Let’s talk about tension

We all think we know what tension is. It’s something that happens before you meet your partner’s parents for the first time, but that you hope will dissolve pretty quickly. It’s something that you get in you muscles when you’re stressed, and can give you a headache. It’s something that you need just the right amount of when you’re walking the tightrope.

But what’s it got to do with advertising?

Tension is something that all good stories have, or so I’ve been told. And advertising, so often, is storytelling. Drawing your audience in with emotion and characters, hoping that they become invested enough in what happens, that they stick with you.

Tension is also something I’ve heard people talk about within the strategic proposition. But more on that later.

Tension in storytelling

Anticipation. Excitement. High stakes.

Last chance saloon.

The roll of the dice.

Hold your breath and hope.

Tension is what keep us turning the page, and stops us from changing the channel.

It tells us something big is happening. And you’re going to want to see it.

Running through the airport. Will he reach her?

On again, off again. Will they get together?

No body believes him. Will he prove them all wrong?

The lean in before the kiss.

Tension in advertising

The Super Bowl ads are a great example of tension in advertising, least of all because in recent year’s they’ve started to drop teaser ads for the main ads. In order for the teaser to work, and actually tease, their has to be some unresolved tension. Enough anticipation to compel you to watch the real thing in the Super Bowl ad break.

Tension happens when something is pulled by opposite forces, and can manifest in many different ways:
– Uncertainty of the unknown
– Pushback against the norm
– Juxtaposition of what is vs. what could be
– A unique or remarkable opinion

The Start Up

So whether it’s in an advert, a brand, a Tweet, a movement, tension is all about the art of the possible.

We know all too well that we don’t want to live in the real world. And that brands don’t want to sell us real life. We want to believe the fairy stories. That miracles do happen. That we’ll get our three wishes. Be kissed by a Prince. Good overcomes evil.

Ideals are what gets noticed

To earn our attention, there needs to be tension
The tension of how it might turn out.
The tension of possibility.
The tension of change.
Telegrams used to charge by the word. Say what you need to say, there you go.
But stories… stories work because we’re not sure. We’re half there, half not.
This might work.
This might not work.
The tension of maybe.

Seth Godin

Tension in strategy

This is one I’ve heard on the grapevine. That’s seeped into my consciousness. And I’ve not made a note of it anywhere. And Google’s let me down.

But it makes sense.

A single minded proposition isn’t just about getting one key message across. It’s about being simple and compelling (that one came from my undergrad PR lecturer Dr Bill Nichols).

1,000 songs in your pocket.

Just do it.

Do you use tension when writing a proposition? How do you create tension in your work?

But what happens in the end?

Tension is all the build up, and whether the high stakes gamble will pay off. One thing that’s interested me recently is that in a world of skippable ads and short attention spans, the resolution gets put first, followed by the tension. This makes for less effective anticipation build, but it does stop people’s eyes glazing at 2s and clicking off to somewhere else.

And with all this talk of tension, I’m off to watch the season 4 finale of Grey’s Anatomy. Now if you’re interesting in building tension. Shonda Rhimes is an absolute master.

Be brave. Feel stupid.


Advertising can save the world

Do you ever just sit there and marvel at the wonders of the human body? When I think about it, I’m pretty amazing. Without a conscious thought or effort I digest my breakfast of pancakes and orange juice into microscopic nutrients that I then use to grow and heal, convert into energy to run and jump and type this post.

Sure, sometimes these systems don’t work perfectly. I know that when I’m in a place of intense anxiety, I shut down many of my senses, for example. I’m not listening. I’m not hearing. The world around looks flat. My movements are heavy and stiff.

Fight, flight, freeze

If you read my previous post Reboot in Safe Mode, you’ll know this is my body’s reaction to feeling unsafe. In a freeze state, when fight or flight aren’t options.

What’s all this got to do with advertising?

Well, when the body’s in an unsafe state (fight, flight or freeze), no amount of clever targeting, witty wording or attention grabbing visuals will break through and communicate your message effectively.

Not only are we getting better at blocking out marketing messages, but we’re actually increasingly not in a “safe” enough space to receive your message at all.


Neuroception, distinct from perception… is detection without awareness. It is the subconscious process whereby the nervous system, through processing sensory information, then works out via neural circuits if a person or experience is safe, dangerous or life threatening.

Dr Stephen Porges

The question our bodies and minds are trying to work out every second of every day is: am I safe?

And I have a hunch that most advertising messages do not contribute to a person’s feeling of safety. They aim to manipulate. Control. Exploit. Create a threat. Make you feel like an Other. An outsider.

And by doing so, they drive our nervous system away from a feeling of safety (a place where they can be receptive to your brand and your message) into an unsafe state.

That doesn’t sound like a good communication strategy does it?

What if…?

What if advertising was used as a mass communication to help reduce the anxiety of the world?

That’s a huge statement, I realise. But in purely commercial terms, it actually makes sense. What if brands aimed to help people live in thrive state? To be the best version of themselves?

What if brand personality statements read: Approachable, Trustworthy, Safe.

How can you help your target audience move to a feeling of safety?

Be brave. Feel stupid.

Wicked solutions for wicked problems

Before today, I hadn’t heard of wicked problems.

Maybe I’m totally behind the times, but this one has just passed me by. I’m currently at a conference in Cornwall called Agile on the Beach, and have been getting a crash course on, amongst other things, design thinking.

I’ve always been interested in different ways of approaching a problem. Design thinking is one approach. Or should I say a range of related approaches that differ slightly depending on which business school you’re talking to.

According to Chris Archer-Brown, a wicked problem:

  • seems impossible.
  • is incomplete, in flux and difficult to define.
  • requires a deep understanding of the stakeholders involved.
  • requires an innovative approach.
  • is experienced differently be every person.
  • has a different ideal solution to ever person, and potentially no ideal solution at all.
  • impossible to know when it’s done.
  • is likely to cause more unintended problems as you try and solve it.

Simple, huh?

Do you have a wicked problem that you’d like to solve? Or that you have solved? How did you go about defining the problem? And what process did you/could you go through to find a solution?

Being in this beautiful part of the world, with its fresh sea air, and laid back lifestyle, really gets the braincells fired up. I must say a huge thank-you to Amber and Roxane and the team at Flexible Falmouth (Falmouth University) for making this meet up at the conference happen.

Being on a distance learning course has many advantages, but it has been so nice to spend time with people that I have been studying with for over a year now. And they are even more brilliant in real life than they are on a computer screen.

Be brave. Feel stupid.

Reboot in Safe Mode

Bear with me on this one, because it’s gonna get a little deep. This is an idea that I’ve just started exploring, and is way too big to get into in one blog post, so I may add more mini posts as I discover more.

We’ve all heard of psychological safety:

A shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. It can be defined as “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career” (Kahn 1990, p. 708). In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected.

Thanks Wikipedia. But what I’m really interested in is how a person’s state of safety changes the way they view, react to and respond to advertising.

I’m reading a book by Claire Wilson, called Grounded. It’s truly brilliant, put it at the top of your reading list. It focuses mainly on helping children feel safe, but it equally applies to adults.

There’s a sliding scale of emotive states from thrive through to freeze (through the familiar fight or flight states). We want to thrive, of course. This is the only state in which we can make decisions.

So, as a brand, we want to talk to people when they’re able to take in our message, digest the information, and make a decision. When they’re in thrive state: they’re safe.

So how can we make sure we’re talking to our audiences when they’re in this safe mode? And not in one of the other survival modes, where decision making, and many other core functions, are switched off to the world?

Or can we help reassure people: help to bring people back down the scale, away from survive mode and into thrive mode?

This famous David Ogilvy quote comes to mind. But what if, we’re not talking to consumers in the right headspace? What if they’re not making purchasing decisions in the right headspace? What if, we actually are the totally rational beings that economists dream us to be, but only when we’re in safe mode?

This book has sparked some interesting questions in my mind, and I hope to share more of these questions with you. And one day, maybe even some answers.

Be brave. Feel stupid.

Taxi drivers: the latest marketing channel

After attending my first TEDx event last week, I had so many ideas buzzing around in my brain. I’m still letting some of them percolate away, but there’s one I’m going to share. And interestingly, it comes from the organisers, not the speakers.

At the start of one of the sessions, this video was played.

TED is known for ideas worth spreading. Now, as the event organisers, they have control over part of that (the ideas), but the rest is up to the audience (the spreading).

In Buenos Aires TED came up with an innovative marketing channel to help those ideas spread: taxi drivers.

It’s a really interesting case study on the flow of information around a city. It challenges the way I view marketing. It has elements of viral marketing, word of mouth marketing, and is 100% not digital.

Next up: hairdressers.

Be brave. Feel stupid.

Holmes, Poirot, Bale?

I have a bit of a thing for Sherlock Holmes. I’ve read (or at the very least listened to) most of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s writings about the character. The keen observations. The flair for the dramatic. The flagrant disregard for the rules. What’s not to love.

It often strikes me that ad planning is not so different from solving a crime. You start with a client. And they have a problem. They do not have the necessary skills to solve said problem. So they need a professional.

Enter Holmes/strategist. Listen to the problem. Dig around for additional information they may have missed. Detect for untruths. Agree payment and timescale. Exit client.

Holmes/strategist inspects scene of mystery. Consults previous case studies of similar instances. Analyses necessary facts. If necessary creates additional data points by speaking to people.

Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.

Sherlock Holmes, The Sign of the Four (1890)

This is, of course, an extremely simplified view of the world. But it does make me wonder if there is some framework for investigating a crime that may be able to help us as planners to systemise our thinking, and streamline the ad planning process?

Be brave. Feel stupid.