September 29, 2004

Mark My Words

Ben Thomas writes...

The more things change, the more they stay the same. You know? It just sometimes feels like they don’t.

1999 saw the release of Ten Things I Hate About You, a Hollywood high school comedy based on The Taming of the Shrew. The younger sister, snobbish and superficial Bianca, was established as something of an airhead early in the film by means of the following exchange:

Bianca: There's a difference between like and love. I mean I like my Skechers, but I love my Prada backpack.

Chastity: But I love my Skechers.

Bianca: That's because you don't have a Prada backpack.

Oh, how I laughed. And yet, just five scant years later, Saatchi and Saatchi guru Kevin Roberts has written a book about his vision for the future of advertising; Lovemarks: a future beyond brands. The concept of a ‘lovemark’ (an unobvious play on trademark) is explained on Roberts’ website:

Lovemarks reach your heart as well as your mind, creating an intimate, emotional connection that you just can’t live without. Ever.

Take a brand away and people will find a replacement. Take a Lovemark away and people will protest its absence. Lovemarks are a relationship, not a mere transaction. You don’t just buy Lovemarks, you embrace them passionately. That’s why you never want to let go.

Put simply, Lovemarks inspire 'Loyalty Beyond Reason'.

I am not some inter-nerd proselytizer who would equate anything distasteful with the hateful Nazi regime of 20th century Europe just to score cheap points. But “loyalty beyond reason” sounds like the kind of marketing slogan dreamed up in a 1930’s German prison, not the rolling hills of Karekare. More to the point, self confessed “adidas-lover” Roberts should be jeered on the Jerry Springer show for his predilections alongside those who would prefer to form a relationship with a rubber woman or a pair of stilettos, rather than promoting his twisted manual in the reputable media.

I am interested to find out why Roberts is not, in fact, being jeered. Traditionally, the line trotted out (at least in public) by advertisers and their lobby groups is that advertising merely informs consumers about products in the marketplace. Now this is obviously bunk, but it is the comfortable lie that allows us to continue on our way and cope with the cognitive dissonance. But Roberts has released a book describing how he intends to remain a wealthy and influential figure by manipulating people into forming an intense emotional bond with products. The kind of thing that should push him over the line from disagreeable eccentricity into cartoonish super-villainy.

It’s possible that these intangible feelings for the product add value of their own. Virginia Postrel’s The Substance of Style makes the argument that aesthetic values are every bit as legitimate as functional ones, even with regard to what used to be considered purely functional items. Even so, aesthetics are at least qualities of a product that stem from something intrinsic (being its appearance, in most cases). 'Lovemarks' are a conscious effort to shift away from consumers respecting a product, to making them irrationally desire it for entirely extrinsic reasons.


So, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Anyone who defends the “intangible” values created by a lovemark had better be prepared to stand up and make a strong case for the selling of Papal indulgences, or the hawking of pigs’ teeth and splints of wood as the relics of saints by the Catholic Church.

Don’t worry, the sophisticated consumers of internet culture cry. We are “savvy”. We are “media-wise”. We know what they are up to.

We know, and we don’t care. Fun fact: it is easier to find a job in a High School teaching ‘media studies’ than teaching classics or history, and it is the preferred back-up discipline for English teachers. Because English is not about books, of course – it is about ‘texts’. Media studies is essentially watered down deconstructionist theory. It teaches students to analyse and interpret advertisements. And the news as well (but mainly advertising, for the same reason juniors study short stories rather than novellas). The purpose, ostensibly, is to allow the kids to form a detached view of what the advertiser is trying to do, and how it is getting its message across.

What happens, though, is that they are taught the dialect of advertising. This language is the new cultural capital. The kids (as a generalisation) who do media studies don’t form an oppositional stance against the advertising, or even an apposite one. Instead, they see the ad as a work of art – recognizing and praising superior technique and production, in the same way they might watch a virtuoso musical performance. Understanding advertising is easy; they are trying to sell you something. But we forget that as we appreciate the advertiser’s appreciation of the genre, and their appreciation of our appreciation, as they “subvert” the form through self-conscious referencing.

The much vaunted “media savvy” of the younger generations is just a further way youths are co-opted. Who first told you you were “media savvy” anyway? That’s right – a marketing company.


A shining local example is the Vodafone advertisement for its PXT message service. Two graffiti artists are shown abseiling down the face of a Symonds Street billboard depicting the Vodafone logo. They add “strokes” of spray paint to form a rudimentary camera icon around the logo, its “lens”. The ad is shot at night, on a handicam. The protagonists wear makeshift disguises – Groucho Marx glasses and moustaches – and congratulate each other and the camera man, who is self-consciously part of the narrative.

In other words, the ad appropriates almost in its entirety the imagery and language of culture jamming. It evokes the now familiar footage taken by and of activists covertly defacing corporate advertising; getting evidence of horrific battery farming practices; etc. It suggests danger, subversion, and rebellion.

And yet, obviously, nothing subversive is happening. It is every bit as subversive as if they showed a fat, overalled man in a cherry picker replacing the skins of the Stella Artois billboard across the road. Vodafone is just doing it on the cheap.

The battle is long lost, in the post-satirical future in which we live. And it’s not all depressing – there’s fun to be had with the co-option of the anti-establishment. Popular t-shirts bearing the iconic depiction of Che Guevara portray the revolutionary killer as looking remarkably like the Coke symbol, after all. And Whitcoulls, New Zealand’s largest chain of book sellers, displays Naomi Klein’s No Logo in its marketing section.




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