“Can you make us a viral?” is something that I get asked a great deal. It’s an occupational hazard of selling ideas for a living. The answer is usually no and sometimes maybe, but never yes. You can guess at the formula, but it shifts constantly in the wind. What is seen as witty one week is try-hard the next.
So, to give you a very live example, the above tweet, a flip remark on how a scene on Sky News looked as I ate my lunch, went viral yesterday and today. Well, if you consider almost 5,000 retweets to be viral.
It was no more aimed at getting shares than anything else I post on social media. After all, pretty much everything we post is a search for the dopamine hit of rising numbers and people laughing at your gags. But somehow it struck a chord. Why so?
Well, it is current, as it speaks about the election and Theresa May’s growing reputation as someone who shuns the public. It also speaks to popular culture, which is always a winner, according to arch-troublemaking PR men the KLF’s guide to how to have a hit single. People compared the image to scenes from Line of Duty, Street Fighter, Breaking Bad and Grand Theft Auto. It is also (if I may say) a good gag. Easy to get, Easy to share, as others will get it. It has a dig and a punch line. And a funny picture to boot.
So, can you follow that formula and have a social media hit? Well, sadly not. The web runs on ideas and originality. Where once a Cassette Boy video was a sensation, the video cut up is now standard and the people who were his biggest fans are now a bit meh about his latest. He’s done well as a gun for hire, but the sharers want something new, even when his ire is turned on the targets they want to see satirised.
Those who want their campaign, policies, brand or star to go viral would do well to engage with original thinking, and lots of it. I tend to start at the extreme end and edit back towards sanity. The best and bravest clients are those who know how to say ‘stop’ at precisely the right moment.
Photos of this rather rude set of election flyers have been shared across social media this week, proving that people sometimes prefer ideas set out in low tech, old school ways. When all the funny is in gifs on social media, a still image on the street stands out.
These are based on the sort of prostitution flyers you see in London’s phone boxes or stuck to lamp posts. Click on the above link to buy sets of postcards or posters based on them.
Pranks on postcards
I once used a similar idea myself (around 2001) for a column on pranks, publicity stunts and PR ideas that I was writing for Bizarre magazine at the time. And yes, that was a real mobile number. And yes, we did have some very odd calls.
Disruptive brewing giant Brewdog seem to have finally run out of ideas. The brand markets itself as a punchy punk rock-themed brewer, but recent evidence has seen it displaying all the punk rock attitude of a pair of Primark bondage strides.
It has become the shouty pub bore, the office joker in comedy socks. It’s the Christmas jumper of brands. Once a joke, now in the mainstream and just annoyingly unfunny after a few years.
The latest stunt from Brewdog is to hint that its fans and funders should flypost its branding on the walls of our towns and cities. This is, apparently, guerilla marketing. But it looks more like a dearth of ideas.
Sure, the scandal may spread a few headlines, but this is becoming a one-trick pony with a gammy leg. The brand’s previous stunt was hiring a helicopter, pretending to steal it and then covering it in the brand livery before pretending to drop soft toys from it. Fat cats! Get it? Evil capitalism is trounced once again by a £5m fundraising round.
I didn’t see the stunt at the time, despite my social media bubble containing many ageing punks and fans of media stunts. It was cringe-inducing. A comedy red mohawk on a stag party of rugby lads.
The problem is that this punk schtick does not work when your products are available in Waitrose and you have bars emblazoned with your logo. All the shouting makes the brand owners just look like shouty public school boys who are doing rather well for themselves, thank you. Sure, that could also be said for some of the original art school punks. But at least they didn’t issue legal threats against anyone else having the temerity to market a punk business.
You can see why brands such as Brewdog latch on to punk as an idea and a way of marketing. After all, Malcolm McLaren was one of the greatest marketers of all time. He created the idea of punk and killed it too. He even made its commercialisation into a movie, disguised as a film about his punk band, the Sex Pistols.
Brewdog need to look farther than the Urban Outfitters studded wristband if they want to stick with this branding. Old punks can quickly become the mild-swilling Teds they once despised. Is punk brewing dead? Nah, it just smells that way.
Launching the 2017 Conservative Party election manifesto, Theresa May said that people are not ideological. That is to say that they are not wedded to theory, beliefs or ideals. I’m sad to say that she may be right. Former staunch Labour voters in the north are considering a switch to the Tories. That would have been enough to prompt a fist fight in the past. But not so now.
May’s speech is a remix of the individualist theory of Margaret Thatcher’s ‘no such thing as society’ speech, but applied to political thought rather than community. This is hardly a surprise, as this election (and UK politics in general) has been devoid of ideas.
The Labour Party manifesto is strangely lacking in ideas as a whole. This is not wholly unlinked to the problem that Labour has with its supporters knowing what they don’t want, but not what they do want. So, the manifesto is largely a rolling back of past legislation. Some of the ideas are laudable, but it is hard to sell reversion as anything but a harking back.
The Conservative manifesto is arguably more lacking in substance, but it does at least approach something novel in its attempt to rethink the way that social care is paid for. A 100% death duty on anything over £100,000 will pay for carers for the ill and the elderly where people need it. The burden falling squarely on those who use carers (or, more accurately, their children). It’s a safe and steady income stream for private healthcare companies and the financial sector.
It’s clever and it looks like accountability. In effect it is simply a gamble on future price rises of both housing and care. It could also unrealistically raise expectations of service, in much the same way that university fees have with education. Just ask any senior lecturer.
Of course, the biggest idea in UK politics of the last decade has been Brexit. It was simple, it was shouty and it was radical. It was also a stupid idea. But that has never stopped ideas from being popular. Everything since has paled in comparison.
The NHS and selling off council housing were big ideas, but both main parties have struggled to find anything to compare. This may be as much a signifier of the paucity of quality leadership candidates as it is a paucity of thinking. But one undoubtedly leads to the other.
It is hard to be in the midst of a General Election campaign in the UK without considering the novel political ideas that are being put out there by the various parties. But the sad fact is that, perhaps as usual, they are largely absent.
Yes, political ideologies and parties are based upon ideas and draw from yet more – often dusty old manifestos and economics journals. But those standing for office seldom come up with anything original, or even inspiring. Why is this?
As someone with a background in idea creation who has worked with political factions, campaign groups and trades unions, it is not hard to see where the problems lie. Although changing things may be another challenge all together.
The small ‘c’ conservatism
Just as humans tend to be more conservative (with a small ‘c’) as they age, so do organisations. Radical activism or campaign groups take risks with ideas in their early days, often at the behest of a few key thinkers and doers. Often, they are thinking on their feet and being reactive. But as the group becomes established so its beliefs and behaviours become codified, often in written form.
Casting these tablets of wisdom aside then become a barrier to shifting focus or pace. Think of the amendment of Labour’s Clause IV and the fuss still made over that. The famous ‘when the facts change, I change my mind’ quote, most often credited to economist John Maynard Keynes, is not one that readily applies to established political groupings and parties.
Such groups are also most interested in preserving their and their members’ status. So, MPs will act in the best interests of getting MPs of their stripe re-elected, rather than finding ways to improve the lot of constituents with an idea that is outside their defined party view.
A horse designed by committee
Once parties become established, there are often set groups of people who can have ideas and set groups of people who can be seen to execute them. Anything novel will have to pass through these people, where it will often be ruined. Hence the analogy of a camel being a horse designed by committee.
An outsider comes up with the surefire-winner, thoroughbred mare that will win any race. But everyone wants their say and wants their piece of credit. You start out with an Aston Martin of an idea, but you end up with an Austin Allegro. It’s functional, but no one is going to excitedly share it on Facebook.
That is not to say that ideas should not be discussed or amended as you go. Some of my best work has come as a result of a to and fro with a client or an editor. But you need to distinguish between useful collaboration and useless ego.
First take the tablet
Ideas that are adopted by the main parties usually come from an established member of the hierarchy, or from a trusted expert who first has to show that they share the party’s views (and is willing to work for the vague promise of a seat in the House of Lords).
This makes some sense, as the businessman with an interest in Adam Smith will be able to suggest some policy ideas that are broadly Conservative Party-friendly and UKIP can cull ideas from a think tank founded by graduates of Dunning-Kruger University. But the best ideas often come from critical thinking, harsh reviews or those who suddenly have to think with restrictions (such as ideas they don’t follow). This allows objectivity and free thinking. Try it some time.
I shall be analysing party ideas and commenting on anything novel as the election campaign goes on. Let’s hope there are some new ones to review.