Peep Show: What brands can learn from its unlikely success

Peep Show, the last season of which has returned to our screens, is something of an anomaly in British culture for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it  has somehow made it to 9 series’ (or seasons if you hail from across the pond) which is especially atypical for a British comedy if we consider the limited runs of critically acclaimed classics such as Fawlty Towers, Blackadder, The Royle Family, The Thick of It and The Office. It has also done surprisingly well considering the unorthodox use of point-of-view camerawork which when matched with the protagonists’ voiceover inner-monologues gives us an intimate acquaintance with their psychological profiles. The depths of cynicism, desperation and despair into which we see Mark and Jeremy sink lower and lower strikes somewhere between a modern day Dostoyevsky and a solitary night bus home to the suburbs at 4am. This level of dark humour and ennui in waiting for a sense of redemption that never seems to come is seemingly at odds with a British public more accustomed to camp and inoffensive whimsy and might go some way in explaining how the show has never enjoyed the ratings success of Miranda, My Family or Last of the Summer Wine.  Despite this, the series has done what Smack the Pony, Black Books and Green Wing never could- it survived, and in many ways in thrived due to DVD sales and eventually online streams via Netflix and All4. Peep Show has become not only a highly-regarded TV comedy but also a reference point for a generation that will likely go on to influence the British cultural landscape for decades. It is with this in mind that I have listed a few lessons below that brands can take from the show’s unlikely success.

Taking risks and maintaining a distinctive edge


Whilst the POV camerawork has been phased-out, the voiceover monologues remain and are responsible for some of the most memorable lines in the show.The subject matter has always trodden a fine line between what is and isn’t acceptable for public broadcast (i.e. dog-eating, simulated mother-son incest in blackface, female-on-male rape) with outlandish situations that are somehow completely consistent with the characters portrayed. Instinctive reactions to awkward social situations are interlaced with profound existential truths and clever jokes and references cover everything from the highly topical (Jeremy Clarkson, the EU, Storage Hunters) to the randomly obscure ( an imagined night out as Christopher and Peter Hitchens). Peep Show is what one of those irritating bespectacled twenty something’s that most ad people will be familiar with from the big-table all agency meetings would refer to as a ‘disruptor brand.’ It sees the common formula and ways of operating and penetrates the market following entirely different rules and demands a higher standard from its competitors in order to survive. The influence of Peep Show is seen clearly in shows such as The Inbetweeners, The IT Crowd, Fresh Meat and Babylon- all of which deal in that painful space between one’s expectations of life and the reality.

Being topical but subtle


You never get a heavy-handed reference to a current event in Peep Show or a cheap swipe at a failing celebrity- this is something that allows the show to have a timeless quality. You do however get a sense of correlation with the real world from the plot lines, dialogue and character’s thoughts which all nod towards the cultural, social, political and even economic realities. Mark’s downward trajectory from Loan Manager at an established Credit Company to Mexican restaurant waiter and precarious business partner to ex-boss Johnson seems to chime perfectly with the credit crunch and global recession and has been more than consistent with the show’s timeline from the mid-Blair years of cautious optimism and social liberalism to the belt-tightening of the coalition term and Cameron ministry. Mark’s anxiety towards political correctness, ‘EU Banana-Straighteners’ and the prospect of society degenerating to the point at which people throw faeces from their bedroom windows is an expression of Daily Mail-style small-c conservatism which is balanced by his aspirational careerist attitude to life and evangelising about ‘the miracle of consumer capitalism.’ David Mitchell recently put this very well in a recent interview with Shortlist:

“I’m very with Mark in that moment, in terms of his puncturing of nebulous alternativism. But it does come off as… well, very Blair’s Britain. Very pre-crash. Britain under Blair, there was a broader acceptance that stuff was OK, not a total disaster. Then the credit crunch reversed that consensus. I don’t think Mark would have put it quite like that now.”

Jeremy is equally maladjusted but in a completely different way. He is a highly deluded self-aggrandising ‘creative’ type who sits at the other end of the spectrum within the landscape of ‘Blair’s Britain.’ If the bankers were allowed to have their shady practices and uncurbed rapacious greed then the likes of Jez and his dropout countercultural friends were allowed their own version of the non-committal lifestyle of casual sex, drugs and brazen irresponsibility- only cloaked in different political stripes. Aside from the ‘nobody wanted New Labour’, ‘fuck you Bush‘ poem and ‘Blair on holiday’ shirt buttoning- Peep Show seems to have also captured some of the essence of today’s discussions about gender. Mark and Jez are both under-fathered (cue Johnson and Super Hans), insufficiently blokeish and romantically useless, whilst the former fills this void by ‘staring at women on the bus’, his career and his increasingly nerdy hobbies the former gets by on casual sex, drugs and constantly re-reading Mr Nice. A lot of the humour derives from the protagonists’ failings as men by society’s standards with Mark having to use FHM for research purposes in order to make friends with Jeff and Jez’s pandering to Mark’s childhood bully Foz. The female characters do not get off lightly either as Robert Webb explains in an excellent piece in the New Statesman

In Peep Show, there have been Toni (brittle narcissist), Nancy (manipulative American hippie), Big Suze (oblivious posh sadist), Carla (oversexed thief), Merry (certified lunatic), Dobby (awkward, Cheddar-loving über-geek), Elena (bisexual Ukrainian liar), Zahra (pseudo-intellectual bore), Penny (randy jam-making lost cause), Liz (vindictive Christian) and Cally (BlackBerry-obsessed control freak), to name a few. Characters are not people. They can only have one or two things about them and that goes for Mark and Jeremy, too. But to allow the women to be as flawed as the men is to allow them to be equally funny. And, while we’re at it, equally human. 

Like successful TV Shows, successful advertising has to be of its time in order to resonate with people. From Leo Burnett’s award-winning Like a Girl campaign for Unilever to Chipotle’s The Scarecrow work with The Martin Agency to Sainsbury’s Christmas is for Sharing ads by AMV/BDDO- there is an intrinsic need for campaigns to nod towards the issues of the day in order to be relatable enough for consumers to connect to the brand on an emotional level.

Knowing itself


Coming back to a point made briefly earlier, no matter how inconceivable some of the situations that Mark and Jeremy get themselves into can seem, they are always believable in the context of the characters and their behaviour patterns. We believe that Mark might piss on someone else’s office documents as part of some petty feud and then regret his decision and attempt to cover his tracks by using a hand dryer in the men’s bathroom to dry the sodden papers. We believe that Jez would eat a dead dog’s leg or wank off an old man for petty cash and access to an X Box or that Super Hans would get a 15 year old boy to fellate him. Whilst co-creators and writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong have created a highly unique TV sitcom they also keep a tight sense of control over the characters ensuring that they don’t drift away from the characteristics that the core audience is familiar with. I’m sure that they might have been tempted to write a scene where Mark actually does take Ecstasy with Sophie and her bohemian friends or where Jeremy actually makes a go of it with a long term girlfriend but the consistency is what allows the audience to know the characters so intimately.

Brands also need to be believable in terms of how they characterise themselves in their communications efforts. You only have to look at the recent General Election in the UK which had Ed Miliband standing in front of a giant slab of stone onto which his election pledges were engraved or the ill fated ‘Immigration mug‘ fiasco to see that trying to convince your audience that you’re something that you are not is ultimately futile. Campaign Magazine recently dubbed Air BnB ‘Is Man Kind?’ TV ads as ‘Turkey of the Week‘ with good reason- no one would buy the idea that renting someone else’s apartment in a foreign city is a profound act of humanism.