Design POV: Observations on Faux Docu-Cinema in the Creative Ad Space



In the late 1950s, cinema heavyweight Alfred Hitchcock remarked, “In feature [fiction] films, the director is God; in documentary films, God is the director.” This sentiment may have proven true in a simpler time – one unburdened by “post-truths” and fake news. Indeed, in an era of the adjustable truth, the former role of documentary filmmaking (as naturalistic observations of the “human condition”) has seemingly mutated into a moral/ethical battlefield of factual ambiguity. As insatiable global audiences, fetishizing the “incontrovertible” truth via sensational documentaries, continue to mushroom, documentarians and all content-creators are faced with revealing or even creating exciting “truths.” If deemed too “dry” by the same audiences captivated by frenetic Vice videos or flashy, covertly- branded “reality-based” short films (ie: “First Kiss” where twenty strangers kiss each-other for their first time), many purely “factual” documentaries are swallowed up and spit out into the abyss of cyber-space. As piquing the interests of large audiences is growing more competitive and common, a great number of documentarians are beginning to play “God” (in Hichcockian terms) by distorting and slanting the “truth.” This is true and can be found in none other than the US ad space.

Being a documentary filmmaker with deep-rooted interests in narrative films and comic books, there comes a certain fascination with product experiences that challenge industry-standards by embracing stranger alternatives. This is particularly relevant to big brands (a la Clearasil, the NYT, Calvin Klein, Drake and OVO Records, even Quilted Northern Toilet Paper), as they attempt to skew their advertising to a more youthful, internet-literate demo. Throughout this past semester, I, more often than not, unwittingly wrote about many of the marketing methods employed by big creative ad agencies like Droga5 or Havas. Yet, it was only until reviewing both BJ Fogg’s “A Behavioral Model for Persuasive Design” and Pieter Desmet and Paul Hekkert’s “Framework of Product Experience” that I realized that something perhaps more gray lurked beneath many of my posts: big brands using the documentary medium for its ephemeral “aesthetic, emotional and meaningful” qualities rather than as a vessel for truth.

In an era guided by post-truth, I have very closely felt the hypocrisy that non-fiction filmmaking allows for an unvarnished look at others’ lives. Though it is no secret that some documentaries are partly staged, the fact that truth can be essentially true is fascinating to me. Documentaries for Nike products, often times, contain less truth than narrative movies because there are a number of heavily gray layers that exist between fact and fiction. Indeed, one could largely argue that the cinematic docu-qualities of a commercial spot like SKII’s Marriage Market spot largely fulfill what both Fogg, Desmet and Hekkert categorize as desirable” design: its visuals not only are pleasing to the eye (the spot is lensed with cinematic precision), but its tear-jerking music, and well-directed interviews tease out an emotional narrative that is moving and rousing. Yet, this particular SKII ad’s tactics are equally as manipulative. In what should play as reality, the advertisement seemingly plays as scripted fiction, thanks to the story’s contradictory relationship to its product (SKII can be looked at as a cosmetic item).

Thus, in reviewing my previous posts, I am attracted to design that utilities conspicuous minimalism (i.e. the Yashica T4i’s build to Harris Savides’ understated cinematography) to the emotional experiences of self-reflexive narratives (a la Clearasil’s advertisements in which they admit they do indeed have no awareness of what kids find “cool”) to disruptive tech as personal experiences (Drake’s expansion of the OVO brand with his recent “playlist” More Life).

Yet, do interweb denizens share similar thoughts? Do people really care about truth anymore, anyway? Does irony – when endorsed by a corporation attempting to sell a consumer a product (a la Marvel’s pastiche of Joss Whedon’s humor in their more recent, Whedon-less entries in the MCU) – sell? If Ryan Staake’s “Wyclef Jean” video for artist Young Thug is any indication, perhaps it does.

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