The Synopticon

 In Insight

Bentham’s Panopticon provided a sociological metaphor: surveillance ensures conformity. The traditional order of society works to the same principles. But every coin has two sides, and in the age of technology not only do the few watch the many, but now, the many watch the few. Introducing the age of The Synopticon.

The Panopticon’s design was simple in principle. A central tower stood surrounded by cells. Inmates could not see into the tower but were constantly aware that a guard could, be watching. The uncertainty of the detainees manifested in a behaviour-change that religions had only dreamed of achieving. The prisoners became more compliant than prisoners who knew they were being watched. The uncertainty is what kept them in check. Nowadays we live in an age of hyper-surveillance, from CCTV to cyber-security, data about us is being collected all the time and social theorists such as Michel Foucault have likened wider society to The Panopticon for these very reasons. However, with the intervention of the dark-net and wiki-leaks, public counter-surveillance is a new mainstream phenomenon. It’s commonplace to see governments and organisations being transformed by regular, everyday folk. This new scenario is being dubbed ‘The Synopticon’ and it has a multitude of consequences for all who play and compete in the ubiquitous game of ‘capitalism’.

“People know all of the tricks now, when it comes to marketing. When you create advertising for consumers, it’s like you’re having a conversation with people inside the industry, not outside of it.”
– Niel Hourston, Partner, The Corner

Since c2010, we’ve been met with an onslaught of ‘authenticity’. The buzzword is synonymous with ‘craft‘ and ‘artisan‘ and finds company with terms such as ‘experiential’, ‘immersive’, innovative’, ‘disruptive’, ‘heritage’, ‘homemade’ and ‘handcrafted’ – you get the picture. But consumers are ever more enlightened, and sensitive to the guise of feeble evidence marketers are providing when trying to sell their products. With magazines and organisations like AdBusters, The Synopticon now has bullshit radar, and that includes elements of ‘storytelling’, ‘opening conversations’ and ‘creating experiences’. Look no further than the counteractive parodying of themes, or the memes and tropes that make a mockery of marketing efforts, ruthlessly reducing them to the level of laughable 1950s housewife advertising. Timmy Brothers (pictured above) typifies the mood with a Portlandia-meets-Apple piece-to- camera approach that jokes about how ‘every drop of water has a story to it’, that they’re ‘putting the kamchatka peninsula in your mouth without any strain on neither the environment’ nor the ‘specially outfitted’ burro donkeys that carry the water.


If the term ‘hipster’ sprung to mind watching the Timmy Brothers ‘experience’, you need to get with the times. Hipster is a cliché that, at over ten years old, is past its expiry date. To understand at The Synopticon demographic through a Darwinian lens, we should cast back to ‘The Nouveau Riche’, who became ‘The Yuppie’, evolving into ‘The Hipster’ and whom are now becoming what LS:N describes as, ‘The Yuckie‘ – ‘Young Urbanite Creatives’. Take a young affluent city-dweller, add some anti- ambition, smoke-laced individualism and sprinkle it with millennial entitlement and the group may become a little clearer. Though they may not be driving it, this group are at the forefront of The Synopticon’s behaviour. These tech savvy hyper-conscious consumers see through the saturation of clichés and are increasingly immune to attempts at persuasion. They have immediate suspicion of, and often outright contempt for, buzz-word advertising. Understanding the impact of this, we need look no further than a recent statistic from the USA. More than half (52%) of American consumers believe the term ‘organic‘ is nothing more than ‘an excuse to charge more‘. The Synopticon can be ruthless. In light of these changes, products and branding too must change. One new product example showing pastiche is ‘White Girl Rosé‘ (pictured above), mocking the apparent falsified transparency of modern marketing, from the product itself right down the stylised copywriting and minimal packaging design. The wine comes from comedian The Fat Jew, of Twitter and Instagram fame. The humour plays with the idea that consumers aren’t often treated with the respect they now demand; that of intelligent, information-rich individuals.

Fashion and design brand Studio Swine (pictured above) exemplify one practical critique of authenticity with their contemporary approach, which could be described as ‘artistry over artisan‘ – that is, taking an artist’s approach to their products rather than post-rationalising the claim. They do so without necessarily confronting the issue or even talking about it; instead their communications and website read, look and play out more like those of an artist, gallery, poet, philosopher or intellectual, reflecting the very things that retain The Synopticon’s respect. Cultural outlet the V&A took an even more direct approach when examining luxury in their aptly named exhibition ‘What is Luxury?‘. The fetishisation of what some may consider useless and valueless – for example, waste human hair –shows that luxury is becoming about abundance of time rather than anything material.

Technology has rewarded advertisers with a plethora of magic powers, from targeting to hidden CG ads. The new tools marketers are using, unlike traditional channels, are cheap and relatively easy to replicate. Unfortunately, an overuse/misuse of these tools – the nagging 6 year old effect – has led to a rise in ‘deleteism‘. Deleteists unfollow a brand’s twitter account for posting irrelevant content, delete brand emails before even opening them and use ad blocking software to completely shut out the annoyance that some advertising causes. Reuters report that 47% of people use ad blockers while 69% are trigger happy when it comes to deleting and unfollowing. The Synopticon generation understand the value of time as a currency, scrutinise for quality and reject what doesn’t hit their standard. It’s the reason that Adieu, for example, provide a service ironically in exchange for personal data that replaces ads with ‘beautiful images’; anything from landscapes to tulips, or even a personal library of selfies! Similarly D&AD have created a browser extension that replaces ads with ads they’ve deemed to be ‘good‘.

“Brands need to be delivering messages that the consumer is pleased to hear”
– Chris Sanderson, founder, LS:N Global

For creatives, this is good news because our ‘Yuckie’ audience is only engaging with ‘good’ ads, increasing the leverage and importance of strong creative ideas. But what do they consider to be ‘good’? For some time, the industry has praised Dove’s ‘real beauty’ campaign, the ‘sketches’ iteration alone took 19 cannes lions. Yet while Dove may have set a standard for challenging traditional marketing messages, they are now under pressure for resting far too much on their cliché tropes. “Good” is clearly a rapidly evolving target.

Dove has mastered the art of passing off somewhat passive aggressive and patronising advertising as super-empowering, ultra PR-able social commentary.
– Arwa Mahdawi, Partner, Cummins & Partners

In his quote, Arwa reflects on the ‘choose beautiful‘ iteration of the ‘real beauty’ campaign. This campaign is now ten years old, and its age and consistency is somewhat part of the reason our young audience is falling out of love with the ‘faux-real‘. The campaign conforms to all the tropes we’ve become used to: the vérité shooting (shaky camera), the talent picked from a line up of Hollyoaks extras, the ‘everyday‘ urban setting and the piano crescendo that builds into an ‘epiphany’ major key change towards the end. The campaign has become so formulaic that it’s opened itself up to mockery. Will it adapt in time to save itself from ridicule? The flack being taken instead by brands like Häagen- Dazs, whose Artisan range opened them up to an all out twitter lampoon with the satirical #UrbanOutfittersBeLike (the hashtag mocked over-priced faux-authentic products with the ice cream brand firmly in the firing line) got huge traction in June this year.

There are, however, ways to use genuine heritage wihtout cliché. Apple, for example, see no need to qualify themselves and don’t use their ads to gloat about their past success, instead they simply show off their product. Yves Saint Laurent, since their namesake designer passed away, have dropped the ‘Yves’ from their name, paying homage to their heritage but also showing that they’re forward moving, with their ‘authentic’ now coming from the present, rather than resting on past success. It’s a move that’s controversial but commercially successful. Their choosing Marilyn Manson (pictured above) as the face of menswear seemed unfathomable, but it’s these decisions that are proving clear initiative to keep moving forward under Creative Director Heidi Slimane.

Despite being founded in 1913, Prada’s Raw campaign (pictured above) doesn’t focus on the company’s rich and successful heritage, instead a hyper-realistic collaboration with Hong Kong based artist Wong Ping features psychedelic figures freakishly wandering around in infinite space. This is a strategy many in the fashion industry are embracing:

“Being obsessed with bringing culture into a brand is something luxury brands need to do more of. Working with contemporary artists is a way to feel closer to your community and customers”

– Sophie Metzker, CMO, Kenzo

Or consider how the trite term ‘craft’ was initially intended to show a transparent model of production, helping the consumer to dispel images of mass mechanisation and lost arts. By the time companies like McDonalds jump on board, The Synopticon audience have moved on. To see what The Synopticon’s generation think of craft now, see Everlane, a fashion basics brand in the states akin to a 2015 American Apparel. Their transparent pricing model (pictured above); is crafted by the finance department and designed to build real trust.


Playing off their suspicion is another way of dealing with this sceptical audience. Recent B&T Agency of the Year winners, M&C Saatchi Australia, did this with great success in their Optus ad featuring Ricky Gervais. The ad doesn’t try to convince its audience that Gervais is a huge fan of the telecoms company, or that he did the ad out of his own good will, instead it’s entirely honest and hilarious as a result: true Synopticon guile.

[The Optus ad is] genius on every level. It shows that the customer understands the trade-off, the comedian understands the trade-off and also the agency […] It really fits the new model of advertising and marketing that we think people need to follow for the next year or so…
– Martin Raymond, LS:N Global

Conclusion: constantly reimagine even the most successful campaigns and models. You are being watched.

Recent Posts

Leave a Comment

2 × one =

Get in touch

I aim to get back to all enquiries within 3 working days. Monday - Friday, UK time.

Not readable? Change text. captcha txt

Start typing and press Enter to search