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Tsundoku (Japanese: 積ん読) is a Japanese slang term that originated in the Meiji era (1868-1912). It’s the idea of acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one’s home without reading them. The piling of unread books.
These days, your pile of unread books may be only a couple of titles deep. But turn your attention from your bookshelf to your laptop, phone, or TV. Consider your unread emails, bookmarked articles, social media notifications, podcast queue, Steam library, Hulu watchlist, Spotify playlists, and, if you’re over 40, your DVR. The tsundoku of today isn’t made up of paper and ink but bytes and code.
When memes joke about the stress of your never-ending Netflix queue, your overwhelming amount of notifications, or your RAM-defying number of unread Chrome tabs, it’s easy to see that we are living in the age of multimedia tsundoku.
When you consider that 90 percent of the world’s data was created in the past two years, the staggering reality of our modern-day multimedia tsundoku begins to set in.
The number of books published worldwide has sextupled in the past 30 years, with more than three million new titles annually. The number of original scripted TV shows and movies has gone up by a factor of six since the 1980s in the U.S. alone. Half a billion photos are posted each day on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. One million hours of video are uploaded daily to YouTube. Tens of millions of songs are available to stream, along with hundreds of thousands of podcasts and video games.
How have we responded to this exponential growth of content? On one hand, it’s our natural tendency to try and meet the demand, which is why our time spent on the Internet has grown globally to more than six and half hours a day on average, or more than 100 days of online time a year. To extend that average across all 4.4 billion Internet users, humanity will spend a collective total of more than 1.2 billion years online in 2019.
During those six and a half hours each day, we try and maximize our time engaging with content. Skim reading is the new normal. Podcasting is becoming podfasting (listening to podcasts at an accelerated speed), and podfasting has become the “gateway drug” to all types of sped-up media consumption.
Podfasting, or whatever fasting, gives me an opportunity to…set my anxieties aside and indulge in my wildest fantasy: to manipulate time, indefinitely, whenever the temptation strikes. So that I can read more books, watch more movies, blow through more TV shows, and listen to more podcasts – while still having time to hit the gym, hang out with friends, get enough sleep, and, you know, show up for my job every day. – Lindsey Lanquist
But on the other hand, in a content-rich, time-poor age, we are overwhelmed by the rate of consumption relative to the time we have available. The concept of timeboxing, or assigning scheduled time to a certain task, has leapt from the handbooks of Agile planning to self-help articles on time management. Some people are timeboxing the amount of their day that they consume content to limit their exposure. Brands are even timeboxing content by providing estimates of how long it will take to read their story or watch their video.
It’s no surprise that in 2020, the sum of human attention is simply not sufficient to consume the content that’s being created. Mark Shaefer coined this epoch content shock, where “exponentially increasing volumes of content intersect with our limited human capacity to consume it.”
As an advertiser, it all sounds fairly depressing. The battle for attention continues to grow harder with more content, more channels of exposure, more publishers, and shorter attention spans. Content creators are “the speed daters of storytelling,” continually challenged to break through with “snackable content” in shorter amounts of time.
When short becomes not short enough, and content becomes too much to take it all in, how can brands stand out in 2020? In this age of multimedia tsundoku, how can we avoid gathering dust on the proverbial bookshelf of the Internet?
Unfortunately, there is no formula for success for breaking out on the Internet. But according to Derek Thompson, author of Hit Makers, there are some fundamental elements involved in making a hit. It starts with a central thesis: We, as consumers, are simultaneously neophobic (dislike anything too unfamiliar) and neophilic (love trying new things).
Throughout time, we’ve been programmed to fear the unfamiliar as an evolutionary response to stay alive. In all organisms, exposure to a novel stimulus initially elicits fear and avoidance. The more that we’re exposed to a novel stimulus, the less we fear and avoid it. This is known as the mere exposure effect.
Does the mere exposure effect mean the answer is spending more money on more advertising to expose more people to our message more often? That’s not a sustainable solution, and in some studies, higher levels of exposure have proven damaging to company reputation. It means we, as consumers, like the familiar because it’s easier and faster to process.
Have you ever heard someone say “this is hurting my brain?” There’s a psychological principle behind that feeling called perceptual fluency, or the ease with which a stimulus can be processed. We love the feeling of quick and easy thinking, content that we can instantly understand. And there’s even a name for that moment when the unfamiliar becomes familiar, when everything clicks in our heads: the aesthetic aha. But the pleasure of the thought doesn’t always equal the quality of an idea. Thompson argues that this familiar idea should also be advanced in nature, meaning it pushes the boundaries of what we find acceptable or “normal.”
It is not merely the feeling that something is familiar. It is one step beyond that. It is something new, challenging, or surprising that opens a door into a feeling of comfort, meaning, or familiarity. It is called an aesthetic aha.
Being familiar isn’t enough to stand out on the Internet. But neither is being brand-new. In today’s culture of worshipping the new, we might think that to stand out on the Internet, we have to be totally unique or post something that’s completely different than what others have posted before us.
But, in fact, the real power comes from “well-disguised familiarity.” The new ideas that inevitably remind us of old ideas. We, as advertisers, have to be “architects of familiar surprises.”
There’s no more prolific example of a familiar surprise on the Internet than memes: remixes, parodies, mashups, variants, and/or imitations in popular culture. Today, memes are more popular on the Internet than Jesus in terms of Google searches. Memes are the cultural language of our generation, a “system of shorthand” for expressing broadly familiar yet incredibly specific scenarios.
The word “meme” was coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976, and it comes from the Greek “mimema,” meaning “imitated.” Dawkins shortened this to rhyme with “gene” because he felt that ideas in popular culture reproduced in a process analogous to the way genes spread. Today’s Internet meme researchers echo Dawkin’s premise. In an analysis of over 100 million Internet memes, researchers described the “offspring” of a meme. Just as genes pass on a playbook of traits to their offspring, memes pass on elements of familiarity to their variants.
Indeed, a meme is the Internet’s architecture of a familiar surprise. The format, the visuals, the scenario feel recognizable or relatable, and the combination of elements comes together in a surprising and often humorous way.
The most popular memes that are shared most often are the ones that employ Raymond Loewy’s MAYA principle of being the Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. The funniest yet most relatable. Memes that push the boundary of the zone of normalcy at the edge of experimentation.
Long ago, before the Internet and proliferation of content, there was an industrial designer named Raymond Loewy who understood the importance of a familiar surprise. It was this knowledge that propelled him to create some of the most iconic designs: the classic Coca-Cola bottle, the Shell Oil logo, and the Greyhound logo.
Loewy (1893-1986) was a designer famous for pushing the boundaries of expectation. His designs all followed one simple rule that he called the “MAYA” principle: Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. It meant that Loewy gave users the most advanced possible design but not beyond what they were able to accept and embrace.
Modern theorists agree that edgy aesthetics have value on the Internet. Somewhere between the zone of normalcy and the zone of experimentation there’s a sweet spot: what’s Most Advanced Yet Acceptable.
“When Weiden Kennedy says they want to capture “lightning in a bottle” this is what they mean: to take something just outside of mainstream culture, aestheticize it, and turn it into marketing for a consumer product.” – Toby Shorin
Are memes the future of digital advertising in 2020? Not quite, but MAYA ideas are. In 2020, more brands will realize that it’s a losing game to try and stand out on the Internet by constantly trying to be new or novel. Just as we think of what’s unique about our creative ideas, we also need to evaluate what’s familiar about them, because it’s these bold yet instantly comprehensible ideas that are the ones that stand out on the Internet.
Lately, some standout branded ideas have broken through the multimedia tsundoku. Whether MAYA is a fundamental characteristic of the brand or a strategy employed on a campaign level, these brands won the Internet with surprising takes on the familiar.
It’s a Tide Ad
Tide’s Super Bowl ads took the familiarity of notable moments from commercials and the surprising revelation that the ad was for Tide. #TideAd became the second biggest trending topic on social media behind #SuperBowl, with #TideAd used over 45,000 times. The campaign’s creators acknowledge the importance of the familiar nature of the spots, and the surprising twist at the end.
It plays a little bit with your mind, in a good way. You are watching, and you think, “Oh, I know this ad,” and these ads were really big. Mr. Clean was huge last year. Old Spice was huge years ago. So you connect with that immediately and maybe feel the emotions connected to those ads. And then you have the reveal that, no, you’re actually in a Tide ad. – Javier Campopiano, chief creative officer of Saatchi & Saatchi New York
Purple Mattress has consistently disrupted the familiar through a strategy that’s been hailed as “differentiated” and “breakout.” All of their videos (over 736 million video views) capitalize on familiar narratives, themes, constructs, and characters like Goldilocks, superheroes, Sasquatch, Star Wars, and mummies. The videos play into the types of content that users might expect to get on YouTube or the Internet, with a quirky Purple twist.
Cards Against Humanity Prongles
One day, a familiar-sounding brand appeared on the toy aisle of Target: Prongles, with the tagline “once you pop…that’s great.” The chips instantly sold out, but the media was baffled about where this product came from. Turns out, it was a Black Friday campaign for the card game Cards Against Humanity, who used a familiar product in a totally surprising way.
Burger King Whopper Detour
Burger King took a familiar habit – stopping by McDonald’s, the world’s second-largest restaurant chain – and turned it into something incredibly surprising (and rewarding).
Geico is a classic example of a brand that’s employed familiar surprises in their advertising for over 25 years. Their MAYA strategy? “Be funny but not too funny.” Geico walks the line at the edge of experimentation with their parody ads that feature recognizable characters and scenarios. Here’s one of their most recent ads that exemplifies their approach.
In 2020, brands are finally realizing they can break out of the multimedia tsundoku by capitalizing on familiar surprises. They’ll take recognizable constructs, themes, characters, and ideas, and make them their own. They’ll push the boundaries of what’s acceptable to their target audience to help stand out on the Internet.
How can you create a strategy for standing out in 2020? By better understanding what’s familiar or surprising to your audience.
Phase One: Familiarity Exploration
To get people to pay attention, we have to pay attention to them first. In this phase, use research tools to better understand what’s familiar to your target audience. Databases like Google Audience Explorer, MRI/Simmons, and/or consumer data lakes allow for advertisers to get a broad swath of media, behaviors, brands, and attitudes about their target audience. Narrow down these data points to ones that are adjacent to the consumer decision journey or most relevant to your product/service. Share this “day in the life” of your target audience with your creative teams to help them better understand what’s truly familiar to their audience, so they can prepare to disrupt the familiar.
Phase Two: Idea Development
Now that we’ve identified the familiar, how do we create a surprise? In this phase, consider creative brainstorm formats that shake up traditional thinking, like starbursting, where a familiar idea is presented and questions are generated iteratively off of this familiar idea, or mind-mapping, where associations are created from an original idea. Brainstorm contradictory concepts to the familiar ones you explored in Phase One. Challenge the assumptions of each familiar idea. Assign creative teams two random familiar ideas and force a connection between the ideas to see if you can create the unexpected through the familiar.
Phase Three: MAYA Testing
During the creative process, talk about the furthest you could push an idea before it became unacceptable to your target audience. Consider research that helps you understand where the point of diminishing appeal might be for a design or message, or how familiar, surprising, and perceptually fluent your ideas are through the lens of your target audience. Neuroscientists at the University of Southern California have developed a formal Bayesian definition of surprise measuring the posterior and prior beliefs of observers that could be used as a method to better understand how familiar and/or surprising your ideas may be to your audience.
The future of hits on the Internet will be democratic chaos, with millions competing for attention. Even with massive budgets, brands can still fade into the background, like a forgotten book on the Internet’s collective bookshelf. What do brands need to consider to stand out in 2020? What’s Most Advanced Yet Acceptable about your brand’s messages.
Are familiar surprises the ultimate key to breakthrough content in 2020? It’s a variable but certainly not the answer. Much also depends on emotional resonance, relevance, distribution, and marketing. But as brands think about crafting breakthrough products and messages in 2020, it’s important to remember: It’s not just about standing out among the multimedia tsundoku, it’s also about fitting in, surprisingly.
Author’s Note: Special thanks to Derek Thompson, as this article relies heavily on his book, Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction.
Categories: 2020 Digital Trends