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Brands are becoming the aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers

In an advertiser’s quest to become closer to people, to speak their language and in places they hang out, they are becoming like the aliens in films like ‘Invasion of the Bodysnatchers’, argues Mike Edmonds, chairman and ECD of Perth-based agency Meerkats.

The punchy comparison was presented at Adfest in Thailand this week with the purpose of showing that ‘real’ people were starting to see through some of the new techniques that brands were using to become “fake humans”.

Edmonds described a test the agency recently carried out. He said he’d been shown a video, alongside a client and other agency partners, by a European social listening business. It showed how it can listen into social media, the trends and memes and then act on behalf of clients.

He then got a group of young people together and showed them the video and recorded the reactions. Most laughed at the video and said they were “depressed” at the trickery involved. They also said they understood why brands were doing it but that it would work better if it was more honest, or if brands just did what they were supposed to better.

Edmond said there were four issues at play that was causing this. The first was that brands were addicted to sucking up to consumers.

“It doesn’t come across as empathy, it comes across as sucking up. It is like when you go to a party and someone really wants to be your friend or what some kids do to get good grades,” he explained.

Secondly, he said never before have brands had so much ability to find out what consumers want. He said this was leading brands to focus advertising on this, even if they don’t deliver or have relevance in answering people's needs.

Thirdly, Edmonds argued that “fake human is the new black”, he said: “Our industry tends to grab onto owning an emotion and human story but not actually inventing something. But people now know it's the new technique. Even when we try and be honest and truthful about human emotion, when a brand knows that’s what people want to hear, we are dubious about whether that is going to work.”

The fourth reason he cites is globalisation. He cited an article by former Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson, who criticised the fact that most brands that have a strong geographical heritage are now owned by businesses elsewhere. This means that the British heritage of Rolls Royce, for example, is being mimicked or created by people who are now building the business in another market.

Edmonds did offer a solution, he said: “The alternative is to tell the truth, a new kind of truth. It will lead to creative briefs that are freeing and empowering and more attractive to future creative talent.”

He said rather than focus on what people’s needs are first, you have to look at what the company really wants to achieve. You then look at what customers need and find a genuine crossover. “Marketing managers tend to be disappointed [by doing this]. You need to find that sweet spot, even if it’s tiny”, he explained.

A key topic of Adfest has been about the proliferation of AI and whether it will eventually wipe out creativity. Edmunds said he is often having to defend the place of creativity and agencies in the future but said if the proper approach is taken, agencies should then be getting seats at boardroom level and secure a better future for creative ideas.

Featured by The Drum