What “6 Underground” reveals about our society and what this means for advertising effectiveness

Do you ever watch a current blockbuster movie and think to yourself, “what did I just watch?” or do you ever watch an old favorite film and think to yourself “they don’t make movies like they used to”?

Why do so many movies today miss the mark and how come movies of decades past seem to never lose their relevance and appeal?

I recently (tried to) watch “6 Underground” – an action film directed by Michael Bay for Netflix starring Ryan Reynolds and made with a staggering $150M budget. Here is where I should explain to you the plot of the movie, but frankly it’s a difficult assignment as my confusion over what was going on and what the point of it all was caused me to stop watching a third of the way through.

Instead, I will lean on the (mostly negative) reviews by movie critics (38% on Rotten Tomatoes) to try to unwrap why “6 Underground” failed to keep my attention and how this relates to the current state of advertising effectiveness.

Spoiler alert: a certain way of attending to the world leaves its trace in culture and society and is behind the current crisis in creativity.

1. “6 Underground” lacks a clear storyline and sense of time 

“Little things like character, plot, and whether or not we’re finally in present tense aren’t really sorted out until way later than you’d expect, and by then anyone trying to keep track has probably already given up. This is a movie where giving up is appropriate.”
(Evan Saathoff, BirthMoviesDeath.com)

 “The explosions and locations are flashy but, without any opportunities for engagement with the narrative, the two-hour-plus runtime is truly punishing.”
(Eddie Harrison, List.Co.UK)

“All this unfolds around weirdly-timed and confusing flashbacks that are intended to give us a sense of who these people were before they became ghosts, but instead serve only to confuse the timeline and make us wonder what the hell we’re even doing here.”
(Allen Adams, TheMainEdge.com)

2. Characters are treated more as props

“This is a movie where character is so unimportant that everyone is addressed by a number. Ryan Reynolds stars as “One”, a billionaire who faked his own death so that he could take down a dictator in Vaguely Middle Eastern-istan.”
(Sarah Mars, LaineyGossip.com)

 “For most of the film, you can’t help but think of the lazy writing that goes into not giving any of the characters a name, but while they are revealed later, each of their backstories remain thin, only allowing for some short flashbacks to what led them to finding each other.”
(Sara Clements, TheMarySue.com)

 “Reynolds is desperately trying to keep the whole thing aloft with his comedic rat-a-tat charm offensive, and Hardy gets a few surprisingly effective dramatic scenes, but for the most part the characters (and therefore the actors) feel more like props than people.”
(Shaun Munro, FlickeringMyth.com)

3. The shots are too fast and disjointed, even for an action movie

“Take the opening chase sequence in Florence, the narrative particulars of which don’t matter at all. This frantic 20-minute vehicular and on-foot chase seems entirely within Bay’s wheelhouse given his history, and yet, shots are bafflingly hacked up into mere fractions of a second, to the extent viewers are liable to be at least irritated if not fighting off a debilitating migraine.”
(Shaun Munro, FlickeringMyth.com)

“It’s impossible to tell what the film’s about – or what’s going on in any given moment – with it being edited this furiously. Although we’re used to Bay’s films cutting constantly between different angles, 6 Underground borders on parody.”
(Clarisse Loughrey, Independent.Co.UK)

“The action sequences are particularly jarring; they seem well-choreographed, but you can hardly tell with the shaky cam and choppy cross-cutting.”
(Rich Cline, ShadowsOnTheWall.Co.UK)

4. Despite having many ingredients of a top-notch action flick, it left many feeling bored

“But the worst of “6 Underground” is that it ends up being a boring experience; I had to pause the movie more than once, for the simple fact that I ended up thinking about the shrews while Reynolds and company got involved in the fifteenth shooting. And honestly, there is nothing worse for an action tape than being boring.”
(Sebastián Zavala Kahn, MeGustaElCine.com)

“At the screening I went to, a man walked out carrying his bag after less than an hour and I felt a pang of jealousy. “How can something so loud be so boring?” I wondered.”
(Thomas Barrie, GQ-Magazine.Co.UK)

If these features strike you as having much in common with most modern advertising, you’d be right. It’s all to do with the way the brain works and a cultural shift that’s occurred in the West over the last 15 years that is leaving its traces everywhere, and advertising is no exception.

Recent research on the human brain tells us that the two halves are structurally very different and as a result they pay attention to different things. The left brain prioritizes informational transfer within brain region, while the right brain has much greater branching and prioritizes communication across regions. The left side is narrow, literal, abstract, and explicit, and the right side is broad, metaphorical, contextual and implicit. Left loves rhythm, while the right enjoys melody.

There is no ‘better’ side of the brain, they just do things differently and we need both for optimal creativity.

However, as was the case during the late Roman empire and the Medieval times, we are now living in a heavily left-brained society. This is driven by enormous changes in business and technology and with them an urge to standardize, centralize and to specialize. These tendencies tend to leave their traces in creativity and in culture. “6 Underground” is just one example of this.

Brands and advertisers must take a different approach or risk long-term growth

Just as with “6 Underground” we see these left-brain tendencies reflected in advertising. Right brain features are on the decline, while left brain features are on the rise. So we’re seeing less melodic music, dialogue, wordplay, cultural references, implicit communication, scenes unfolding with progression, and instead more rhythmic soundtracks, excessive voiceover, words on the screen, repetition and abstraction.

Now if all this were a matter of taste, it wouldn’t matter but it has a real bearing on effectiveness. Using System1’s ad testing methodology we found that the more left brain features an ad has, the less likely it is to emotionally engage the viewer and as a result grow the brand into the future. Right brain features are much more efficient in connecting with consumers and driving long term growth.

Knowing this, it’s no surprise that “Friends” is the most popular Netflix show despite being 20 years old.

How can you avoid a “6 Underground” Left brain car crash in your advertising?

Here are 5 ideas taken from a book we’ve written and published with the IPA, Lemon, which serves as the repair manual for the current crisis in creativity:

  1. Entertain for commercial gain
  2. Think dramas, not lectures
  3. Play with culture, don’t mirror it
  4. People are characters, not props
  5. Local richness beats global blandness

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