On Being Relatable
The other day, in a client meeting, I overheard a woman say to her colleague, “We need to choose a voice actor who’s more relatable…”. I’ve heard this expression quite a bit lately, and so I looked it up but couldn’t find it in Webster’s. So I went online, and sure enough the good people at Oxford English Dictionary had picked up on this relatively recent word, the definition for which is:
Enabling a person to feel that they can relate to someone or something
‘Mary Kate’s problems make her more relatable.’
It’s the example, which curiously triggers an association with Mary Kate Olson, one of the least relatable people one could think of, that tells you the real meaning. Being relatable makes someone seem more human, like you or me. A person who has the same small problems and issues that we have, who lives on the same small human scale as you and me. Someone you can imagine being your neighbour, your classmate, your colleague in the cubicle next to yours.
The dark side to this concept is this: The drive to make our advertising and storytelling ‘relatable’ is a toxin to creativity. And it’s an insidious way to prevent people from rocking the boat. It results in offensive work. Work that doesn’t challenge you.
Most Canadian advertising (see any cinema ad for an automative brand, for example) is relatable. And boring.
I draw your attention to a spot that is at the opposite end of the relatable spectrum. It’s a film documenting an extraordinary feat accomplished by the pilots and engineers at Airbus, where they coordinate a squadron of commercial jets to do something unprecedented.
What great advertising for the Airbus brand. And there’s nothing relatable about this whatsoever. It’s inspiring. And a little scary. It pushes us to push the boundaries.
There’s a a reason why advertising agencies don’t call themselves names like Relatable. Instead, we call ourselves Anomaly, Winkreative, Wunderkind, Victors & Spoils. Because great advertising comes from stretching boundaries, from being fearlessly weird, from defying norms. Let us ‘relate’ to each other on those levels, not on the level of what makes us ordinary and inoffensive.