In the loop: The creative resurgence of the humble gif

Still frames from 'If a Man Vapes in the Forest' by James Kerr (Scorpion Dagger)

Be it Joey Tribbiani’s wide mouthed double-take or a toddler dancing for joy, gifs underpin the online language of the 21st century, so how can this form of cultural slang’s hypnotic appeal lend itself to ever more creative communication?

Though it’s almost 30 years old, the humble gif has had something of a resurgence of late, its simplicity slotting in perfectly as part of today’s fast, frivolous vernacular.

The file format we’ve come to know and love was introduced by Steve Wilhite at CompuServe in 1987, and has become ever more ubiquitous on the internet in the years since (and as Wilhite has stressed on many occasions, it’s pronounced with a soft ‘g’, no matter what you might think).

The shift in how we communicate online, facilitated by social channels, has only served to popularise the gif further, with its looping, hypnotic rhythm and its ability to speak a thousand more words than a picture could. Whether it’s drawing on a line from TV characters like 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon, or poking fun at this year’s raucous presidential election, the humble format enables people to draw on popular culture for inspiration – there’s a gif for every occasion.

A recent exhibition entitled ‘Loop Dreams’ celebrated the ingenuity of the format, showcasing examples of how it’s been used for artistic expression (below). Featuring 25 artists and hosted by gif platform Giphy, the event included holographic convex posters, large-scale projections, digital artworks, VR and interactive installations. It highlighted the potential of the format for something beyond mere distraction alone.

'Memento Mori – Remember that you will die' by Mattis Dovier

Ari Spool, community curator at Giphy, says gifs can be a powerful communication tool, “whether that’s communicating an emotion or a joke, or something that’s abstract and textural.”

Spool adds: “Still images can convey complete ideas too, but the gif gives you room to breathe and wiggle your idea around a bit and use moments from our shared culture to add depth to conversations.”

What started as a way to quickly convey emotion in messaging and blogging has also become a prominent communication enhancer for publishers and brands; a means to literally and engage with audiences that are increasingly more taken with video and visual forms of communication.

It’s cheap to produce, works on mobile and it’s almost universally accepted across the various different social platforms. It can capture the zeitgeist, and for brands with their ears to the ground, this can be incredibly effective.

But as with other types of cultural slang, brands hijacking the format without having anything to say risk getting caught in a permanent loop of #fail.

“Gifs are a form of slang, and like any cultural shortcut, you can’t try too hard to be cool,” says Charlie Cottrell, head of editorial, We Are Social. “Brands with humour in their persona, who are current, casual, irreverent, or well embedded in a demographic who already speak in gif can pull this off.”

'I ate you' by Jess Mac

The effectiveness of gifs as a communication format is not hard to understand; it’s about the way in which our brains process video content – ie. faster and deeper than they process text – perhaps explaining why a simple gif can elicit such an emotional reaction in us.

“Video is processed by the brain 60,000 times faster than text,” explains Lore Oxford, consumer behavioural analyst, Canvas8. “And while reading is all about thinking, video is better at getting us to feel. Our emotions are controlled by mirror neurons, which fire not just when we ourselves do something, but when we witness someone else perform an action, too. Because our mirror neurons don’t discriminate between cinema and real life, videos tend to elicit much stronger immediate reactions from us than text.”

One of the characteristics of a gif is its loop format. It turns a short animation into an eternal repetitive sequence that’s arguably funnier and more memorable – suited to our limited attention spans.

“It’s almost 30 years old but the gif has finally found its moment, and it’s a short one,” says Seb Hill, executive creative director at BBD Perfect Storm. “Our attention spans are shorter than ever and the gif can grab it with time to spare. Like the world’s shortest trailers, they filter out the crap and give you the one good bit. The bit you want to watch over and over again, even without sound! They allow us to express our feelings better than any static image or, dare I say, an emoji ever could.”

The trend towards user generated content, which marketers are tapping into to address issues around content production and increase engagement with consumers, has seen brands embrace the gif format.

For instance, as part of Coca-Cola’s global ‘Taste the Feeling’ campaign earlier this year, the brand launched a gif generator website to enable users to create and share their own. However, the site was quickly hijacked by a number of users posting their own takes, including the captions ‘this mind is a prison’ and ‘my parents are divorced’. This reaction highlights the risk brands are taking in allowing users to create their own social content using brand platforms.

In another example of an attempt to use gifs as connective tissue between brands and consumers, Red Bull has created a customisable social tool that allows users to create their own animated gifs. Chris Tyas, head of digital at The Marketing Store, the agency behind the tool, says the purpose of gifs is the same as it’s always been – the very human need for expression.

'Lumpy Buddy' by Stuart Wade

“The gif format is a relic from a bygone era that has done little to evolve over time. However, for those of us old enough to remember, there was a time when gifs were one of the only format of moving image on the web. I consider it somewhat like a yo-yo - it’s a piece of rediscovered fashion for a new generation.

“One of the key drivers of the growth of gifs is the need to express ourselves. We are spending less time face-to-face with people and instead are glued to our phones. However, the need to communicate with emotion and feel emotion is still profound. The humble gif allows the creator to express their emotion whenever they want and share it whenever they want. We are simply sharing and passing on stories, much like we did around the campfire as cavemen,” he says.

With marketers still prioritising the big, above-the-line channels like TV and outdoor when it comes to creative campaigns, smaller formats like gifs are generally considered towards the end of a campaign brief, if at all. But could the gif be used to create something more powerful?

“Until we forgo our obsession with going big and start to focus on what works from an effectiveness perspective, the humble gif will probably remain a tool that mainly just consumers use and brands grapple with understanding,” says The Marketing Store’s Tyas.

With more brands becoming wise to the power of customised, shareable content – Snapchat is leading the way with its customisable filter tools for brands – what’s clear is that creating timely, effective visual content and moving images will only become easier for brands. “The simple gif might one day become a poor cousin,” says Tyas, “but it’s certainly not reached the end of its days yet.”

As Hill puts it, whether they’re breaking world news or looping a cat falling off a shelf, “gifs will always be the crucial bite-sized piece of every social media feed. They are the gifs that will continue to keep on giving.”

This article was originally published in the 26 October edition of The Drum.

Katie McQuater

As magazine editor at The Drum, I edit the monthly print edition of the magazine as well as commissioning and writing features for the publication.

Send feature pitches to katie.mcquater@thedrum.com

All by Katie