GAME – the power of marketing’s fourth wall

28th March 2013
lionIt was a tense moment. The maned lion, limping yet still powerful, edged his way towards us. Our tiered safari truck sat between him and the rest of the pride. He stared straight ahead, as if through us. His pace was even, his gait somewhat lop-sided. I watched and smelled him approach, feeling unnerved; gripped.

Two metres from our open truck, the lion swerved. His coat, gnarled and puckered up close, brushed against the leg of our tracker.

The pride was complete again.

As the tension in the open truck subsided I reflected on the transaction in play in the world of safari: we humans vow never to leave our trucks nor visit harm on the animals; in turn, the animals vow to ignore our presence. On this delicate game of mutual accommodation our safety lay. And every day it worked.

The idea of a contract of mutual understanding is at the heart of the act of marketing. As consumers (or people, as I generously like to call us), we have dutifully agreed to many illusions as the theatre of marketing takes effect.

We have, for example, understood that marketing claims are hyperbolic. Indeed, an absence of ridiculous over-statement in ads is vaguely concerning (I still remember with mirth Irish Rail’s pathetically vulnerable slogan from ten years back: We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there).

The act of marketing is the act of drama – and we all know it, adjusting accordingly. The fourth wall is acknowledged, but it is never fully destroyed.

In my work in qualitative research I have long noted that marketing communication has entered the realm of conspiracy.

As consumers (that word again) we can fully decode the ambitions of advertisers. Nevertheless, we are prepared to be drawn in. We critique the degree to which advertisers have ‘pulled it off‘, and find no contradiction in the object of an ad’s persuasion being ourselves.

It is a strange meta-reality, yet somehow it works. Marketing depends upon the suspension of disbelief in service of a deep (and un-fillable) yearning to feel better about ourselves.

Like a hobbling lion on a game reserve in South Africa, we amble our way towards those who would influence us, choosing to both see and ignore them.

Indeed, the presence of an invisible influencer may even bring a world-weary king some comfort.

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