Decoding The Ads Of 18

Last post of the year from us: Crowd DNA semiotician Roberta Graham decodes some of the year’s most successful campaigns, identifying the key stylistic themes connecting them to wider culture...

2018 has been an interesting year in cultural insight. With global discussions around such huge themes as gender, sexuality, racial equality, political polarisation and the death of truth driving major shifts, there’s been no end of contradictions to get our heads around.

These factors have made a great impact on the world of advertising (Adweek ads of the year) and how brands are communicating with their consumers.

To round off the year, we’ve honed in on a few key themes, to give you a run-down of some of our favourite adverts. We’ve decoded their hidden meanings to understand why they have resonated so strongly with consumers around the world. Let’s go.

Polarisation – Black and white and everything in between

In their striking campaign featuring NFL star turned activist Colin Kaepernick, Nike used the traditional simplicity of black and white photography to communicate strength, honesty and authenticity. The exclusion of colour strips the star bare, as does the frame of the image, which focuses keenly on his facial expression, as he gazes directly back at the viewer, determined and unshaken. The caption, ‘Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,’ refers directly to Kaepernick’s forced departure from the NFL, due to his political beliefs on racial equality. This is also reflected by the pointed use of black and white imagery, which makes clear reference to issues of racial inequality, as well as the stark contrast between right and wrong. However, the greyscale of Kaepernick’s face, central to the images also represents connection between the two and offers potential for soft, empathetic and human centred change.

Truth Seeking – Comedic conspiracies

Taco Bell created an irreverent response to our post-truth society’s obsession with anti-establishment, truth-seeking documentaries in their comedic ‘Web Of Fries’ campaign. Set in the format of a movie trailer, the campaign uses classic motifs and tropes of conspiracy movies to paint the picture of an establishment cover-up of their product – Nacho Fries. This perfectly pitches Taco Bell within the zeitgeist, while maintaining their brand positioning as a playful indulgence and antidote to reality.

Liberation – Autonomy of automation

Apple, of course, made two of the most striking adverts of the year. Their Homepod advert, featuring FKA Twigs, and ‘Unlock’ for the iPhone X were both widely praised. They both leverage the themes of female autonomy and independence which have been making waves throughout culture. But the way in which this has been communicated is particularly interesting. ‘Unlock’ sees a central female character throw open her entire world using only her eyes, linking the functionality of the product directly to physical empowerment and freedom of expression. The bright block colours of the advert, primarily orange and blue, echo this by communicating ideas of democracy and simplicity. This is also reflected by the setting of a school, representing future potential and broadened horizons.

Visibility – Highlighting greatness

Visibility has been another key theme for discussion this year. Increased awareness of intersectionality drives calls for diversity in the media, beyond physical appearance alone. Brands are going out of their way to highlight the achievements of people from marginalised groups within society. One brand is doing this in the most literal sense possible: Stabilo Boss’s campaign ‘Highlight The Remarkable’ used its own product to flag up forgotten heroines across history, from mathematicians to first ladies. The iconic fluorescent yellow of the highlighter disrupts the simplicity of black and white photographs, drawing attention to those who would be forgotten among the crowd. This bestows these historic moments with a renewed vibrancy and significance. Placing the highlighter pen itself as the silent hero, this allows these stories of greatness to be retold many years later.

Gender and sexuality – Reimagining romance

Among much global discussion of gender and LGBTQ+ visibility, these themes have been reflected in advertising, as we reimagine what romance can mean. Japanese cosmetics company Shisheido created a surreal romance in their short Halloween themed film, ‘The Party Bus’. The lead character, a young girl, moves between the physical space of the bus and surreal imaginary landscapes, as she tries to choose between three romantic suitors. Each are dressed in unique costumes made up of traditional Japanese dress, classic Halloween costumes and contemporary streetwear. This communicates strong themes of self-curation and individuality among hyper-traditional tropes of ‘romance’. The film ends with the protagonist unmasking and kissing her androgynous choice of partner. This coupling drives home a message of inclusion within individuality.

With such richness across comms this year, particularly at a time when so many brands are going above and beyond to engage with wider cultural meanings, it was tricky to narrow our list down. We can’t wait to see what 2019 might bring…