The YouTube Aesthetic

YouTubeIt’s still too hard to locate online versions of recent television commercials. When McDonald’s, say, runs an ad that I want to talk about here, I don’t know of a particular place where I can go find a link for it. Sure, the more notable ones make it to YouTube, but sometimes it’s the mundane ones that don’t that are more interesting to discuss.

There are two that I have in mind: one, from McDonald’s, features two young, college-age guys, beatboxing some ridiculous rhyme about Big Macs or something. And there’s another for Oreo cookies that plays like a home movie in which two pre-adolescent girls sing the praises of Oreos. If I could find them to show you, I would, but maybe you’ve seen them already.

They’re both cute enough, but what struck me was how thoroughly they ape the ‘YouTube style.’ Which is to say, they are shot on digital video (though at a higher grade of quality than most of the source material at YouTube) in a cinematographically naïve manner; they feature pronouncedly offhand, amateur and somewhat embarrassing performances from purportedly ‘real’ actors; and they are ostensibly improvised — or at least they go through considerable effort to obscure the influence of any sort of director behind the camera.

The New Look

YouTube is a style now, an aesthetic of its own. It didn’t take very long, but it has lodged itself into our consumer psyche as a recognizable visual, aural and narrative convention. In that sense, it’s a huge and notable success deserving of at least a footnote in media history.

So hurray for democratic authorship, right? Except, as the lightning fast emergence of these television commercials suggest, it’s an aesthetic that has become almost instantaneously co-opted.

Which is to say that the YouTube phenomenon, as entertaining and paradigm-shifting as it might be, is at its core a marketing tool. That’s probably not a revelation to anyone who’s seen how much attention media companies have been paying to YouTube over the past two years. But I still think it’s worth noting that in the Web 2.0, crowdsourcing frontier we’re all so excited about, it takes virtually no effort and no time to turn genuinely exciting social phenomena into just another technique for businesses to sell stuff to us. It’s almost like we’re a research and development laboratory for our own bamboozlement.

  1. Amen to that. But I think the advertisers and marketers deserve some credit for their ability to recognize trends and latch onto them for thee good of their product (I guess it is their job, but they can be damn good at it).

    PS. Nice remark Joe.

  2. For a refreshing break from the YouTube effect I stop here. (Disclaimer: Father was a producer of TV ads for DDB in the 60s.)

  3. Is it surprising YouTube has become it’s own brand, practically? The thing is a cultural phenomenon. You do make a great point though 😀

    Similarly, I’m sure you’ve heard of the clothing brand American Apparel. Their advertising style is reminiscent of another recent cultural phenomenon: Myspace. Where young people post amateur modeling shots of themselves in provocative clothing and poses.

  4. Really can’t see the AA and Myspace link personally.

    Anyway doesn’t AA (Who has had a very consistent advertising style for years now) predate the phenomena grade Myspace we know today?
    Plus the shots look very professional to me, just a much more raw style than most fashion photography.

  5. It’s a heavy trend in the whole society, not only in marketing or design or video.
    In photography there is a link that goes from Nan Goldin to Terry Trichardson, via Wolgang Tillmans, and ends at AA (the next level would probably be the use of the terrible Apple’s Photobooth).
    With the internet thing, as you know, anyone can show up anything. Cultural leaders don’t have more credibility than any citizen. There’s no more elite showing the way, and as you said, no more director behind the camera.
    So, as always, the market follows the trend and gets the money, that’s what it’s here for.

  6. Whoa. I don’t think it’s fair say that “YouTube phenomenon, as entertaining and paradigm-shifting as it might be, is at its core a marketing tool” just because advertisers have once again latched onto another style, trend or movement in order to sell products.

    While YouTube is a fairly depressing place to spend an afternoon, at a guess, 95% of what goes up there is completely non-commercial. The fact that a social phenomena is being aped or invaded by Burger King or whatever may tarnish the image of that new medium, but it doesn’t define it. Following that logic, Che Guevara is just another “marketing tool” because of his face on so many meaningless products.

    Marketeers might make use of everything they can lay their hands on, but until they dominate them they don’t own them.

  7. But what’s encouraging about YouTube becoming an aesthetic all its own is that this ascension was driven by the likes of you and me. That is to say, the advertisers are still one step behind. I agree, Lowell, that they deserve kudos for recognizing trends, but they’ll still end up behind the 8-ball between this trend and the next.

  8. Blast! Looks like my comment got eaten. That is frustrating, I must say.

    To paraphrase, co-opting of grass-roots culture/aesthetics by businesses for marketing and advertising purposes is a fairly active and long-standing practice. There’s a classic episode of PBS’s Frontline about it called “The Merchants of Cool.” You can get it on Amazon.


  9. I think an interesting way to think of it is this: because we can now create the content that interests us, we have essentially done the work of the marketers. I remember about a decade ago, advertisers and marketers were completely confused by the new generation y (or whatever they call it nowadays), saying they were hard to pinpoint and target, that they’re unlike any other generation before them, etc.

    Well democratic authorship has given them the answer they need. Let the kids create their own media and just copycat that style.

  10. Have you forgotten about America’s Funniest Home Videos? Or is there something different you detect in the aesthetic of YouTube videos? The fact that we now can share ourselves to millions of people very easily is a new phenomenon, but the aesthetic of the video isn’t.

  11. Pierce – I think what Khoi does not necessarily mean the content that advertisers are putting on youtube, but presenting through other mediums, namely television. Naturally, they’re looking to advertise on a popular site, but that’s not really where they’re going to stick out. Instead, they’re copying the style of many of sites videos (a style distinctively less accidental-feeling that America’s Funniest Home Videos) in commercials that occupy a paid market, television. On TV, they’ll stand out, whereas on YouTube they may not.

  12. I’m also often reminded of ye olde Blair Witch Project and its subsequent ripple through advertising and culture…

  13. It happened to the beatniks. It happened to the hippies. It happened to punk rock. It happened to new wave. It happened to hip hop. It’s happening to the Web. It will happen again, as long as there are people who feel that above all else, they simply want to feel included in whatever is popular, and they think that they can feel included by buying a particular set of items.

    Until we all get over the idea that we can consume inclusion, it will keep happening.

  14. In addition to co-opting the ‘style’ of YouTube, some ads, like Geico’s and Sprite’s, even go so far as to have a little YouTube-esque duration/progress bar at the bottom. I find this an annoying idea.

  15. Khoi, I have wanted to start a commercial blog for the past couple of years. I’m utterly fascinated by TV ads (it’s one of the reasons why I’ll never get a Tivo) and I have a lot to say about a lot of commercials (like the current ad for Burger King with Sean Combs in it — how is it possible to come across as a total dickhead in a scripted commercial?!).

    From the businesses’ perspective, I don’t know why you wouldn’t want your ads posted online somewhere. A blogger talking about your commercial, with a YouTube clip of it in tow, only leads to more exposure for the ad. I don’t get it.

  16. See the writings of Thomas Frank in the journal The Baffler, and probably in this book too: The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism

  17. Another commercial series that seems to have the YouTube aesthetic: the drive-through Sonic ads, with their “spy cam” look on natural, humorous conversations. I love ’em! Especially the big, bold, screen-covering glaring red type at the end.

    They’re almost spoiled by the “real” footage at the end.

    Cherry limeade, anyone?

  18. “In that sense, it’s a huge and notable success deserving of at least a footnote in media history.” Reminds me of that line from the movie Se7en “you’re a f’ing t-shirt at best.”

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