Category Archives: Meaning management

How to make a good ad

There are two DNA ads running at the moment. They illuminate the art of advertising today.

The first is called Testimonial: Livie and it’s for This is perfect serviceable. And that’s a problem.

This gives us a woman, Livie, living a safe, tidy life. Her DNA results come as a revelation. It turns out she is, as she puts it, “everything.” She now checks “other.”

An entire world opens up, and, and, and Livie checks a new box. Good lord.

This is identity as ornament. This is that girl who cornered you at a party in college to say she is 1/32 Choctaw. This is identity as a cocktail chatter, a party favor, a way of showing how absolutely fascinating you are.

And never mind the hair raising assumptions being made about the difference genetic origins make to who we are. (We love to think they do, but the science is of course stubbornly unromantic on this score. We are made by our upbringing and the culture in place. That “Choctaw difference” makes no identity difference.)

Ok, now have a look at %100 Nicole.

The music! So splendidly wrong and antique and odd. Perfect. This is how we make some of the best culture now. We run things together that don’t go together…until they do…sort of, but not quite.  These culture meanings deliberately act as what Weinberger might call, to borrow the title of his book, “small pieces loosely joined.”

The sunglasses and helmet of the second scene. So completely “what?” Here too the ad maker (in this case Diego Contreras of [or for] Venables Bell and Partners LA) is asking us to pay attention. This is not culture served up according to genre. This is culture flushed out of its conventional categories. We are driven up out of our couch potato stupor to ask the ancient’s immortal question “huh?”

In the place of Livie’s perfect sitting room, we have Nicole plunged into the world, seizing her DNA connections has an occasion to engage with the world. (Here too, sitting in the background there are troubling assumptions. We hope we are not being asked to assume that Nicole has some essential connection to East Asia or West Africa. Right?) In a more perfect world, we would all travel often and with Nicole’s joy to countries and cultures to which we have no DNA “connection.” Right?

So many details are arresting. The joy of that dance. The shock of that fiord. The delicacy of soccer. The animation of this actress.

Livie ticks boxes. Nicole embraces life. Livie looks for identity in the old fashioned way, by adding badges to her sleeve. Nicole finds it by taking the world by storm.

Hat’s off to the agency in question:

23 and Me
Venables Bell and Partners
Los Angeles
Diego Contreras
Martin Leroy


Nip Tuck

Niptuck promo There is a lavish spot for Nip/Tuck now circulating. It can't have been shot as part of an episode.  And it must have cost a bomb. 

Here it is in the grainy YouTube version.  Busby Berkeley meets Les Liaisons dangereuses meets Kanye West.  Lavish, languid, and really pretty scary. 

As a piece of meaning making, it's superb.  As an ad, it's provocative. But as an act of meaning management, it's hard to read.  How does it builds the brand and the show?  Isn't there a looseness of reference, a certain semiotic indeterminacy?  On the other hand, it is sumptuous and when was the last time we saw a piece of marketing that could claim to be sumptuous?  (And when was the last time we saw eyelashes like these?)  See the Nip/Tuck spot here.

A topic surely for Virginia Postrel and her blog Deep Glamour.  Perhaps with Joan Kron sitting in as an attending journalist. 

Season Six of Nip/Tuck starts tomorrow.  

Sorry to have been away over the holidays.  I am working furiously on the new manuscript.  I now have thirty thousand words written and counting.  More on the project soon!  

See Virginia Postrel's blog here.  See Joan Kron's book on plastic surgery here.

The Butch Bond and what might have been

Bond The reviews of Casino Royale are in and the critics are pleased.  This latest (and 21st) installment of Bond has a good chance of renewing the franchise.  And in our terror-prone moment, Bond is once more a welcome figure, not the self-parodying goof he became in the 60s and the 70s. 

The critics seem to agree that Daniel Craig makes a useful Bond, tougher, meaner, less the dandy, and more a force of nature.  Call him the butch Bond. 

I was a little sorry that Pierce Brosnan got pushed out.  I liked the way he departed from the script between his Bond assignments.  The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), The Tailor of Panama (2001), The Matador (2005), these were movies in which Brosnan investigated Bond-like moments.  As an art stealing playboy, a tailor turned reluctant spy, and aging hitman who has run out of time, Brosnan posted several interesting variations on the theme.

We could think of these pictures as Henry Jenkins might, as a transmedia experiment in which Brosnan is actually playing the same character in the Bond pictures and Bond-variation ones.  (I believe we do this defacto when we come to see a celebrity as the sum of his various parts.)   

But I am sure that the Broccolli’s were not altogether happy with these choices, and it may have been their displeasure that got him canned. Of course, he could have played it safe, but I think actors are a little like astronauts.  The moment they become captive of a single vehicle, they are "spam in a can," creatures who has forsaking career control, to say nothing of artistic integrity.

There is a larger point at issue here.  In our culture it is still an open issue the extent to which the corporation may presume to direct our lives outside the workday.  Are we "organization" men and women, or are we entitled to creative license in our off hours?  Brosnan’s career seemed proof that we were (or at least that he was).

We could test this proposition by putting his extra-Bond movies in an array.  The Thomas Crown Affair was probably least "off signal."  Then Tailor of Panama.  then the Matador.  Now we could say, "Ok, The Thomas Crown Affair, this was fine.  But here he should have drawn the line." Or we might have said that both the TCA and TTP were ok, but The Matador was really just over the top."

The question here from a marketing and meaning management point of view is whether the Bond brand took a hit when Brosnan did these extra-Bond pictures, and I think the conservative answer would be "Yes." Audiences qua audiences are not the brightest pencils in the box.  They will fail to distinguish between Brosnan as Bond and Brosnan as the art-thief playboy.  It’s all one to them.  So runs the argument. 

There is a middle position that says, "no harm, no foul."  Audiences can discriminate and they do.  Brosnan is free to take up another extra-Bond project because there are firewalls here, or at least those damage control segments that one finds on submarines.  His Bond persona is safe from damage.

There is a radical position, and this is one that tempts me.  We could argue, back to Jenkins’ notion of transmedia, that Brosnan’s extra-Bond parts do make a difference to the Bond brand, and we could go further and say, "and this is a good thing."  When Brosnan or any star departs his career script and goes looking for variations on the theme, he or she generates interesting and valuable symbolic, dramatic resources for the Bond persona. 

The transmedia project, in this view, have the effect of creating an experiental zone for the development and redevelopment of the Bond property.  And an actor like Brosnan then becomes a way to smuggle these new meanings back into the old Bond.  At the very least, we are looking at a natural experiment and an opportunity for the Bond production team to ask audiences what if anything in the extra-Bond picture might be plausibly, usefully imported to a Bond one.  Fitting Bond to contemporary culture has been a constant challenge for the Bond franchise and one might think they would seize this challenge.

There is a larger marketing issue and that is whether and how we can take brands off line for retooling of this kind.  Is there anyway we can let them cavort in other domains, exploring new variations or big departures, the better to manage meanings here.   We are all struggling to make the fit between brands and a culture that changes often and dramatically.  Transmedia meaning management is, potentially, a very useful tool. 

Department stores on the upswing: two approaches to change management and brand architecture

J_crew Department stores are making a comeback.  Sales are up 4.1% compared to 1.3% at the specialty chains.  J.C. Penny will make around $1 billion this year, having lost roughly that amount in 2003.  Bloomingdale’s is opening 4 new stores.  (All figures and quotes from NYT article by Barbaro, below.)

This is big news because department stores have been in decline for several decades and were widely regarded as down for the count.

The usual explanations for this decline are vanishing sales staff, badly organized stores, and fashion insensitivity.  I think there was another explanation that didn’t get enough attention.  The specialty retailer was a better meaning manager.

We can chart the decline of the department store against the rise of the national brand.  As branding got better, and marketers became more skilled, the department store became more punishing.  It was so uninviting, so unorganized, and so aesthetically unforgiving, even the best brands began to wilt.

A response was inevitable.  Ralph Lauren said, "leave this to us," and build little boutiques into the department store.  These boutiques out-earned the rest of the floor because they continued to build the brand.  Mr. Lauren’s store was a bastion of privilege in what was otherwise biggish, boxish and artless.  I heard, but never confirmed, that Mr. Lauren had a full time staff member to search out those "rowing team" photos that gave the store it’s preppy feel.  The boutique could do meaning management that the department store hadn’t known since in it’s golden palace hey day. 

It wasn’t long before the boutiques in-store gave rise to retail specialty out-of-store.  The Gap, J. Crew and Victoria’s Secret would do on a larger scale what the boutique had done on a small one. Product lines, store design, retail interactions all of these could now be devoted to the same branding objective.  Small was beautiful.  Meanings were managed.

There are lots of reasons that department stores are getting better. They have worked on the retail staff problem (no one so well as Nordstrom’s.)  They have made stores more beautiful and less confusing.  And the number are buoyed by the success of the high end (e.g., Neiman Marcus and Saks).  James Gold, CEO of Bergdorf Goodman, says his store is doing well because "the rich are getting richer at a staggering rate."

But there is another factor that catches the attention of those of us who loiter like ill-tempered teenagers at the corner of anthropology and economics.  (I understand that some of you are still tormenting the owner of the Quick-Mart.  Yes, I understand he’s a Keynesian…all the more reason to leave him alone.)  It turns out that the department store is now able to manage meanings in a way that boutiques and specialty stores cannot. 

“The great advantage the department store has is the ability to quickly move from one brand to another to keep itself fresh,” said Stephen I. Sadove, the chief executive of Saks, whose sales have improved sharply over the last three months on the strength of designer brands like Tahari, Theory and Juicy Couture.  “The specialty store does not have that luxury,” he said.

Ah, this is interesting.  The specialty store could go deep.  It could cultivate the brand carefully and well.  But in a hyperactive marketplace, where consumer taste change often and shifts suddenly, the real challenge is remains current.  And it is easy to do this with many brands supplied by other players than one perfectly managed brand of one’s own.   Retail, a river runs through it!  This is it’s adaptive advantage.  Potentially, the department store can be a complex adaptive system. 

I know this sounds a little "long tail" and it is, to the extent that Chris Anderson is imagining system that contains and distribute lots of differences.  But notice that this "river" is not filled with lots of tiny consumer choices of the kind Anderson has in mind.  What gives the department store it current advantage is that it can dial up Theory one week and Juicy the next.  (Forget Juicy Theory, that’s for the lads on the corner.)  In point of fact, the rise of the department store may be taken as a proof of the wisdom of a chunky marketing, one that contemporary markets require the bundling of more, more nimble brands, not the thousands and thousands of one-off transactions enabled by Amazon and eBay.

Now, because marketplaces are nothing if not responsive, we can imagine that Ralph Lauren, The Gap, J. Crew to find away to take back their advantage.  The stores will have to put in place chunky marketing strategies, incorporating more brands that cover more difference.  Existing, house, brands will have to become rivers of their own, with more variety and change running through them. 

This will take sensationally difficult meaning management.  The marketer will move from intensive meaning management to something more extensive and noisier.  I believe this marks a transition from the brand and meaning management of the 1980s to the new meaning management of the 21st century. 


Barbaro, Michael.  2006.  Showing a New Style, Department Stores Surge.  New York Times.  November 17, 2006. here

Elementary marketing

Lunch_truck_iii Pam and I live near a building site, and many mornings, banging away at my ThinkPad, I hear the rumble of a big engine and the sound of a horn.  It’s a lunch wagon.

This is marketing.  Go to where the consumer is and make a joyful sound.  This is marketing in its simplest, more elemental form.  I am guessing, but I am pretty sure the guy who drives the lunch wagon manages without a marketing plan, a website, or, God knows, the advice of a consultant.  He and his wife prepared sandwiches the night before.  The next day, he drives by construction sites and blows his horn.

Ok, it’s not as simple as that.  There are cultural rules even here.  Some guys use the horn that comes with the truck.  But I’ve noticed that some people have installed a special "lunch wagon horn."  This horn has a lot more flourish in it than a conventional car horn.  It actually sounds a little like a "horse and hound" horn.  Considering how hard it is to make a living this way, it is a small miracle that anyone bothers with a new horn. But, hey, there is a right way and a wrong way to do this.  Culture has spoken.  And the consumer responds (apparently). 

Then there is the way you use the horn.  You could simply give one long blast, in the manner of a fog horn.  Or you could give lots of little blits.  Or you could change it everytime.  All you are really doing is announcing yourself.  And it’s not like you are competing with other horns.  Any sort of sound should do. 

But no.  The convention insists you give a "a couple of cheery blasts."  Robust tooting.  Apparently this sends a message.  The guy who comes by "our" building site makes his horn sound beckoning, whimsical, and good natured.  He actually makes the horn sound like break time: fun, indulgent, a break from drudgery and tedium.

Ok, so even this simplest commercial message is coded and symbolically purposeful.  Even this is a promise, a contract and a message, an exercise in meaning management.  I am sure these guys have done their tests.  They blow this horn hundreds of times a week, plenty of time to see what works and what does not.   Plenty of time to experiment and perfect.   Plenty of time to  make meanings and then to see which of them make money.

It turns out that the simplest form of marketing isn’t all that different from the more elaborate kinds we work on day to day.  There is just "no percentage" in being all informational about it.  There is no point in selling the function, stupid.  There is no point in just blowing your horn to say, "I am selling something.  Come here now."  You want to communicate the value proposition beyond the utilitarian.   You want to construct what’s on offer. 

Do I ever go out and have a coffee?  No, I’m too busy banging away at my ThinkPad.  I should really.  Next time.  Maybe he can give me marketing advice.

Katie Couric and celebrity that is bundled not blended

Couric_headshot It was the strangest thing.  Suddenly, in the summer of 2006, from diverse corners, I heard people speaking ill of Katie Couric.  Nothing specific.  But it was unmistakeable and ubiguitous.  The talk grumpy and shocked.

Then I heard Ms. Couric was planning to leave her NBC day-time show, Today, for the CBS Evening News. Interestingly, no one was criticizing her for seeking a change in assignments.  No, they were speaking ill of her character, her intelligence, or good intentions.

The mystery of the criticism (and especially, the misdirected nature of the criticism) makes sense if we suppose that people were registering a sense of dissonance.  Something about the day-time Couric was incompatible with the proposed "Couric" of the evening news. 

I haven’t done the research here, but at a distance some things seem clear.  The day time Couric (DTC) fashioned a particular bargain with the American viewer.  DTC would be unthreatening, approachable, winning.  She would forswear any of the grandeur or power that adheres to the celebrity of Angelina Jolie or even a Diane Sawyer.  No, DTC would be diminutive in every sense.  She would be "cute," the least threatening of the public persona a woman can assume.  She would, in short, be "Katie," not Katherine. 

It was if viewers were dubious.  How could diminutive DTC occupy a position of a sage, dignified, and solemn of a nighttime newsreader. The American viewers had "bought" the first construction of the public Couric.  And they were taking umbrage at her symbolic relocation. 

It is a larger anthropological question why it is our day time personality should have to be approachable and nightime newsreaders austere.  Perhaps, we suppose that the "vessel" of nighttime news must be stout enough to withstand the emotional difficulty and moral horror contained in many newscasts.  Perhaps its a simpler sexism that says that news reading at night is a kind of rhetorical heavy lifting and to this extent "men’s work."

In any case, this opens up an interesting case study in the world of meaning management.  This is the kind of thing that marketers know how to think about.  At least, I think we do. 

The first question is whether some meanings are nonnegotiable.  Once a celebrity or a brand lays claim to them, the deal is done.  We can shift the line of the ocean liner we have created.  But, effectively, no real changes of direction are possible.  This point of view would have said that Katie Couric was now the captive of our persona and that the nighttime news was a bad idea.

The second question says, if meanings are negotiable, how do we negotiate them? Clearly, CBS is doing their darndest.  They have changed the pronounciation of Ms. Couric’s name.   They have worked on hair style and color.  Clothing is, I am sure, a matter of constant debate.  Ditto, he temper and pacing of Ms. Couric’s speaking voice. 

One option is clearly out.  It doesn’t make any sense to rush to the other extreme, and insist that Katie is now Katherine.  There is no point in dressing Ms. Couric up in gravitas, even if this is the single most frequently used adjective when it comes to praising newscaster. No, the point of the exercise was to give gravitas a certain approachability, to "port" Ms. Couric’s winningness into role of the newscaster.  Clearly, CBS was hoping that Katie + newscaster would reach out to new segments, to animate and perhaps soften the news. 

But if the news today is anything to judge by, things are not going well.  The CBS Evening News has fallen to third place.  Splicing the old Couric with the newscaster role is not working.  I think from an anthropological and a marketing point of view, it is fair to say there is no sweet spot, no point where these two meanings meet and mix.  In our culture, thanks perhaps to several centuries of gender discrimination, these categories (the approachable and the austere) are mutually inconsistent.  One is what the other is not.

Unless we are simply to throw up our hands and say this is a bad idea, one must find another strategy.  I think the real possibility is an episodic approach, so that Ms. Couric is sometimes approachable and sometimes grave, but never attempts to be the two together.  This takes a careful crafting of the message, but if I were CBS I would be scouring the career of Elizabeth I, a monarch who deftly sought to win both love and fear by demonstrating being sometimes one monarch and sometimes another,so to inspire the loyalty of her fractious, diverse, easily distracted subjects (and in this very like the American TV viewing public). 

What we are talking about here is an approach to meaning making that does not blend, but bundles.  The brand message looks then like a cable cut open.  The constituent meanings are not just distinct but color coded.  At any point in the cable, we can see which is which.  This is possible.  Elizabeth turned into into a monarchy of astounding power and longevity in the face of challenges religious, military, geopolitical, economic, social, cultural, and conceptual.  Geez, by this standard, the evening news ought to be clear sailing. 


Johnson, Peter.  2006.  Ratings Dip, but Couric Stays Upbeat.  USA Today.  October 29, 2006.  here.

Several authors.  n.d.  Katie Couric.  Wikipedia. here.   

The power of the particular in marketing

Thanks to my friendship with Ed Cotton, I am on the mailing list for Butler, Shine, Stern and Partners.  They are the agency for Mini and Converse, among others.  I got back from my travels to find a "moving notice" waiting for me.

Butler_shine_i Now, this is the sort of thing we have come to expect from the agency world.  This agency, we are lead to understand, more than any agency, suffers a certain "pressure of inventiveness" that means even banal communications must take on new and interesting qualities.  By these tiny floresences you shall know us, and notice that these  florescences are spectacular.  Advertising agencies are always advertising. 

Fair enough.  But as I began to read the notice, it began to work its magic on me.  It lists all the things that apparently turned up as BSSP were preparing to move. 

Some of these things are funny.


And some of them are strange. 


Some are sly and self referencing.   


But mostly, they are particular, really, really particular.


At some point, you discover you have fallen down the rabbit hole.  You are now picturing the old quarters of Butler Shine in incredible, "you are there" detail.  Now the act of moving goes from being a vague event overtaking a distant party, to something I feel I know up close, something I feel I have taking part in.  Wow.  BSSP reinvented the moving notice.  Nice one.

This is a case of discovering the general in the particular, I guess.  (Who was it that claimed to discover the world in a grain of sand?)  What a masterful act of meaning management it is.   At a time when many of the standard approaches to  advertising are under challenge, it is nice to be reminded of what can be accomplished by a three or four photos and a handful of words. 

Chevy Cocreation

Gm_tahoe In March, Chevy invited people to make ads for the 2007 Tahoe.  The Chevy website supplied videoclips, sound tracks, and a copy field.  Hey, presto, consumer created content. 

The results were not surprising.  Some people seized this opportunity to mock SUVs as a cause of global warning, as a danger on the highway, and as a source of social injustice.  There are now some 4 dozen Tahoe ads on YouTube.  Most are anti-Tahoe. 

What is surprising is that Chevy is now being trashed in the marketing press for its failure to see this coming.  In a piece called "Chevy’s Crash, Burn," Adweek columnist Catharine Taylor calls this an

… ill-advised experiment with consumer-generated advertising [that] ended up looking like a series of drive-by shootings, with the Tahoe’s image in the cross hairs. 

Well, maybe.  Here’s what Chevrolet general manager Ed Peper had to say.

Early on we made the decision that if we were to hold this contest, in which we invite anyone to create an ad, in an open forum, that we would be summarily destroyed in the blogosphere if we censored the ads based on their viewpoint.  So, we adopted a position of openness and transparency, and decided that we would welcome the debate. 

Welcome the debate?  I think he just won it.    

Is anyone really naive enough to think that consumer creation is a decorative gesture?   Does anyone suppose that we invite the consumer in for merely decorative purposes?   Does anyone think that consumers wish to participate only then to be patronized?

Here’s what we know, somewhat syllogistically,

1) consumer participation is essential for vibrant messages and brands.
2) more consumer participation means less control.
3) less control means controversy is going to happen.
4) controversy is the price of vibrant messages and brands

Anyone who is surprised by controversy, anyone who resists it, has yet to grasp the revolution in marketing that cocreation represents. 

Openness and transparency are essential.  Controversy, even anti-brand messages, are the price of admission.  If we want the brand to participate in contemporary culture, we must make it porous.  We must surrender some of our control, and send the brand out into the world for good and ill. 

There is no question that Tahoe took a hit.  But I think some of this was good for the brand.  It made Tahoe, Chevy and Detroit part of the conversation.  From a meaning management point of view, it actually works quite well. It says, "Behold, a brand that survives controversy, a brand that enables controversy.  Behold a brand that’s as rugged and mobile and all terrain."   Surviving controvery.  Enabling controversy.  When was the last time Brand America took a risk like this? 

There is a fundamental shift in the rules of the game of marketing.   We have to change our risk tolerances.   We have to understand that the marketer’s work, once so dominated by risk avoidance, is now much more about risk management.  If Adweek doesn’t get this, what hope do we have of persuading the client?


Peper, Ed.  2006.  Now that we’ve got your attention.  GM FastLane Blog.  April 6, 2006.  here.

Taylor, Catharine P.  2006.  Chevy’s Crash and Burn.  Adweek.  April 17, 2006, p. 14.  (not available on line.)

Youtube page for Tahoe ads here.

On the radio

LydonOk, I just finished an interview with Christopher Lydon for Open Source, the WGBH radio program out of Boston.  The topic was clutter and spring cleaning.  Most participants were singing that anti-consumer-society hymn we all know and love so well.  You know, the one that asks why can’t we all be more like Thoreau and live the simple life.

I find this sort of thing hard to listen to.  It seems to be to neglect the powers and subtleties of the person-object relationship in our culture.  Oh, sure, some stuff gets into our houses under false pretenses.  We just "have" to have it at the moment of purchase.  Several weeks later it is one more regretable piece of plastic, one that richly deserves the old heave ho.

But most of the things that "clutter" our homes are pretty important to us.  Strip them from us, by an act of God or man, hurricane or robbery, and the effects can be devastating.  We like to think that personhood is contained within the boundaries of the skin and that everything "out there" is so much clutter or at least utterly external. 

But 25 years of doing the anthropology of North America tells me that the self is actually located across these boundaries, so that part of us is resident within, and part of us  is resident in the things we call our own.  Anyhow, this is not everyone’s favorite point of view, and I try to make myself useful on the show without being a "Mr. Know it all, Professor smarty pants, but I have a PhD, damnit, I’ve done the research, don’t you see." 

And this is where it gets interesting.  Christopher Lydon (pictured) has this way of presiding with a very quiet impatience.  You could  hear him willing we three guests to say something interesting, to step up to the intellectual and conversational opportunity, to make this topic live.  Naturally, he is keen on this because he runs a radio show, but it don’t think that was the motive. 

No, I think he wants some place for his intelligence to engage, and when the conversation gets glassy, as it did on a couple of occasions, he hovers over the stray remark, beating his wings, seeing if he can’t scare even the tinyest field mouse out from under cover.  Who knows, but this might be a tasty morsel.  Who know, but that we might actually feast on this.  It was as vivid a demonstration of a roving, summoning intellect as I have seen in a long time. 

This is going to sound like sycophancy, and so I am now obliged to say that I find the guy in studio a little chilly, even by Boston standards.  Clearly, he is one of those guys who lives in the voice.  And on the radio he sounds passionate, all emotion in the service of idea.  In person, well in person, the warmth is not so clear.  There, now I have overcorrected and almost certainly offended him. 

Branding, cocreation and AmEx theater


Yesterday I praised the AmEx spot directed by M. Night Shyamalan and metadirected by Ogilvy.

It shows Mr. Shyamalan in a restaurant where people and things seem to have slipped their moorings, and now are drifting ever so delicately out of ontological alignment.  Mr. Shyamalan looks on.  So do we.

I argued that when we use indeterminacy as an advertising device, we invite the consumer to complete the ad and the brand.  Mr. Shyamalan’s "My Life, My Card" ad invites cocreation, one of the great objectives of the new marketing.  By this reckoning, difficult ads are efficacious ads.  (So much for the "keep it simple, stupid" orthodoxy of the old marketing.)

But today I got thinking.  (It often takes 24 hours for this to happen.  My motto: blog first, ask questions later.  I thank my esteemed Corante colleague Johnnie Moore for the push.)  I got thinking about how cocreation works.  When I complete parts of the Shyamalan ad, am I actually helping to build the AmEx ad and the AmEx brand?  Probably not.  No, actually, for the moment I am sealed into the imaginative world created by Shyamalan.  All puzzles, props and propositions go to him.

Eventually I come unglued.  Eventually, I pull myself out of the Shyamalan restaurant and as I exit, I remember and give honor to American Express.  What happens then?  Is this merely a matter of thanking AmEx for bringing me the Shyamalan spot…in the way millions of consumers thank Tide for a soap opera?  Is AmEx merely the conduit for the Shyamalan ad?  Or are they something more like a participant in his achievements and my exertions.  In sum, do I construct AmEx when I am constructing Shyamalan’s Restaurant?

Well, AmEx may be merely the conduit for Shyamalan’s Restaurant, but this would be nothing to sneer at.  With Restaurant, we all spent 2 minutes in the company of a gifted filmmaker, noticing, wondering, filling in, working out, feasting on 120 seconds of advertising more remarkable than many 120 minute films.  (So you saw King Kong, too.)  And this gift couldn’t have come at a happier time.  There we were, captive of the forced march of Oscar night, bored witless but unable to turn away.  Suddenly, Shyamalan’s gift materialized before us.  Materialized?  It evanesced before us.  Released from captivity in Kodak theater, why would we not give deep thanks and credit to the AmEx theater that was our savior? 

This might be a nice little tradition to hope for: the AmEx theater that emerges for 120 seconds each year in the throes of the Oscars, an beautiful little reminder of what the fuss is about, and why we make or watch films in the first place.  Shyamalan’s restaurant was more engaging than anything that happened.  When it was over, I turned to Pam and blessed her with my usual eloquence: "Wow, what was…that was…wow!"   If this is all it is, AmEx may consider their money well spent.  After all, the much vaunted "magic" of filmmaking is the very thing that seems to vanish from view on Oscar night.  Being the brand that reminds us of the point of the proceedings, well, this has got to be good for something.  It certainly separates American Express rather elegantly from the sprawling goody bag of the occasion.

But I think it is something more at work here.  I can’t help feeling that there is a deeper unity.  And if I had another 24 hours I could tell you what it is.  Ah, here it is: what impresses me is that American Express has left M. Night Shyamalan to work his creative genius, apparently without interference.  And in a way, this would appear to be his gift to us.  He leaves us to work out the significance of the empty baby carriage, the tattooed monk, the woman’s gaze across the restaurant.  AmEx releases Shyamalan from the constraints of advertising that Shyamalan might release us from the constraints of advertising.

This gets right at the brand proposition, and Shyamalan’s take on it.  The former, My Life, My Card, says this brand does not presume to know who you are any more than it presumes to tell M. Night Shyamalan how to make an ad.  It merely puts at our disposal a financial instrument that enables us (as it enabled him).  Mr. Shyamalan customized his ad with this signoff: "My life is about finding time to dream, that’s why my card is American Express."  Now the AmEx card is positioned as something that frees someone of Shyamalan’s gifts from the many harassments imposed by cash and book keeping.  This is the brand proposition on high, in the life of a creative god, and here below, in the lives of mere mortals like us. 

In a sense, what AmEx has accomplished here is the perfect opposite of a product placement.  This ad is not about jamming the product into the frame.  (We learned today that Ford will pay $14 million dollars to get one of their vehicles into the new James Bond picture.  Steve Hall is properly scornful.)    Indeed, AmEx is so sophisticated on this score, they are not even jamming the brand into their own ads.  In the evolutionary order of things, this is pretty remarkable.  More important, it is, from a strategy point of view, exactly on target.


Hall, Steve.  Ford pays $14 million for Bond film appearance.  Adrants.  March 3, 2005. here

Peyton Manning: the man and the brand

Peyton_1Yesterday, the Indianapolis Colts covered themselves with glory yet again, trouncing Jacksonville and extending their winning streak to 13 games.  The Colts quarterback, Peyton Manning threw for 324 yards, opening with a drive that was, in the words of the New York Times, "precise and relentless." 

But for those of us who loiter at this intersection, Peyton’s more remarkable performance was the one in the MasterCard spot.  This is the one from McCann Erickson calls Professional Fan.

This ad has been on air now from some weeks, but my regard for it grows with each viewing.  Peyton Manning is an obessive fan who treats ordinary people as if they, not he, were the celeb.  Manning is shown asking a stockboy for his autograph, cheering on a mechanic, and lying in wait for fast food servers to end their shift and leave the restaurant.

This spot puts Manning and MasterCard in competition with VISA and the New England Patriot’s quarterback, Tom Brady.  I wouldn’t want to say who is the better quarterback, but clearly Manning is the better actor and as a result, MasterCard is, in this contest, champs. 

The VISA spot is charming enough.  It gives us Brady  out to dinner with his linemen who claim to be metaphors for VISA fraud protection.  (And this is pretty good all by itself, and an ad that expands the envelope of creative possibility. Hats off to BBDO New York.)  But there is never any question that we are watching professional athletes manfully doing their best, teetering sometimes on the edge of self embarrassment.

Manning, on the other hand, is note perfect.  It’s an all out performance.  There is no "sliding" on this one.  (Quarterback are allowed to conclude their "runs" with a slide, instead of contact.)  Manning is not pretending to be an actor pretending to be a person.  He is the crazy fan confronting the stock boy, the fast food server, the mechanic. 

McCann Erickson have crafted this narrative, giving it a couple of grace notes that make it live.  When Manning is shouting his praise at a mechanic, he mutters to another guy "you’re good, too."  When Manning sits in a cafeteria shouting "D-Caf" at the wait staff, he is oblivious to the look of concern and astonishment he gets from one of them. 

There is even an "inside joke."  In the last moment, Manning asks a stock boy to sign a loaf of bread to his little brother.  "He loves your work."  (Manning’s little brother also plays in the NFL,  which means that he is probably not really well acquainted with the shelving work of this particular Kroger employee.)

It is worth pointing out here that this is a craft that advertising upstart Google cannot have without a massive change of training and staff.

This "portrait of a fan" is detailed, damning, and punch-the-dog funny.  Manning’s fan is obsessive, familiar, clueless, alarming, patronizing, intrusive, and without shame.  The performance is good enough to make conflicting points: Manning identifies with the fan even as he mocks the fan.  Compassion mixes with revenge.  This is theatre, both relentless and precise.

There is a branding question here.  What does this spot do for MasterCard?  In the world of celebrity endorsement, especially when dealing with a star of Manning’s magnitude, it is normally enough to have the star merely coexist with the credit card.  Hey, presto.  Peyton Manning endorses MasterCard.

But, no.  MasterCard and Manning conspired to engage in a detailed satire.  It is worth pointing out that the Priceless campaign is now 7 years old.  (I think this date is right.  It is astonishing hard to get the details on ad production.)  This means that McCann Erickson is now working on variations on the theme and they are working with an audience (all of us) who get the "Priceless" premise in a fundamental way.  (This confirms, I think, Robert Thompson’s argument about the narrative opportunities that TV opens up…as opposed to theatre or film.) 

More than than, McCann has been working with Manning for at least two years (they did an Xbox spot with him, the "trash talk" one), so they have a pretty good idea of his capacity.  So many of the relationships in the world of marketing are fleeting that a deeper knowledge of this kind is not possible.  But here McCann knows and understands the celebrity, and what he can do.  Clearly, they are now writing for him and his strengths. 

So why the role reversal?  Why have Manning play a fan?  It is unexpected, liminal, a little upside down, and that’s good for winning the attention of a sports fan otherwise stupified by all that bad beer advertising.  It is a god brought low, and that’s very much in keeping with the democratic willingness of present day celebrities to make fun of their stardom.  (They know that if they don’t do it, someone else will.) 

Finally, since those Miller Lite ads from the 1990s, we have been watching athletes consenting to goof for the camera.  (By some marketing alchemy, this does not diminish their standing…perhaps because they are so charged with status, they can give it away with impunity.) 

What does this do for MasterCard?  In the logical shorthand, we might say MasterCard is to Manning as Manning is to the fan as the fan is Manning as Manning is to MasterCard.  Hmm,  not quite.  (But nice try.)  No, the symbolic readout is simpler: MasterCard is now as Manning is: human scaled and more approachable.  (The credit card players continue to be shadowed by the arrogance and self importance of the capital markets.)

Celebrity endorsements work in both directions, and this one works for Manning nicely.  Every professional athlete lives in dread of the cart.  Every athlete is a blown knee away from the end of their career.  Naturally, athletes would like to have options, and they know they have to start cultivating their alternatives before the present one is over. 

Manning has started to position himself for the post career career, and the MasterCard campaign demonstrates not just a sense of humor but a cultural intelligence that most athletes can’t dream of.  (This is one of the costs of that single minded devotion to football.) 

In sum, this spot is a nice little piece of meaning management.  Professional Fan makes new properties for the celebrity endorser.  It then transfers these to the MasterCard brand.  The athlete manages in the process to restock and reposition his own brand.  And finally, the fan finds himself emulated (and mocked) by a man he wants to emulate (and revere).   Popular culture, it just gets interestinger and interestinger. 


Brown, Clifton.  2005.  Another Giant Step for Manning and Undefeated Colts.  New York Times.  December 12, 2005. here.

McCracken, Grant.  2005.  Celebrity Culture: muddle in the models.  This Blog Sits At…  here.

post script

Creative for MasterCard’s "Priceless" campaign is handled by McCann-Erickson/New York:  Joyce King-Thomas, Executive Creative Officer; Eric Goldstein, SVP, Group Creative Director, Chris Cereda, VP, Associate Creative Director; Julie Andariese, VP, Senior Producer.  I believe the account planners for the campaign were Nat Puccio and Suresh Nair.  Thanks to Jon Schwartz of MasterCard International for these details. 

Meanings made: branding and sound

Radio_3These things we hold to be incontrovertible:

    that brands are made of meanings

    that meanings are made of images, words, and sounds

    that sounds are the poor relation of the lot

Several weeks ago, I met a woman named Audrey Arbeeny who runs a company called Audiobrain.  She did a great job persuading me that sound is indeed the neglected opportunity in the marketing world, especially when it comes to meaning management.

We spend vast amounts of time and money constructing brands but only sometimes do we thing about what Audrey calls the "sonic" signature of the brand.  There are exceptions and the Sony Play Station sound is a good one of these.  Truly, it makes "live in your world, play in ours" work in ways it could not otherwise.

We are logo-centric, we are image-idolatrous, but sound, not so much. (How many bloggers use sound?) Weird.  Anyone curious to see what difference sound can make may wish to go to Audrey’s website and look at the video clip she has there for the work she has done for HBO.  Have a listen with your speakers on "mute" and listen again with the volume turned up. The HBO spot is here.

Happy Thanksgiving from Grant, Pam, Molly and the boys at the lab.

Story time 14: Sophie, marketing goddess

DianaCoca-Cola sent a team to the food fair held in Cologne a few years ago. We were there to listen for new trends that might influence the world of carbonated soft drinks.

The fair itself was interesting. There were acres of innovations. Wine in a box, cheese on a stick, that kind of thing. But the best part of the trip was what happened over drinks back at the hotel.

Nick Hahn and Charlotte Oades were presiding and the conversation turned to Sophie, a creature invented for marketing purposes, and as a far as I know an unprecedented in this endlessly inventive field.

Sophie was designed for one audience: pre-teen and early teen girls. Our assumption was that there is no group of consumers in the world more curious, more inventive or more participatory than this group.

Sophie was designed to exist two places. The first was on-line. Sophie would have an apartment on-line. Anyone could visit. Sophie would never be home, but the apartment would be filled with cues. The visitor could look at look in Sophie’s cupboards, listen to her answer machine, look at the notes and postcards on her fridge. The visitor could examine her wardrobe, bathroom and bedroom. The visitor can start up Sophie’s computer, examine her desktop, read her email, examine other files. The visitor could stand by an open window and hear fragments of conversation coming up from the street.

Nothing escapes a twelve year old girl. That picture on the fridge: Sophie’s brother or boyfriend? Those voices coming up from the street: is that Spanish or Italian? And what about the "note to self" on the fridge, the one that reads "sboats bhd schd!"

But Sophie would also manifest herself in the real world. The strategy here was to stage events in the world. I think our unofficial motto here was that 90s bumber sticker that read "practice senseless acts of kindness and random acts of beauty." Corny, to be sure, but useful as pungent little phrases can be when you are in the thick of ideation. 

We imagined a series of "acts." One was to light up a fountain in the middle of Mexico City, say, the Diana fountain there. Another was to moor sailboats in Sydney harbor so that they formed in a circle. A third was to return stolen art to the Hermitage.  Always the press would be notified that something was going to happen, and always when something did happen, foodbanks and city services would fill to overflowing.

Our hope was that the press would begin to report these stories and that teen readers would begin to make connections. Our principle was always less is more. We wanted to give the press only as much as they needed to file a story and not a jot more. We knew that key word searches would allow the teen girls to find Sophie wherever she was manifesting herself. We guessed that they see patterns that the press would not.

Sophie had a calculated duality. Everytime you thought she was an ordinary girl living in her first apartment (Rome? Madrid?), you were lead to suspect she might in fact be a goddess. And just as you were beginning to suspect she was a indeed a creature of myth and fable, you would begin to see her as a girl again.

But most of all Sophie was a marketing creation. She would be funded by TCCC (the Coca-Cola Company) but she would have to be leveraged in the most delicate way possible. The moment that TCCC claimed her, she was over. The moment TCCC so much as labelled her, she was over. The best TCCC could hope for is to have Sophie sometimes smile in their direction. This meant, amongst other things, merely more Cokes in Sophie’s fridge than Pepsis. Not no Pepsi’s!

In effect, TCCC would have to treat Sophie with the same exquisite care and solicitude with which it now treats Santa Claus, another of its marketing creations.  Marketing instruments and vehicles must grow more interesting and sophisticated.  Pirates, jolly green giants, dough boys, these are no longer enough.  What we want now are more fully realized creatures that invite the consumer to enter into acts of co-creation and self completion. 

The funny thing is that if we do our jobs, the creature leaves the brand and enters the culture.  Now marketers are like any other culture creators, except that, unlike the creators of the Simpsons, say, they seize the marketing opportunity at the beginning instead of the end of the creature’s life cycle.


The photo above, sorry about the quality, shows the Diana Fountain of Mexico City. 

Is marketing now cheap, fast and out of control?

Made_ave_lief_knutsenTom Asacker was kind enough to invite me to answer some questions for the interview series he’s conducting at  I sat down to answer his question and before I knew it, I had a blog post. (I guess we’re all now blogging machines.) Here is Tom’s question and my answer, with the debate to continue at on Wednesday.

Tom Asacker’s question:

Grant. In your new book, Culture and Consumption II, you write "the consumer is an individual in a cultural context engaged in a cultural project. They are looking for small meanings, concepts of what it is to be a man or a woman, concepts of what it is to be middle aged, concepts of what it is to be a parent, concepts of what a child is and what a child is becoming, concepts of what it is to be a member of a community and a country."

You go on to say that "advertising is the preeminent meaning maker." Some would view that as a dated concept considering the level of consumer skepticism¾and perhaps cynicism¾towards advertising, the fragmentation of media, and the increasing importance of design and the customer experience on meaning-making in the marketplace. Can you speak to those trends as they relate to your premise?

Grant McCracken’s answer:

Tom, This is a great question. Advertising was once the paradigmatic meaning maker in our culture, and it’s a good idea to ask whether it remains so. Clearly, advertising did astonishing things in its time. As I show in the "cars" chapter in C&CII, it actually helped to create North American culture in the 1950s…not in that dumbed-down way preferred by intellectuals but in a way that was much substantial, genuine and, yes, authentic.

But clearly, things have changed. New media are upon us. Contemporary culture is swifter and more turbulent. Consumers have become newly participatory. They are smarter about how media works. They are more diverse internally. (There are more tastes and preferences within any given consumer.) They are more diverse externally. (There are more groups of consumers, distinguished by new principles.)

But, this just begins to tap the problem. The basic notions here, "consumer," "segment," "brand," "relationship," these are all up for grabs. Marketing academics and professionals now have to redefine, rework and reapply them.

This means the "big cannon" approach to marketing is in dispute. This said: take a simple message (aka, "the clown") and fire it at a large target (aka, "a bucket of water") as often and loudly as possible. As a guy who worked for P&G in the 1970s recently told me, "We could get 85% American householders with one week of advertising on the big three networks." USP (aka "unique selling proposition") really stood for "keep it simple, stupid." The marketer’s mantra, say it loud and say it proud, "we’re here, we’re mere, get used to it."

What we need is a "many cannons" approach: many, shifting targets and a constant, shifting cannonade. Or maybe it makes sense just to dispense with the metaphor altogether. (Military metaphors, with advertising "campaigns," approved by "captains" of industry, that make a "killing," these were always an odd way of thinking about what advertising was and now they seem particularly odd. My fellow "Coburn Change Fellow," Jerry Michalski, doesn’t even like to use the term "consumer." There’s a good chance that much of the vocabulary of marketing will change.)

The "many cannons" approach is already with us. Smart marketers are using new, more interesting messages, delivered by media that is multi and well mixed. But it’s not clear to me that the beast called advertising is dead. There is no meaning maker in the marketer’s tool kit as powerful as advertising. A TV spot can use 15 seconds to astonishing effect. It can make meanings, build relationships, construct brands at a stroke. When this is followed up by the smaller message and the more delicate interventions made possible by the new media, then we’ve really got something. But it seems to me too early to dismiss the mass media advertising instrument. I think it will be with us always.

But here’s what really bugs me. I don’t believe we have a persuasive model of how the new marketing and the new media are going to assume the "meaning management" abilities once so magnificently deployed by advertising proper. It’s a little as if we are now working with a "cheap, fast and out of control" model (Thank you, Earl Morris). There are lots of little devices at our disposal. But they are dubious, uncertain, and, most important, yet to be coordinated to big branding effects.

Everyone says the king is dead. But are we quite sure this is so? Have we got a monarch in waiting? Perhaps we should hold off on the regicide until we have a new plan for running the country.


The image above of Madison Avenue is from the Wikipedia entry on Manhattan and it was created by Lief Knutsen. 

The Xbox box: from Incredible Hulk to Bruce Lee

I am at Design Management Institute meetings Xbox_jonathanhere on the Cape.  This morning there was a presentation from Jonathan Hayes (Design Director, Microsoft) and Michael Jager (Creative Director, Jager Di Paola Kemp Design).

Jager presented in the outfit of Master Chief from Halo.  Many of us were moved to tears.  That’s Jonathan on the right trying to calm us down. 

You will see in the photos to the right that the console is undergoing a redesign.  XboxThe first version, the Xbox, was, as Jonathan put it, designed to suggest the containment of tremendous power, a kind of Incredible Hulk, buttons popping, power unleashing, grab the kids, save the dog sort of thing.  You can see it in the bow of the top verticle plane and of course in the famous Xbox logo. 

This is great design because it is the sort of thing that every young teenager would like to see happen to himself.  There is a reason that comic book heroes are always going from Clark Kents to Supermen.  But it is wrong to patronize their kids for their fascination.  In fact, they have good physiological and emotional grounds for identifying deeply with Incredible Hulks.  This is very like the transformation being forced on them by adolescence.  And we must add to this a third effect that gives teens an interest in Hulk containment: in our lifetime, computer based gaming and cyborg enablements have expanded the Hulk opportunities exponentially. 

The Xbox was, in sum, an canny piece of meaning management.  It reached out to the first consumer, the early adopter, and spoke to them with an image and meaning they cared about.

But what happens when the Xbox decides it wants to move out of the basements of hollowed eyed teenagers into the the study, the dens, the living rooms of a massively larger audience?  The design team adopts what Michael calls a new "design sobriety".  And they looked for another way to talk about power through electronic augmentation, digital transformation.

Microsoft needed an image that is disciplined, more precise, nuanced, but still formidable.   And here, to the right, is what they did.  This is the Xbox360, available in stores in 5 or 6 weeks.  Xbox360Sorry, the photo is something less than perfect.  What it obscures is the fact that this Xbox box looks a little like parentheses turned back to back:  ) (   or  ] [ . 

Jonathan and Michael talk about this icon as "the inhale of breath before a strike in the martial arts."  So we have power represented here still but now appears in a new idiom, one that older, more mainstream consumers can embrace.  This is power with poise, power with grace, power from discipline, power from intelligence.  Nice one.

All of these "reach" strategies are daring ones.  More and more, we marketers find ourselves obliged to speak to 2 (or more) audiences with the same product design or brand.  (This is because there are more new segments, and more difference between old segments.  In this case: technologically enabled teens who come down to dinner having competing on line with friends in Ghana against enemies in the Philipines and now sit with parents who barely make their way through this morning’s newspaper.) In this case, Microsoft needed a design that speaks to the old consistency even as it recruits a new one.  The formula: semiotic sameness to keep the segment you have and semiotic departure to capture the segment you want. 

Will this work?  That’s the great thing about culture in capitalism.  We shall see whether this one design can talk to two very different groups. 

One thing is clear, the Xbox team is a lot like the "ring of light" icon on which they are working.  They are invitational, dynamic and overlapping in their energies.  This means they work as an international team, draw heavily on design players outside Microsoft, consult closely with the player community, and work towards an ever shifting consensus that is maximally alive to what is happening inside Microsoft and the extra-Microsoft worlds to which they belong.  (Michael said that at one point in the development process he saw what he thought was a perfect, lasting consensus come out of kilter in just 4 months.)

I sat there thinking, "Gosh, this doesn’t sound like the Microsoft I know.  What if…what if while reinventing the Xbox, they found a way to reinvent the mother ship?" Some one get in touch with the real Master Chief.