What our obsession with The Traitors teaches us about advertising
6.9m people watched the final episode of The Traitors - The&Partnership's senior strategist Ed Davenhill on what the industry can learn from the show's popularity
31 January 2024
I overheard two people chatting about the Faithfuls on the tube on Monday morning and I instantly felt I could have chatted to them for hours.
I’d just spent my weekend glued to 12 episodes of pure Traitors theatre and clearly, I’m not alone.
This year’s series received staggering levels of attention and, as advertising is largely a game of attention, I thought it was worth trying to uncloak the veil on why.
Long live water cooler moments.
We live in a fragmented media age. And sometimes we can feel like blinkered horses, existing blissfully in our bubbles of hyper-personalisation. But humans evolved to share stories. Britain is a nation of gossipers. We chit chat with our hairdressers. England World Cup matches bind us together. Even 5pm Covid lockdown announcements gave us all something to talk about.
The Traitors reminds us that “event viewing” lives on. 6.9M people watched the live final, many in pubs and cinemas. It generated miles of memes and newspaper column inches. Somehow, it captured a slice of the national zeitgeist, like the early Big Brother series used to. And despite the shift towards personalised advertising, that should still be the gold standard in advertising: to create water cooler moments that break down barriers in society and get people talking. It’s more achievable than we might think. John Lewis have done it for 17 Christmases in a row.
Give people a role to play.
Whodunnit shows like The Staircase or White Lotus turn us all into armchair experts. We love trying to figure it all out. These small moments, when we feel a sense of control, mean something to us. They make us feel like we’re fight back against invisible but seismic forces: big tech, big data, big government.
The Traitors empowers us. We know information that the Faithfuls do not. Which puts us back in the driving seat. Even as we watched the deftest Faithful Jaz and his subtle genius play out, we still feel, in a sense, smarter than him, because we have more knowledge. The show equips viewers with a superpower. And it feels great.
Advertising must strive for the same. If gaining attention is the first goal and creating cultural moments the next, then perhaps achieving consumer participation is the final boss. And participation needn’t be literal. Despite being able to vote in ‘I’m A Celebrity’, The Traitors feels much more involving. I pause every few minutes to discuss another theory with my partner and feel a sense of achievement when it’s right (which isn’t often). Advertising can - and should - involve people. From Glow For It on TikTok to Spotify’s Wrapped, there are so many ways to do that.
Steal ideas and reshape culture.
A recent mega-analysis of cultural trends argues that our world is becoming increasingly bland and homogenous. From movie sequels to car colours to value-washing brands. One of the latest trends on TikTok is decades-old comedy clips. Turn on the TV and most programs are reviews or commentaries on other parts of society. Modern culture is often poorly recycled, repurposed, rehashed.
Like Squid Game, The Traitors is not a totally original concept. It’s based on a Dutch version of the show, which was inspired by a bloody mutiny on a wrecked ship, owned by the Dutch East India Company. And we’ve all seen murder mysteries before. But creativity steals. The cleverness is having the vision and conviction to adapt a centuries-old story into a high-octane modern TV program. It represents braver creative decision-making. It took a risk to bring something new to our lives.
For brands, we can worry about the challenge: in a world where everything is shared, original advertising ideas can seem harder to find. Someone always seems to have beaten us to the post. Or we can get excited by the opportunity: we’ve never had such a chocolate factory of inspiration at our fingertips. Creativity – and originality – is usually about bringing two things together for the first time.
Let’s create culture - invent it, redefine it, play with it. Cadbury’s Gorilla was so brave it almost never aired. Thankfully, it did and its originality remains iconic. Red Bull’s Stratos jump, equally ground-breaking originality, but in totally different ways. As brands, it’s too easy to slip into the cracks of society. Instead, let’s learn from The Traitors, which had the foresight to take an idea and adapt it in an unexpected way, helping it rise above a sea of cultural landfill.
Boundaries create opportunities.
Like live sport, part of why we’re so drawn to The Traitors is its unpredictability. There’s no one way to play the game. We’re consistently surprised and delighted at new tactics that pay off. Who saw Harry’s shield bluff coming? Unpredictability makes life interesting. But that doesn’t need to mean inconsistency.
Some of the most memorable advertising of all time has been the surprising executions within tightly defined, long-standing campaign constructs, from Snickers to Specsavers. The rules of The Traitors are simple, clear and consistent. Thanks to these tight boundaries, creativity has room to play and the endless new situations it presents keep us glued to the telly.
Keep backing a strong horse.
If Series 1 was a smash-hit, Series 2 has been a phenomenon. Reminding us that ideas and concepts take time to solidify themselves in the collective imagination of society.
Have faith. Like a rolling snowball, if a concept in advertising shows strong early appeal, momentum is only likely to increase, given enough time to flourish. Wear-out is more of a myth than we might think. In its 21st series, Strictly Come Dancing appeals as much now as it ever has. In 1988, Nike and Reebok had similar market share. While Reebok changed its campaign line 14 times in the next 20 years, Nike have stuck by ‘Just Do It’ for 35 years. Patience is a virtue.
Most of us aren’t supermodels.
Depressingly, much of reality TV has become a shameless promotion of unrealistic, unattainable versions of modern life. The sparkling homes of Selling Sunset and the shimmering bodies of Love Island can bring damaging mental health consequences to young viewers.
The Traitors is the antidote. The players are real people - a mishmash of ages, backgrounds, professions and classes – a social concoction that’s reflected in the breadth of viewers it attracts. Like the milkman who wins an Olympic bronze, or part-timers Maidstone United beating Ipswich Town, everyday people’s successes (or even the failures like Eddie the Eagle) are ours too. If we can find ways to make our brands “of the people” – to get people to see themselves in our work - by taking time for deeper consumer research, then we’ll form less superficial connections with our audiences.
Persuasion is narrative.
There’s another lesson we can learn, not from our obsession as viewers, but from the players themselves. The most effective roundtable strategies in the show came down to delivering the right words at the right time in the right way. The successful players were the ones able to convince others of their stories and theories most effectively. Harry’s condemnation of Paul was a masterclass in the eloquence and precision of carefully selected words (ironically it was so good it was almost his downfall).
Words are important. Timing is just as important. Jaz earned his place in the final because he timed his moments meticulously. He knew exactly when to strike and when not to. To sell advertising strategies and ideas – to ourselves, to colleagues, to clients, to consumers – narrative is crucial.
And finally, Claudia…
I couldn’t finish this article without mentioning the brilliance of Claudia. Is there a lesson for advertising here? The importance of choosing the right talent, perhaps. Although in typically humble fashion, she said it would be just as good without her.
Maybe that’s the lesson: she doesn't rest on her laurels. Instead, she obsesses over every detail of the show. Like the players, she throws herself into it with unbridled passion, in a way that simply can’t be faked. It leads to an utterly compelling end result for the rest of us. Passion pays off. Perhaps that’s the most valuable lesson of them all.
Ed Davenhill is a senior strategist at The&Partnership