Emoji and Advertising - to be or not to be? (04/08/15)

Emoji and Advertising - to be or not to be?

by Rubbi Bhogal-Wood

Just over a month ago the clever people at Oxford University Press analysed over 60 million words submitted by the children participating in this year's '500 Words' Short Story Writing Competition hosted by Chris Evans’s Breakfast Show on Radio 2. The analysis was fascinating as it identified the "Children’s Word of the Year" as 'hashtag' and its representative symbol #. Based on the 120,000+ entries this year, it’s clear to see a cultural shift in the way children are building their vocabulary.

The Head of Children’s Dictionaries at Oxford University Press, Vineeta Gupta says, "children are true innovators and are using the language of social media to produce some incredible creative writing". Nestled within the same linguistic sphere, Emoji is Britain’s fastest growing language says Bangor University’s Linguist Professor Vyv Evans. Studying the "speed of evolution", Evans suggests Emoji has outstripped hieroglyphics in its development. Its ideograms and symbols are becoming first nature to most smart-phone users.

Originally meaning pictograph, a term that stemmed from work being undertaken by the tech team at Japan's mobile phone operator NTT DoCoMo, Emoji gained international popularity when Apple included them in the 2011 iOS; our thumbs have never looked back.

Every Friday Radio 1's Newsbeat host an online quiz encouraging people to decode that week’s news stories told entirely in emojis. No coincidence that their target audience is 15-29 year olds.

In April this year, Andy Murray (known as a man of few words) tweeted all about his wedding day entirely in Emoji. As social media starts to play a greater role in the landscape of every-day, seamless human to human connection and conversation, what does mean for communication in advertising and specifically Out of Home?


It’s an often referenced discussion point that if an Outdoor campaign has been deemed to be unsuccessful, the medium itself is at the other end of the index finger pointing our way. However, surely the creative needs to shoulder some of the responsibility? OOH creative should be simple, eye-catching, engaging, and contain no more than 7 (ok, you can maybe have 8) words.

Tim Spencer, in his paper Sunlight and Seduction, How Outdoor gives meaning to brands, says “posters can tell us an entire brand story in a split second as we pass…Brands speak our language and suggest emotional connection to our lives”.

Emotional bonds are only ignited if there’s a spark between consumer and creative. Once there’s contact, it’s the audience who then instigate action by connecting with the brand in the social media space (for better or for worse), or purchase whatever the brand may be offering or discuss it down the pub with friends. Whatever the follow up action, the starting point resides in the visual appeal. Emoji is a universal language and transcends cultural background, or ACORN group; whether or not you can read Emoji is a different matter, they are much like road-signs, they’re utilised worldwide. In a recent survey conducted by Talk Talk Mobile it was revealed that 78% of 18-25 year olds regularly prefer using emojis to communicate.

Much like emojis – although not exactly the same, emoticons (text based pictures created using the characters of UNICODE) are about expressing emotion in text. The man behind the first graphical emoticons, Nicolas Loufrani, says of his business - Smiley Company which is built entirely on the graphical art matter that –“Smiley is more than an icon, brand and lifestyle; it’s a spirit and a philosophy and exists to remind people of how powerful a smile is and how much a simple smiley can change both your life and the lives of those around you”.

For a small icon to potentially create such a powerful impact, to get you to change your mindset, opinion or feelings, then maybe we should be taking Emoji a little more seriously. It’s fair to say that graphical art – Emoji or otherwise is a conduit of emotion in its simplest form. In our everyday lives we try and read emotion on faces and do so at super lightening speeds – so it makes sense that if we’re trying to reach a generation who converse frequently and at a rapid pace using a language that is pictorial in form, that the media execution of certain brands should ultimately reflect this.

We already know that OOH is brilliant at reaching mass audiences very quickly but very capable of also reaching niche audiences at different points throughout their daily lives be it waiting at a bus stop, shopping for milk and bread, catching the latest flick or meeting with friends at the mall. We’re fully aware that advertising isn’t the central point of most people’s lives; we exist on the periphery. But equally we know advertising has the power to influence the very core of those same lives.

So in changing times, where we’re under significant time pressures with regards to our attention and commitment to things in general, how can brevity in language help brands to make a significant connection with their audience? The Outdoor audience is young, mobile, active, and connected. They’re alert and absorbing information out there in the active space.

So if this same audience has the power to create powerful shifts in something as significant as the common language, then the visual canvas of the medium with the biggest word of mouth effect must take those changes into account. Granted it’s not going to work for all brands, but it can have the desired effect of being more tangible, relevant and on the brand consideration list for a large amount of those brands investing in OOH for reasons of wanting to reach that young, active audience.

McDonald’s, regular supporters of Outdoor, recently ran a mixed outdoor format campaign whose creative executions were entirely in Emoji. Some may say it’s crass, lazy or obvious but you can’t deny that they are speaking the language of their customers.

It’s worth noting that the creative influence hasn’t just popped into fruition out of thin air. For the last couple of years TBWA\Paris have been paring back the McDonald’s ads producing bold, minimalistic creative that reflect the brands confidence at not requiring any logos. The latest emoji executions are a gradual evolution in the ongoing conversation McDonalds are constantly having with their audience on multiple media channels be it TV, Press, Online or Posters.

Coca-Cola Puerto Rico, brand registered URL’s for every emoji that conveys happiness. The URL’s shown in the ads led to a landing page where consumers could sign up for a chance to get an Emoji based web address of their own. The premise behind the campaign was to allow Coca-Cola to “connect on a deeper level with [their] most important demographic” – young consumers for whom Emoji is second language.

The Partnership for Drugs Free kids created an emoji only campaign, again the core purpose of which was to connect with teenagers in a language they were familiar with in order to stimulate conversations about topics that are part and parcel of growing up such as body image, sex, bullying and drugs. Overall it made difficult topic matters that can be hard to vocalise easier to access answers for and help to.

Just because you use emoji in an execution doesn’t automatically mean it’s a sure fire hit or award winner. Invariably it’s got to resonate with the target audience, be able to speak to them in a natural way that they want to absorb and engage with. But more importantly it’s about creating a long term conversation with your audience; use it as a fad tool and your customers will disengage. Brand building takes time, it’s about an evolution of the message, understanding what your audience is living through, what triggers alight their desire to connect with a brand. Understand those and appeal to them in the right way and your audience will value and appreciate the visual imagery that you choose to showcase your brand within.

Primesight has invested significantly in a robust, scientific tool to help all those involved with the creation of an outdoor campaign from client to street and everyone in between, to better understand the probable impact of any given out of home creative. The pre campaign tool – PrimeDesign – uses visual saliency research to understand how a brain will be most likely to interpret colour, shape, text, and layout on an execution within the average time and attention (3-5 seconds) we allocate to a poster.

We recently assessed the McDonald’s emoji campaign and results were strong. The creative was simple, had an element of repetition which is key for the short burst - heavy frequency OOH medium. The emoticons performed well because of their strong contrasting colours in relation to the white background, as well as their size on the posters and central positioning. Each of the 4 posters analysed were deemed to have the potential to successfully engage the audience with the McDonalds logo, the ‘good-times’ strap-line and the emoticons storyboard.

More often than not we’re creatures of habit and introducing a new communication method into the general public sphere will trigger a reaction – be that positive or negative. McDonald’s felt the force of that in their recent campaign when one of their billboards was vandalized in quite a creative manner. An additional emoji was added to the end of the emoji sentence – a vomit emoji.

In The Guardian’s Art & Design column, the journalist Jonathan Jones doesn’t hold back on his disgust for the pint sized pictographs saying of them “after millennia of painful improvement, from illiteracy to Shakespeare and beyond, humanity is rushing to throw it all away.” But are we though? Emoji is simply an evolution of language. Even at a very base level Shakespeare himself was renowned for devising new words and expanding the style and vocabulary of the English language. He triumphed in creativity and forged a new wave of communication. Only time will tell if Emoji is to be or not to be. But if it’s good enough for one half of the world’s most powerful couple in music, Taylor Swift to have nabbed Twitter’s first ever customized emoji then maybe we need to shake it off and avoid any bad blood.

This was one of the 10 most popular stories of 2016 #Wrap2016.