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When brands breach the fourth wall

man's legs with skateboard and mural

There is a new set of rules when brands breach the fourth wall on social media.

Key takeouts

  1. 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. 
  2. Brands are fictional entities – they exist in our minds. They are a shared fiction, often shared globally across different cultures and languages.
  3. 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.

frank underwood
Frank Underwood famously breaks the fourth wall in House of Cards

Frank directly addressing us doesn’t break the spell of the House of Cards fictional plot, instead it draws us in and makes what plays out predictable but no less compelling. It’s a little like the mesmerising effect of watching logs burn in a fireplace. But imagine if Frank turned out to be pussycat and his asides to us where just bravado and playacting. We’d be very unimpressed – when you break the fourth wall you lose the rights to playacting, the right to delude the audience and catch them out in their wrong assumptions. It’s no longer a “a who dunnit” – it’s become a “I’m going to do it”.

The same principles apply when brands use social media to talk to us. The contract with traditional advertising was typically one-sided, the brand told its story and hoped they’d told it well enough for us to believe what we saw. And our response was – ‘entertain me, make me feel something, then I’ll see how I feel about things’. But now when you trip over a brand on social media it’s as though it’s stepped through the fourth wall and is speaking directly to you.

So if brands are fiction, what happens when we breach the fourth wall and engage directly with customers through social media? We have a different set of rules for sure, but there will also be some specific expectations about how the brand will behave. A brand that speaks to you directly has made a contract to act on what it has told you. There can be no slight of hand, no double entendre, no high level brand purpose that doesn’t translate into action. The breach in the fourth wall that allowed you to speak in a more intimate way to your audience is the same breach they will rush through if they catch you out.

So not surprisingly people who can’t get a satisfactory response to a customer service complaint vent their frustration on the company’s Facebook page because they know they’ll get a response within the hour. They know you are there – there is a real person reading what they type, probably as they are typing it.

If this happens too often brands risk losing their credibility, the intimacy and honesty that the asides through the fourth wall create will be lost very quickly if the audience feels cheated. And then not only is the fourth wall breached, but the suspended belief around the fiction of the brand comes tumbling down too.

All the world's a stage, and all the brands merely players; an illusion we risk dispelling at our peril.

Colleen Ryan
Partner at TRA
Colleen has a curious and strategic mindset fueled by 40 years of experience in business across Europe, North America and APAC countries. With a fascination and deep understanding of what it is to be human, specifically applying principles from cultural sociology, social psychology, behavioural science, and cultural analysis, she brings breakthrough insights to brand strategy, creative development and customer centricity.

New problems need new solutions.

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