Go deep: Frank Rose on the art of immersion

Throughout history, the arrival of new mediums has continually upset the apple cart. The printing press, the novel, film, sound, TV, 3D, and the list goes on, have all changed the way humans tell stories—and all taken a long time for the storytellers to come to terms with. And, as Frank Rose, Wired writer, media analyst and author of a new book called The Art of Immersion said this morning at a breakfast hosted by DraftFCB, exactly the same is true in this digital age. 

Rose’s book charts the different ways digital technology is affecting “Hollywood, Madison Avenue and the way we tell stories” and, as he says, writing it was an opportunity “to take the long view” and see where things are heading for both the creators and the consumers of content.

He can cite plenty of great examples of the ways creative storytelling is changing, whether it be in the immersive fictional worlds/”fractal experiences” created by James Cameron on and off-screen; marketing stunts/trans-media puzzles that fuse the seemingly real with the fictional, like the Dark Knight’s Why So Serious, Nine Inch Nail’s Year Zero, the Prometheus TED talk set in 2023, or the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s global treasure hunt; or the rise of second screening and social TV, which is giving TV a new lease of life because viewers increasingly want to discuss events in real-time among a community of fans via social media.

Rose grew up when mass-media was taken for granted as a way to receive news, entertainment and advertising. But media is a side effect of technology, he says, and the rapid changes in the past decade (as he points out in the introduction, YouTube and Google didn’t exist in September 11, 2001), have been truly transformational, particularly for print.

In the past, the industrialisation of information meant a powerful few who could guarantee a large audience in their specific medium (as the old phrase went, “never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel”) were the only ones with the resources to provide that audience. But technology is changing that.

People have always loved participating in stories (he points to Charles Dickens, one of the first to serialise his novels and take input from readers before the next chapter was released). But, increasingly, the audience wants to be part of the story and, for the rabid fans, to be given a more detailed backstory, not just consume it passively as we once did.

Of course, we’re still finding out how to use those tools. Again, Rose says that’s not new. It took 150 years to figure out what to do with the printing press, he says; the novel became known as the novel because it was a new form of writing and Daniel Defoe had to pretend Robinson Crusoe was non-fiction because playing pretend simply wasn’t done back in his day; and, when film arrived, he says everyone tried to make it look like theatre, with close-ups, cuts and other creative storytelling techniques taking much longer to come onstream.

Rose says the scary bit for so-called traditional media is that the internet is not one thing. It can be text, video, audio, and everything inbetween. And the scary bit for brands hoping to engage their increasingly media savvy customers is that it’s so spontaneous and random. But Rose says it’s also offering amazing new possibilities for those like immersive  trans/deep media company 42 Entertainment (which was named in honour of the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything) who are willing to experiment.

While interruptive advertising certainly isn’t dead, he says the advent of the personal video recorder showed marketers and advertisers, many of whom probably didn’t watch the ads themselves, that it was at least ineffective. Giving utility and showing people where to buy it and how much it costs is still important and traditional mass-media channels still offer the best way to get a message out (people are watching more TV than ever but they’ve also never been older and and it’s being watched much differently than it used to be).

But the internet is taking away the middle men, which is one thing the internet does very well, and mass media is basically a middle man to spread ads to an audience. Companies can now talk—and sell—directly to customers (he gives the example of online ordering for grocery delivery). And while it’s hard to imagine Harvey Norman creating a cryptic puzzle for its fans to solve and throwing in the towel on its retail advertising, attracting attention is becoming increasingly difficult, which he says behoves them to treat the audience with respect and puts more pressure on brands and agencies to do better advertising (as Seth Godin said in 2003, the most dangerous thing marketers can be is safe).

“There’s a reason authenticity has become a major trend. We live in a world that’s increasingly fake. It’s about being real, transparent, authentic and respectful of the audience. And it’s important to recognise that.”

There is a trend at present to almost trick consumers into immersion, which seems to be the opposite of respecting your audience. Viral videos that turn out to be created by a brand, a la Levi’s rear view girls, often get the views, but they also often get pilloried. Rose says brands need to be careful, but if they do it with a nod and a wink, or if the stakes aren’t too high (like Droga5’s fake ‘Bike Hero‘ video), then it can work.

While he says it’s hard to pin down causation for commercial success, his experience indicates that creating intrigue and interest in something, whether it be for a new movie, a new album, a new product, or a new campaign, certainly helps. The Dark Knight, for example, engaged around 10 million people around the world with an alternate reality story that brought fans into the narrative before the film was even released. And because he says people love brands (but, ironically, not advertising), he thinks there is plenty of scope for this kind of activity from clients and agencies as well.

Change is always a constant and there’s no doubt there’s been plenty of it for marketers and agencies to deal with in the past decade. And it doesn’t look like slowing down any time soon, so if you want to stay ahead of the pack and engage with your audience, best get cracking and try to figure out how to tell your stories the way this generation wants to hear—or, more accurately, be involved in—them.

  • For more on how the art of storytelling is changing, check out Rose’s Deep Media blog. And you can get the book from all good—and probably some bad—retailers.

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