a strange invitation

thank god it’s Marlboro Friday
February 20, 2007, 10:41 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized


It must have been around 1993 when Bill Hicks described those working in advertising as ‘Satan’s little helpers’ and I suppose that had I been concerned with rallying against advertisers as a form of activism, rather doing so as a form of brand identity in itself, I would have been inclined to agree with him.

There were however other forces that threatened to destabilize branded products around this period, which stemmed not from the emerging small pockets of premeditated resistance (which would eventually be absorbed, repackaged and sold back to us with such success that for a moment, we forgot that the ideas were our own and wished that we had thought of them) but as some freakishly twisted inverted yield curve that saw some of the major players in advertising at the time declare the age of brand identity dead, or at least sunning himself somewhere in some long-forgotten tax haven.

The early 1990’s saw a particularly virulent case of ‘brand blindness’ which hit the consumable goods market with some force. Scores of baby boomers who were still recovering from the recession which hit the US in the late 1990’s had began to turn away from the ‘prestige’ brands backed by high-profile advertising campaigns, towards the private label brands which lined the super market aisles. . The culmination of this trend was arguably seen in what has become known as Marlboro Friday, when on the 23rd of April 1993, Phillip Morris announced that it would cut the price of its ‘premium brand cigarettes in order to compete with the generic bargain brand competitors. Naomi Klein writes:

‘The reasoning was that if a “prestige” brand like Marlboro, whose image had been carefully groomed, preened and enhanced with more than a billion advertising dollars, was desperate enough to compete with no-names, then clearly the whole concept of branding had lost its currency.’ (Klein: 2000, 83)

Yet as I sit before the exquisite clean lines of my Macintosh computer sipping a cool, crisp, San Miguel premium beer, I am forced to consider the fact that Bill Hicks -who I unfortunately wasn’t really aware of when he was alive, might have been wrong on this one. We should be thankful to the advertising agencies, who strive and toil in order to enrich our vapid, unremarkable little lives. For without them, we would at best be forced to decide for ourselves which brand of toothpaste or sugared and carbonated water best describes our personalities. At worst we would be forced to navigate our own lives and doomed to drift for eternity with neither the guidance of the (Converse All) stars nor the rise and fall of the (pentopep)tides.

It was with some bemusement that I read of the planned introduction of Postmodern Pete as a possible brand mascot for Kellogg’s breakfast cereal. While it used to be enough to simply throw a pair of sunglasses and a snowboard on a brand character to ensure that millions would flock towards the flavourless and nutritionally valueless crap that passes as a breakfast food, today’s target demographic demands a morning-time icon that embodies…’rootlessness, alienation and psychological distance’ (Appadurai: 2000, 323).

Yet looking a little deeper, Postmodern Pete doesn’t seem so crazy at all. I can only imagine what Bill Hicks and John Harvey Kellogg would have to say each other should they cross paths in the after-life. All things being equal, you have to wonder about the brand logic of of Kellogg’s – purveyor of the ‘Sunshine Breakfast: John Harvey Kellogg was a man who was both a staunch anti-masturbation campaigner and yoghurt enema fetishist. However, if the fact that Mr. Kellogg comes across as a twisted pervert isn’t enough to make you choke on your breakfast cereal, Mr. Kellogg was also the founder of the Race Betterment Foundation, a major centre of the Eugenics movement in the US.

If a talking tiger coaching asthmatic children in American sports was slightly ridiculous (and let’s face it, those kids were more likely to suffering from chronic malnutrition, if they had followed Kellogg’s preposterous ‘Drop a Jean Size’ diet plan) , I can only imagine the bastard offspring of Kellogg’s next coke-fuelled creative meeting. Loyalty tokens to claim a free set of Roy Demeo steak knives, perhaps?


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