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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