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Not sure about the “which came first” chicken or egg answer, but I do know that life now officially imitates art

April 29, 2011

It was supposedly Irma Stern who said “everything new in art is ugly”. Just ask Frank Gehry or the vilified architects of the Sydney Opera House as we know it. People, when confronted with something that defies the status quo, generally reject it. It is only Apple that seems to defy with love, or rather, to fly beneath the immune system radar. It is a brand where early adopters join hands with the early majority, to fly off global shelves. But generally, as a species, we don’t like new stuff, initially.

I’m finding it that way with life. Reality television has slowly turned us all into the proverbial “boiled frogs”. Whether I chance upon my wife, Madam Defarge style, watching the Kardashians on E Entertainment or I lie, half comatose in the late evening watching the odd Dr 90210, I’m increasingly aware of how the abnormal has entered the mainstream or maybe it already was there, and some of us just didn’t realise it. Indeed, how does one imperceptibly turn up the heat from Who wants to be a Millionaire, to Big Brother, to Survivor to Girls of the Playboy Mansion which itself is so like 3 years ago. I read over the weekend that it’s perfectly acceptable to some American Libraries to view porn on their public computers provided it isn’t kids or animals being shown.   When I grew up, we had to whisper in libraries and not eat in them. Today you can sit behind their laptops and choose your favourite “MILF”.

Now, I have nothing against legal porn, reality tv and other “new-age” entertainment. It’s just that being the father to three young lads, nobody has provided me with the handbook of what’s acceptable today. Am I out of touch or are they out of line?  Watch an episode of Sponge Bob or The Simpsons (let alone Cartoon Network) and it’s staggering how kids are being taught to speak to each other and the singular lacking in generosity of spirit shown is celebrated. Now,  both programmes are brilliantly creative, no question, but unlike the Tom and Jerry’s or Wiley Coyote and the Roadrunners of my childhood, that also perpetually tried to kill each other to the strands of Beethoven or Mozart, today, they talk. They shout LOSER and worse at one another, delight in each other’s misfortune and unlike a mouse and a cat, a lot of these cartoons are “human” – even if the people are yellow….

Yesterday’s taboo, is now the norm. My 3 year old son innocently sings “I want to be a billionaire so fucking bad”. A friend of mine’s 4 year old daughter, sings Brittney’s “your body is a paradise and I need a vacation”…. Time magazine put the (un)meat-wrapped Lady Gaga on its cover as an icon. My perception, this is actually a young woman in crisis. The freak-show has now become mainstream.  The Jerry Springer show is now every-day life. Charlie Sheen or the Kardashians (again) are no different to the antics of the misguided “trailer-trash” (imagine calling people that) whom he amassed a fortune off.  The only difference is the Karadashians were wealthy – because their dad got OJ Simpson off the hook (at the time)…. Now advertisers and brands flock, dung-beetle like, to attach themselves to these super-nova’s.

So, what does this mean for society, and as a marketer, for brands: Unabated, my fear is that this is all leading to anarchy. Our job is to protect and grow brands. To sustain and nurture them. Tactically, we can hitch our cart to fad after fad or rather we can choose to seek out those enduring human truths and higher order values that become inextricably linked to our Clients brand values.

I liken this to the example of the power bracelet versus the Live Strong bracelet. The former was an unproven fad to supposedly connect your chakra (?) to the universe itself, the later, to identify with survivor Lance Armstrong in a united fight against cancer.

So, where does your brand want to play? Should brands enable or disable this madness. Are you building social order (and hopefully on-going sales through a sustainable and believable positioning) or simply, contributing to its decay?

Lehman Brothers, an iconic bastion of the financial order, went by the way of the wind following their and customers’ unbridled avarice and demand for toxic assets. Arthur Anderson, was the last word in integrity. Enter Enron. No advertising or any marketing tool could save them. Their behaviour cemented their fate. It is proven time and time again that attaching yourself or your brands to a poor value system is attaching your business ultimately, to failure. It is much like Christopher Marlow’s “Dr Faustus”……in the end, the grim-reaper will collect your reputation and your sales.

Would love your views….

Thanks must go to Zeyad Davids, my friend and business partner, for the rich debate we enjoyed around this worrying topic.   


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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Karen Attyah permalink
    April 29, 2011 1:57 pm

    Mike – really thoughtful reading for me today…and brought up a few comments…

    As humans, we are voyeurs really – society has always embraced gossip, news, etc. whether it was reading the rag sheets in the grocery store line or reality TV. I just think that the technological revolution has evolved which has just ‘upped the ante’ for voyeurism.

    Secondly, who knows if challenging taboo is good or bad? The Beattles, the Rolling Stones and Madonna were the earlier versions of Lady GaGa. But what happened? The stones, who were shockers at the time, became lifelong friends of one of the former Presidents of the free world (Clinton). Has their net impact been overall good or bad on society? 20 years ago, we would have said bad. We would have said they were truly disturbed. Today, we say good (the held the Concert for New York City after 911). How do we know at early stages, if those who will challenge taboo will have a net positive or negative influence, a strong value system or a weak one? Maybe they were quite grounded and just loved sex, drugs, and rock and roll like most of the free world (and not so free world)? (there is a whole other line of thinking there – today we expect our ‘taboo artists’ gone bade to do something good in society like Lady Gaga’s charity work)

    I guess it goes back to your Enron and Arthur Anderson comment – they were the pinnacle of good, and then faltered. How would we have known? That’s the problem, as brand marketers, we can’t always know what will last and what will not. Our ‘guidelines’ are not fool proof. It’s our response — when our own principles or decisions are challenged –that matters.

  2. Karen permalink
    May 1, 2011 6:55 am

    These shows are insidiously turning us all into the Uglies cast (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uglies). Frightening issues for all of us. Loved the freakshow analogy!

  3. Adam permalink
    May 2, 2011 1:29 am

    Must have been a great discussion with Zeyad, would’ve loved to have been a fly on the wall.

    What we’re looking at is the degradation of cultural value over time; social mores change, and the structures that we’re taught as children (you are allowed to do this and this, but definitely not that) are now replaced by “You can do anything.”

    And we absolutely must hold that value true – yes, children can do anything. They need to dream and aspire. But they need to recognise that society has boundaries (or taboos) that are put in place not to restrict their growth, but to ensure all growth is for the benefit of society. Your son repeating lyrics to a song he likes is fine; as long as he understands that the words he’s using are not fine in the polite eyes of society.

    If everyone did whatever they wanted, you’re correct: it would be anarchy. But order would quickly form, because while we may appear to be a world of individuals, it’s only due to the cultural perceptions that individualism and narcissism are the overarching trends. Underneath, we are still social creatures yearning for shared connections to the world.

    So the question is – how responsible are the individuals for the cultural environment in which they live? A narcissistic environment has sprung up where it’s clearly defined: it’s all about me. Bugger the world, I’m the most important person. I will break taboos because I can, if for no other reason than to make a statement about taboos.

    But does that actually benefit society? As the cultural mores have shifted in the wind, so too have the values of society. Values will always shift – but to lose the positive effect of these values on the economy is the true crime. If a taboo is outdated, then sure – replace it, but replace it with something more valuable. Otherwise you’re just tearing down a form of authority for the sake of it.

    Similarly, what you’re asking here is how responsible are brands for the cultural environment in which they operate?

    The answer is 100% responsible.

    If you were an individual, and you were in an environment that wasn’t conducive to your health and made your day-to-day unbearable, you would do everything in your power to change that environment. But often as a lone voice, you’re powerless.

    Brands are no different. Except they have a collective voice, and an obligation.

    If your competition are not taking the high road, then it’s your obligation to society to show the way. To your point, it’s the human truths that matter, regardless of the shifting cultural environment. And the fact that you’re leading, rather than following fads or trends – that matters. You’ll be creating work and products that matter, as well as delivering on a brand promise that resonates with users right down to the sales level.

    “Yes, I like the idea that Apple are neat and clean and make me creative. I want to share in that experience by using their products.”

    “I like the idea that Lego encourages creativity and the ability to build and grow worlds. I want my child to have Lego.”

    “I like the idea that Starbucks are environmentally responsible for the sourcing of their beans, and will pass on a higher price cup of coffee to ensure that the workers in Columbia are getting paid a fair wage. I want to buy coffee that is socially responsible on a global scale.”

    Umair Haque has a strong take on it in New Capitalist Manifesto (2011). From the final chapter:

    “Most businesses still conceive of superiority as being better than a cohort of immediate familiar competitors.  But thick value says that just being better than the next guy, the next ten guys … isn’t good enough for competitive superiority in the twenty first century.  Constructive capitalists aren’t merely seeking to be better than rivals in yesterday’s terms.  They are fundamentally redefining what success means to encompass the well being of people, communities, society, and future generations; to return what you might call profit “plus”; profit plus social, environmental, human, and as yet unknown – unexplored kinds of – returns.

    Definitely a territory worthy of more debates, and discussion – but discussion that must ultimately lead to action.

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