Ever find yourself biting down on your tongue (with clenched fists) at the sight of something so overwhelmingly adorable that you could probably just lie down and pass out? #SAME 🥹

Something everyone can align on is the undeniable charm of cuteness. Whether it’s a doe-eyed doggo or a chubby-cheeked child, there’s just something about ‘cute’ that makes us go ”It’s so fluffy, I’m gonna die! “ 🦄

Clockwork visited the “CUTE” exhibition at Somerset House, where we felt all the feels (namely sweet aggression and tears in response to the overload of positive emotions).

From dissecting themes of identity to challenging societal norms, the exhibition showcases contemporary artwork and cultural phenomena, juxtaposing designs where cuteness is used as a tool for self-expression and social commentary. The work is as thought-provoking as it is adorable.

One of the themes outlines the evolution of kawaii culture, from its humble beginnings to its modern-day reign. Most of our contemporary, glittery glossary of cuteness, in fact, comes from kawaii, which is an aesthetic that developed in Japanese girls’ schools around the early 1900s. It influenced manga and anime long before being commercialised by brands such as, you guessed it, Hello Kitty – a global marketing powerhouse raking in hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Kawaii culture emerged during Japan’s post-war economic growth, and became intertwined with consumer culture, where the Tamagotchi, Pokémon, and Pusheen were also born. Nods to Louis Wain’s cat illustrations and the rise of Japan’s female illustrators are also showcased.

Other themes at the exhibition include subversive forms of cuteness, such as the trend of gothic-cute, which reflects a desire for individual expression. The gaming evolution demonstrates how cuteness has diversified gaming experiences, appealing to a broader demographic beyond hardcore gamers.

Another theme explored is the fusion of technology and aesthetics, where the digital revolution’s role in amplifying cuteness is brought to the forefront. Online platforms like TikTok and Instagram fuel the resurgence of this aesthetic, with users sharing nostalgic content and drawing inspiration from past subcultures.

Worth noting is that different cultures have varying levels of tolerance for cuteness. While some Asian countries embrace it with open arms, Westerners tend to be a tad more sceptical. In Japan, for example, adorable mascots are everywhere, representing everything from urban parks to religious institutions, whereas Western countries have far less literal object personification.

Many companies, though, regardless of global location, have taken inspiration from Japan, slapping adorable animal mascots on their packaging, and using cute emojis in social media posts to tap into that primal urge to coo and cuddle. They use “kawaii” imagery to sell everything, from character-led video games like ‘Party Animals’, to poop-rolls starring an adorable Labrador Retriever puppy.

But cute is a cultural phenomenon that goes beyond aesthetics – it delves into societal values and expectations. Clockwork (who works across 45+ markets with Xbox, for instance) understands how different cultures value cuteness in marketing, by addressing nuances and varying cultural significances. In a rapid, ever-changing digital world, the seemingly harmless exterior of cute shouldn’t distract from the sometimes-paradoxical powers that challenge norms and define narratives.

By understanding how our brains respond to stimuli, brands can create campaigns that not only grab attention, but also trigger feel-good chemicals like dopamine. Cute is a carefully crafted strategy rooted in science and psychology, and has proved to be one of the most influential forces in contemporary culture. Whether it’s using lovable mascots to sell products, incorporating playful design elements into branding, or offering an alternative to the sexualised ideals of femininity perpetuated by mainstream media, the opportunities are endless.

Cute culture isn’t just about selling products – it’s about fostering connections and spreading joy. Whether you’re playing a game with friends, rewatching films from your generation with your kids, or cuddling up with a plushie, cuteness has a way of bringing people together and brightening even the ickiest of days. Perhaps the reason we’re especially drawn to this irresistible craze is because it seems inconsequential and unthreatening.

We don’t take it seriously, but we still listen. Cute allows the more miserable, awful truths and dark difficulties to be communicated and interpreted openly. It serves as a form of comfort and distraction in a world that is increasingly overwhelming and complicated. It’s a form of escapism from complexities to a simpler nostalgic time – a soft, safe space. It could also be interpreted as a response to trauma and distressing times, such as the pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine.

Beyond caregiving, cuteness has a key role in facilitating social relations and well-being, as well as increasing empathy and compassion. Cute is emotionally compelling, ingrained into culture, and here to stay.

‘til next time, cuties <3

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