The appeal of danger to the public (particularly the younger sections of it) is among the oldest weapons in the marketing and publicity arsenal.
From James Dean’s motorbike to the guns-n-weed lifestyle of the 90’s gangster rapper, the outsider figure living life on the edge has always sparked media furore, and consumer brands have long been hopping on the bandwagon.
Whether through a photographer capturing Lady Dior dangling from the girders of the Eiffel Tower or a funfair crier ushering families into the wall of death, marketeers rely on danger to shift units, fill seats and generally make hard cash.
Sex, violence, individualism: these concepts attract attention because they are provocative and counternormative. An edgy marketing campaign aligns its product against the continual compromise of everyday living- it is a powerful and potent illusion of escape.
Jean-Marie Dru’s ‘Disruption’ took this to its logical extreme. For those not aware, Dru theorises that disruption in the sense of ‘creating a rupture’ or ‘refusing given wisdom’ is at the very heart of a good brand marketing strategy. TBWA’s infamous ‘disruption days’ resulted in shattering brand changes like that at Mars’s dogfood subsidiary Pedigree, who not only left with their ‘for the love of dogs’ marketing and publicity campaign but instated total change in their attitude to pets, including switching offices to a building that allowed dogs.
Marketing departments are run by people who grew up in an era when banned singles were must-have records and creative innovation was synonymous with societal change. For the public and for the professionals, interruption and rebellion are at the root of desirability.
The question, however, is whether this remains a viable mindset. Cultural rebellion is arguably a bit meaningless in modern Britain- politics and values have become so centrist that there is little to stand against. Politicians are more likely to stammer through the name of last year’s hot band in an interview than decry the death of culture, while the average Briton can be surprisingly puritanical. Insipid creations like the London 2012 logo are the result: not so dazzling as to offend, just hip enough to look like your Dad trying to dance. Bubbling beneath this surface is the kind of distinctly unsexy anti-establishment feeling which doesn’t create much decent music but did result in destruction on a horrific scale during last week’s riots.
As East London teenagers wearing conspicuously branded clothing grabbed all they could and politicians spoke in weary, reactionary platitudes it formed a kind of metaphor for parts of the modern publicity landscape. Neither the status quo nor the opposite looked much fun, neither had much effect.
So how can brands remain fresh without being facetious? How can they make novelty appeal to the neo-puritan? The key lies in a different kind of revolution. While division and conflict are sexy and fun, unity and utility can be just as innovative. Uniqlo, for instance, took the UK by storm because it symbolised progressiveness: unifying form and function, the clothes and the stores created neutral environments in which old and young, edgy and reserved alike felt a little comfortable, a little challenged.
The iPad is everyone’s favourite toy because it can just as easily be used to lay down a beat or put together a presentation, and somehow makes both look a little hip and a little serious. Years of equating novelty and desire with destruction have contributed to the societal decline laid bare last week. It’s time that brands began to sell development rather than simple change, and make use of the selling power inherent in reconciliation rather than danger.
In the end, successful publicity has to build a relationship between client and brand. In the late 70’s, Malcolm McClaren sold The Sex Pistols because he recognised an intelligent but disenfranchised youth market and tore them a hole in the status quo, allowed them to breathe. With their modern equivalents not so much disenfranchised as entirely separated from a society in which they are allowed no stake, a different tactic is required.
The modern audience is not so much looking for a challenge to established values as a development of better ones to fix broken brand Britain. To build a relationship with the consumer, brands must first build relationships between consumers.