Beyond its #BreakTheInternet ‘demented dream ballet’ trailer I’ve not seen last year’s Cats and I’m not alone.
It’s a certified $100m flop, with critics and creatives alike keen to weigh in on exactly why the celeb-faced, fur-coat-wearing felines failed to win over the cinema box office.
Post-mortem consensus seems to be that the strange digitalisation of the cat’s faces - CGI fur, whiskers and ears superimposed on very recognisable celebs faces created an unsettling uncanny valley.
Neither cat nor human, no amount of stunning vocal performance or mind-blowing choreography could escape the fact it was fake, and creepy-fake at that.
Keep it real
This lesson in false-start fakery struck a chord.
I’ve moulded my career in experiential events around the human need for emotional engagement planted firmly in the physical world (though complemented by digital channels I must say!).
My job has been to create experiences that feel anything but ‘fake’, which has led me to an evolved role helping brands navigate the emerging experience economy.
This new economy isn’t based on mindlessly buying more stuff, but on investing in meaningful experiences.
As James Wallman explores in his wonderful book ‘Stuffocation: Living More with Less’ materialism is sucking the joy from our lives and replacing it with anxiety and dissatisfaction.
What we crave is emotion, meaning and experientialism - where experiences trump stuff and authenticity is paramount.
So where do CGI cats fit into all this?
I’d argue that a bi-product of the experience economy is a lowering of our tolerance for fakery.
We are craving the things we can feel and relate to.
When it comes to onscreen wizardry, the devoted fans of Netflix’s reimagining of Dark Crystal have been captivated by Henson’s very physical, very real puppetry.
We know the Skeksis’ aren’t real but the fullness of their texture, tangible and substantial makes them real. We can invest in them because of their physical realness where we can never invest in a humanoid cat that is derived from very clever CGI but that can’t be touched. In opposition to Cats, Dark Crystal’s puppets don’t try to fool our brains, we know the difference and don’t feel duped.
The same can be said for many modern-day digital ‘experiences’ that try to replicate real-life emotion but that can never live up to the promise.
VR travels can’t replace real escape, Facebook friendships will never replace real-life relationships.
That’s why we aren’t fully living in a digital age, and never will be.
In essence, digital experiences are transient and forgettable and can never replace the emotion of an experience lived IRL.
Authenticity above fakery
It might seem like I am an anti-digital luddite - but far from it.
Let me explain.
The experience economy realises the intrinsic value in the experience itself and not a ‘fake’ experience designed only as a vehicle to sell products.
The original exponents of the experience economy Pine and Gilmore positioned these new offerings as ‘Transformations’ towards a better self - healthier, happier, more fulfilled.
As such these will be experiences and transformations consumers are willing to pay for above and beyond the product. We have to get used to selling exceptional, transformative experiences. Not stuff. Not ‘likes’. Not ‘followers’ but lasting, authentic memories.
As such we need to completely reassess how digital technologies can enable amazing, transformative experiences rather than replace them. And I don’t mean bunging a QR code on every surface we can, bedecking public spaces with touchscreens, hologramming an ideal customer service rep or just #tagging the sh*t out of every pop-up we throw together. These tactics fall very much into the ‘fake’ experience I’m advocating against.
It’s about choosing the technologies and digital creativity that enhance and elevate an experiential journey, not replace that journey with masterful fakery.
I am not a technologist or digital expert but I do know real, emotional engagement and I know we need to harness both to effectively apply creativity to our new economic landscape.
In a world where we are crying out for less stuff and more meaning, more than ever creatives must bring their great minds together.
The experience economy requires a new strain of applied creativity that skims the cream of various disciplines to get to what’s real.