Gif us a break!

Humans are not the only animals that talk. The handsome-sounding moustached bat is said to have 33 different “syllables” at its disposal with which to communicate with its pals. Bees, rather fabulously, communicate through the language of dance. We are however the only animals that record what we say. There is sadly no record of the chat between two moustached bats in 1992, but there are plenty of those between people.

The benefits of this innovation are pretty clear. It has allowed us to pile knowledge upon knowledge, with each new creation being, as Ian Malcolm would say, built by standing on the shoulders of giants that have gone before. It has also allowed us to communicate indirectly, through everything from a text message to a letter to this article you’re reading now. Unlike animals we don’t need to be in earshot of people we want to send messages to – the written word can do that for us.

However, like all human inventions, writing is flawed. Its lack of nuance has burned everyone who’s put pen to paper or finger to screen in their lives; we’ve all had something taken the wrong way. They say that most of our communication is non-verbal – or more specifically, “non-wordal” – so what does that mean when our main form of getting information across uses only words?

It means we innovate.

It started with onomatopoeia – things like “hahahah”, “arrrrggghhh”, or “yayyyyy” – graduated to emoticons and emojis, and has now reached its latest iteration, the animated gif.

Compare these different ways to say the same thing:

That’s funny


Clearly the subtlety of the communication increases as we progress through the evolution. It’s strange, when you think about it, that in most people’s estimation that progression also represents increasing informality and (at least in a business sense) inappropriateness. Why would we be biased against more sophisticated and accurate communication?

It’s possible that what we’re seeing is, in essence, the creation of a new alphabet. In 100 years’ time we may well find emojis and gifs operating as common “words” even in official documents. Modest smiley faces are already creeping into our work emails, so things are well on the way. And why not? We’re just trying to communicate, and we should use the best tools we have at our disposal.

But where to after gifs? Is there another step on this journey? Certainly, although it’s more likely to be a “shrinking” of the gif concept, rather than an extension. This is because gifs are dangerously close to being a whole other form of communication altogether: video. The beauty of a gif is that it’s one-note and quick, meaning that it can be implanted into text without breaking the flow. Expand it anymore, and it no longer serves as a tonal communication which people can customise; it becomes its own discrete narrative. Thus the best next step from here might be mini-gifs, that are a bit less cumbersome. Or animated emojis. Or even animated words themselves. Anything that enriches meaning will have a chance of catching on.

For brands this deeper form of “written” communication presents some interesting opportunities. Of course we have already seen many toying with the use of emojis in their campaigns, and even one or two gifs. But it won’t stop there. Who’s to say that a brand’s tagline in the future might not be a word, but a look? A raised eyebrow or satisfied grin? How about this for Sprite’s next sign off?

The closer brands are able to mimic the benchmark of one-to-one in-person communication, the more strongly they will be able to build a connection.

Still, nothing can beat the real thing. If you want to have a meaningful conversation with someone you meet them in person. The meatier the subject, the more effort you take to move it away from the written word – gif enhanced or not. This is why the smartest brands build that human frontline. Apple didn’t make Apple Stores because of the retail opportunity. If that was truly compelling you would have found Dell right there with them. No, they did it because the appreciated the strength of direct interaction, rather than interaction mediated through writing – or even worse the writing of others like independent retailers.

Just as water finds its way downhill, everything we do trickles towards deeper connection. To those that understand this best comes the prize.

Alex Smith is Planning Director at real world marketing agency Sense

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