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What’s The Meta With You?

September 21, 2016 - Sam Doyle

“Stop being meta. Stop taking everything we do and shoving it up its own ass.”

So exclaimeth the cynic Jeff in meta-sitcom Community, an American TV show that makes jokes about TV shows making jokes about other TV shows (and by series two was making jokes about this, ad infinitum).

The meta- prefix means something that is referencing itself or an equivalent, so you get metadata (data about data, i.e. who made this computer file and when?), metaphysics (who made the person who is asking this question?) and metaphors (who breaks a butterfly on the wheel of too many meta examples?).

This blog is already meta. It’s a pretentious, show-offy piece about the pretentious, show-offy concept of being meta. I am taking an idea and shoving it up its own ass.

Freshly squeezed lemon

I got onto thinking about all things meta thanks to this recent poster campaign for Oasis fruit drinks:

Oasis adverts, 2016

It’s an advert that’s talking about adverts, the idea being that you find such an approach ‘refreshingly’ honest and that makes you think of refreshing fruit drinks. And yes, it’s a nice idea, but is it actually fresh thinking?

In fact, advertisers have been poking fun at themselves almost as long as snarky sods like me have been at it. In her scathing treatise on branding, No Logo, Naomi Klein traces ironic adverts in America back to the 1930s, when firms ‘began to use self-parody to deal with the mounting criticism they faced’ during the Great Depression and in reaction to the magazine Ballyhoo’s satirical ‘ad-busting’.

However, the seminal moment in meta-advertising was Volkswagen’s 1960s campaign for the Beetle. To market an unconventional car, VW used unconventional ads, featuring self-deprecating slogans and surreal imagery:

Volkswagen Beetle Adverts, 1960s

The initial reaction isn’t the ‘Hey, that car looks cool!’ most motoring adverts aim for. The expectation is that you’re surprised and puzzled. Why on earth are VW describing their own car as a lemon? You can only find out by reading the spiel, so before you know it you’ve engaged with the advert and are considering buying a Beetle.

It’s meta-advertising because it works by subverting our expectations of what a car advert should be. The advert is only partly about the car – mostly it’s about the cleverness of the VW marketing department, just as the Oasis billboard is about how clever the Oasis drinks people think they are.

What do you mean?

Volkswagen’s ground-breaking technique is still being used by the motor industry six decades on. The latest TV spot for the Dacia Sandero – a car no one is going to take seriously after all that ‘Good news!’ stuff on Top Gear – features a monotone voiceover sardonically commentating as the car pootles through a variety of car ad cliché backdrops.

It’s supposed to say ‘down-to-earth’ and ‘gimmick-free’, to project a reliable car at a sensible price, though clearly the concept is a gimmick and not even an original one (so perhaps it does reflect the Sandero accurately after all!).

Obviously coming up with original advertising ideas is not an easy thing, else agencies wouldn’t be able to charge what they do, but it is tiresome to have brands telling you how original they are in ways that are utterly unoriginal.

Just being meta – self-aware, self-parodying – is old hat, as any self-aware, self-parodying fule kno. This is the age of post-irony, where grown men claim to be fans of Justin Bieber, not because they are ironically mocking Beliebers, but because to ironically mock them would be passé. Unlike these meta-fans, the Oasis and Sandero are mocking advertising clichés without acknowledging that doing so is a cliché itself.

And the dirt is gone…

We don’t need reminding by the Oasis billboard that ‘I’m an ad’. Today’s consumers never look at an ad without being fully aware of what it is, even those ads that pretend not to be ads. We’ve long since become immune to the infomercial, which is why Cillit Bang and Safestyle UK are happy to have ridiculous, shouty men with bad hair represent them in their infomercials.

We don’t react, ‘Oh, I don’t think much of their casting choice, so I doubt their washing powder is as effective as they claim.’ We think ‘Ha, they’ve noticed that their old ads were terrible like what I did! I want those guys to supply my double-glazing!’

Or at least that’s the idea. Are Oasis and Dacia any better than this? Mistaking self-deprecation for self-awareness? Just because you’ve identified one type of naff, it doesn’t mean you aren’t being another type of naff by parodying it.


I suppose in a post-ironic world, it’s also naff to try and be sarcastic about adverts being sarcastic. And now I’m mocking myself for being ludicrously critical, so the cycle of meta goes on.


Today’s culture is essentially an echo chamber of ideas. There is very little original thought, only rehashes claiming to be original. Our local tram service in Nottingham has just launched a poster campaign based on the ‘choose life’ monologue from Trainspotting, a film released 20 years ago. This is not only a wildly inappropriate reference (unless parables about heroin addiction are now applicable to public transport?) but it has been done to death. It was done to death in 1996, never mind 2016. In fact, it’s exactly the kind of unoriginality the ‘choose life’ speech mocks.

Brands too often think they can simply poke their heads into the echo chamber, pick up on the first idea they hear bouncing around and represent it as their own – and that we will be impressed by this. And so it is with meta-advertising – marketeers have noticed that the public is increasingly capable of seeing through marketing material and decided they are going to get in on that joke too.

But if you’re going to attempt meta-ads, you have to be aware that it’s an old joke. Self-parodying advertising started in the 1930s because people realised billboards were making false promises about goods they could not afford in order to meet the sales targets of rich capitalists. Eighty years later, the Oasis ads remind you that they are driven by sales targets, but insult you by assuming you’d not realised they were driven by sales targets in the first place. They don’t come across as refreshing at all, merely smug and obtuse.

Red letter days

It is possible, however, to still do meta-advertising well. The NHS Give Blood service recently launched the ‘Missing Type’ campaign, a series of adverts about adverts where the letters A, O and B – those associated with blood types – are absent from famous brands:

It’s very clever and relies on our familiarity with advertising to get a reaction. But rather than simply being meta for meta’s sake, the parody draws your attention to the essence of the campaign – the letters are literally missing from the nation’s blood banks.

It is an idea that examines culture in an ironic way, but does so for a specific purpose. You couldn’t rehash it for any other campaign, whereas the Oasis and the Dacia Sandero adverts could be about any rival brand, or indeed any product that is ‘refreshing’ or ‘down-to-earth’.

So perhaps we, in the advertising world, don’t need to stop being meta. We just need to stop shoving everything up its own ass because we like the way it feels.

Sam Doyle

Sam Doyle

Technical Director

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