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Advertisers Establishing a Legacy as Creativity Killers

scary girl walking in woods with a butcher knifeBrands are not only not creating great content, they’re making sure independent creative people who are creating popular content can’t survive.

That’s a pretty tough sentence, but in all fairness to brands and advertisers, they aren’t doing it on purpose.  It’s not that they wake up every morning, yawn & stretch, and say, “Well, time to get out there and make sure only an all-powerful, consolidated media can get anything seen by the public.”

In fact, as the media landscape was originally designed, advertisers are supposed to be the impetus for the creation of our universe of entertainment and information programming.  60 Minutes, All in the Family, Seinfeld, I Love Lucy, The Walking Dead, This is Us…none of these creative gems would have ever come into existence were they not needed as containers for advertising.

As digital came along, it was platform-wide advertising that lent support to the host of independent entertainers who, through the power of their talent, instinct and personalities, were able to amass huge audiences for their next-to-no-budget, homemade fare.  It was ad revenue on YouTube that helped PewDiePie, Miranda Sings, Rosanna Pansino, Tyler Oakley, and Smosh be able to do their thing and make a living doing it.  Totally nice formula.  Creators would experience success or failure based purely on the quality of their work.  And brands got access to exactly the kind of young eyeballs they desperately wanted to be in front of.

And then the culture of fear kicked in.

The job is never to make something great. The job is to never make a mistake so you don’t get fired.

Brands are great at fear.  It courses daily through most organizations as phrases like “dare to be great” are met with blank stares, and managers drag from conference room to conference room watching ideas get watered down to the least-impactful, executive-pleasing, lowest creative common denominator.  The job is never to make something great.  The job is to never make a mistake so you don’t get fired.  Small things that in the real world would pass over largely unnoticed become opportunities in corporate hallways for epic overreaction that will be forever embedded in the company’s lore of marketing “disasters.”

If you wonder why the vast majority of marketing content just sits there and lays an egg with its target audience, the reason is because that’s exactly what it was designed by our process to do…to not result in any big reaction or get overly-noticed.  To be 100% safe and acceptable, content must be off-white wallpaper.  Yeah, it’s there and people see it, but they won’t give it a second thought and thank God, because any reaction beyond that could spell trouble!  It’s why artists die a little inside when they work for brands.

Which brings us to what advertisers have made YouTube do.

Big advertisers started pulling out of YouTube.  Why?  Out of fear that their ads would show up before a video that somebody somewhere might take offense to.  You see, YouTube offered some control over that, but not enough to satisfy the very frightened.  So YouTube changed its automated process for ad placement, and essentially any creator on YouTube doing current events commentary or cutting edge comedy risks driving into a ditch.  No more being able to survive off your popular YouTube channel.  Again, this was all well-intentioned.  After all, no brand wants to be associated with extremist or derogatory content.  In fact, they want to be visibly seen as being opposed to it.

But when you try to tell an algorithm to filter out content that could potentially be offensive, you are casting a massively wide net that catches people reviewing video games, or doing political discussion not unlike what’s on cable (which the very same advertisers advertise on), or doing sarcastic satire that actually agrees with your position on the subject.  YouTube creatives who want ad revenue must now give away their creative freedom, as well as their freedom of speech, and keep their stuff so far away from potentially sensitive subject matter they won’t get caught in the net.  And by the way, they don’t even know how to do that since the algorithm is vague, hidden, and ever-changing.

They’ve been able to extend their culture of fear out so far it’s gagging independent creatives who aren’t afraid to go for breakout content.

And that’s how brands are not only not creating great content of their own, they’ve been able to extend their culture of fear so far out that it’s gagging independent creatives who aren’t afraid to go for great, breakout content.  Maybe platform-wide advertising won’t work.  Maybe brands should just manually choose individual videos or channels they want to sponsor.  Or maybe we’re in overreaction mode.  After all, if you see a YouTube video you don’t like, do you seriously hold the brand who had the pre-roll ad before it personally responsible for the great injustice that you didn’t personally care for it?  Really?  Doesn’t everyone under at least 50 understand ads on a platform like that are placed somewhat randomly?  Are we making decisions based on the common-sense masses or on the fringe “eagerly outraged”?  YouTube creators now have to make sure their content doesn’t potentially offend an algorithm.  Wow.

The good news (good for the public, not for brands) is that the tides are shifting away from lame ad-supported content to subscriber-based, ad-free, on-demand quality programming.  Game of Thrones was made because great content was needed to make an HBO subscription more valuable.  House of Cards was made to make more people want to pay for Netflix.  Yep, all those people we’re so terrified of offending are moving outside of our reach, and ironically doing it so they can go find some content that’s actually interesting.  How’s that culture of fear working out for you?


What makes for great content?  Attention to story.  Read Michael’s great post on making sure you’re including all the necessary story elements.

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