anthropology and the new branding: Kleenex for good and bad

Kleenex This is a small note of appreciation for the Kleenex "let it out" ad now running on television.  You may have seen it.  It features people weeping copiously in public. 

Now, this is the last place you would expect a brand to play.  Big emotions?  In public?  People losing control of the feelings?  In public?

Something in the culture of marketing balks at this.  Emotions in advertising were supposed to be upbeat, cheery, and peppy.  That’s why we have been forced suffer all that "fun in the sun" advertising. Addled icons like The Doublemint Twins, the forced good humor of a family drive to Knott’s Landing, the spectacular gratitude that came from discovering just how much fun to operate a George Foreman grill, these were the emotional orthodoxies of the advertising world.  Negative emotions were forbidden.  The culture created by capitalism was thin and risible. 

Plus, something in the culture of marketing balked at associating the brand with something it couldn’t "own."  What marketers really wanted was the Unique Selling Proposition, the one functional utility the brand possessed over all others.  People crying in public?  Who could own this? 

We can imagine the contest that took place within the agency (JWT, New York) and the brand (Kimberly-Clark).  In the old days, "let it out" was an impossible marketing proposition and even today it remains a struggle.  So hat’s off to the agency team and the marketing group.  Hat’s off, specifically, to Walt Connelly, Toby Barlow as executive creative directors, Jim Carroll as art director; Richie Glickman as creative director/copywriter, all of JWT New York.

The fact that "let it out" appears in this campaign tells us that marketing is becoming a little more anthropological.  Brands are listening to their publics more closely. They are taking in aspects of the human experience more broadly.  They are playing back things that have a little more narrative or at least dramatic oomph.  They are now prepared to send their brands up the value hierarchy.  They are making themselves partners to larger, worthier undertakings than fun in the sun.  (See for instance the work done by Done on the ideas we have about beauty and bodies.) 

Here’s text I found on the website.

Why do people keep things bottled up inside?
It makes no sense. Nothing good comes from that.
With that in mind, we invite and encourage you to let it out.
Let out your tears, your joy, your anger, your frustration, your laughter and even your snot.
Because you’ll feel better.
How do we know?
Because we recently went across America and watched all kinds of people let out all kinds of stuff.
Some of those moments ended up on tv.
Others are right here for your viewing pleasure.
So go ahead, check them out — then let it outâ„¢.

Ok, let’s stop right there.  Apparently, KC has trademarked "let it out."  And this is proof that the corporation and marketing still has a lot to learn.  When you seek to make cultural meanings part of the brand proposition, you are a guest in someone’s house.  The moment you start stuffing the silver into your pockets, that’s when we’re going to ask you to leave.

You can find the Let It Out website here.   

6 thoughts on “anthropology and the new branding: Kleenex for good and bad

  1. Peter

    The always-cheery nature of most advertising led me (and no doubt others before me) to decide that western advertising was the capitalist equivalent of socialist realist art — ie, advertising is capitalist realism. Like its soviet counterpart, it portrays an ideal world, disconnected from almost everything experienced by its viewers. Of course, being disconnnected from reality does not in itself prevent something being believed wholeheartedly, or even being used as a guide for living. Perhaps myths have to be false in order to be believed, since if they were completely true they could not provide their adherents with any hope.

  2. srp

    Peter: Grant once wrote something about “displaced meaning” that comes very close to what you are suggesting.

    In general, though, ads, especially of the unique selling proposition type, often show negative things–that’s the problem the product is supposed to solve. Remember “ring around the collar?” or “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing?” Or, on a more contemporary note, Career Builder showing the poor guy who has to work with chimps, Charles Schwab showing people bitching about their brokers, Southwest Airlines showing people in excruciatingly embarrassing situations from which they “wanna get away?” It seems to me that there isn’t anything very new here.

    It is true that ads are typically squeamish about displaying bodily functions, hence all the beakers of colored water poured through absorbing layers as demonstrations. Or the stylized Flomax representations of the urinary tract. Since I appreciate that squeamishness, I’m not sure I want to watch people dumping nasal mucous into their Kleenex and I hope these ads stress the crying part of letting it out.

  3. Rick Liebling


    While you are correct to point out that commercials often position products as solutions to problems (you pointed out many fine examples), the Kleenex ads seem to be celebrating the ‘problem’, suggesting that a runny nose or teary eyes are in fact a good thing. That seems to me to be a slightly different positioning. It is perhaps a cousin to a what a Gatorade ad would be – working out is good for you, drink Gatorade afterwards. Only the Kleenex ad is hitting at a more emotional level, and I would therefore argue a more powerful level.

    Full disclosure: I work for Taylor, a public relations firm that works with Kleenex, though we were not involved in the conception or filming of the ad.

  4. Carol Gee

    Grant, your post engendered thoughts of Senator Hillary Clinton’s “moment” of emotion that caused such consternation in the mainstream media. I have this weird second thought that Kleenex should give a donation to her campaign for her boost of their product.
    Great post. It always pleases me, BTW, when you credit real people for good work.

  5. Inaudible Nonsense (DC1974)

    Forget the trademarking of “let it out” — that is onerous of course and also ridiculous — but I’m more concerned about that word “pleasure” there’s a little dissonance there. Apparently, watching other people cry is giving us pleasure. (At least to Kleenex.) There are shades of the emotional performance of reality TV in this — that we are supposed to be enjoying this from home. That “real” emotion is more pleasurable than traditional forms of happy entertainment. One thing I always here from my Asian friends is the belief that Americans are not very empathetic — evidenced by our inability to cry and our assertiveness. Being told to find pleasure in other people’s pain is an equal sign of our lack of empathy. And its either really assertive on the viewers part or at least passive-aggressive. Everything about this campaign sounded interesting, until I read that copy. And then the whole thing just stank.

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