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

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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

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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

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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.

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Tyler, the Innovator: How the Odd Future brand was built

So tomorrow we get Tyler, the Creator’s third studio album Cherry Bomb. For followers of the trailblazing OFWGKTA, it has so far been an interesting journey in which we’ve seen the various different characters unravel artistically in a variety of ways. In the interest of the under-rock dwelling population I’ll include a vague recap below:

Odd Future came out or nowhere and became a weather-making force in Hip Hop and wider youth culture. This irreverent collective of Rappers, Producers, Singers, Skateboarders and visual Artists emerged from the Ladera Heights suburbs of Los Angeles with an explosive new take on alternative hip hop. With the new sound they brought their own visual aesthetic, culture and brand persona. The IDGAFness was infectious and many youngsters wanted to be a part of what felt like a radically new cultural movement. Groups of teenagers were titillated by the brash expressiveness, reckless abandon of common decency and refusal to adhere to any preconceived notion of what a group of black kids from LA should be like.

Odd Future, or OFWGKTA were a unique proposition that could have potentially been difficult to market. Existing somewhere in between your mainstream mainstays Drake, Nicki Minaj, DJ Khaled etc and the alternative sphere consisting of everything from your socially conscious Talib Kwelis and hyper-verbally-dexterous Aesop Rocks to your abstract texturalists Shabazz Palaces, Odd Future didn’t identify with either side of the binary. Equally contemptuous of ’40 year old rappers rapping about Gucci’ and ‘the Immortal Tech-of-the-nique…and all that real Hip Hop that’s full of the sheet [shit],’ the collective liberated listeners from the established norms of Hip Hop fandom. Head honcho Tyler, the Creator’s reverence of mainstream acts such as Pharrell, Eminem, Justin Timberlake and even Justin Bieber as well as obscure Jazz, indie surf-rockers, ‘chillwave’, post-punk legends and neo-soul icons such as Erykah Badu and D’Angelo helped establish the idea that both top-40 indoctrination and the dictates of ‘credible’ music tastemakers are largely false idols. From the intelligent use of merchandising to the organic approach to collaboration and partnerships, Odd Future have become a massive movement influencing mainstream culture whilst continuing to be a subculture and maintaining a strong core fan base.

Below are some ways in which Tyler, the Creator has turned what started as a hobby then mutated into a career into an established and growing brand:

1. Establishing a brand template

 

Odd Future were wrongly cast, when they first burst on to the scene, as a horrorcore or shock-rap group. However, that reception was quickly put to bed once the initial wave of press hit the internet. We soon learned that behind the obscenity, murder fantasies, gross lyrical indecency and casual use of offensive slurs such as ‘faggot’ and ‘bitch’ there was a delicate balance of juvenile rebelliousness and actual sincere complexity. This potentially confusing public image was channelled into the aesthetic template that the collective built for itself. Sonically many Odd Future releases were juxtaposing dark minimalism with intervals of soul-infused Neptunes-esque vibes which were evocative of West Coast weather and summers spent outside Skateboarding, socialising with friends and having awkward exchanges with members of the opposite sex. The OF clothing and merchandise being sold was defined by a kind of absurdly blunt sense of humour with hoodies adorned with badly-drawn pictures of the (at that point) absent Earl Sweatshirt or a photograph of the frankly un-epic looking group associate Lucas. Kittens adorned tie-dye t-shirts and knee-length socks from which Tyler claims to have made ‘a quarter million’ from became a fashion staple of countless mesmerised teens. Tyler appeared on the cover of NME in a wedding dress whilst having an album out which derides ‘faggots’ and details the fantasy of ‘rape[ing] a pregnant bitch’, a year later he was declaring himself the representative of kids marginalised by slurs such as ‘weird, fag, bitch, nerd‘  whilst constantly fluctuating between anger, depression, goofiness, absurdity and extreme focus on his personal goals. Tyler, as the captain of this disparate collective took all of these complex different elements and assigned them to specific signifiers of the Odd Future brand thus being able to communicate the anti-authoritarian, passionately creative and utterly irreverent character of the group.

2. Being able to diversify comfortably

When the notorious ‘EARL’ video crashed onto the internet back in 2009 the average viewer had no clue that this group of reckless teens and young adults were anything but pranksters looking to illicit cheap shocks from the viral community. However, right from the outset OFWGKTA was a diverse group of talented individuals. On the music arm you had the foul-mother and charismatic Tyler, the mysteriously absent (rumours ranged from his being serving life in prison to him not actually existing at all) master-wordsmith Earl Sweatshirt, the aggressively hardcore Hodgy Beats and his MellowHype counterpart producer and occasional rapper Left Brain who is by contrast very mellow (as the sub-group name suggests), the stoner-rap aficionado Domo Genesis, neo-soul gurus Syd the Kid and Matt Martians, the swag-King Mike G and the melancholy alt-RnB crooner Frank Ocean.

Odd Future’s often wild antics quickly captured the imagination of youths across the Western World which opened the door for the groups to explore other creative outlets. The ranks were soon padded out by existing friends and associates such as Travis ‘Taco’ Bennett (brother of Syd), Jasper the Fucking Dolphin and L-Boy who were the architects of the Loiter Squad venture on Adult Swim. Whilst Tyler has been pulling fans towards the group from the get-go by filling the collective with all sorts of diverse talents, there is no indication that the doors are closed to partnering with new talent. From signing the Hardcore punk group Trash Talk to Odd Future Records and doing production work for the up-and-coming vintage soulstress Kali Uchis to directing a dreamy music video for ex-Chester French member D.A. Wallach’s ‘Glowing’ to making a re-imagined West Coast crip anthem for Schoolboy Q’s Oxymoron album, Tyler has kept his fingers in many creative pies. This organic approach to brand building through pursuing various different creative channels has allowed Tyler, the Creator to maximise OF’s exposure whilst retaining the core values and aesthetic.

3. Responding to failure in the right way

When Tyler’s second 60″ Mountain Dew ad which featured the ‘Felicia the Goat’ character alongside a group of black men (all OF members) was pulled for being racist and misogynistic, it was clearly a source of disappointment for the budding director. His official response stated that the ad was ‘never meant to spark a controversy about race’ and was intentionally ‘absurd’ and ‘not meant to be taken seriously.’ Whilst I let the internet intersectionalists argue this one out with the libertarians with regard to the rights and wrongs but in terms of Tyler’s brand, the minor controversy only helped. Tyler’s position as a charismatic and free thinking creative unjustly bound by the contemporary concept of poor taste was only cemented as he continued to offend the sensibilities of both left and right. The self-directed video for the raucous ‘Tamale‘ off 2013’s Wolf,  was a fitting address towards these issues as the artist continued to prick the consensus of what constitutes acceptability.

Another instance of (at least partial) failure was the critical reception towards Tyler’s first studio album Goblin. Whilst an exciting enough project for existing fans, for others Goblin was a disappointment in that it did little to really bring across the artist’s full musical potential. I enjoyed the album at the time but with some time plus critical distance I can see that the artists had perhaps become trapped within the impression that fans and critics alike had made of his. The root of this failure, I believe is in Tyler’s becoming too comfortable with the media caricature and lacking adherence to the creative irreverence that is core to the OF brand that he created. However, Tyler has since been vocal about his own disappointment in the end-product and has learned from the experience with subsequent releases. The sophomoric Wolf did a much better job of channel the diverse range of influences, and whilst not being by any means perfect, helped give a truer impression of the artist. Tyler, in essence took ownership of this failure and built his learning a into his subsequent creative approaches.

4. Trying new things

The recently-launched Golf Media paid app for which Tyler has partnered with media tech company Whalerock Industries has been created in order to allow him to share content such as his own new music, film & music video work and interviews as well as other licensed content such as music, art and film that has inspired him directly with his fans. Whether or not this will prove to be a profitable venture I don’t know, OF do have a large and extremely dedicated core fan base who would likely not blink twice at paying a £4.99 subscription but there are always concerns about making people pay for stuff that they can get for free online. Regardless of the outcome, the move is not likely to damage Tyler and the brand that he has built in the long term. The core values of ‘Fuck the rules’ and  ‘Find your wings’ that Tyler built the Odd Future brand around are being reasserted here with confidence.

One thing I really want to see in the final episodes of Mad Men…

I’ve always been skeptical of historical fiction, or in this context ‘period dramas.’ I mean what is the actual point besides a fun nostalgic interlude? Our descendants will surely be much more interested in how we interpret and present the world in which we live than how we imagine what was left for us. However, Mad Men has always given us something extra beyond its stunning visual presentation and attention to detail (excluding the trivial minute anachronisms pointed out by what I assume is a collective of pedantic weirdos).

What Mad Men offers through the it’s exploration of Madison Avenue’s ‘Golden Age’ is a glimpse into the unspoken social structures and ideas which continue to govern the way in which is our contemporary world is assembled through the images that define ‘today.’ Granted the situation of Women, People of Colour, Homosexuals and those born of limited means has improved considerably and society has generally progressed but many traits of this era persist in our world. The gender pay-gap remains a hot topic in the corporate world and debates about the portrayal of women in popular culture are still being had, as gay marriage enjoys widespread support there is still a considerable minority which opposes it on stated moral grounds- many of whom are in positions of power and influence. Race relations continue to be a divisive subject in the US and the western world as a whole with last year’s police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice being notable examples as well as the recent n-word filled frat-boy chants at the University of Oklahoma and those Chelsea fans refusing to let a Black man on the Paris Metro. Whilst progress has been tangible, the statistics continue favour the Straight White Male (1% of Fortune 500 CEOs are Black, 4% are women and none of them are gay).

The point of the above is to emphasise how Mad Men’s blunt portrayal of the ideas which lay the unequal foundations of our societies is vital to its transcendence of the ‘period drama’ genre. We’ve seen Bert Cooper discreetly raise concerns about having a Black secretary greeting clients, followed Peggy as she navigates her personal ambitions as a woman around a hostile belittling environment and watched Sal Romano being booted out of the agency for failing to ‘limit his exposure.’ However there is one idea which I’ve yet to see thoroughly explored which is the socio-economic shift between the unspoken paternalistic consensus that previously existed between old-money masters of industry and the political class to a vehemently individualistic understanding of capitalism that centred around the advent of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thacher at the end of the 1970s. The intricate interplay between psychoanalysis, Advertising & PR, mass production and late-century political malaise is covered much more eloquently in Adam Curtis’ brilliant documentary ‘The Century of The Self‘ where it is demonstrated how the deeply individualistic roots of the post-war counterculture paved the way for today’s neo-liberal economics.

Whilst we get a brief glimpse into the emerging theory of ‘rational self-interest’ through Bert Cooper’s pro-market sound-bytes and unambiguous praise for Ayn Rand, we never really get to see this monumental shift of orthodoxies play out in a show which as a whole does an excellent job with cultural paradigm shifts. This is not to say that Don Draper, Roger Sterling and Pete Campbell are not presented to us as committed advocates of the capitalist system- Don is a Nixon supporter and clearly values his comfortable financial standing, Roger takes immense pride for founding his own agency and Pete’s ruthless ambition is only slightly mitigated by occasional moments of empathy. There is however a sense of social order present which the leading male power-brokers abide by. Don’s humble beginnings, when he partially reveales them at a client meeting- are not applauded as evidence of his strong character in the familiar bootstrap trope but treated as a grossly inappropriate and uncomfortable interlude. Michael Ginsburg, the bright working-class Jewish copywriter remains an outsider due to his heritage and can only really find social purpose in a superficial alignment with the concerns of the left wing conterculture movement  (someting for which we see him duly ridiculed for by Jim Cutler)  before he loses his mind in a fit of intense nipple-slashing paranoia at the thought that this socio-economic overlords might replace him with a machine (taking the form of one of the early computers).

There are hints of this phenomenon. Roger’s foray into LSD and the seeming ease with which he briefly fits into the commune that his daughter had abandoned her young family to join, Don’s reluctant but persistent (mostly sexual) association with hippies, hard drug users, artists etc and Bert Cooper’s enthusiasm for Abstract Expressionist art all begin to point us towards an emerging current of individualist sentiment. However, the association is distant and there is a lot of interpretive gap-filling to be done. Whilst I realise that it’s no easy feat to cram this unintroduced undercurrent into the remaining eight hours of television that we have left, I believe that the seeds have been planted and can now begin to sprout towards a logical conclusion.