Tuesday, April 25th, 2006

Branding tragedy

Branding tragedy
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To our American readers, I apologize in advance. I’m going to be writing some not so nice things about the place in which you live, and some of you may not like me so much as a result. In my defense, it’s not Americans I’m critical of; rather, I’m skeptical of this media juggernaut which takes up residency in your nation.

I should also note that I’m sauntering into a world of social commentary which I am, admittedly, highly unequipped to intelligently defend. So, let me precursor this post with the notion that perhaps this can prove more of a “starting-point” for feedback, and we can all share in some thoughts and discussion.

Right back after these messages

On the morning of 9/11, we sat in our first studio (my old house), and were transfixed by what we saw on the television. I’ll save you my platitudes, as we’ve all been inundated by such musings and attempts to reconcile the incomprehensible. Let’s just say that it was something I still struggle to personally classify.

When Entertainment Tonight started airing coverage of the attack and aftermath, I was perplexed. What did this mean? Was the attack somehow entertaining? Why would they be talking about this? They were supposed to be covering celebrities, fashion, gossip–that’s right… entertainment. As such, a catastrophe of such epic proportions seemed entirely unrelated to the mandate of their program.

What I witnessed, and finally came to understand, was that to the American media, news and entertainment, or even larger yet, fact and fiction, were no longer separate entities. The two had collided and left a free-for-all, in which both credible journalism and tabloid fodder were mixing to create something much more muddy and unclear. In this new mix, celebrity happenings were just as likely to headline American news programs, as national disasters were to consume entertainment programs.

A news fix

What a difficult spot to be in. Here we are, victims of the machines we have encouraged and constructed by proxy. As a culture, we adore television, news, gossip, drama, and tragedy, and from our desire for a continuous stream of perversely titillating information, media has responded to our desires.

We wanted it, and now we have it: 24/7 media-junk on demand. I acknowledge that this is not any kind of a novel insight–we all sort of know this, whether we wish to acknowledge it or not. The news has been commoditized, and subsequently engineered, to be a more salable property.

As we watched CNN‘s exhaustive coverage, I had to wonder if media organizations were possibly happy when things became worse. Sure, those in the media are likely compassionate human beings, but their fates are also tied to ratings. If one more plane would have hit a building, would they have perhaps earned a greater viewer-ship? They certainly seemed ready to profit from the day. They had cameras everywhere, the graphics were beautiful, and they coined phrases for aspects of the tragedy almost instantaneously.

It frightens me that some may believe I do not hold that day with the greatest degree of reverence. To the contrary, I simply believe that we must be highly aware of all facets of such atrocities. War is complex.

The dumbing-down of today’s viewer

We are all becoming voyeurs, but not participants. We may comment and criticize the events we view on television, but progressively we become more distanced from the things that we watch. The lens is a sensational tool in that it distorts reality, and allows us a layer of removal, through which we can absolve ourselves of responsibility. We can claim ignorance of real news, while we distract ourselves with the foibles of celebrity. Frankly, I think that most of us would much rather critique Paris Hilton traipsing about in her underwear, than discuss genocide in Sudan.

The corporations behind these news giants have both stripped the potency of their medium and relegated us to the most docile of spectators. We watch. We don’t step-up, and we don’t fight back. We are spectators. And so long as these stories are made to seem ever-more fictional, we can divorce ourselves from actually needing to be involved.

The notion of entertainment as a method of escape is easy to comprehend, and without any question, valid; nevertheless, when these novelties cloud our ability to understand real issues, I worry that we are risking something far too great. We are passively courting an Orwellian future, which threatens to strip all of us of our fundamental rights.

I would expect that the media giants revel in this. We watch more while they sell ad space at a greater profit. We in-turn buy more crap that we didn’t need in the first place. We have become little more than cattle: a docile populace ready to serve the needs of another, more powerful group.

In writing this, I have been reminded by others that I am limiting this article somewhat, by focusing primarily on the privately-held American mainstream media, while failing to mention alternate media which are more critical and less frivolous in their reporting. This is clearly an oversight on my behalf. Alternet and Mother Jones represent just a few of the alternative perspectives that work to bring balance to the equation; nevertheless, few of these sources can muster the firepower of giants like Fox News.

As news programs become less responsible, integrity becomes anachronistic, and the line between entertainment and news blurs, we find ourselves more passive and willing to shrug off atrocities, while we wait for someone else to solve problems that are as much ours as anyone else’s.

Who did this?

That’s right my friend, you and me. As a culture we courted it; however, as designers and purveyors of brands, we have taken a much more active role in this perversion of media. We added the dazzle and bombastic energy to these programs that makes them as contagious and addictive as we know them to be.

I’m forced to ask who made all of those wonderfully exhilarating logos, taglines, and effects? Who taught the world how to sell through exaggeration? That wild presentation of the nightly news: bright lights, heroic themes, lens flares, extruded type, cartoon-like info graphics–the news has come to more resemble a movie than reportage–really, it’s far more fun that way, isn’t it?

We should give ourselves a great big pat on the back–all of us designers did our jobs well. It’s not just the news; it’s the super-news! More fun, more excitement, more action! Ready for your passive engagement… and presented in high-definition where available!

We do this for clients every day. We find methods to extrapolate emotional responses for inanimate things. Why then are we surprised to find that the businesses behind these media sources turn to the same branding practices we have honed so well to better sell their wares?

Through our knowledge of brands, we’ve found a way to commoditize anything. We’ve built names and phrases for inventions and constructs that needn’t be, nor ever should have been, sold. We love the taglines and gimmicks. Names and logos for military actions, Acts Of God, and other products not made for sale, are produced with such vigor and precision. On a quick survey around the office, we immediately recalled such memorable phrases as: “Ground Zero”, “Desert Storm”, and “WMDs.” It’s almost impossible to not be consumed by that same rabid energy that accompanies these terms. (On second glance, I find it difficult to determine whether they represent news references or heavy-metal acts.)

We didn’t pull the trigger, but we may very well have built a good part of the gun.


When content is available for purchase it compromises the integrity in all content. Increasingly, we are bombarded by promises, claims, and assertions which upon inspection are quite clearly inaccurate or misleading.

As of late, we have encountered a series of advertorials, in which advertising is masked as editorial content. Although upon first seeing this I felt duped, I now simply accept it as a weak and tacky fashion of advertising; yet, my peers and I are generally quite critical and aware of such trickery–I question whether the entire population is as on-guard regarding the legitimacy of claims made in such a forum.

We hold advertisers to limited scrutiny when it comes to speaking the truth. We know that advertising is often less than truthful, or at very least exaggerates points greatly; yet we choose to allow this bad-behaviour to recur with limited consequence.

Product placement in media is increasingly commonplace, and I believe that most would agree that hardly any public space is free of some kind of message. Is there any wonder why the line between truth and fiction continues to erode? I contemplate how well we will have to prepare our children in coming years for the barrage of cunning messaged targeting them.

9/11, the movie

Upon recently visiting the QuickTime site, I see that the raft of 9/11 movies are about to begin. I suppose I had been expecting this for quite some time. The mourning period has clearly ended, and the American media machine can now safely do what they do: spin it, sell it, profit.

In some respects, I really am fascinated by the optimism of American culture: John Hughes movies and the idolization of the American teenager, the underdog story, the belief in the triumph of the little guy. Everyone has a dream, and in America it’s one’s right to experience it. I truly believe that this is in many ways an admirable aspect of this nation’s success; yet, I’m forced to question how well this transitions to the rest of the world, and to some more complex situations.

Mythologizing its own lore, is something that no other nation or culture can come close to America in. James Dean, Elvis Presley, Madonna, Marilyn Monroe, Eminem, Jessica Simpson, and Nick Lachey–all are part of a constructed monarchy so powerful that it reaches a level of importance seemingly approaching that of religion.

Not only do American film-makers document historic events, they add the layer of the heroism that perpetuates this notion that in America, all is good, the fight is always for the right cause, and even murder can be acceptable, so long as it all is in effort to bring democracy and apple pie to the rest of the world.

No doubt, heroic acts were undertaken during such tragedies as 9/11; nevertheless, I question why we find this need to sensationalize them to such a great level. I wonder how future generations will reflect upon this time when we were so reluctant to understand all of the layers surrounding such an event, instead, treating it as fodder for our insatiable appetite for drama captured on celluloid. Perhaps they will simply regard this as the time when we felt that even our history was for sale.

Do we need to remember September the eleventh? Most certainly. Should we examine it, and work to understand the underpinnings of that day? Without question. Should we turn it in to for-profit entertainment? I’ll leave that one to you.

Keep watching television

Why am I ranting about this on ideasonideas? Simple–we’re responsible for it. We shape communication. We bend things. Additionally, many of us have a great conscience, and desire to shape the world for the better. As such, I think it’s our responsibility to consider our role in this, both from a professional standpoint, as well as from one as citizens of the planet.

Near the end of John Guare‘s play (subsequently made in to a film), Six Degrees of Separation, one of the key characters, Ouisa, notes that she refuses to turn what she feels is a tragedy into an anecdote. I quote, “And we become these human jukeboxes spitting out these anecdotes to dine out on like we’re doing right now. Well I will not turn him into an anecdote, it was an experience. How do we hold onto the experience?”

I’m wondering if what we have to do is force the media to treat the world and people around us with the same reverence and significance we would expect should our lives become torn apart. Just as we are not headlines or stories, the lives of those who have weathered or succumb to the worst that life has to offer, deserve to maintain their personage. If their sorrows and demises are to be referenced by media, may they be so in a manner that rings of dignity and respect.

I understand that the news media are in businesses for profit, and I believe that very few would be critical of them working to increase their earnings; yet, I believe that the nature of their work requires a degree of decorum and at very least an adherence to ethical reporting and behaviour. We have to resist the intoxicating momentum that groups are putting behind these tragedies and events, and demand greater accountability from any group that claims to be reporting in the public’s interest.

Equally so, as brand and communication specialists, perhaps we have to take a hard look at what we do, and where the line must be drawn.

I refuse to allow news to become entertainment, and I will just as much resist allowing the lives of Hollywood stars to overshadow real occurrences in the world. I will not be lining-up for the upcoming round of disaster movies, aiming to profit from the horrors faced by those people on September the eleventh. How about you?

Hey, maybe we’re on to something here. We could brand this thing–just you, me, and a couple of our friends. We could call it “Operation Accountability.” I don’t have a logo for it yet, but you can bet that it will be a really nice one, with metallic forms, lens flares, and it might even rotate or something equally cool.

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. I couldn't agree more, and I'm an American. The general lack of accountability in the media permeates the fabric of American culture, seeping in to all facets of life. Designers truly do need to realize that there can be serious ethical implications in their work and take responsibility for choosing the clients (or employers) for whom they will work.

    After reading Naomi Klein's No Logo, I had a pretty hard time reconciling my work with my ideals. I spent the last three years creating online training that teaches electronics resellers how to sell products I wouldn't buy myself. Hardly evil, but I'm also not using my powers for good, either. It made me realize how important it is to match ethics to work, to take reponsibility for what I put out in to the world, and how blurry the line can be at times.

    I stopped watching TV a couple of years ago. I couldn't stand the un-news anymore, or the reality programming, or the commercials for products I don't really want. Sure, that puts me at risk of becoming out of touch with mainstream culture, but right now that doesn't seem like such a bad thing.

  2. Dar says:

    I also agree. Americans should be less concerned with what the movie stars are naming their babies, who's sleeping with who, and pay attention to things that matter...like the 2008 election, our economy, and how to actually help each other.

    Read Harry G. Frankfurts "On Bullshit" so you can learn to recognize it when you see it! Visit MoveOn.org and Amnesty International - great places to start getting involved!

  3. Chris says:

    Run, do not walk, out and get these books:

    Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

    Life: The Movie by Neil Gabler

  4. Dan says:

    I really have no witty commentary to add, save for that as I ramble about web comparing media sources, I continue to be appalled by the injustice that is being performed on the American people through 'Big Brother'-like control over mainstream media. The worst part is that it is consumerism and palatability of the media that seems to drive content rather than validity of information.

  5. Greg says:

    I'm not sure I agree or disagree with this piece.

    There is logic/validity/truth to your observations. Yes, the line is most blurry where decency, values, and humanity are concerned with American media. American culture though reviled in many countries is worshipped in others. Are there aspects of today's media that disgust me? America is a sound-byte country. We commute when we can walk. We drink big gulps (what the f**k is a big gulp anyway?). We consume faster than we produce. This aspect of your piece could take paragraphs for me to rebut and agree with, but, I feel that I have to play devil's advocate to your 9/11 comments.

    You mention in the "Right back after these messages" section that ET and CNN both were covering the events of 9/11. Your assertion is that this example illustrates the line being blurred where fact becomes entertainment. I think you completely misinterpret this. I think that 9/11 is an unheralded moment in America's history. It was a day that no one American could ever comprehend. It received blanket coverage because quite frankly it deserved it. Now, I was not channel surfing on that day. My TV was anchored with Peter Jennings and ABC. But I venture to say that every network was covering this news because it was just that: news. Very important news. News that we must never forget. I am sure that ET was covering this event because they felt responsible to feed/service the jackasses that watch their dreck in an effort to inform them as well. They also more than likely covered 9/11 out of respect, out of being American. But, I don't work for them so I don't know that.

    With respect to the 9/11 films now slated to come out, I have no issue with that either. Though you are entitled to your opinion, you are taking this notion of "I truly believe that this is in many ways an admirable aspect of this nation’s success; yet, I’m forced to question how well this transitions to the rest of the world, and to some more complex situations" a little too far. Yes, our culture spends far too much time obsessing over Nick/Jessica, American Idol and other dreck. But remembering 9/11 so soon in film is a good thing. It's reinforcing the brevity of the event to remind us all that this can happen again. It reminds us to pay homage and tribute to the innocent and the brave that lost their lives on that day. In a way, American's are now getting an unfortunate taste of what being an Israeli is like. Israel, right or wrong, lives in a state of constant alert surrounded by hostile nations in almost every direction. As a result of 9/11, our country is now on constant alert. Have you been to NYC since 9/11? It's an entirely different city.

    As for the rest of your piece, like I said, I think American culture is lacking a great deal. But for better or worse, it is OURS. and 9/11 though felt globally is ours too. I think you need to back off a bit and rethink what you are saying. As I said, there is logic in what you wrote but I think you generalize way too much on a very sensitive topic.


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  7. Medyk says:

    I know it is out of scope of this topic.. but if we're talking about movies about 9/11 it's important to mention (or rather speak loud) of:

  8. "When Entertainment Tonight started airing coverage of the attack and aftermath, I was perplexed. What did this mean? Was the attack somehow entertaining? Why would they be talking about this?"

    I propose that for ET to not have covered the events of the day would have been callous and alarming. Everyone was reporting on 9-11. Everyone. There was no other news. It was either report 9-11 or go off the air (which may or may not have been a better choice).

    "I refuse to allow news to become entertainment, and I will just as much resist allowing the lives of Hollywood stars to overshadow real occurrences in the world. I will not be lining-up for the upcoming round of disaster movies, aiming to profit from the horrors faced by those people on September the eleventh. How about you?"

    Have you ever seen a WW2 movie? I see no difference between seeing the upcoming 9-11 movie and those movies, other than the fact that you were alive during 9-11, so it smells more of a capitalist venture than it will to someone 30 years from now.

  9. Clayton says:

    Vancouver based punk band, D.O.A said it best "TALK - ACTION = 0".

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  11. jacco Bakker says:

    To the writer,
    Funny, yesterday i read a passage in http://www.ayn-rand.com/ayn-rand-fountainhead.asp
    it was the dutch translation, so its can mention the pagenumber, its somewhere before the middle of this book.
    ... W'ell this passage is about the creation of an myth, about a play so bad that everybody agrees, but two of them see a possibilty for themselves as critic and people manipulator to create a myth. Anyway, if you're interested please read this book. It made my view of the world a bit better.

  12. tater says:

    What's your point, Eric? Newsreels ran at theaters before television was invented. Newspapers also have "entertainment" sections. I am able to seperate news from entertainment as most adults are. Also, movies are often made about current events. Historically, newspapers have put out Special Editions focused entirely on tragic national events (Extra! Extra! Read all about it!).This is nothing new, so I fail to grasp your concern. Is it that there are too many celeb gossip shows or that people don't necessarily choose to care about what you care about? Your rant reminds me of the angst-filled musings encountered in high school and college when confused youth blamed "culture" for imagined crimes against their arrogant belief of what society should be like.

  13. ET running a feature that day was not out of line. You may be reading too much into their motives.I'll be the first to say I hate ET because shows like it are junk food for the mind, but that attack crossed all boundries in American Culture, not too mention geographic locations. To ignore coverage would be foolish on their part.

    As for the movie? It is said that time heals all wounds, but it's too soon for this movie. There'll be time. Looking at WWII movies and this one though is apples and oranges in a way. Pretty much all the old movies are badly acted and filled with patriotic messages. But they don't compare in my opinion. War on civilians is different than the Duke slugging it out with enemy soldiers.

    Ironically, even though Hollywood has elevated how real movies look, we all watched this live on TV when it happened. How can you top that in a moive? And say what you will about the intent of the new film, but there's enough taken from the flight transcripts.

  14. Yorkali says:

    Just discovered this incredible post.

    I fully agree on all points except I agree a bit with the comments about ET covering the the disaster. Now that I have that out of the way, you have very eloquently posted thoughts that have been rummaging in my cranium for many months now. We allow ourselves to be tranced into a permanent halucination.

    As we hook our selves up to this entertainment/news/telenovela IV drip to escape our "barren" realities we commit a worse crime. Distancing our selves from hasher realities (Sudan,etc) that demand our attention, participation and support (loved your lense illustration by the way) . I also agree with you that us, the brand shappers, the servants of the 21st century "P.T. Barnums" have built a big part of the gun, but just like crack, heroine and esctasy...

    ....If there was no market, there would be no product.

    I am not in any defending what is produced or sold, but as long as the wider public is there to dig thier collective graves with their eyelids, those extruded, mettalic spinning logos will not go away. Anyway, I'm done, gotta watch that whupping by Colbert again on Youtube.


  15. RIRedinPA says:

    I stopped four or five paragraphs in because this essay started taking a typical format of we are all controlled by the media, America is bad and Americans view themselves egotistically and arrogantly vis-a-vis the rest of the world.

    While there is validity to those statements on some level, however, by painting with such a broad brush tends to make you, to some extent, exactly what you are claiming Americans to be.

    To get to a specific point - the Entertainment Tonight coverage of the 9/11 attacks . I'm not a fan of pop culture, I don't watch reality TV shows and avoid most television or popular radio in general. However, given the magnitude of the event would you have preferred ET to have run stories on the latest Hollywood super couple's martial problems? Would that have been more tasteless than an entertainment show dedicating some time to a tragic event?

    And if the lines of entertainment and news are blurred, they are blurred world wide, not just in the US. As an example there is the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and his frequently cited statement that 9/11 was the 'greatest work of art of all time."

    The lines between entertainment and news became blurred a long time ago, perhaps as far back as the birth of Nightline, which came on the air as a daily recap to the Iranian Hostage crisis back in 1979. The point is not whether it is or is not, it is, nor is it who initially blurred the lines and for what reason, the point now is whether you are going to accept it or not?

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  17. typohell says:

    I realise this is an old post but it outlines to an extent something I also feel strongly about. It is not the integration of a tragic national event being incorporated into an entertainment program that bothers me. What bothers me is the American 'movie announcer' style of speaking that nearly all supposedly respectable American news reporters use to get the story across. It is sensationalist and vulgar; two things that news reports should aim never to be.

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  19. Walt D says:

    No matter what if the event that has occurred is significant it will always find its way into the media stream.

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