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What marketers can learn from Adam Curtis’ Hypernormalisation

At the weekend I watched the latest Adam Curtis documentary, Hypernormalisation, the BBC iPlayer. It’s two hours and 45 minutes long. I was painting some coving.

I feel like a giant eye has opened in my brain.

Adam Curtis

Many will recognise Curtis’ voice from documentaries dating back to the 90s. Some may recognise his signature insight and investigation, not into the biggest news stories of our time, but behind them. Not into the effects of the CIA’s MK Ultra tests, but how they were able to happen and what motivated them – the global and national context and subtext. We only see the painting, never the canvas it is painted on.

His previous documentaries include: 2015’s epic Bitter Lake which explains how Western leaders created  a simplistic ‘good vs evil’ narrative to explain the Middle East crisis to the masses, but, then fell foul of the complexities of the region.

What I learned from Hypernormalisation:

  1. Hypernormalisation describes a state where government attempts to disorientate its people by disseminating an array of contradictory messages, fact and fiction, propaganda and truth.
    • The result is that the people know the government are lying, but not what the real truth is.
    • The government know that the people know they’re be lied to, but it doesn’t matter because the confusion and paranoia paralyses the people and, therefore, any chance of doing anything about it.
    • The people know, that the government know, that everyone knows that what they’re being told is nonsense, but it makes no difference because they are paralysed.   
  2. Despite describing a point in Russia’s communist past, the West now seems to be in a state of hypernormalisation.
    • News is opinion
    • Facts are of dwindling importance
    • The digital world is only reflecting ourselves back to us
    • We simultaneously believe everything we hear, and yet remain cynical and skeptical about its veracity and intent.
  3. The rise of individualism is a social by-product of distancing ‘ourselves’ (in the West) from communism and fascism – encouraged and promoted by Western governments in the wake of WWII and the Cold War. The result is that while westerners may have shared common aims, beliefs and values we are still unable to agree, plan and organise to affect change.
  4. Humans are happy to have themselves artificially reflected back at them – fake engagement, talking to machines, AI
  5. The term was coined by a Russian gentleman in the ’00s whose name, if I could remember it, I could never pronounce.
  6. We prefer simplicity over truth (or, at least, not knowing, rather than trying to understand complex issues).
  7. We enjoy self-reflection/self-affirmation/engagement so much that we will happily them with fake things and/or in a fake way.
  8.  Democracy is not an illusion, but the power of the individual within it is – especially the power to actually affect changes they want (until Brexit/Trump).
  9. Those in control have created so much uncertainty, distrust and confusion that they themselves become victims of the confusion too.
  10. There exists the will to change (as evidenced by the Egyptian events of the Arab Spring), but no plan for what to change anything to.

I then watched everything else by Adam Curtis in iPlayer and on Youtube.

What has this got to do with marketing?

Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. I’ve hypernormalised, so I don’t know what to think.

I can’t yet tell you how I am going to use what I have learned, but the documentary is a must for marketers and consumers alike, addressing:

  • The truth, clarity and honesty of communication (from speech to publishing and broadcasting)
  • Propaganda: the marketing of the state
  • How propaganda manipulates and its unforeseen consequences
  • The importance of clarity
  • Human needs, from the personal and the base, to the social
  • The media’s role in all of the above
  • A society of skeptics, distrustful of media and government

Marketers always express how important it is to know your audience. Adam Curtis’ approach might be to know the context in which your audience act. And this is it.

With a bed of Nine Inch Nails and other dystopian soundtrackery as well as extended sequences of jerky war-cam, it doesn’t offer a Disney-esque uplift, but it is utterly compelling.

The coving in the bedroom is nearly finished.


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