Mad Men Is About People Working in an Office. Black Mirror Is About Advertising

Here's why the British show should be required viewing

To many, Mad Men is a show about advertising, but to those in the advertising business, we know it is really a period piece drama set in an agency. We know that it bears only a passing resemblance to what marketing is like in 2015. And of the ways in which it rings true, almost none of them are efficient or profitable ways to run a business.

Meanwhile, a British series now being shown stateside on Netflix has proven to be a magnet for critical acclaim. The show is often likened to the Twilight Zone, but unlike the beloved sci-fi series, Black Mirror does not veer into the realm of the supernatural. It takes the technologies we have today and extrapolates them into a near future where they are just advanced enough and just ubiquitous enough to create various flavors of horrific dystopia.

It's also jarring that Jon Hamm has starred in both.

So what does this have to do with advertising, and why would it be more about marketing than a series with actual copywriters as characters? Clearly no one behind Black Mirror would say it is about advertising; in many ways it is much more than that. It explores, often quite darkly, what our relationship with technology could do to us when taken to various logical conclusions in unnervingly plausible ways.

But it's helpful for marketers to think of it through the lens of ads, because the show demonstrates how technology alters our behavior. Influencing consumer behavior is at the core of what marketers are asked to do. And thus, Black Mirror is not just entertainment, but proverbial required reading for anyone looking to sell products or services to anyone else.

None of the technology within episodes of Black Mirror is presented as especially new or futuristic. It is ubiquitous, woven into everyday life and taken for granted. The way it is melded into peoples' lives and our institutions is perhaps the most important thing for marketers to understand. Information goes from being a thing you consume through a specific medium to a pervasive presence, like air. In the mid-20th century, TV was effectively radio with pictures and instead of the family sitting around the radio they sat around the television. The transition was important, especially for marketers, but not entirely seismic in terms of changing peoples' relationships with media.

New forms of information technology actually change the way our lives are lived in profound ways. They raise all sorts of ethical dilemmas, enriching experiences and personal crises that previous generations could barely have imagined. All of this changes consumer mindsets and purchase behavior, because that is part of our lives and gets affected just like everything else. The availability of any form of media on demand anywhere changes how we speak to consumers. The way people make choices, big and small, changes with readily available services that sift big data for the exact deciding factor they're looking for. Everything becomes much more personal and much more immediate.

So what exactly does this change? The big idea, the value proposition and the brand manifesto all still have roles to play—they are the things you are trying to communicate. But the delivery mechanisms and creative executions change dramatically. When media becomes more interactive and intertwined in peoples' lives, you need to think through the user experience just as much as the copy and art, and it needs to adapt to different contexts. Calls to action are perhaps changed most of all. Instead of asking a consumer to remember something for later, they can act on your message easily right then and there across all mediums.

The reason Black Mirror is required viewing for any marketer is that we need to look at each story and really grasp the way people live their lives in that world. And then a marketer must ask from strategic perspective: "If things turn out something like this, what will my brand do about it? How do we influence decision-making when people have access to this kind of technology and media?"

The place to start with answering these questions will be opening up our entire understanding of the purchase funnel to a complete rethink. It will vary category-by-category, but nothing should be taken for granted as "well that's the way it's always been."

For instance, the path to purchase for breakfast cereal may change dramatically when mom is standing in the aisle with frictionless access to pricing across retailers, nutritional analyses from impartial third parties, a schedule of other meals she has planned and her family's health records. For the purposes of a column about Black Mirror, "frictionless" doesn't mean looking this all up on her smartphone, it could mean a real-time augmented reality visual overlay. So for the cereal-maker, if that's how decisions are getting made, how do you play in that space? It's entirely different creative than a 30-second spot or a banner ad.

The future in the various episodes of Black Mirror may not get here as depicted in the next decade or ever. But the show provokes important questions to consider about the incremental steps we've been taking and will take in the near future.

And while many may cringe at the thought of marketers ingratiating themselves into all of our lives using highly personal technology experiences, moments later they'll likely get distracted by something on their smartphone and forget what they were outraged about.

Andy Maskin (@aspersions) is a New York-based emerging-technology consultant.

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