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Three Lessons Brands Can Learn from The Handmaid’s Tale



INFLUENCER: Dare's Ben Long on what advertisers can glean from Hulu's dystopian series

Three Lessons Brands Can Learn from The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale is a gruesome triumph of storytelling. The plots are dark enough to make the worst of Game of Thrones seem like scenes from Peppa Pig, the performances are devastatingly nuanced, and the soundtrack haunts everyone who listens to it. 

Hulu, the streaming company behind the programme, even succeeded in standing out at South by Southwest. Last year, they hired an army of creepy ‘Handmaids’ to stalk silently through the event; this year, their politically charged activation saw them set fire to the distinctive red dresses, which serve as symbols of oppression in the show. So it comes as no surprise that the series was a massive talking point at Cannes Lions too.

I believe that brands can learn a lot from the show’s approach. The second season, having recently come to an end, was a masterclass in the art of storytelling. It went beyond the book and script, agonised over the details and brought the story uncomfortably close to home - something that conscious brands can learn from. With that, here are my top three lessons which brands can take from this extraordinary programme:

Lay a trail of small breadcrumbs

The Handmaid's Tale stands apart from other shows because it doesn't bombard viewers with a series of big story arcs. Instead, it leaves a trail of breadcrumbs and moments which culminate in a story that is more successful at engaging viewers than other programmes. 

The viewers are only shown snippets of the characters’ backstories, which forces them to puzzle together how the show’s dystopia has come into existence. The central relationship between the protagonist, Offred, and her owner/lover, Commander Waterford, is a complex one - it develops from passionless sex and illegal midnight games of scrabble to something close to a romantic bond. 

Recent research shows that Gen-Z engages with an average of seven screens, and that they expect tailored content on each. Brands who understand how to craft nonlinear, quality storytelling will be perfectly poised to capture this audience’s imagination. 

The devil is in the details

Audiences today are offered a plethora of choice when it comes to content. This makes them very selective when they come to choosing what they want to commit their time to. 

Contrary to popular misconception, younger audiences aren't lacking in attention span. But brands do need to work harder to hold their attention, ensuring that the details of their output are deliberate, tailored and authentic. 

The Handmaid's Tale exhibits an almost obsessive attention to detail. This is best shown in the costumes, which feature secret symbols stitched into the designs, and hidden pockets that viewers never get to see. 

This invisible level of detail, for viewers to unearth, goes beyond the show. It draws them in, helping them emotionally invest in the fictional world of Gilead. It shows brands the value of investing in considered content. 

Make your audiences feel something

The Handmaid’s Tale was distressing when it was published in the 1980s and remains so today, because it feels uncomfortably close to home. Gilead is frightening because it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to imagine a world where an intense political division gives way to something more horrifying. It draws parallels between our world and the nightmarish nation.

Handmaid has proven there’s space for this kind of close to the bone political commentary in broadcast media; it’s powerful because the show gets audiences to feel something. Can the same be said for brands?

Politically charged programmes like The Handmaid’s Tale and Black Mirror are smashing the small screen, so why aren’t we seeing brands taking a more polarising stand?

In the UK, Lush recently came under fire for its recent ‘Spy Cops’ campaign, which aimed to raise awareness of dodgy practices by undercover police and environmental campaigners. Admittedly, it could have been executed better, but it still garnered powerful support from its core customers, who engage with and support Lush because of its desire to tap into the political zeitgeist of environmental campaigning. 

Handmaid showed us that you can’t please everyone. You can’t be beige. As a brand, you can’t be scared of making someone feel something. Because if you don’t elicit a response, then you may as well not try. 

Ben Long is creative director at Dare

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Dare, Mon, 13 Aug 2018 13:12:23 GMT