mind") have identified a tectonic shift in who drives wealth creation in the economy.

If the old economy was dominated by "Organization Men" -- rule-following agents of large companies who are charged with implementing systems -- the new economy is dominated by the creators of ideas. They create the new technologies, new ways of doing business, the spark behind great brands as well as the movies, music and images we consume all the time.

In short, the ideas people, not the process people, best represent mainstream affluence today.

Pop-culture-makers know that this audience doesn't want simplistic formulas. Because they're ideas people, stimulation and even provocation enhance the value of popular entertainment. That's why shows like "The Simpsons," unimaginable in their multiplicity of cultural references (and insults) 30 years ago, have replaced shows like "Gilligan's Island."

So why should we care?
Should marketers targeting this upper-income group of ideas people care that popular entertainment for this audience has grown more sophisticated? Does advertising aimed at this group have to be more sophisticated, interesting and less formulaic?

After all, people who actively seek out TV shows for entertainment seldom seek out advertising. Advertisers need to communicate the benefits of their product or service within a very brief amount of time, often when the recipient of the message has no interest in hearing it. How much of an advertising message can afford to be interesting?

I can hear it now: "You pedantic twit, I'm selling a car, not debating Kierkegaard. Cognitive engagement won't help me hit the score I need on the copy test to get this ad made."

Perhaps. But most advertisers and marketers would also say they care about building successful brands that engender preference and loyalty. And building such a brand has less to do with a copy-test score and much more to do with some level of cognitive engagement from the audience.

Successful brands compete for attention with the increasingly sophisticated content that surrounds them. They ask for some form of "cognitive engagement" -- maybe even a little imagination from their audience. We might have heard a lot about Dove's "Real Beauty," Sega's "Beta 7" and Audi's "Art of the Heist," but the fact remains that they are all recent standouts precisely because they asked the audience to think a little bit. Dove provoked a referendum on the nature of feminine beauty. "Beta 7" and the "Art of the Heist" took for granted the ability of the audience to follow and enjoy a complicated narrative thread. They didn't connect all the dots.

How many times do brand managers ask advertisers to be "more hard-hitting" with a particular piece of communication? This directive seldom means "be more imaginative" or "be more provocative." Most often, it means "be more obvious." It seems we're being asked to club people to death like so many baby harp seals with a blunt-force object stripped of any imagination while the true communication breakthroughs lie at the other end of the imagination spectrum.

The lack of sophistication and thought-provoking content in most marketing communications today echoes what the broadcast networks offered before cable programming became a real threat. It used to be that broadcast TV networks followed a very formulaic, "be-more-obvious" approach to programming. To be interesting risked alienating too many people (sound familiar?). Then cable networks like HBO upset the broadcast model not by creating a new medium but by providing challenging and interesting content to an affluent audience that was clearly ready for it.

Marketers aiming for this same audience should follow the lead of the cable networks. Rather than focus simply or exclusively on "new media," there needs to be as much, if not more, thought put into creating communications content that asks the audience to think a little bit rather than communications that are simply "hard-hitting." Because in a world of "24," brands that are too "Starsky & Hutch" simply won't be noticed.

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