Humans: A Glimpse Behind The Cyborg Adverts

There’s been quite a hoo-ha about Humans, the new Channel 4 sci-fi series which starts in a couple of weeks.

© Channel 4

© Channel 4

The show is set in an alternate present day world in which owning your own Synth – a highly-developed robotic servant – is the height of fashion. It features an impressive ensemble cast, including Katherine Parkinson, Rebecca Front, Gemma Chan (Submarine, The IT Crowd, Doctor Who), Tom Goodman Hill (Ideal, Dead Boss, Spy), Colin Morgan (Merlin, The Fall), William Hurt (Damages, The Incredible Hulk), Paul Kaye, and Will Tudor (Game of Thrones, In The Club). Another TVO face, Dan Tetsell, also features.

The recent promotional campaign for Humans attracted a lot of media attention, masquerading as bona fide advertising for a company called Persona Synthetics, selling realistic cyborgs that could be used to perform household chores:

There were also ebay listings for the robotic home helps, and even a real life shop on London’s Regent Street, which generated a huge amount of debate on social media, with people wondering if it was for real.

We spoke to the Nik Windsor at Channel 4, part of the team behind the advertising, to find out how the show inspired them to create one of the most talked-about campaigns of the year:

Nik, welcome to The Velvet Onion. There’s been a lot of hype around Humans, which is a co-production between Channel 4 and AMC (Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Walking Dead), and UK production company Kudos (Broadchurch, Utopia). What can you tell us about the development process behind the promotional campaign – do you generally get to see shows before creating them?

It really varies on the brief, but with dramas we’re usually briefed just as they’re about to shoot, so we have no footage to work with. We have Q&A sessions with marketing, the commissioning editors and the production company involved to give us an idea on the premise of the show. They’ll also give us confidential copies of the scripts to read. On occasion, during the tail-end of creative development or the shoot, we’ll get a sizzle reel of snippets of stuff that’s been shot. But it’s very rough.

© Channel 4

© Channel 4

How do you decide whether to promote a new show by showing clips from it, or whether to develop a creative concept for the campaign (like this one)?

Again, it depends again on the programme. On dramas, if it’s a returning series clips usually do most of the heavy-lifting, as people are more likely to be aware of the programme brand, its spirit and characters. New shows tend to get conceptual promos.

Also, as a creative department we prefer to come up with big ideas; but given we’re a broadcaster and our audience are telly-lovers, we know that TV will be a big part of any campaign.

What gave you the idea for the campaign for Humans?

Humans is set in an alternate reality: a parallel universe that’s much like our own, but where these synthetic humans are a very real part of everyday life. We thought it would be both thought-provoking and visually arresting if we treated synths as a very real possibility in the world that we live in today. How would people react? Would they be excited? Or outraged? Or would they take it for granted that this kind of technology is inevitable someday?

Did you have any concerns about misleading the public via this campaign?

We’re lucky to have a risk-taking marketing department and very brave lawyers. As we were using our own promo air-time for the TV there were less concerns than if we were to run it in commercial air-time. However, the intention was always to create a campaign that would lull people into thinking synths had arrived and were for sale. That said, the public were always just one-step away from finding out it was for a TV show. If you searched ‘Persona Synthetics’ you would be taken to a microsite which gave the game away it was for a new TV show on Channel 4.

© Channel 4

© Channel 4

Was there anything you wanted to do but weren’t allowed?

We always try and push things and our lawyers are brilliant at facilitating what’s possible within the law, but on this campaign we were lucky that we got the majority of work away.

One element we weren’t able to pull-off was a mini-protest outside the Regent Street store. We were looking to employ a group of disgruntled ‘Humans’ who were anti-synths; that people’s jobs would be at stake and that the beginning of the end was here. But, unfortunately the powers that look after Regent Street were against it; but they were great with securing the store.

How do you feel about the media/public reaction to the campaign?

Far better than we could have hoped for. We were sure some people would be fooled into thinking that synths were here, but not to the degree it manifested. Reading daily Twitter comments after the faux-TV spots ran was brilliant. And the fact we had the store, fake-press ads pushing to the store and a listing on ebay really closed the loop. Our social guys were all over it. The public were very complimentary when they realised it was an ad campaign; as were the trade press and the wider media.

Many thanks to Nik for taking the time to answer our questions. 

Humans will premiere in the UK on Sunday the 14th of June, at 9pm, on Channel 4. It will air on AMC in the US on Sunday the 28th of June.

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