Jonny Ray
May 22, 2024

Why brands could take a leaf out of the Baby Reindeer playbook

Laughter or tears aren’t the only emotions ads should aim to tap into. As humans, our minds go to different places all the time and often, those places aren’t pretty, says the managing director of Above & Beyond.


“Have you seen Baby Reindeer?” If that question wasn’t asked by at least one person you know over the past couple of weeks, frankly, where have you been? Not only has Netflix’s dark show about a maniacal stalker taken global audiences by storm, it’s spawned a controversial Piers Morgan interview and countless media tirades, dividing critics and columnists alike. It’s even boosting the economy – it was cited by Barclays as one of the key pieces of content (along with Ripleyboosting spend on streaming subscriptions.

Notwithstanding the ethical debate, the fact remains that Baby Reindeer is not an easy watch; the story is harrowing, and it becomes more and more uncomfortable as comedian Richard Gadd explores the self-loathing at the heart of his experience.

It often seems the darker and more uncomfortable the subject matter the better when it comes to streaming success. From Squid Game to Beef, Netflix’s audiences have lapped up hit shows that make them cover their eyes in horror. And just look at the success of Saltburn – notoriously a film unafraid to go to some very lurid places.

All of these hits had audiences hooked, drenched in ambiguity, wilfully enduring moments of discomfort and, in some instances, disgust. Now there’s three words you’re unlikely to find warranting attention in too many brand positionings and playbooks, or briefs.

Against a backdrop of climate change, inequality and political volatility, the world feels an uncertain place. But the continued response from many brands has been to keep on focusing on either feel-good social impact and of tear-jerking purpose, often wrapping it all in emotionally charged spots, or guilt-relieving euphoria. And this has led to brands losing sight of themselves in search of the ideal emotional high.

Of course there are outliers. Scrappy, challenger brands such as the likes of Liquid Death are happy to push the boundaries (its latest campaign features, er, disembowelling). Marmite is famously unafraid to mine disgust and discomfort as part of their brand strategy. But for the main part, larger advertisers have spent the past years swerving some of the edgier material we’ve seen in the past – for example, 2013’s Australian train safety PSA, “Dumb Ways to Die”, which featured characters dying in a series of grim and gruesome ways.

There are signs of something darker starting to emerge, however. It was fun to see Lynx’s latest campaign by Lola MullenLowe, which features a funeral where a woman climbs into a coffin with a corpse sprayed with Lynx. Another execution sees a criminal abort a café robbery to run off with the waiter after catching a whiff of his deodorant.

The brand has been trying to update its approach to masculinity and attractiveness for years in a post Me-Too era, with varying degrees of success. Finally, with this offbeat work, it seems to have struck a chord.

Some might argue that challenger brands have it easier when it comes to dark humour or uncomfortable emotions; a brand beloved of families like Oxo couldn’t suddenly go the full Saltburn overnight, for example. And while the likes of Liquid Death have relied on edginess to cut through as a newcomer in a bland category (water), brands with an established heritage and trust among consumers do have a responsibility tread more carefully. It’s certainly not a good idea to launch an edgy or polarising idea on an unsuspecting public just for effect.

Yet there are ways to explore the darker part of the human psyche within the parameters of your brand values. And in some ways, mainstream brands potentially have the authority and trust to delve into darker subjects and the more difficult side of life. Take Ikea’s “Where life happens” campaign from Akestam Holst in Scandinavia, which explored themes like divorce, adoption and teenage angst over the years, all within the context of the family home.

The marketing industry is already acknowledging that “purpose” has swung too far, with Cannes introducing its comedy category and several brands putting the focus firmly back on humour. And of course, the likes of System 1 have conducted important research into emotions and their impact on memory, expectations, sharing and decision-making.

But laughter or tears aren’t the only emotions. As humans, our minds go to different places all the time and often, those places aren’t pretty. In times that feel dark for the world and where uncertainty surrounds our future, perhaps it’s in the murkier, more uncomfortable spaces that we give our brands and their products more room to breathe and be as distinctive and interesting as they’re meant to be.

Baby Reindeer shows us that audiences can cope – and indeed seek out – more complex emotions and storytelling. So, let’s not be afraid to take them there.

Jonny Ray is managing director at Above & Beyond

Campaign UK

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