Category Archives: Meaning management

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.