This article first appeared in IMJ, May 2020.
At a time of profound uncertainty when people are getting by on a daily basis, there is an opportunity for brands to think small and create little moments of distraction and entertainment to help us forget the real world, even just for a minute, writes Aoife Murphy.
Distractions have a bad rep. They push you off course, suck time out of your day and are a general source of irritation.
But living through this pandemic I wonder if they’re experiencing a change of fortune.
We have never been more connected to what is going on in the real world. Every news bulletin feels like an assault. Your favourite show, podcast and journalist all appear to be working off a shared script to remind you that you’re in constant danger.
As we are literally confined to our homes, escape has never been more difficult. Even previously welcome distractions like the telly has put a ‘stay at home’ banner up in the corner, JUST IN CASE we forget for a moment that we’re living through a crisis.
People leap out of the way during our daily walk. The supermarkets have horrid social distancing stickers everywhere and the normally rosy faced manager hides behind a surgical mask.
And despite all these reminders, many brands have adopted the position of an annoying child echoing back everything that’s just been said.
“Stay at home”
“Keep your distance”
“Cough into your sleeve”
“We’re in this together”
It’s a chorus of well-intentioned messages that have lost their original meaning.
Distinction has been a pillar of brand comms for decades and yet so many are using the same tone and production techniques resulting in every ad break feeling like a bad episode of Black Mirror.
The truth is, this sucks. And being reminded of it in an earnest, almost condescending way everywhere I normally go for escape sucks.
Back to distractions. If the purpose of distractions is to make us concentrate on something else then I’d argue there’s never been a better time for them. The world’s strongest brands have always endeavoured to be a high quality distraction. Nike tempted us away from the couch for our first 5k run. IKEA let us virtually play with their furniture in our home. And Pedigree showed us how to take better selfies with our dogs.
People-centric, empathetic brands who put entertainment first are proven to have stronger commercial gains in the long term. In the ‘right now’, distractions are the things holding our attention. Silly Zoom backgrounds, sourdough starters, and toilet roll challenges are all bringing us joy. The brands who are genuinely helping frontline workers or giving normal people generous discounts are appreciated but there is a place, maybe even a need, for more frivolous distractions in these strange times.
What if brands stopped trying to reinforce this forced reality we currently live in and started helping us escape it.
And that doesn’t have to be tone deaf to the current situation. In New Zealand, the main OOH owner turned all its vacant outdoor sites into an urban teddy bear hunt for kids. In the UK Bumble is reigniting love lives by helping us date again, remotely of course. And Irish whiskey brand Roe & Co. is running free flavour workshops to welcome newbies into the world of whiskey.
Many of us in the advertising industry are engaged in big thinking about what the future will look like. What trends will shape the rest of 2020 and beyond. But real people are living this moment to moment. They are getting through this one day at a time. Perhaps the best way brands can ‘help’ right now is to think small and create little moments of distraction, of entertainment, to help us forget the real world, even just for a minute.
Aoife Murphy is Executive Strategy Director + Board member, Boys+Girls.