The zombie business

Zombie business- Brand and product placement

… pronounced dead but still kicking!


We’ve all heard the pronoucements.

Cinema theatres are dead. And Terrestrial TV is dead – or in intensive care at the very least. As streaming becomes the norm they say no one will bother going to the cinema or watching scheduled terrestrial TV anymore.

Print is dead. Why bother with bulky books and magazines when we can carry an entire library of reading matter around in our digital devices?

Advertising is dead. Social media has changed the game and advertising is no longer relevant.

Vinyl is dead and live music is dying – as music streaming services and playlists of thousands of songs, can be carried around on any smartphone and concerts can be accessed in the same way … and usually with a better view than being there in person.

Design and illustration services are dead – as AI can deliver in seconds what used to take days or weeks to create.

We’ve all heard these prophecies time and time again. What will be the next industry to be killed off by the fortune tellers?

The real truth is that those ‘proclaimed dead’ are all still alive and kicking.

Are these zombies’ businesses? Are they death-row industries, condemned but not yet executed in a ‘dead man walking’ style?

Things change continually, and the pace of change only ever gets faster as technological advancements impact every walk of life, but humans have an incredible ability to adapt. As each new thing arrives, some will only hear the death knell ringing, while others see huge new potential – new collaborative and adaptive opportunities.

So let’s look again at our zombies


Advertising is not dead in the slightest – but it has fundamentally changed. It’s more targeted. More interactive. More personalised. But e still see billboards on the streets, bus shelter adverts, ads on tube trains and on the escalators we take to those trains. If there is a captive audience (especially if they might be bored) then there is likely to be an advertising media space close at hand.

These ad spaces may slowly be transforming into digital billboards and posters but the core skill of the advertising agency is still needed. Namely, to create the concept, ad design and messaging that will capture peoples’ attention. Arresting the viewers’ gaze long enough, to capture their interest, well enough, to implant a message into their psyche.

Likewise, TV and Radio ads still deliver. They are not yet the ‘dead donkeys’ that many suggested they would become. How can we be sure of that fact?

TV and Radio

Just watch your favourite shows and see what advertisers and brand names crop up – both within the ad breaks and in the programme itself.

Brand and product placement advertising within the actual programme content has become a normal practice – but it’s not advertising as many traditionalist would understood it. It’s changed. The ad execs have reimagined the possible and devised a new way of achieving their ends. It may not be overt, but seeing your hero use a particular phone, laptop, or car – or drink a particular soda even,  are brand reinforcement advertising techniques that are changing the face of what we think of as advertising practice.

The objective of any brand is to occupy a specific area of real estate in their audience’s brain. Give that end objective, then you can be sure these are well-considered tactics. They use the same psychological formulas to engage our minds and our emotions, to feel and think about brands and products, in exactly the way the advertisers want.

In the TV ad breaks themselves, you may not find the hard-sell approach, of a few decades past, used quite so often. But there are ads still present. And you can be sure, given the high costs and production values needed for a good TV ad campaign, that the big-name brands who are booking these slots are definitely seeing (and carefully monitoring) the return on their investment.

Like the ads that appear on it, TV is also not dead.

Many of us just consume it differently now.  We are not as bound by the scheduler’s dark arts of playing one popular programme off against another. But there are still prime slots. Programmes are still set against (or avoid) a known favourite of another channel. Why? Because many people do still consume TV in a traditional way. They watch communally with family – just log into twitter whilst some of our most popular programmes are on and watch the chatter. We even have TV programmes about people watching TV programmes together!

Instead of killing off TV, the digital revolution has opened up new ways for people to engage with one another and with the programme-makers. Competitions are devised specifically within the programme format, vote-ins and other audience participation and interactions have become popular but you have to be watching live to participate.

Sometimes those interactions are within another space entirely. We may be watching TV but we’re also engaged in a conversation on Twitter about what’s happening on the TV.

Branding and advertising spend are often undertaken to illicit the same outcome. Namely, owning that little bit of the real estate in their audience’s brain that associates a particular product or company instantly with a particular need. Having their brand or product lodged and living rent free in your head. Instantly popping-up in your thoughts whenever the right trigger suggestion is placed. Be that the concept of a luxury car, or a box of chocolates that every lady loves. Like Pavlov’s dogs, they get the desired response whenever they ring the right bell because they have nurtured that association.

The ads we see on TV are often also shown when we visit the cinema, which is a neat segway to look at the idea that cinema might be dead!

Film and cinema

Film and cinema is not my area of expertise and what I’ve said about TV can be transplanted to film without needing any real fine-tuning.  But as this is not my core expertise let me turn to and quote the UK Cinema Association figures about how the industry is doing.

“From a historic high immediately post-war of 1.64 billion in 1946, UK cinema admissions gradually declined to an all-time low of just 54 million in 1984. Since that time, the advent of the multiplex, and record levels of investment in improving the theatrical experience (still ongoing), have seen admissions recover such that since 2000, they have remained above 150 million. The 2019 pre-pandemic figures showed over 176 million people visited a cinema in the UK”.

Even with the multitude of TV channels and streaming services people are going back to the big screen in large numbers. Why? Because the experience is different. How it makes us feel is different. For most of us a cinema visit is a social occasion shared with a friend or loved ones. And some things just have to be seen in an immersive environment. Even if you do have a home cinema set-up – nothing can match the real thing.

The Covid-19 pandemic obviously hit those figures. But when the isolation lock-d0wns were lifted people flocked back cinemas. The novelty of being out may well have been a factor but the British public appear to have a love of an evening at the big-screen with their pop-corn in hand.


How many years now is it that people keep trotting out the prediction that print is dead … it’s been going on for at least half my 30-year career in graphic design!

“Print is dead, dealt a fatal blow by digital media and online communications”.

New media has indeed changed the game – but the often claimed line that no one wants to read books or magazines anymore as they can access everything through their screens is patently untrue.  However, the digital revolution did positively alter how the print world worked. Digital printing is now the norm and with it came a great deal of flexibility bringing the ability to personalise printed communications, creating bespoke items at the individual item level.

I do admit that many areas of print have declined significantly. There are definitely fewer print firms around, which tells us something about the general market. But there are also now some very large players who dominate curtain sectors of the print market. Dominant companies always end up squashing some of the little guys out of existence.  Many print runs are also noticeably smaller. But that does not mean that the print world is dying. Different is not necessarily dying.

People have switched to reading more content on screens, that’s a fact. But research shows that is generally shorter form content. Some will read longer form content on a screen but some people have switched back to books too. They found that screen life was not for them. They suffered from eye strain and headaches, and for some, their sleep suffered too. For longer form content and novels many have found they just like the sensation of a physical book or magazine in their hand. At least if you then fall asleep reading in the bath you only need to dry out your book not replace your iPad!

I read some articles online – as you probably do too. But I also know I prefer to do any extended or educational reading via a traditional, physical format, Why? Partly it’s because I like to underline bits, and mark sections I find insightful, or might wish to return to. I want to identify some sections so I can locate them swiftly later and I make notes in the margins as I go too. I’ll sometimes add stickie notes and, I’ll admit, I sometimes fold down the odd page corner or two. (Which I know some book lovers think is sacrilege!)

I know I can do most of that in some ways on an ebook – but it’s not the same.  And I’ve found I rarely go back to the notes in an ebook as often as I consult my library of real books. Perhaps that’s primarily because I’m a visual person. The electronic reading experience does not afford me the same visual reminders or the same experience. I’ll admit this might be more pronounced in my case, as a visual learner and a dyslexic, the visual cues from a physical item might be a larger part of my aid memoir. The book cover, the colour of stickie notes – these may be factors in my ability to recall what I’m looking for.

Other than the convenience – I simply find I prefer to read off a page than on a screen.

But, there are environmental reasons why some are actively calling for the end of print, or at least a vast reduction. The constant need for paper pulp to feed the print industry is a genuine concern. Trees have been felled at an alarming rate to meet that demand. But times move on and new ways of addressing the need are now becoming industry practice.

Recycling is one answer – but recycling uses a vast amount of water, which is another resource in short supply. Fast-growing grasses and old clothing fibres have both reduced reliance on timber to make paper pulp in recent years. I’ve written before and, I’m sure, will do again on the subjects of ecology, recycling and green design … It’s too big a subject to address adequately here as it’s not the focus of this piece. Except to say, dealing with these big issues is never as straightforward, nor as binary, as they at first appear.

One aspect of the move to a greener world is the move away from plastics in packaging. Products will still need to be packaged. For transport, security, shop display etc. so card and paper packaging still need to be designed and printed to be effective. As I said print is not dead but it is evolving. The print world is adapting and learning new tricks.  Print is a long way from dead – it’s just updated itself and looks a little different.

Design & Illustration

The impact of AI on the design and illustration fields is very much still in an pretty embryonic phase. But almost every week something new enters the markets and shakes things up a little more.

Recently, I’ve seen some very impressive illustration content created entirely by AI. However,  there are huge questions about copyright ownership of such items that have yet to be even considered properly. I think even the most ardent supporter of AI would say that there are still many areas that need more work before it can be used properly commercially.

I suspect these tools will become part of the armoury of most creatives eventually. But AI, by its nature, takes the collective information available and works from within that set of known parameters. Which does give rise to lots of variations, very quickly – and is far more time efficient than any designer or illustrator could be (at least to produce those initial ideas) but the parameters are set and so the question of were truly original ideas will enter the process does arise.

Highly impressive variations on a theme, rendered at speed, will certainly be very usefully in lots of creative scenarios. But to create truly original work, new concepts and ideas, which are unique and mould-breaking, is going to be almost impossible working within the algorithm of an AI engine. The engine needs to be fed references, source material, style sheets and cues to do its thing, at present at least. There may well be stylistic and superficial uniqueness but there still needs to be a creative brain driving the process and directing the outcomes.

Just in the last few weeks I saw a completely AI-generated short film. It was a talking-head piece with just one locked-off camera shot of an individual talking. The image, the person, the make-up, the lighting, the voice … nothing existed in real life. (But I did note that the voice sounded a little synthetized even before I knew it was AI, a bit like the autotune used on some music tracks). The only thing that had any human intelligence in its creation was the script that the ‘non-actor’ delivered.

Big questions exist around the ethical use of this type of technology when essentially ‘anyone’ could be made to say anything with just a few hours and a powerful enough computer. How can we trust anything we see on the news if deep fakes can be produced with such relative ease?

When impactive and game-changing creative work comes into the market it is the quality of the concept, the strength of thinking and problem solving, coupled with the quality of execution, that makes them special. AI may well be able to deliver some aspects of that creative process but just take a few minutes to google AI-generated poetry and you’ll soon realise that some things are far better with a human touch.

One area I think does need a human brain is brand design.

Brand design

I’ve seen AI-generated logos – with varying degrees of success in my opinion – but few have ever felt like convincing, confident, cohesive full brand solutions.

When one of the key considerations of the creation of a brand logo is differentiation from the competition – it would seem a little counterintuitive, to me, to use an AI platform that by its essence will draw its references from similar businesses. Accessing industry trends and styles and then expect it to create an effective, considered and most importantly, differentiated brand.

However, the initial research phase could be a great place to use AI. The data sets and wide reference points would seem ideal for AI involvement. But I believe it will remain a tool used to shorten delivery times and bring added efficiencies in the early stages of a brand delivery project. At least for some years to come anyway.

AI won’t kill off brand and logo design. People who trade on the speed of delivery and price may well need to reconsider their business models as AI design would seem to possibly look to inhabit the same business arena as the likes of Canva, and Fiverr.

There will be a marketplace for such work – the client base who are more concerned with speed and cost than in quality or a long-term strategic approach will appreciate the benefits of fast, cheap design. But the holistic, considered and long-term work required to devise a thoughtful brand strategy and overarching brand design project would, as yet, seem to be beyond the capability of an AI robot.

Given that one of the core aspects of any good brand design is to create an emotional connection with the target audience I suspect a human mind directing things will be needed for some time.

Like in the FA cup, sometimes the small clubs will get a big win. Or even a decent run of wins … but if you need consistency across the season (or more aptly) across several seasons, then you’d be better-off picking someone with a proven track record who has proven that their wins are consistent and can be reproduced over and over again.

So what does the future look like?

Should I really try to be a crystal ball gazer and predict anything? Or am I as likely to be as wrong as those who have prophesied the death of all the businesses I’ve been writing about?

Personally, I remain hopeful. One of the most fascinating, and truly inspiring aspects, of the human condition, is our collective ability to adapt. The fact that we strive to move forward and explore new ideas, new horizons. Humanity is continually evolving and exploring – always seeking to know, understand and to create.

So our expressions of society are also evolving and developing. Adapting to new ideas, new input and new challenges. Obviously, communication needs and models are embedded within the cultural frameworks that we develop within those societies and in our communities – so they are also remain in an ever present state of flux and adaptation.

The next time you hear someone announce that anything is dead due to new technology or changing society, take a second. Take a breath or two. It may not be as black and white nor as stark as the prediction seems to suggest at first.

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