Advertising is viewing culture through spreadsheets

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It seems that barely a week goes by now without another tonally misjudged commercial that's getting more attention for its off-beam subject matter than the product it's trying to sell.

Following the Pepsi commercial a few weeks ago, we now have McDonald's and the question over whether it is exploiting child bereavement.

Playing on emotions is not new in advertising - in fact, it's the only real way to affect a behaviour change or start a conversation. Emotional techniques from making someone cry, laugh or feel angry are effective ways to cut through because we are still very instinct driven animals. Behavioural economists have proved time, and again that rational communications don't work because we make our decisions using the fast, non-thinking part of the brain that kept us from being eaten by tigers. But there's the irony because these type of ads are the result of not using instinct, but by trying to measure too much - they're built by spreadsheets.

The successful TV series House of Cards on Netflix came about through a data correlation of the popularity of the films of David Fincher, Kevin Spacey and people watching the old BBC TV show from which the story originated. Whether or not this story is apocryphal, Hollywood does a box-ticking exercise when it green-lights movies, looking at trends of what will make the most money, resulting in the endless amount of sequels and remakes that we have in cinemas now.

This is also where things can go wrong in advertising. Too often work relies on a Venn diagram of popular trends and not enough on the instincts of planners or creatives to say if something is correct. It's likely due to the crippling pressure on advertising right now, the budgets are tight and the results needed are high. There's no room for trust in the filmmakers and agencies.

Pepsi smacked of this attitude. The ad featured a top 10 Instagram influencer in Kendall Jenner and a key theme in the cultural zeitgeist - political protest. But the problem is that there was no connection with the real world, no understanding of the real lives of those they are featuring. It's all desk research and graphs. I would hate to see culturally connected work disappearing out of fear of the PR recriminations that are happening to many ads right now. We should question ourselves as an industry as to how we're creating culturally connected work that has a fluency with the world it seeks to portray.

This is a good argument for why agencies still have a role to play. Your agencies should be culturally fluent and consultative. Embedded in culture, not just pulling reports from research firms.

Martyn Gooding is creative partner at Gravity Thinking.

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