Published in 2005, in Screen Education, this branding article of mine looked at our total submersion in a universe of brands, and their psychological impact as portrayed in movies such as Fight Club, The Truman Show and through other media. In the early to mid 2000s branding saw a realignment, and the next strategic era began as a push of brands into our lives through content production. This was due to a fragmentation of markets, and of channels to consumer targeting, in the lead up to our brand-saturated, social media dominated, consumer-conversation future (I’m posting this archived piece in 2010).
The bare chest shift
In 1934 the underwear industry in North America hit a crisis point. Clark Gable, screen icon and heart-throb, undressed (for an Oscar) in It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934) and revealed only a bare chest under his shirt. The on-looking Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) didn’t seem to notice, but America did–he wasn’t wearing a singlet. The sales of mens’ vests plummeted as changed perceptions rippled across the continent.
For the underwear industry it was a shock to see a desirable film personality unwittingly decimate their sales. For the soap companies, it must have confirmed their evolving thinking. A year earlier Procter & Gamble had released the first radio ‘soap opera’ to help increase the sales of their Oxydol brand. They had realized the power of role models and were busy exploring how new media and entertainment could shed positive light on their products, and enhance the value of their brands’ reputations, names and logos.
The following decades have shown generational changes in the penetration of branding into peoples lives, their choices and identities. We’re sitting on the cusp of one of these cyclical shifts right now, driven by; a growing consumer demand for ethical consistency in the corporations behind brands; a demand for brands to create rather than borrow cultural value; and a tension between the construction of personal identities and the consumption of branded products and services.
The new front for branding activity, in response to these forces of change, is social and cultural production. This will have determining affects on our arts, ethics, politics, and social identity–in a braided interplay ranging from the invidious logic of cold and harsh shareholder-value economics, through to the warmer, more transparent and ethical, branding that’s emerging in the arts and grassroots capitalism. The dominance between these extremes will depend on where the force of the greater will, and the greater comprehension resides.
John Pemberton and Ma Perkins
The ideas from which branding is flourishing have been around for over a century. Leaving aside the burning of symbols onto cattle, Wally Olins (co-founder of brand consultancy Wolff Olins) suggests that branding was originated by America’s Patent medicine makers after the Civil War–including John Pemberton, the creator of Coca-Cola1. On the whole, these medicines made spurious claims to heal ailments, which, on Coke’s advert were ‘sick headache, neuralgia, hysteria and melancholy’. Although the cocaine in the original formula may have had an effect on the head, the medical angle wasn’t enough to create consumer demand. The simple and logical next step was to make a reputable claim that was supportable by the product, and to build a recognisable and unique image for the drink that set it apart from the competition. From the beginning Coca-Cola was well advertised, with the best quality artwork and ideas. By 1911 Coca-Cola was the biggest single advertiser in America–spending over a million US dollars a year.
The following rise of Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCGs)–from soft drinks, soaps and cereals to tins of beans–increased the use of brands to target consumers in a competitive marketplace. Moderately well-off housewives were the focus for soap brands like Sunlight, Lifebuoy, Ivory, Monkey Brand, Vim, Plantol, and, after 1924, the ‘soap of the stars’–Lux. Wally Olins comments that these FMCG brands, ‘lived largely through promotion. The genius lay not so much in inventing the product, or even in manufacturing and distributing it, but in communicating a simple, single, dramatic, frequently exaggerated and sometimes mendacious statement about it again and again.’2
Consumer targeting took a big step in 1933 with the creation of a new genre–the sponsored radio soap opera, ‘Oxydol’s Own Ma Perkins’, on WDW Radio in Cincinnati. For 15 minutes each week day for 7,065 episodes, Virginia Payne played the part of Ma, a widowed lumber yard owner, who became America’s ‘mother of the air’. The story unfurled the slow-paced, small town, day-to-day events in fictional Rushville Centre, with Ma’s children Evey and Fay, Evey’s husband Willy, and the wonderfully named business partner Shuffle Shober. Programs had themes like, ‘Evey Warned Not To Gossip,’ and ‘Lumber Yard Deal Offered’. Whilst the show reached out to the sensibilities of housewives across America, they were also targeted as demographically appropriate consumers; so Bob Brown, in the lead-in to the show, passed on washing information about Oxydol and how efficient and effective it was. According to Procter & Gamble’s website; ‘Faithful listeners became faithful buyers.’3 Its sales success proved that key messages attached to emotionally relevant personalities and situations, transmitted directly into the home, resonated with housewives in a way that added shared values and loyalty to an otherwise contingent purchasing decision.
Ma Perkins represents a big shift in the emotive-rational core of consumerism–for the first time, the authority of a product was linked to the values and aspirations of everyday life; and the distinction between product promotion and entertainment began to lose focus. Although product innovation was occurring, it was the nature of product benefits that was shifting the most. The new media of radio had the necessary emotional reach to effect how people felt about their purchases and how they wished to live. By 1939 Procter & Gamble were spending US$2 million on twenty one radio programs. Cinema advertising, commercial TV, and product placement in films, eventually followed in the wake of the radio soap opera’s sales successes.
Truman Burbank and Tyler Durden
The ultimate scenario of submersion in brands, and their manipulation of a generation of people growing up with them, is portrayed in The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998). As the first child to have been legally adopted by a corporation, Truman Burbank’s (Jim Carrey) life is a brand opera from his birth, but there is no Virginia Payne behind the Ma Perkins–he wakes up and goes to bed as himself, as Truman Burbank, oblivious to the fact that he is being aired to the world 24 hours a day, without commercial breaks, but with his entire life as a product placement. The clothes, food, and even homes in the show are all available, outside of Seahaven Island, through the Truman Catalogue. Even his drinking chocolate is offered to him by his wife Meryl (Laura Linney) saying, ‘Why don’t you let me fix you some of this new Mococoa Drink? All natural cocoa beans, from the upper slopes of Mount Nicaragua, no artificial sweeteners.’ Truman is toyed with by the corporation who owns and films him, dictating his destiny like Greek gods–a corporation with revenue from the show that matches the GDP of a small country.
We are told the audience outside is looking for something authentic, something real. They are bored with actors and special effects, and Truman is a purity in the heart of consumerism. Ultimately, after working out the signs of his manipulation he eventually breaks free and is able to confront his maker. ‘Was nothing real?’ he asks, to which Christof (Ed Harris) replies, ‘You, were real. That’s what made you so good to watch. Listen to me, Truman. There’s no more truth out there than there is in the world I created for you. Same lies, same deceit. But in my world, you have nothing to fear.’
Does this statement make us stop and think? The implication is that if we’re blissfully ignorant of the manipulative mechanisms of big corporations, and of our involvement in spreading their branded messages, then we retain a degree of innocence. The Truman Show is, however, a parable of real concern and the fear of evaporating personal authenticity through the actions of others. But is this just a rising panic attack on the part of the politically left leaning, philosophically minded, subset of the population? Are we truly any less authentic than our poorer counterparts in the 1930s who sought solace in gentle soap operas, whilst washing with the right suds up to their elbows?
A more likely interpretation is that our world has become so different that we cannot make a real comparison. The very discussion of authenticity presupposes a privileged vantage point; but one from which symbolic manipulation has partially obscured the good life. The suggestion is that once we know, we have to respond. Personal sovereignty–our ability to choose the authentic directions and characteristics of our life–remains a highly prized aspect of our identities, and to feel like we’ve lost it is to feel our freedom challenged.
Whilst The Truman Show is a film of awakening, only a year later we see Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999) portraying the schizophrenic nature of identity in this age, and a complete rejection of all artificiality. On returning to his apartment, and finding that it had blown up, Jack (Edward Norton) says ‘I loved every stick of furniture in that place. That was not just a bunch of stuff that got destroyed, it was ME!’ The opening of the film is famous for its catalogue scanning of his apartment to show his full range of Ikea furniture and accessories–an immaculate home for a high travelling, single-serve, single man who works for a major car company, calculating the settlement cost of major defect accidents versus the recall costs of their product ranges.
In his new freedom from possessions, and from cohabitation with brands, Jack begins the search for some more real and visceral experiences to counteract the blunted, inert, numbness of his existence. As Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) remarks,
‘God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.’
The film is poignant and disturbing, violent and funny. In an ironic twist, aimed at the blindness of consumers, luxury soap is made and sold by Tyler from the human fat available at the liposuction clinics. ‘We were selling rich women their own fat asses back to them’ the narrator explains. The film escalates from the brutal weekly fights to Tyler Durden’s Operation Mayhem–a military style campaign designed to undermine the cause of the cultural and spiritual malaise. Public sculptures are rolled into franchise stores to demolish them both, and the credit card companies are subjected to an explosive disapproval.
The outcome of all this activity is a vivid rejection of who we are and what we stand for in the West in the late 20th century. It is, however, a destructive revaluation that leaves the viewer raw with a foreboding sense of discomfort and paralysis. Taken seriously, it is a rare moment of clarity–we live in an age where many of the meanings we assemble into our lives have been constructed for the shareholder value of corporations we know little about.
Tyler and Truman are fictional creations of the time, but their plight resonates with us, and signal a rupture followed by a rejection of contemporary branding practice on the part of corporations. Whilst we watch TV shows like Big Brother and hear about select Americans who live in Celebration, the town Disney built in Florida, we have to wonder where our complicity begins and ends. Is it possible to be authentically inauthentic–true to oneself but partially a commercial construct? Or do we need to rip everything down to feel alive and awake? Are we able to navigate a fulfilling life in a juxtaposition with brands that vie for our emotional sensibilities, or is the malaise wider than that because we feel our public institutions are also toying with the version of reality we hear? The way in which we respond to the products, services and messaging created from branding practice over the coming years will have a big impact on their future direction–and how comfortable and real we can feel in their presence.
Richard Branson and Kalle Lasn
Branding is now pervasive, and, like a force with stealth, it has acquired a near mythical status. As one of today’s most significant yet obscure ideas, the way it functions (what it means to us, and how it affects our purchases or our bottom line) is being analysed and pieced together in public, private and corporate life. Growing awareness and dissent is manifested through organisations like Kalle Lasn’s AdBusters4, books like Naomi Klein’s No Logo5, and documentaries like The Corporation (Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar, 2003). For big brands, the pattern changes are already shifting their strategies and responses.
Branding is variously believed to be an elixir, a consumer dialogue, a cost-cutting exercise, a communication technique, an extension of lifestyle and personal identity, a way to bring like-minded people together, a destructive mechanism over personal sovereignty, or a storefront for psychopathic corporations. Marketing managers have expanded their vocabulary with excitement to include new entries like ‘value proposition’ and ‘leverage core competencies’, and talk about their ‘brand equity’ even if they have little more than an office of three people and a single product to sell. In films, celebrity endorsements and product placements have become such big business that Ford have opened an office in Hollywood, Coca-Cola is drunk in Mean Girls (Mark S. Water, 2004), and brand funding of the film industry was in the region of US$2 billion in 2004.
The positive view of brand activity is that it connects people with things they need and enjoy, and generates activity that increases wealth in the economy. It may not create the equal distribution pattern that we’d prefer, but the standard of living and comfort, health and entertainment, in people’s lives is meant to be a step in the right direction. We have more media, technology and cultural products; more access to each other; and more access to other cultures and landscapes than ever before. We can also buy music and movies on a credit card; phone or txt friends; catch a train; fly locally or around the world; plan a trip to outer space; get married; have our houses heated and lit whilst drinking a cola and hearing about strange expeditions in hot air balloons on the radio–all (yes, all) without leaving the comfort of the Virgin brand. The number of options available, for choosing a range of life experiences mediated by brands, are enormous.
The Virgin website states that;
‘We have created over 200 companies worldwide, employing over 25,000 people. Our total revenues around the world in 2002 exceeded £4 billion (US$7.2 billion). We believe in making a difference. In our customers’ eyes, Virgin stands for value for money, quality, innovation, fun and a sense of competitive challenge… Our companies are part of a family rather than a hierarchy… In a sense we are a community, with shared ideas, values, interests and goals’.6
The way we perceive Virgin, and others like them, impacts how we wish to interact with their brands. It also informs our sense of whether branding is inherently good or bad, and whether the ethics of specific corporations colour the whole enterprise. For the Virgin brand, we see it personified in its founder Richard Branson–adventurous, fun, and plain speaking. His personality is allied with the brand.
The negative view of branding, encompassed by The Truman Show and Fight Club, is enhanced in the documentaries The Corporation and Super Size Me (Morgan Spurlock, 2004). Branding, within large corporations, has become so aggressive that it is contradicting its own effectiveness. Consumers now see the profit motive more clearly, they see the empty vulgarity of product placement and its piggy-backing of taste makers, they view handheld film footage in advertising as a manipulation rather than a vestige of authenticity, and they are keen to question the ethical consistency of corporations from marketplace to profit margin.
It is, therefore, refreshing to see films like Super Size Me having a very real effect on nutrition. McDonalds, after being pulled up on its health claims, suffered a 10 percent decline in sales. Their reaction to market pressure led them to remove the Super Size meal from the menu in America, introduce a vegetarian burger with the help of Sanitarium in Australia, and give away stepometers with burgers in Dubai. Similarly, in The Corporation, the business activities of large companies are held up for heavy scrutiny–in a way that gives pause for thought to an international audience. Such exposure has already caused Nike to instigate an academic enquiry into 720 athletic and campus apparel subcontract factories around the world. Whilst the GLOBE Project7 hasn’t seen a u-turn, this new partial transparency and change in practices is being forced on Nike by the market.
Kalle Lasn’s magazine and organisation, AdBusters, is significant for its positive attempts to rebuild and reclaim social and economic activity from the corporations. As well as encouraging the culture jamming of advertisements–the subversion of specific campaigns or companies through ironic reinterpretations of their advertisements in the same media–a community is being built around a more ethical grassroots capitalism, which is known by the name of Antipreneur. The first Antipreneur product is a pair of ethically-produced, and vegan, Blackspot sneakers as an alternative to a pair of Nikes. The product list, and the list of ethical businesses is set to grow, as are attempts to gain access to the media channels. In 2003 about 5 million people, across 65 nations, took part in AdBuster’s Buy Nothing Day.
Its clear that Kalle Lasn has the same fury that we see in Tyler Durden, but, through AdBusters this is focussed on creating a new wave of activism. He views what he terms ‘Mental Environmentalism’ to be the plight of the current generation, following Civil Rights in the 1960s, Feminism in the 1970s and Environmentalism in the 1980s. In an interview with writer and activist Paul Schmelzer, Kalle Lasn observes that,
‘whenever I talk to other jammers, the edgy issues seem to be less green issues and more blue issues–blue issues being politics of the mental environment and media democracy issues. I think that the real fire in the belly of many activists is this gnawing feeling that they grew up in a toxic culture and they’re not whole human beings anymore… and they’re forced into these branded, cynical lives that aren’t worth too much… This is the rage that is driving this movement that some people call the media democracy movement and some people call the mental environmental movement’8
In a recent survey conducted by Douglas Holt, Professor of Marketing at the Harvard Business school, it was found that people opposed to global brands are a widely spread (rather than clustered group), and account for a huge 13 percent of customers around the world. He notes that, ‘branding is perceived as deceitful because the ideals woven into brands seem so disconnected from, and often contrary to, the material actions of the companies that own them.’9 and that; ‘The antibranding movement is now forcing companies to build lines of obligation that link brand and company. As consumers peel away the brand veneer, they are looking for companies that act like a local merchant, as a stalwart citizen of the community.’10
Steven J. Heyer and our future selves
In a keynote speech to a congregation of advertising, film and music executives in February 2003, Steven J. Heyer, the COO of Coca-Cola, laid out his strategy for the future. He stated that,
‘in today’s marketing and media environment only the naive and foolish confuse presence with impact. Presence is easy–impact is hard … We’re moving to ideas that elicit emotion and create connections … Because the ideas which have always sat at the heart of the stories you’ve told and the content you’ve sold … whether movies or music or television… are no longer just intellectual property, they’re emotional capital. And we will help you create and sell more of it–so that we too can spend it … Markets are giving way to networks. In a networked economy, ideas, concepts, and images are the items of real value … Experience-based, access-driven marketing is our next frontier’.11
This means that corporate activity, through the mechanism of their brands, will start to evolve into cultural production. The line between product or service promotion and entertainment will be further erased. As always, at each step, the brands will push as hard as the perceptions of the consumers will let them. According to Douglas Holt, in the future; ‘Brands that create worlds that strike consumers’ imaginations, that inspire and provoke and stimulate, that help them interpret the world that surrounds them, will earn kudos and profits’.12 At the same time it will cause some people to, ‘opt out of brand-assisted identities to pursue other bases of identity formation (religion, local culture, work, art, ethnic enclaves, etc.). Others may make less of a departure and instead choose to erect narrowcast gated consumption communities to lock out all but a miniscule subset of the sponsored world’.13
This next phase of branding recognizes that mass markets, and the media channels to access consumers, have fragmented, and that new approaches are required to reach consumers. That said, the Coca-Cola Company has the luxury of over 2 billion brand interactions each day in the US–from soda fountains to movie theatres–to help them make the transition. And they have declared their interest in partnering with executives in the entertainment industries to help them achieve, ‘a convergence of the trinity in brand building–content, and media, and marketing’.14
What this future content, for consumer brands, is going to look or feel like is yet to be defined, but we can see glimpses of it. The town that Disney has built in Florida, called Celebration, is one extreme example. The stunts of Richard Branson and the Virgin to Virgin ‘Even more desirable’ txt campaign with Warren as its single-and-available star looks like another. Virgin is a brand poised to take advantage of this current shift because, from its origins, it has focussed on cultural and social production, and lifestyle.
Beyond the corporations, the activity of branding is penetrating what Wally Olins calls the third sector. This is comprised of the arts, charity, community, health, independent media and education industries; driven by the feeling and the fact that we have been let down by our public institutions. Businesses like museums and charities are starting to adopt the same profit-motivational activities that caused corporations to make use of branding–but from a more ethical standpoint. These organisations are authentic producers of culture in ways that the corporate brands will dream of attaining. Donation instead of consumption, or buying an alliance with expressive and meaningful institutions, will become a way to forge a more intrinsically human and sympathetic sense of self and of others–an antidote to the current disaffection.
In the near future we’ll have to navigate the complexity of an increasingly symbolic and value-laden world (or step out of the flow). We will need trusted sign posts to show us the way to shared values, and what products and services we can engage with to maintain those values. Right now, as we experience a shift in branding, we are empowered to make a difference (however small)–but our effectiveness depends on whether we can collectively be bothered to persist. Our scrutiny of the tableau of identity creation choices; and our decisions to partner through purchase with corporate brands we know to be ethical or not, will all shape the result.
1. Wally Olins, On Brand, Thames & Hudson, April 2004.
2. Wally Olins, On Brand, Thames & Hudson, April 2004.
3. ‘Our History’, Procter & Gamble web site
Accessed 23 January 2005.
Accessed 23 January 2005.
5. Naomi Klein, No Logo, Picador, April 2002.
6. ‘What We’re About’, Virgin web site
Accessed 28 January 2005.
7. David M. Boje, ‘Academics Studying Nike’ web site
Accessed 28 January 2005
8. Kalle Lasn in Paul Schmelzer, Eyeteeth web site, 29 August 2003
Accessed 9 February 2005
9. Douglas B. Holt, Why Do Brand Cause Trouble? A Dialectical Theory of Consumer Culture and Branding,
Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 29, June 2002
10. 9. Douglas B. Holt, Why Do Brand Cause Trouble? A Dialectical Theory of Consumer Culture and Branding,
Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 29, June 2002
11. Steve Heyer, Manifesto for a New Age of Marketing,
AdAge, February 6, 2003
12. Douglas B. Holt, Why Do Brand Cause Trouble? A Dialectical Theory of Consumer Culture and Branding,
Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 29, June 2002
13. Douglas B. Holt, Why Do Brand Cause Trouble? A Dialectical Theory of Consumer Culture and Branding,
Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 29, June 2002
14. Steve Heyer, Manifesto for a New Age of Marketing,
AdAge, February 6, 2003
Scott David leads User Experience strategy and design at the World Economic Forum, across their digital platforms for data-driven knowledge and communities of global leadership.