Sunday 4 September 2011

Choice simulation

There seems to be a general consensus these days that there is a potential downside to the incredible choice in the modern world. That having 75 different crisp flavours to choose from just makes it harder for us to choose and that when we do finally pick, we're left more anxious about whether we made the right decision. After all, what are the chances we picked the best one out of all those 75 options?

It's been suggested that people who have grown up with this find it harder to make choices, so either pick without conviction, or fail to make a decision at all.

What's interesting for me is that there seems to be a new craze in computer games, that potentially reflects this. Games that allow you to make a choice and live out those consequences - sometimes even across multiple games.

Now this is partly about games doing what they do best. Making choices is just another way of giving the player power within the virtual world, and helping them to make their own interactive story.

But games are also often about being able to do the things you can't in real life. Fight in a war, compete in an extreme sport, leap across rooftops. So is the recent popularity of games that show the consequences of your decisions actually about giving people a virtual environment, in which they can make a decision and go along with the result, in a way they simply couldn't handle in the real world. Are these games just a reflection of a generation unable to make big decisions and stick with them?

When we are so aware of all the potential jobs out there, the potential partners out there, that we can never be totally happy with the choices we've made - maybe it's nice to have a Sim live a life of conviction. You can live it all the way through, happy in the knowledge that you can always play again and try out those other options.

Maybe it's just a matter of time before we get Walker's Crisps Flavour Picker: The Game.

Sunday 17 July 2011

The un-canine valley

So there's an Andrex advert now with dogs playing instruments.

There's a lot to be said for the range of messages you can deliver and memorable situations you can set up with a CGI dog. Why I find it a strange route for Andrex, is that one of the only things that fake dogs will struggle to do, is look as soft and cuddly as the real thing. When that was the whole point of the dog's existence, it seems like a strange move.

This brings me on to one of my favourite crazy psychological topics. The uncanny valley.

The theory goes that we like to see human elements in animals, cartoons, robots etc. The more big and human a dog's eyes, the cuter it looks. However, there is a point where things start to look so human, that instead of focusing on the bits that make them look like us, we start to focus on the inhuman elements. This tipping point turns our love into repulsion, thus Terminator = scary.

Potentially this is an evolutionary tactic to help us stay alive. If we see someone looking particularly diseased, we'll be repulsed by them and keep a healthy disease free distance.

Pixar, who have successfully monetised cuteness, have long known about the uncanny valley. This is why their backgrounds look as good as lifelike, but the humans are odd, smooth skinned caricatures.
Our CGI skills are good, but not good enough to create something realistically human that doesn't make us want to be sick. There are plenty examples of this rule being ignored with horrific results - such as the cold dead eyes of the kid from Polar Express.

Amazingly, even monkeys seem to suffer from this. If shown 3 pictures - One a photo of a monkey, one a cartoon monkey, and one a realistic CGI monkey, they will like the photo and the cartoon, but be repulsed by the CGI.

Exactly how far this works cross-species I don't know, but I think it's safe to say that taking a dog who was designed to be a metaphor for softness and playing with the uncanny valley is a dangerous move.

Just look at how lovable the real thing is!

Sunday 8 May 2011

What a tool

Brands spend an incredible amount of time, money and effort turning their products into a story they think consumers will want to engage with, to learn about, to share. Often the messages are few and really quite simple. So why does nobody bother to investigate?

Of course everyone is busy, there are all these new types of media etc. These are all very valid and old points, but I think often consumers just aren't given a credible reason and the motivation to follow what brands want to say.

As my old friend Shigsy (the creator of Super Mario) once said about computer game story telling - you don't write a story and tell people to follow it. You create a world (product) and give people the tools they need to explore it and understand it themselves.

The other day some clever people from the BBC came in to work to talk about their 'History of the World in 100 objects' series. Brands find it hard to get people to contemplate their single new feature - imagine trying to get people motivated enough to want to investigate the entire history of the world.

The answer for them was deceptively simple. Make it about objects.

Everyone has an object that tells a story. About them, about others, about places, about the history of the world. By using objects as the tool through which the BBC could tell the story, it gave everyone the tools to relate to the stories, to tell their own and get involved in the series.

I think what's key is how closely this fitted with the series (product), but still gave room for the tool to be taken out into the wider world, to explore other issues. This is when things can ingrain themselves in culture.

In the same meeting, Marmite was mentioned. Again, the Love/Hate thing is undoubtedly linked to the product, but as a tool it can be used outside of the campaign, giving Marmite the kind of cultural power that still gets it mentioned on Britain's Got Talent all these years later. People are using the Love/Hate tool, but every single time, it is linked back to the product. Magic.

Even things like Carlsberg - Probably the best lager. The sheer quantity of fake Carlsberg ads online is a testament to the tool they created of 'making dream versions of every day things'.

I pick these two examples in particular as, being a massive geek, I naturally see apps and online as a way of creating tools for people to interact with and explore brand stories. However, I think it's important to know that traditional advertising can still achieve this - it just needs to recognise that consumers need a way in to their story. A tool which makes exploring the brand fun, which brings to life the story, but has the legs to be used outside of what are usually quite boring and irrelevant product categories.

The danger is if you make your tool purely about your product. Then you end up with Alan Hansen talking to you about the HOT TOPIC of whether you can look professional while chewing gum. I'd personally have liked to have seen this Good side / Bad side idea stretched further, with gum merely the way into it. As Marmite has shown, this wider focus can improve the product link, not necessarily come at the expense of it.

Having said that, I'm sure the people who made those ads know more about the gum world than me. I'm too professional to chew.

Sunday 6 March 2011

Everything is interesting, including pencils

A really good way to look intelligent is to know the Latin origin of words, so that you can express the deeper meaning of a name. Unfortunately, 'pencil' is based on the Latin word for 'little tail'. So, instead of looking like Stephen Fry, I get to share the insight that you can make a pencil look like a small tail if you hold it near your buttocks. Excellent.
Apparently pencils were invented when a big pile of graphite was found in England and we decided to do stuff with it. It seems such pure graphite was rare, so we cunningly flooded the mine so no one could steal it. This is a wonderful defensive move and one which really should be used more often. Why don't we flood our offices at night to protect our computers? A quick drain before 9am and we're good to go.

Because of this brilliant move to protect our glorious graphite, England briefly had a monopoly on pencils. How this has never been made into a film, or long-running TV series I'll never know. Bastard pencil barons going to extreme measures to save their resources, while mocking the rest of the world for their lack of pencils. I'd watch it.

Questionable Wikipedia Fact Alert: Pencils are covered in wood to protect the weak and pathetic graphite inside. But at one point, the wood they used was in such short supply that pencil sharpeners were made illegal, to stop illegitimate and wasteful sharpenings. We sure do some extreme things to protect our pencils...

The colours coating the wood vary across the world. The market leader in each country picked a colour and then the lesser pencil producers copied it to look good. It's nice to know that cheap knock-offs have always been around. This is also why most pencils on TV are yellow, as this was America's classiest colour.

Pencils are also notable for using my least favourite system of categorisation.

Pencils are graded in terms of their hardness, or H. Also, their blackness, or B. Also there's a single rogue F for some reason. Why can't they pick a single unit of measurement and stick with it!

Unfortunately, most of my best pencil wielding years are behind me. They were of course used as training pens in schools, probably because they're mildly less dangerous (ignoring the common rumours that they were poisonous killers) and easier to erase than pens. When I think about it, there really is no need for pens. It's like we got overly cocky about our writing ability and decided we would do it without the safety of erasability. Like when kids don't want to wear a helmet while riding a bike.

Because of this test-pen status, I always think someone must be a bit childish and stupid when using a pencil. Like if they turned up to work with a Fireman Sam lunchbox. What have we done to the poor pencil! It was our oil. And now we've made it look pathetic.

There's still some love for pencils though. A quick Twitter sentiment test shows 61% of posts were positive. The rest were seemingly about losing pencils or jabbing themselves/someone else in the eye/thigh with one.

One advantage of being around so long is that they've worked their way into many a common phrase. So they don't just allow us to create beautiful things, they inspire it. For instance, just today there are two examples of people saying "Life without you would be like a broken pencil...pointless" to a loved one.

The sad thing of course, is that they sent that message over Twitter, so they don't actually need a pencil. In many respects, they are merely telling their dearest sweetheart that life is pointless with or without them.

Without pencils, there can be no romance!
Yes, the golden age of pencils are over. Replaced by a keyboard that no one would flood a mine, or make outrageous laws to protect. Pencils are now only to be used by artists, who look like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle loving idiots while doing so. Research does not lie!

Sunday 13 February 2011

Everything is interesting, including sweater vests

The good thing about working on one account, is being able to really get under the skin of every area of the business. However, I do quite miss the joy of researching completely new industries/companies/products. It's like there's no need for Google any more.

So, as some kind of brilliant (not stolen) cross between what Northern Planner is doing and Wikipedia, I'm going to research random things and hope that they're actually interesting. This really will be entertainment at its best.

To start off, I'll write about something very dear to my heart; the sweater vest.

Let's start by saying, yes, it is technically a tank top. However, I've always prefered the American name for it myself, especially as the name tank top has its origins in women's swimsuits (swimming tank). It just doesn't sit right with what is the most manly item of clothing ever produced.

So, what is it that makes a sweater with the sleaves cut off so spectacularly cool? Well, according to a slightly suspicious looking Wikipedia article, the answer is Afghan rap superstar Akbar Zaki.

I have my own theories.

The first is based on the experience of going to interviews for advertising jobs. Interviewers' styles can range anywhere between the t-shirted hobo look and the well suited, silently judging my shoes look. The magic of the sweater vest is that it can fill a position anywhere between 'semi formal' and 'formal', with a brief stop off at 'sports casual'.

Secondly, the sweater vest has a moderate success rate at hiding poorly ironed shirts.

Thirdly, Chandler Bing wore one.

Now, while my fashion sense has been described as Primarkable. It appears the hip kids of today also enjoy a spot of sweater vesting. For example, Urban Dictionary defines a sweater vest as "An article of clothing often worn by 'ridiculously' good looking teachers that make them somehow even better looking."

A quick sentiment analysis of Twitter also shows that 74% of posts about sweater vests are positive. The other 26% are wrong.

What are people saying about them though? Well, someone called Caroline made this announcement; "My boyfriend has a sweater vest. I love life."

Unfortunately, not all of the posts are about sweater vests single handedly saving relationships. One lovely young gentleman named Anthony states: "nice sweater vest faggot". Now putting aside the fact this post was listed as 'positive', Anthony seems to have misread the situation, like only a person who describes things as 'sick' can.

Does a man wanting to look quite formal, but not too formal make him a faggot? No. It makes him a sexy, wisecracking, Afghan rap star. Research does not lie!

Sunday 23 January 2011

When computer game design enters the real world

A long rooftop followed by a ramp to nowhere? I felt like I was in Tony Hawks Pro Skater 2.
This is by far the nerdiest thing I've ever written. And I make nerdiness a criteria for all my posts.

Sunday 31 October 2010

She was a candle in the wind. Unreliable

I always thought Channel 4 was the most digital savvy of all the channels. But apparently this doesn't stop them from making a mistake so short sighted that I'm shocked it still happens after all these years.

A little example of their latest initiative involves Garth Marenghi's Dark Place. A great, original, but criminally under-watched show that I love to share with anyone who'll listen. Or at least look like they're listening.

To help share this show, and encourage people to buy the DVD, I show people two clips. One is of the intro, which brilliant sums up the faux-80s TV show appeal and the other is a user made 3 minute version of a song from the series called 'One Track Lover'.

None of these are a replacement for buying the DVD, but crucially, they are great tools for selling the DVD. So why Channel 4 has decided to remove them from Youtube I simply do not know. The content works better than any viral campaign an agency could come up with.

At this point I should make it clear that I don't think this post is making any points that haven't been made a hundred times before (I probably should have opened with that and saved everyone some time). However, it's the very obvious nature of this thinking that makes me wonder how great creative companies can take this kind of action.

Now if I want to tell people about the show, I have to link them to videos that might actually act as a replacement to buying the DVD