Unreality: Hyper-Realism, Utopias and Fantasies

Is life in 21st century cities becoming unbearable? Based on emerging and future global trends, the world may be switching off from the Internet with all its faux-reality, and escaping into alternative worlds. How can businesses and brands tap into this? we speak to Lucie Greene, Worldwide Director of The Innovation Group at J. Walter Thompson Intelligence.

Lucie Greene, The Innovation Group, JWT Intelligence. Image courtesy JWT Intelligence


What are the key findings surfacing in this report on Unreality by JWT Intelligence?

We noticed a while ago that there was a sort of an extension of the 360 well-being concept, a trend of people seeing their health as inside and out and this was increasingly extending to more new age therapies, such as sound healing and crystals, also references to spirituality. There was also some data from the Pew Research Centre showing that more people were defining themselves as spiritual, not religious. What’s interesting is that these New Age ideas were being presented in a new way for a younger audience. New Age concepts have always been historically associated with an older consumer, the hippie generation. Today, we’re seeing a lot of new brands with really cool visual imagery – an immersive yoga club, magazines referencing astrology and crystals, but in a kind of non-ironic way and with very cool modern branding.

At the same time, internet-wide, we are seeing increasing references or appreciation for magic and fairy tales, and discussions and dialogue around utopia and dystopia in exhibitions, various platforms and magazines.

Visual imagery has also started to change, where Instagram has always been about bragging rights, about ‘No Filter’, now it’s become more and more creative with features like in Snapchat where there are apps that can transform images. People are turning themselves into dogs or cats, or swopping faces.

Even in intellectual or creative magazines – we are seeing a departure from the hyper-real towards the more surreal or using digital technology to create interesting computer-generated landscapes – more spacey or more magical.

Across the board, we are seeing this celebration for what is intangible.

New age therapies, such as sound healing and crystals are increasingly prevalent in the 21st century consciousness. Image courtesy of JWT Intelligence



What’s causing this?

When we examined it in more detail, we put it down to a response or a counterpoint to the over-laboured emphasis on hyper transparency – the fact that you can find out anything on the internet now, the fact that Big Data is everything, the fact that all our lives are displayed for all to see – warts and all. All this has created boredom for all that transparency and authenticity.

There’s a desire for escapism but also an appreciation for things that can’t be quantified, so, essentially it is a wilful desire for escapism.

Could it be that a large percentage of the population live in harsh urban environments?

I can see a lot of that at play. There are many avenues now for people to completely immerse themselves in fictitious landscapes. The online worlds such as VR and video gaming are creating much more immersive ways to tell stories with 3D environments and people are almost starting to behave like their online avatars as well; they’re becoming more at ease with these fictitious landscapes and that’s going to continue as technology continues to develop.

We’re also seeing the gaming world cross over to more adult mediums as well. For example, Louis Vuitton featured a character from Final Fantasy in their Spring/Summer 2016 advertising campaign.

There’s a multi-generational influence and celebration of computer games and landscapes and digital storytelling is being employed more immersively by brands, and involving a lot more creativity in playing with what is real and what is not.

Louis Vuitton featured a character from Final Fantasy in their Spring/Summer 2016 advertising campaign.. Image courtesy JWT Intelligence.



What sort of products and brands have manifested as a result of this trend?

There are many products that have tapped into a sort of whimsical, magic language or new-age properties, such as beauty products that not only make your skin better but also improve your state of mind. Crystals are increasingly being referenced. We’re seeing drinks said to contain stardust or moondust. There’s also a rise in psychotropics, such as marijuana being normalised in the US and concepts such as ‘The Burning Man’ in travel are examples of products tapping into the language of desire for escape.

What would be interesting for brands to think about is to continue being transparent and authentic but to take a step beyond that, and be somewhat more playful. Visual language is key to this. We’ve already seen a departure from ultra airbrushed models in mainstream campaigns to a lot more creativity being employed to create surreal and unexpected new digital images. A refreshing departure from being about ‘unfiltered’ and user-generated. Brands can now afford to be more fantastical in their imagery.

Monk Oil’s City Skin Potion. Image courtesy of JWT Intelligence


The driving force is that there is a genuine desire for consumers to step into these fictional narratives. In the UK, there’s a huge cult following for Future Cinema. What they’ve done is create an experience where the audience participates. Service staff are in character, everyone dresses up, and guests are assigned characters to play. They transform the building into the setting of the movie you’re about to watch and then after immersing you into that environment, you watch the movie. We are also seeing that extend to bars and restaurants.

There’s also the concept of ‘slow’, which again, is counterpoint to the fast living of today. The basis of that is Mindful Mindlessness (letting your mind meander). It’s similar to the psychotropic aspect – playing around with your state of mind for relaxation but also for creativity and letting your mind explore. However, here, it’s also related to travel that plays around with storytelling and tapping into fictional narratives a bit more. It’s also being aided by transmedia, which is the technique of telling a single story or story experience across multiple platforms and formats using current digital technologies, thus enabling the consumer to consume stories online and offline.


There’s a line in the report that’s quite chilling – ‘What’s left that’s not understood, quantified or replicable?’

The Storyteller is an image taken from The Wonderland Book by Kirsty Mitchell which was widely covered by the media. Image courtesy JWT Intelligence.

If technology can replicate the human brain – what is left? That’s a part of that thought process. There is a genuine appreciation for more unquantifiable things such as astrology, we’re looking for meaning beyond everything that we know – and in a way it’s in defiance of the fact that everything can be looked up or qualified and quantified on the Internet. So we’re turning away from that.

What happens when people get lost in the Unreal?

This trend is about knowing what’s unreal. There’s just something compelling about escaping into magic and fairytale imagery, the stories and the romance of that. As the trend involves mainly adults, I don’t think we’re at risk of anyone becoming fantasists and ignoring the real world.

Is there any good news coming out of the report? Is any of this making modern life more liveable, for example?

Yes. We saw a lot of creatives coming up with plans for real development, or even just re-imagined projects that could potentially change the way we live for the better. The Lowline, in New York for example, will see the stunning transformation of the Delancey Underground into the world’s first underground park in Manhattan. In London, we’ve begun constructing the Garden Bridge, a pedestrian bridge over the River Thames. NASA ran a competition for creatives to illustrate what life could look like on Mars. So, there’s lots of imagined renderings, which speak about a desire for people wanting to make living better, and technology is making all this more possible – so it’s an interesting space.

Lucie Greene is the Worldwide Director of the Innovation Group. Based in New York, Lucie is responsible for driving J. Walter Thompson’s consumer insights and trends-focused initiatives globally.

This story was first published under the now-defunct “Think City Channel”.

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