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Advertising in a Culture of Fear

March 12, 2009

Everyone is scared. I mean really scared. It’s the economy, stupid. There is an endless drum beat of “be very, very frightened” messages in all things media about economic whatnot. I’ve been wondering for a while if we’ll see a spike in end-of-days entertainment and horror flicks.

I was gonna post about You Tube and the comment from the rep who visited recently with the dire warning “If you’re not using video and mobile, you are behind. You are behind and need to catch up.” To pepper the post with clever content I found this hysterical, well done rising video on You Tube by the geeks at Mental_Floss. It’s about destroying civilization with nanobots. End of days at the hand of bots. Even You Tube videos are going scary and apocalyptic? In a funny way, naturally, but apocalyptic nonetheless. The short film below makes the point I was going to riff on — video killing the TV star with improving quality and narrative by the next establishment — when fear itself took over this post.

I clicked around on the paranoid fear tip, pondering horrifying things. I spent some time transfixed by videos of flying carp taking over the Illinois River, catching air up and down the Mighty Mississippi and eating plankton like The Blob. The Blob was simple, relentless and is always good fodder for midnight coffee bar intellectuals to provide deep thoughts by way of camp. Zombies and vampires work too.

Then I got to thinking about the Big Long Scary also known as The Cold War. One of the most effective and talked about ads ever run played on very real American fears of nuclear annihilation soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis. It worked to firmly position Barry Goldwater as a crazy man who wouldn’t hesitate to use the bomb. There is a terrific Mad Men style narrative on the history of this ad by DDB for LBJ on Conelrad.

Things could be worse. Nanobots. More flying carp. Blobs. Zombies. Vampires. Mushroom clouds. Just to name a few. But the zeitgeist is paralyzed by fear right now — staring at the situation in horror, blaming, fleeing to their nests, searching for reassurance or a return to simplicity in a complicated world. And advertising is also paralyzed by fear right now — economic turbulence is at the front door and social media, video and mobile is at the back. Everyone seems to be waiting for what’s next. Adjusting ad strategies in turbulent times has been a challenge. I don’t think “Daisy” would work today. But reading the history of how they used the cultural moment and the new medium of television to help LBJ was fascinating. And wondering about how the current economic reality and the national mood will serve as a prism shaping content was a fun thinkable.

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