Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"If you've never given advertising much though, you'll find this documentary a real eye-opener."

The story of advertising can be traced right back into antiquity, when the Ancient Egyptians put up papyrus posters and the Ancient Chinese paid musicians to play jingles and shout about their products in the street. For centuries it changed very little, modifying its techniques only slightly to adapt to print publications and then to radio and television. The last 25 years, however, have seen it evolve rapidly to the point where much of it is now unrecognisable. Casey Suchan and Tim Cawley's film sets out to map this process, explicating wider societal change along the way.

Shot in a bright, glossy style with clear framing which nevertheless contains a lot of visual information, this is a film which mimics aspects of its subject. Alongside clips and images from ads themselves, it consists mostly of interviews with members of assorted marketing agencies, large and small, may f them speaking from offices where examples of their work are on display. It never really draws a clear line between advertising and the wider business of marketing, which many in the industry are militant about, but there is perhaps a reason for that, apparent as its thesis develops. All the boundaries are now blurring, its various spokespeople argue. We are moving into an era where the experience of being sold something is difficult to distinguish from other aspects of day to day life.

Here, advertising is positioned as the single biggest driver of technological advancement on the internet. Pornography, widely credited for this elsewhere, doesn't even get a mention - perhaps we should consider it an aspect of the same thing. A segment on Burger king's Subservient Chicken prompts the rather sweet comment that the setting in which it appears to interact with fans looks like something from pornography, suggesting that its creators were actually unaware of furry submission porn and didn't realise that that's exactly what they were delivering, albeit in a heavily restricted form. This serves to illustrate the effectiveness of the sociological techniques employed, enabling marketers to identify and engage with public appetites even when their understanding falls short.

The Chicken is there to illustrate two main things: the development (or recognition) of online memes and the way that simple tricks could be used to convince people that they were getting a personalised service when they interacted with brands. The fact that such tricks seem crude today itself illustrates the speed of change and the ongoing struggle for marketers to stay just ahead of developing public understanding. There are plenty of examples to illustrate the fact that this is becoming harder and harder, with one employee simply summing it up as "Consumer play rough."

Perhaps this is understandable in light of how intrusive some advertising can be. There is discussion of the hostile reaction to YouTube interrupting videos with ads, and the game-changer that was the arrival of ad-free subscription services like HBO and Netflix. Though there is occasional value in shock advertising (a fact not really given its due here), most advertisers really don't want to annoy consumers. The increased availability of targeting as an option means that they're moving towards presenting people with offers only on those things they actually want to buy. With so many documentaries currently expressing horror at the casual way people part with their personal information, MakeSHIFT makes a good argument for the positive side of it.

If you've never given advertising much though, you'll find this documentary a real eye-opener. perhaps more impressive, however, is how entertaining it is for those of us who have worked in the industry. Whilst it may not contain much that's new to members of the latter group, it builds its arguments well and strikes a good balance between specificity and the expression of larger themes. It's an attractive piece of infotainment and a valuable addition to the archive.

Reviewed on: 30 Mar 2021
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Documentary film by WP Engine exploring the art and science behind the advertising industry's 20+ year evolution.

Director: Casey Suchan, Tim Cawley

Starring: Danielle Aldrich, Michael Anthony, Henry Arlander, Amy Avery, Cynthis Biamon

Year: 2020

Runtime: 77 minutes

Country: US


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