Last week, the annual South by Southwest event was held in Austin, Texas. Initially created in 1987 as a music festival, it quickly broadened its reach, adding a film and multimedia component in 1994; today, SXSW plays host to film premieres, talks from notable figures, video game announcements, and tech startups.
As with any largely-attended event, brands are out in force. This year, Giant Spoon created a simulacrum of the town of Sweetwater from the popular HBO program Westworld. Attendees were ferried out into the Texan desert to interact with 60 actors, all pulling dialogue from almost 450 pages of scripts.
This is wonderful, creative work.
What’s not so wonderful is the term that the industry has taken to using to describe such installations, and it only serves to reinforce marketing’s position as a vocation.
These aren’t called booths or displays or exhibitions or experiences - or anything else a regular person would call them.
The preferred parlance is “brand activation”.
This term has been around for at least half a decade, and yet outside of publication coverage of this year’s SXSW, I had never heard it before.
The phrase is just the latest indication of one of the biggest problems in marketing today, one that has insidiously grown throughout the rise of the digital age, with seemingly no attention paid to it.
Every year, The Morning News puts on the Tournament of Books, where they pit sixteen of the best books of the previous year against each other in an engrossing spectator sport of literary criticism.
Merritt Tierce’s essay pitting Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko against Percival Everett’s So Much Blue is a wonderful piece of writing, deeply personal and haunting, that absolutely everyone should read. Go read it now; this can wait.
As part of the match commentary, writer Kevin Guilfoile makes an observation.
“The writing class is a privileged class… is it any surprise that working people… aren’t reading if working people aren’t writing? Would working people read more fiction if their authentic point of view was represented more often in contemporary fiction?”
In the same vein, there’s nothing about the marketing industry that isn’t privileged.
It has become this all-consuming, self-important thing.
Campaigns are made to earn recognition and win awards from other marketers, and if they just so happen to be effective for the average consumer, so much the better.
So we have terms like brand activation. CRO. SERP. Omnichannel.
Lifetime value. COS. CPL. Qualified lead.
It’s ironic that, in an industry based around communicating clearly with regular people, we use a bunch of hollow and meaningless jargon - the kind of doublespeak that George Orwell warned us about.
We hide behind this impenetrable wall of buzzwords to make it seem that marketing is not something that just anyone can do - that in order to have a creative idea or relate to your customers, you need to hire an agency or expert.
Even if that couldn’t be further from the truth.
If we didn’t make what we do sound complicated, we’d all be out of a job, wouldn’t we?