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.