Creating a DeLorean: competing for the past

Zac Kelly
By Zac Kelly | 16 June 2020

Zac Kelly is a client manager at Carat.

Marty McFly: What about all that talk about screwing up future events? The space-time continuum?

Dr. Emmett Brown: Well, I figured, what the hell.

In the new world of advertising, brands will compete as much for the past as the future.

A dog on a shield. A swoosh or tick. A piece of fruit with a bite. A red star on a green bottle. Golden arches. If you didn’t get the first brand, Brew Dog, it’s no wonder. It hasn’t had the luxury of a long history of advertising.

I recently read Alchemy by Rory Sutherland. One part of the book focused on brand preference, and it really resonated with me. Basically, it addressed the idea that “people do not choose Brand A over Brand B because Brand A is better, but because they are more certain it is good.”

I think this understanding is important. In a way, it’s one of the reasons why people choose their friend’s son or daughter for a job over someone random. They have skin in the game.

Therefore, it stands to reason that when choosing a brand, the more reputation capital a seller stands to lose; the more confident people are in their quality control . Without familiarity, the complex choice of picking from hundreds of different deodorants would be nigh on impossible. “When people snarkily criticise brand preference with the phrase, ‘you’re just paying for the name’, it seems perfectly reasonable to reply, ‘Yes, and what is wrong with that?’” Familiarity is the quality of being well known, so it makes complete sense that heritage is important in brand choice. People are confident in brands that have stood the test of time because they are familiar with them.

This is why heritage is dominant. If a brand does not have the benefit of existing in our history, allowing it time to seep into culture, it is at a distinct disadvantage in that it’s starting behind the blocks when it comes to familiarity. Heritage allows legacy brands to come out on top of the question “why should I trust this brand enough to buy what they sell?” nine times out of ten.
But what if there was a backdoor into this stronghold of heritage?

I first had this thought when I was watching Maniac, a show on Netflix with Emma Stone and Jonah Hill. What caught my eye was the obvious advertising placement opportunity in the background. The “Tired Of Here?” ad featured in many different spots and media formats (what can I say, I appreciate good channel planning).

Building Fake Brand Histories
I’ll come back to why it caught my eye later – first I want to tell you an interesting story I recently read.

In 1906, Hugo Münsterberg, the chair of the psychology laboratory at Harvard University, wrote about a case of false confession in the Times Magazine. A simpleminded farmer’s son who discovered the body of a woman garroted with copper wire in a barnyard, stood accused for the murder. He had a sound alibi, but after questioning admitted to murder. Münsterberg wrote, “he was quite willing to repeat his confession again and again”, but also noted the young man’s accounts were “absurd and contradictory”. It was a clear to Münsterberg that the young man had been pressured in interrogation to believe a false truth. He compared it to the Salem witch trials where vulnerable people were coerced into self-incrimination.

Regardless of its truth Münsterberg was ahead of his time, the story reveals an interesting point about the human mind… it isn’t perfect. It is possible to make simple changes to memories like changing the colour of a house or even create more complex memories, like planting the memory that you assaulted someone in your youth. The imperfect brain means that you can suggest minor detail changes or even implant memories that never happened.

We change our past every time we tell a story. I have definitely embellished stories of my past, haven’t you? It goes that “the past, like the future, does not really exist. They are both fantasies created in our minds. They are reconstructions of what happened, and many of the details – small and large – are unreliable.”

We look at our past through rose-coloured glasses. So, is the imperfect brain an opening for new brands to build associations with pop culture gone by?

We know it is important to reach as many people as possible with our ads. If you can only change one person’s mind with a $145 50-minute psychology session, it will be very inefficient. For this to work there needs to be a mass platform to plant false memories in the minds of the masses.

Millions of us watch old TV shows, movies, and YouTube videos every day. This content can be choreographed to plant false memories of brands, increasing familiarity through perceived heritage and allowing new brands to be installed in history.
Analysis of Stranger Things season three uncovers the possibilities of using old content. The series features many brands including Coke, 7-11, Casio, Cadillac and Adidas helping them consolidate their place as familiar heritage brands. The average product placement time per episode is nine minutes with the finale reaching 15 minutes out of 60. This only takes into account product placements. It does not take into account happenchance advertising that may be in the background on a poster like my Maniac example. We have the technology to take advantage of this opportunity.

Facial recognition once saved for sci-fi films and presidents is now accessible by many. The image recognition market will grow to USD $109 Billion by 2027 (Grand View Research, March 2020). This technology could easily map out all possible product placement and advertising points in shows like Friends or The Office. These points could then be placed on a real-time buying (programmatic) market for brands to buy. What if Brew Dog (formed in 2007) could buy six months of product placements and ads in the background of Friends for the second half of 2020 when the show first aired in 1994?

When you talk about changing what has already passed the idea seems sinister. When you reframe it as an opportunity for content providers like Netflix to build into new TV shows it feels different. Why not produce TV shows with green screened opportunities for brands to play in the past?

It seems there is a backdoor into the stronghold of heritage. It is only a matter of time before we will compete for the past, not just the future.

History isn’t cast in stone; we don’t have to be respectful about it. We can invent history. - Dave Trott

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