252 – The Brand

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As you might have noticed, I’m rather interested in advertising.

As interests go it’s not the healthiest–it’s on a par with people who collect Nazi memorabilia or who are unduly interested in eyes. I recently read a discussion about people’s fetishes in which a number of contributors took the wimp’s way out by not listing fetishes but features they’d like their partner to have–that anyone would like their partner to have, for that matter.

“It’s ridiculous!” I said, indignant. “‘My fetish is a nice smile’–who doesn’t like a nice smile? ‘I have a fetish for beautiful eyes’–that’s not a fetish; get that weak shit off my track!”

“Maybe it is a fetish,” said my wife. “Maybe that’s all they’re interested in. They can’t get off unless their partner has really nice eyes and really, in that case, the partner is optional.”

Which led to a discussion in which these previously anodyne fetishists were actually as hardcore as fetishists come, and had papered the walls of their houses with beautiful eyes cut from magazines. They bring home dates–”The eyes? Uh, don’t worry about those; they’re for an art project”–and demand they wear niqabs during sexy time.

Which is on par with an interest in advertising, I suppose, except instead of cutting eyes out to paste into your serial killer hole under the stairs you cut them out because you’re curious as to why the ad agency chose this particular eye, made the model up to look this way, how they further doctored the image in Photoshop and why this image is the best image to sell the product they’re selling.

It’s a theme I’ve visited before–you might remember my post on Heinz Noodle Doodles and dancing the Shake ‘n’ Vac. Except you don’t dance the Shake ‘n’ Vac: you do it, even though it’s obviously a dance. You do it in the same way you’d do the rumba or the tango; by not mentioning the word ‘dance’ it sounds as if the Shake ‘n’ Vac’s already an established dance. The same could be said of the Time Warp or the Macarena–not to mention that using ‘do’ lends a different cadence to the sentence, making it seem more interesting or memorable.

That’s the kind of thing I find fascinating in an eyes-on-the-wall kind of way. Marketing’s all about language–both written and visual–and how it can make a certain point.

It’s something that swims to mind while I’m editing these One A Day blog posts, where I often find myself replacing words for synonyms that sound slightly better, or near-synonyms that convey the point I’m trying to make in a more efficient manner. That’s another important facet of advertising: hammering the point home in as few words as possible. In Stephen King’s On Writing he describes how he was taught to write at a local newspaper. While his copy was decent, his editor would take the ball game reports he’d written and strike through every other word as unnecessary.

I like unnecessary words–to me they’re vital–but if I’m writing for someone else, and don’t have the luxury of spinning out the evils of advertising into a paragraph on eyeball-obsessed whack-jobs I trim it until it’s lean and punchy. Believe it or not I’ve just hacked that last sentence down to size: you should have seen the behemoth it was beforehand.

In advertising the small amount of words you have to play with means the placement and meaning of each word is of the utmost importance. Vintage print ads were more like essays than advertisements, hammering home every feature of the product being sold over several paragraphs  Over the decades the public’s attention span has waned; we’ll no longer be drawn to a few italicised and underlined words in a sea of text, and we certainly won’t read the words surrounding them.

If a picture is worth a thousand words you need only open a magazine to see the number of words we might once have contended with–and how advertisers have honed their craft. We’re bombarded with images, slogans and logos to the point we need only see a single letter from a familiar logo in order to identify that brand. It’s difficult to imagine advertising condensed any further than it currently is.

Feeling hungry? Do you want to go to McD’s or KFC?

A hundred years those letters would merely have been letters: today you all know the restaurants I’m talking about. This kind of branding permeates our lives: we’re constantly reminded of brands we know. A certain flick of a paint brush might remind us of the Nike swoosh; you eat an apple and out of the blue have a hankering from an iPad. Just as potent as a jingle but far more concise, these pictograms instantly remove consumers from every day life to a realm where laughter and good times are inextricably linked with a pair of golden arches.

Every company and every product has its own pictogram now, with some companies only needing one to embrace a whole range of products and services. Think of the Disney Corporation’s Hidden Mickey: three circles interlinked, one at the bottom, two at the top. It’s a pictogram you might never have previously noticed but it’s omnipresent on Disney merchandising, so simply depicted and instantly recognisable you could portray it in a few coins or elastic bands. Hidden Mickeys can appear in clouds, in water droplets, in the meals heaped on your dinner plate; like a human face someone exposed to enough Disney marketing–children being particularly vulnerable–can pick it out wherever they are, wherever they look.

With this in mind it’s no wonder advertisers are considered evil. As Bill Hicks once said: “By the way, if you work in marketing or advertising . . . kill yourself.”

They are, after all, playing psychological tricks upon people to turn them into consumers. They’re brainwashing you, basically: re-writing your brain so when you hear a certain melody or see a certain configuration of cloud you suddenly feel the urge to consume. You might not think you want to, say, visit Disney World when you see a splotch of jam on your morning toast but guess what? You do.

I know you think you’re stronger than that; I think I’m stronger than that, too, yet I’m still surrounded with all manner of meaningless shit I can’t take with me to the grave–that’ll only be packed away, sold off or crunched up upon my death–that was sold to me either directly through advertising or through a pervasive consumerist society built upon advertising–that’s so pervasive, we might as well be breathing McAir.

I don’t doubt that these guys are evil. Whether they realise it or not, I don’t think most care one way or the other. Maybe sometimes they come home from work weary, worrying about their souls after they’ve spent the day finding the best way to sell plastic toy ponies to little girls.

And the plastic’s toxic to the environment, and they’re targeting a certain demographic of particularly poor little girls, whose parents can’t afford to buy these toys but will be cajoled into doing it nonetheless.

And even though they tell themselves “That’s not my problem” they know it actually is, that they’re responsible for it, and maybe they wonder what else they could be using these near-hypnotic talents for, how they could manipulate people for the good of mankind rather than to sell plastic fucking horses.

And maybe you think I’m bullshitting again, but I’ve got to tell you–and this is coming from one of the self-proclaimed good guys, here–manipulating people through writing is a thrill.

Going right back to the start of this blog I wrote a post about my mother’s life which had from my reader, to this day the most positive response of anything I’ve written. People liked it; people were moved by it. It made them cry and think of their own mothers.

The words they read–that I’d written–were 100% completely heartfelt, and I managed to touch these people–total strangers–with my writing. It was amazing, and even though I’ve never had the same response since I hope I’ve managed to touch people with my writing anyway, making them laugh, making them cry, making them think of good times past and better times still to come. Making readers think and feel: that’s what a writer does.

But let’s say for a second that post from January, The Mother, was a Hallmark greetings card. Let’s say I managed to distill everything I’d written that day down to an illustration and a paragraph inside the card itself. The meaning’s still there and it still makes you cry, but now I’m selling it to you for £3.00: I’m selling you sentiment for you to sign and deliver to your own mother. There you go, mum, I love you, happy birthday.

Which is exactly how those cards come about, of course, and we know this, yet we still buy the damned things rather than write our own feelings down. In this advertiser’s fantasy it’s better to pay cynical skeezes to write affection for us rather than show any of our own.

Just how far will advertisers go in order to sell us a brand? After decades of sex and cute imagery–the Andrex puppy is not a recognised breed, folks–in the UK adverts have moved onto ‘lifestyle’ images a world away from the aspirational yuppies of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Today adverts play upon the idea of friends as family, so we’re inundated with twee twenty-somethings taking part in nauseating projects, like gathering in a field to set off Chinese sky lanterns or rolling rainbow rugs over rooftops. Every advert has the same tin whistle playing in the background; every advert sells its brand off the back of the very same nostalgic whimsy this blog is built upon. It can be a lonely world, the adverts say, but it’s a much better place when you have friends.

The actors are winsome and vulnerable; they dress down and smile shyly, hang out with their friends and give us something to aspire to . . . and the brand is sold.

It’s frightening, but it’s amazing at the same time. Given that I’m so fascinated by this manipulation it should come as no surprise when I tell you I’ve been trying to sell you a brand all year: my brand, Campfire Burning. How many times have I told you I’m a story teller? How many times have I talked about my own vulnerability and the fragility of the human spirit? How many times have I stirred memories of things you’ve loved, things you’ve lost, times that have passed that you still remember fondly?

What about board games and video games? Whatever gave you the opinion I might be an expert on such matters? People keep asking me to write for them or appear on their podcasts but I’ve no background in gaming, I’ve no experience or qualifications. All I have is my brand, and my brand seems to be working.

So I ask you, dear reader–only you have no say in the matter; you just don’t realise this yet–buy Campfire Burning brand washing up liquid, and breakfast cereal. and cologne, and video games. Imagine there’s a jaunty, slightly melancholic tin whistle tune playing in the background, and an girl singing in that slightly off-key, throaty manner we’ve come to think of as earnest. Imagine smiling, winsome faces beckoning you toward a brighter life, and buy my product. Come on, buy it. Buy it, you gullible fools. Buy it.

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