David Garner's picture

Advertisements, Content Marketing, and Their Affects–Can Content Differentiate a Brand?

Old Spice Campaign

Unless you’re still living in 1986 like this family, you’ve noticed content marketing is all the rage these days. More and more, companies are increasing the amount of content on their digital marketing channels, such as websites, YouTube, online advertisements, social media outlets, and more. 
Already a challenge, as more companies enter the content marketing sphere, over-saturation will inevitably hinder brand differentiation for two major reasons: 

  • Marketers and content creators exhaust limited subject matter, so crafting a unique message will be increasingly difficult. We’ve all researched topics where the top Google search results provided several variations of the exact same content. 
  • When you’re in a crowd with millions of faces, you’re theoretically faceless. If you’ve ever taken Calculus, you may know one number divided by another number approaching infinity equals zero. In other words, a voice amongst a screaming mob is virtually voiceless, in which case differentiation is impossible. Your voice is drowned out. 

Today’s consumer is over-exposed, indifferent, and passive to marketing messages. The question becomes: How do marketers grasp a consumer’s attention when he is already over-stimulated by technology, media, and other advertisements?
I suggest a developing field of literary studies known as “affect theory” may provide some answers, particularly on how to make an advertisement stick. But first, we take a detour to outline common ad approaches and the basis of “affects” before we understand the future of content marketing and advertising. 

How Can Content Marketing Fight Content Over-Saturation? 

One of the greatest variables in content marketing today is simply aesthetic form. Aesthetic form can mean the actual medium used in marketing, such as video, blog, or podcast, but for our purposes, aesthetic form concerns itself with a particular genre. For example, the novel has several genres: romance, drama, mystery, etc. In short, “form” here means a sub-set of a particular medium.  

To make an effective ad or piece of content, marketers and advertisers generally take two approaches to form: 

  • They use an already-established form of effective advertising. These may include the tried and true methods of testimonials (exercise equipment), competitor comparison (detergent, paper towels), unique selling proposition (Wal-Mart), scientific (pharmaceuticals), emotional appeal (cigarettes), mascots (The General, Flo), spokespersons (Danica Patrick), and so forth. For online content marketers, it’s list articles (“Ten Steps to…” or “Top Five…”), infographics, and white papers.
  • They take a leap of faith on an out-of-the-box tone or message. Such advertisements include the Old Spice’s Isaiah Mustafa, Geico spots (the talking paintings, cave men, the banjo guys, and the “…but did you know?” campaigns), all kinds of Beer commercials (Budweiser Frogs, dueling football referees, the taste loss epidemic), and so forth.  

Sure, I’m positing a truism: advertisers either use in-the-box thinking or out-of-the-box thinking. However, the relationship is more subtle. 
No advertisements can simply exist outside of the box, as certain forms give advertisements their credibility and their recognition as an advertisement. No one would call a soap opera an advertisement as credible or as an advertisement, because it possess none of the common advertising forms, but many might say an infomercial is credible and an advertisement.
Writers, as a result, must straddle the line of accepted and out-of-the-box forms. And this is no easy task. But to be noticed in the overly saturated content market, they will have to learn to adopt unique forms. Dare I say, “weird”?

The Crossing of Emotional Wires and Its Impression

In which direction should advertisers and content marketers go? Brian Massumi, a affect theorist, may provide some helpful guidance. 

Affect theory, in general, examines how people, things, or texts cause emotion. For Brian Massumi, affects work on us and certainly move us, but they avoid definition or classification. 
To explain this, he starts with a German experiment that examined the responses to a video that had the following plot:
“A Man builds a snowman on his roof garden. It starts to melt in the afternoon sun. He watches. After a time, he takes the snowman to the cool of the mountains, where it stops melting. He bids it good-bye, and leaves.” (Massumi, “Autonomy of Affect”).  
A group of participants watched three different variations of this film: a voiceless one and two voice-over versions. The first voice-over version used very “factual” language to narrate the scene while the second used emotional language. 
Respondents that answered how the film’s variation made them feel on a happy/sad scale and a pleasant/unpleasant scale. Surprisingly enough, the factual video made viewers feel happy yet unpleasant, and the emotional video made them feel sad but pleasant.  On top of that, physiological responses corroborated the study. 
Furthermore, viewers claimed that the emotional video left a longer-lasting impression than the other voiceover. The video (its form and content) elicited an unidentifiable and confused mix of emotions.  To Massumi, the entity of affect causes this weird, conflicting state of emotions, ones that defy conventional categorization of feelings, and it was because of the conflict’s intensity that the viewers remembered the emotional version longer. 
Bolder claims come from affect theorists, too. Affect has the ability to transcend the form and content of a given video, speech, or other material despite its content. Imagine how two men may fall in love with a woman for completely different reasons, or how a leader corrals a crowd who may have little or no reason to support him. 
As a result, there’s a part of affect that moves us despite its reasonableness or sensibility.  For Massumi, the emergences of new emotional states that have no words to describe them carry great force and impression on their subjects. Affect theory has not gone unnoticed in the realms of commercial applications. 

How Will Advertisements and Content Marketing Change?  

The power of affects is not a completely new phenomenon; but only recently (academically speaking, anyway) have formal studies have focused on the subject. 
The Marlboro man, for example, was an advertisement that focused little on the product. Instead, those advertisers created a context to associate a manliness and ruggedness with their brand of cigarettes. In a sense, advertising has been a decontextualizing and recontextualizing process, a practice in brand positioning. 
But certain tropes that once were out-of-the-box have become normalized. Imitators came and capitalized on the successful and once-emergent form of advertising.
The content marketer’s and advertiser’s challenge against content over-saturation faces two problems: getting in front of the consumer and differentiating the brand. The first can be handled by means of ad placements and strategically distributed content, but the second takes further thought. 
As noted before, the content must meet certain expectations regarding content: does this seem like an ad? Does this seem like a blog? But on the other hand, how can the construction of an ad, video, or blog affect the subject in a momentous way, leaving a long-lasting impression. 
Certain forms are emerging rapidly: the awkward, the humorous/ironic, and the weird. These forms juxtapose certain emotions and expectations to create a long-lasting impression precisely because its affect avoids placing a finger on exactly the one emotion it elicits. 

Who’s doing this well? 

For starters, the Manly Man from Old Spice, who is at once spokesperson and anomaly. The unique blend of humor, disparate aspects of manliness, and brand positioning create what is otherwise a fashionable, strange, yet effective (affective even?) ad. We can observe this in Old Spice's latest digital spot.
Geico does this in several different ads: the bizarre talking paintings; the awkward positioning of, say, Dekembe Mutombo in the office, grocery store, etc., with the mandolin players; and the “Everyone knows Geico saves you 15% or more on car insurance” ads where a very common thought is juxtaposed to a peculiar follow-up scene (i.e., the tree falling in the woodsOld McDonald was a bad speller). 
Beer companies have done this well too: singing/talking frogs, the taste-loss epidemic (my personal favorite) where a common problem takes on the status of national emergency, and Real Men of Genius where the mundane is captured as epic or heroic.
Forms “within-the-box” are not unnecessary or bad, but at some point, they become tired, ineffective, particularly as it relates to content over-saturation. Stepping outside of the box is a risky endeavor, but it carries the greatest reward. 
I realize that differentiation is no new tactic to the marketing and advertising arena, but the thoughts I’ve outlined above regarding an affect theory gives us insights to how to differentiate well in a time of overwhelming content intake. 
In summary, advertisers and content marketers will have to expend more creative capital to differentiate themselves in a content saturated world; otherwise, content over-saturation will win, and the title’s question will be a resounding “no.”

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