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Tech may be sexy; but what science really needs is advertising

By Gemma Milne, creative technologist

Ogilvy & Mather Group UK


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May 8, 2015 | 6 min read

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When did technology become so sexy?

Gemma Milne

The world of complicated wires, circuit boards, indecipherable code and ugly machines has graduated from the awkward reclusive teenager to the entrepreneurial Silicon Valley 20-something.

And that’s brilliant.

But why is science, technology’s long-standing partner in crime, still perceived as an activity reserved for kids in classrooms or ultra-intelligent lab-coat-sporting researchers? Why do science lovers feel the need to almost be apologetic in their ‘nerd’-dom? When will science be cool?

We’re living at a point in time where technology looks like this:

While science, according to a Google image search, looks like this:

Both are generalisations of course, and neither capture all the intricacies and wonder of the two topics, but on first look it’s clear what the difference in perception is: technology takes me into the future, science takes me back to school.

The theoretical physicist Edward Teller said: "The science of today is the technology of tomorrow." But sometimes this is taken too literally when it comes to showing everyone what science is all about. People are continually exposed to the finished good of hardware technology; turning a learning in science into a tangible, marketable product is no mean feat – but the incredible discoveries and the back story of how the application of science transforms into game-changing technology never seems to make the news headlines.

There’s the argument that people don’t want to know the science behind technology when they’re simply reading their newspaper on Sunday or checking their smartphone on their commute. There’s the argument that people just want to play with their new toy, or push the limits of their new sound system, or put their feet up while their new robot hoover cleans their flat – they’re not bothered about what goes on inside.

Well I say that’s rubbish.

Why do blockbuster movie DVDs include the director’s commentary and the deleted scenes?

Why are TV programmes like Grand Designs and Megastructures such hits?

Why do conspiracy theories gain such tract with the media?

We humans love finding out what goes on behind closed doors. We humans love stories – and telling stories for that matter. We humans love dreaming and being inspired and knowing things and thinking ‘what if?’

Science just needs to be communicated in a way that allows anyone, not just those who are knowledgeable on the subject, to tune in easily and see the wonder for themselves.

It’s all fine and well finding people who can simplify the mechanics of science into a few easy to digest paragraphs, but it’s the incorporation of those messages into technology press releases, it’s the communication of these facts bundled up as part of the story (as opposed to a separate ‘in-depth’ box at the side of an article), it’s the use of aspirational wording, the choice of great photography, the design beautification and user-experience of science-related websites and magazine, that will bring science out of its exclusive after-school club into the free-drinks-for-all street party.

And that’s where advertising can play its part. Advertisers are experts at changing perceptions. Advertising is built upon facts and research, testing and case studies. You’ll hear most ad industry experts stating that the one thing you need to do is tell a compelling story to keep your audience engaged. Brands exist only in the consumers’ mind – so if you want your company to succeed, you better start listening to those you’re talking to.

We need to stop assuming people don’t want to know, we need to stop ring-fencing the inspiring science communication for schools and young people, we need our strongest communicators – along with our cleverest scientists – to be given more freedom to talk on the matter, we need to find humour and humans when we talk about science, we need to be inspired ourselves and use good old-fashioned enthusiasm and its contagious nature to fuel passion and wonder amongst everyone.

I’m not suggesting universities, science labs, newspapers and broadcasters all hire agencies – it’s not like there’s a particular product to be sold – but everyone can learn from the consumer-centric nature of communications which are successfully produced by the best agencies.

And it’s not a case of dumbing down, it’s about framing messages in a way that will make people want to listen, become empowered and go on to discuss without feeling like they have no knowledge to talk about it.

Science is incredible, and it’s just such a shame that, unlike technology, not everyone can get to experience that wonder. Yes, we want to get science into schools, ‘get them while they’re young’, but wouldn’t it be remarkable if we could, not just once but all of the time, get people excited, and simply in awe, of the world around them?

Gemma Milne is a creative technologist with Ogilvy Labs. She is speaking at Digital Shoreditch on Friday 15 May 9:40 on ‘Science Needs Advertising’. Follow @OgilvyUK for more about Gemma’s talk.

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