Written by Tom O’Keefe

Like all good things eventually do, using “social experiments” as the basis for an ad campaign became overplayed in 2014. We were hidden camera’d, case studied, surprised and “stunted” to near death.

The format goes like this: a specific hypothesis about how we think and behave is played out and filmed live as a staged event. Society under a microscope for the whole world to see. Some tackle big social issues such as stereotyping, others are just plain stunts—but they’re all somehow attached to a brand and, call them what you will, they’re all ads. Last year, big brands brought out reality-themed experiments in a major way, including Chevy, Prudential, Swiffer, Crest, JC Penney, Heineken and probably most famously, Bud Light. Initially, these were engaging. Then they became mildly amusing. By the holidays, the gimmick had reached a fever pitch—with countless brands, especially retailers, competing for share of the holiday pie with real people and real stores all trying to find the true meaning of Christmas.

The problem with social experiment-based advertising now is this: at some point the technique became the idea. Which is also the problem with just about anything that’s “trendy” —eventually, the trend becomes the thing, and the idea or inspiration that made it trendy in the first place fades away.   And for a business that’s based on originality, which advertising is, the whole idea of following trend is dangerous territory.

I guess we have Dove to thank for this. While they didn’t invent the format, they more or less put it on the map with their brilliant “Real Beauty” campaign and a series of social experiments that created groundbreaking advertising. With Dove, the social experiment format in advertising elevated their idea to a much higher, believable level; using “real” subjects made the insight feel more significant. It wasn’t an ad, it was a cause. Of course, it culminated with the wildly successful and oft-imitated “Real Beauty Sketches” and that’s when the lid blew off this thing. Soon everybody wanted in.

We can also thank the phenomenon known as “Reality Television”, which almost put original programming out of business over the last ten years. Although I did hear or read an encouraging statistic that shows like American Idol and The Voice were finally on the wane in terms of viewership and popularity. So one can only hope that advertising will follow suit and originality returns with a vengeance in the new year.