Day Two SXSW: Weaponised Polarisation & Being Mind Kind

Day Two SXSW: Weaponised Polarisation & Being Mind Kind

Dan Machen (pictured below) is Head of Strategy for Channelzero and he’s presently taking in all the technical delights and weirdness that SXSW has to offer. Here’s Dan’s reporting from day two…

Day two at SXSW – the world’s largest tech and innovation conference in Austin, Texas – and I’m already starting to reach overload. Mind blown. Bit tired. Need a nana nap.


They say experience comes from good judgement; good judgement comes from bad experience. Unfortunately, despite this being my seventh year here, my mental bandwidth doesn’t increase. So, the rule for today is ‘be kind to your mind’ and ‘less is more’.

Sharing a few things I learned today – the feeling here is there’s light on the other side of post digital dystopia. (Good news.) But also, there’s a sense – across lots of different industries – that we need to be a lot more conscious about how tech is being applied. This is especially relevant to marketing – if we are to authentically express brands’ values and sense of purpose, in a world suffering from “weaponised polarisation” in media.

In a great session to kick off the day Brand: The New Political Reality  we were offered various views from brands such as Patagonia, AirBnB and Lyft about how their purpose and values – contribute to narratives that inform wider culture – be that about the future of cities, or sustainability.

Patagonia was one of the most eloquent brands on this panel – informed as they are by the serious sustainability agenda of the founders of the apparel brand. Patagonia’s Corley Kenna landed the killer point for me when she said in a world where there is increasing polarisation – driven by AI fuelled programmatic and bad actors – brands need to be increasingly sure about their values and purpose. There was also a simmering undercurrent of anger in the room as some people felt that AirBnB and Lyft, (as brands), were talking a good game, while allegedly driving up rental prices and using self-driving car tech to put taxi drivers out of business. This is subjective opinion of course, but it was interesting to read the room’s reaction to brands entering this debate. Authenticity remains something that needs to be in the heart of your brand, you can’t just pick it up, like an outfit on ASOS.

Authenticity versus disinformation and FAKE NEWS is something that has set alarm bells clanging in Austin this year. In an excellent session – A Global Tour of Disinformation On Social Media – the founder of Graphica, John Kelly, took us through exactly that. In terms of this guy’s creds he was who Facebook, Twitter and Google gave their hard-drives to when The US Senate asked to get oversight on the abuse of data on social media platforms.

Vitally, Kelly said “this is about much more than winning elections”. Russian troll farm teams from St. Petersburg are manipulating a proportion of social conversations in America by understanding pop culture. They use culture as their gateway to American society and conversations. He noted that Russian troll teams learn politics from House of Cards and pop culture from Keeping Up With The Kardashians.

In one case study, Kelly showed that the campaign reacting to Colin Kaepernik for NIKE ‘#BoycottNike’, was seriously amplified by fake, Russian owned social media accounts. Hooking people with the NIKE conversation first, these accounts subsequently switched to an overtly pro-Republican political agenda. The relevance here for brands is to understand the narrative levers to entering conversations in culture and social media and then being a good actor in that space.

Finally, on the subject of being ‘Mindkind,’ I saw a cracking session by HeyHuman, who talked about their ongoing work in neuroscience in Advertising Detox: How to Reduce Cognitive Load.

Building on the sense of creating signal amidst the noise, HeyHuman’s Neuroscience Consultant, Aoife McGuinness, showed a live EEG feed on stage with a person reacting to famous tech advertising. A great quote from Aoife was “we realised engagement is not the only thing.” Agencies in the post digital world need to try and be ‘Mindkind,’ by considering that people’s minds are already overloaded. The new opportunity is to make ads easy to process mentally, novel and therefore easier to recall in that specific category.

Across the board, the macro message from SXSW is that we need to create positive signal amidst the noise – especially faced with so many bad actors out there with dodgy agendas. Brands need to play a more positive, active role in conversations and culture. To be kind to mankind in a modern media context where tech has weaponised polarisation and messaging overload.

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