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 counter-normative. 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. Dru's theories place disruption, in the sense of 'creating a rupture' or 'refusing given wisdom', 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 dog-food 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 and PR agencies 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.
It's also instructive to contrast the media-courting bad boys of the past with their modern counterparts. The flawed yet fabulous careers of Peter O'Toole, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris and their ilk led to their being surrounded by complex media mythologies. Robert Sellers, author of Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole and Oliver Reed has stated in interviews that a key element of this was the relatively low media presence of such figures. Occasional instances- O'Toole going for a drink in Paris and waking up in Corsica, for example- made hot copy, but often not until a period after the event, or at the time but in isolation. This lent such actions an anecdotal quality which added to their allure and allowed for them to be shaped into narratively and stylistically attractive nuggets. This wasn't hard, investigative reporting. Instead, these fragments offered glimpses into a life that, thanks to its distance, seemed impossibly glamorous. There's an irresistible, escapist thrill in hearing about Wilfred Lawson taking a drinking buddy to the theatre, only to turn to him a third of the way in and whisper "this should be interesting: that was my cue".
Modern equivalents- Pete Doherty, the late Amy Winehouse et al- possess creative talent, fascinating looks and unhinged lifestyles, and yet there's somehow a lack of zest to the experience of reading about their antics. The difference is the sheer speed and ubiquity of modern reportage. The comparatively slow celebrity media of the 50's and 60's offered an illusion of stability which was occasionally compounded and complicated by a great scoop. Their rebellions carried exciting, escapist clout because they were disruptions (in Dru's sense, as well as in the sense that they literally caused huge disruption for their hapless publicists) of what they, and celebrities in general, were supposed to be. The actions of many modern hellraisers are, in isolation, no more or less interesting than their forebears. However, due to rolling media, gossip-hungry bloggers and the faithful camera phone, they are published to the world in a continual stream of moral outrage and excess. They define, rather than disrupt, the brands of these celebrities. They become the norm, and the norm is the enemy of the romantic.
The danger represented by the lifestyle of the modern hellraiser is less a symbol for extra societal freedom and more just disheartening personal danger. One look at the mournful coverage of Amy Winehouse's death illustrates the difference.
The modern brand must therefore cope with a Britain morally unwelcoming to rebellion and over saturated with disruptive imagery. 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. Instead of prioritising contextless 'creativity' and 'taboo-busting', brands should focus on launching committed, consistent campaigns which use new ideas and new media for their potential to unify communities and open dialogue, not for their shock value.
To build a relationship with the consumer, brands must first build relationships between consumers.
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