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What Black Mirror Can Tell Us About Modern Marketing

Black Mirror is The Twilight Zone for the modern age, minus the reassuring presence of Rod Serling. Its main writer, Charlie Brooker, has spent a lifetime buried in social media, pop culture and the worst advertising tat our generation has been able to spew out into the world, so it’s not that surprising that the stories Black Mirror tells are a twisted, disturbing but painfully accurate reflection of modern times.

And one of the things it has a lot to say about is the way marketing works now. If you work in marketing then you’d be right to feel insulted by Black Mirror – it’s abundantly clear from the six episodes that have been made so far that Charlie Brooker doesn’t like you one bit. However, he’s also got a lot of useful things to say that could actually help you understand your industry.

It’s not a mirror, it’s a lens

The name of the show, Black Mirror, refers to screens. It doesn’t matter what the screens are. It could refer to your TV, your laptop monitor, your iPad, your phone, the screens showing adverts that you pass on the tube or the screen by your hospital bed playing a looped greeting by the health secretary. To be a human in Western civilisation in the 21st century is to spend your life looking at a variety of differently sized glowing rectangles, as Charlie Brooker himself has pointed out.

But in Black Mirror the screens don’t just reflect ourselves back at us. Instead the technology is the way we see the world. In White Bear the crowds of spectator zombies view everything through the screen on their phone, a sight that you know not to be science fiction if you’ve been to a live gig recently. In The Waldo Moment the main character is better known as the blue, CGI bear he plays than he is as a person. In Fifteen Million Merits the protagonist’s bedroom walls are simply huge screens, and he leaves that room to go and ride an exercise bike in front of other screens during the day – he’s more likely to see his friends’ cartoonish Wii Mii style avatars than the real people. As someone who has introduced myself to people at parties only to discover I speak to them daily on Twitter, I can identify with that.

What does that teach us?

Basically, we now live in the Matrix. From a business perspective the virtual world is now every bit as real to people as the physical world. The lines are getting blurrier all the time, with videogames building economies that can match some countries, and products like Google Glass aiming to bring augmented reality into the mainstream (which you can be sure marketing will take advantage of). Right now what this means is that your online presence is very much how people see your company, which means if you ruin your social media campaign, it’s going to hurt.

Your life experiences are now a commodity

Two of the Black Mirror stories deal with this directly. In The Entire History of You, everybody is constantly recording everything they see and hear, with the ability to refer back to it at will. Your employers can ask to have a look through your recordings as part of a job interview, and then afterwards you can replay the job interview over and over, literally. Security guards at airports can check over your memory before letting you on the plane. If you’re having an argument with your partner about something you said last week, you can go back and review the footage.

It’s science fiction, but not quite as science fictional as it could be in a world where people regularly photograph their meals and upload them to the Internet, and employers think it’s acceptable to ask to see your Facebook login information.

It goes a step further in Be Right Back, however, where companies are offering to take all your social media information and use it to create a computerised ghost of you, who talks exactly like you would while gently up-selling your grieving loved ones from a text chat interface up to a fully realistic robot replica. Oh, and there’s already a real company offering the same service.

What does that teach us?

There’s a popular saying about people who use social media. They aren’t the customers – they’re the product. Social media sites acquire vast numbers of users, who willingly pour all their information into the site, then they sell that information or use it to direct marketing at their customers. And their reach is broadening – with sites like Foursquare and Facebook’s check-in option, combined with smart phones, these sites have access not just to your likes, demographic information, friendship network and relationship status, they can also track your movements and routines. With Google Glass on the way, the reach of these sites is going to go even further, to the point where services like the one in The Entire History of You aren’t entirely implausible.

Dissent is a marketing tool

There’s a lot to be said for George Orwell, but you’ve got to admit the guy thought small. In 1984 the gigantic evil dystopian government deals with rebellion by locking it in a room and torturing it until it doesn’t want to rebel anymore. In Charlie Brooker’s universe this is seen as an awful lot of unnecessary effort. In 15 Million Merits the protagonist is driven to despair by the society he lives in, and ends up bursting onto the stage of a Britain’s Got Talent style show with a shard of broken glass pressed up against his neck. He then launches into a speech about all the terrible things that are wrong with the dystopia they’re stuck in. The judges respond by giving him his own show.

In The Waldo Moment the main character doesn’t even want to rebel against the powers that be, he just wants to make lots of knob gags, with the people around him shoving him onto the political stage, where his CGI bear becomes an icon for the disenfranchised. Soon shadowy Americans are talking about what a great political product the bear could become, and by the end of the show an Orwellian dystopia has been created – with blue bear pictures everywhere.

In Brooker’s world you don’t crush dissent, you repackage and sell it.

What does that teach us?

A huge part of the message the general mass of advertising gives us is “You’re special. You’re unique. Others might follow the crowd and do as they’re told, but you’re a free thinker, a rebel who doesn’t play by the rules. Buy hair gel.” We all want to think we’re Luke Skywalker (okay, Han Solo) and nobody wants to be one of the anonymous storm troopers. This isn’t new. Hell, in 1984 Apple was using 1984 to sell computers. See also this example of an ad where eating at McDonald’s for lunch is portrayed as the first chapter of Das Kapital.

Even better, take this very article, which takes some of the most biting satire writing in the last couple of years and metamorphosises it into a list of hints and tips on how to be a better marketing manager. The world is becoming more and more like an episode of Black Mirror every day. Which is something David Cameron should worry about.

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Sam Wright is a freelance writer who always preferred The Outer Limits.

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