Never Ending Stories
[6 minute read]
“The most important idea in advertising is ‘new’. It creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of… calamine lotion.” Don Draper
The default for Marketing is new. New products, big launches, first impressions…
…but how often do we talk about endings?
Of course we have the odd closing down sale, a “must-end” Bank Holiday sale and the occasional “Thank You” campaign, but these seem tactical when compared to the investment put behind launches.
And yet, the advent of social media has brought with it the promise of being ‘always on’. ‘Always on’ refers to the constant presence that social media offers marketers. But the ‘streamed flow of time’ that characterise social media platforms creates a problem. As Rob Norman outlines in this video, the creative industries are faced with the challenge of designing for streams, continuous scrolling and other non-narrative structures. How do we accommodate the finality of endings in this new, infinite world? It’s a challenge we’re a long way from mastering.
In some cases, not knowing when something is going to end can have value. Twists, finales, and cliffhangers are devices that can be used to manage and manipulate an audience’s attention. Not a series of Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones or Mad Men goes by without a director or writer putting the power of an ending to a disorientating use.
But more often than not, there’s value in knowing how and when things will end. Knowing when something is going to end gives an audience coordinates to locate itself within a story. Audiences need curtains to go down and the lights to go out: these cues tell an audience it’s time to applaud. An audience will get nervous if it doesn’t know if something has ended and it will get frustrated at sequels and comebacks as they resurrect stories an audience thought it had permission to forget.
Another benefit of endings is that they disproportionately affect an audience’s memory of an event, both positively and negatively. As the psychologist Daniel Kahneman outlines in this video , (and James Caig neatly summaries in this blog-post) the ability to orchestrate a positive ending is an opportunity most of us overlook. But not all. Netflix, for example, make it easy to terminate a subscription to their video streaming service, because they know that not making the process painful will improve the chances of a member returning in the future. (This is in sharp contrast to LoveFilm who make it inordinately hard.)
If endings do offer benefit, how can we start to use them? What things signal endings?And what would happen if communication campaigns were built with a clear and specific nod to their end?
It’s a question I’ve been exploring in the last few weeks: forcing myself to take a short video of all the things I came across that signaled an end. Here’s the montage video:
As I took these videos, I recognised that endings require the introduction and charting of time.
Introducing and charting time in marketing would make campaigns look more like projects, missions or dare I say it, movements. Goal-based, purpose driven projects that had an in-built start and stop that would give us a better sense of where we are, progression and when things might come to a close. Activity that had an inbuilt commitment to impermanence and expiry.
What would such activity look like? Well here are three good examples:
‘Stoptober’, for example, is a campaign from NHS Smokefree that encourages smokers across England to stop smoking for 28 days during October. It has a very clear ending, which is integral to the power of the campaign idea.
Seeyourfolks.com is a website that predicts how many more times you’re likely to see your parents before they die. Created by Luke Tipping, the site uses World Health Organisation data to predict how many more visits you and your parents have before they pop their clogs. It’s a stark reminder of our impermanence.
Finally, Gliding Home was a blog that I wrote with my dad and two brothers to document my mum’s journey to the end with terminal cancer. The blog started as a means of stemming the countless calls to our house from worried friends and family, but it ended as the most powerful story I’ve been involved with, all focused on an ending.
Finality, resolution and endings are important.
We all carry the deeply-felt need to conclude.
But it seems Marketing has an inherent opportunistic bias. We strive for activity to sell more, to last longer, to be always-on, and to incrementally do… just… a… bit… more.
This bias, it seems, blinds us to the potential and power of endings.
Perhaps the next time we plan a campaign we should try to capture how satisfying and reassuring it is when things finally….end.