There is a new set of rules when brands breach the fourth wall on social media.
- Brands using social media to convey their messages break the fourth wall, while traditional advertising does not. Brands on social media are able to speak directly to you.
- Brands are fictional entities – they exist in our minds. They are a shared fiction, often shared globally across different cultures and languages.
- Brands on social media must abide by an implied contract – they must act on what they have told their customers. Brands risk losing credibility if they get caught out.
A spell is broken and a new stronger spell is woven.
The fiction of a dramatic performance is broken the moment the actor speaks directly to the audience. The fourth wall (so named because the actors on a stage are surrounded by three walls, with the fourth wall being the side through which the audience watches the play) is the invisible lens through which we observe the action. It allows us to suspend belief and engage with the fiction being played out before us.
So why would Shakespeare shatter the illusion? Nor was he alone. Chekhov was a master of the technique too. They did so because they wanted one of the characters to engage the audience directly, to share their inner thoughts – “this is how I am behaving, but this is what I really think”. The technique draws the viewer into the tension of the plot twists and the character’s actions. It makes us feel as though we have a level of intimacy with the player, as if we know something the other characters don’t, thus making us complicit.
When film came along, movies and television ramped up the fictional power of storytelling. The open space of the fourth wall became the screen, breached to brilliant effect by Frank Underwood in House of Cards (a Shakespearean character if ever there was one – Richard 111 or Hamlet, take your pick). Frank’s asides to the camera make us feel like we are complicit in his Machiavellian scheming and that the only time he is ever honest is with us, when he talks to us directly. The result is that, having made us complicit, we now demand that he delivers. There is no room for doubt or suspicion that perhaps the show is making him out to be different from what he seems. He has spoken to us directly and a contract has been made.
Brands using social media to convey their messages break the fourth wall, whereas traditional advertising does not. TV ads uphold the fiction of the brand, and all brands are of course fictional entities. Brands exists only in our minds and yet they are a shared fiction, often shared globally across different cultures and languages. It is the human species’ ability to share fictional ideas (take the belief in a god, for example) that makes us uniquely human and able to live in groups larger than those we can directly see and speak to.