The Adoration of Spongebob…

The other day I told someone I had two fine Redwood trees in the backyard of my new house in Mill Valley. “Those are so iconic to California,” the person responded.  At first I nodded in agreement but then I thought aren’t palm trees more iconic to California? I suppose one could break it down using Southern and Northern California.

But that’s not the discussion I wish to have. The point of this post is to take task at the “iconizing” of everything.  Seriously. Theses days the word icon gets tossed around to describe almost anything. Example: Apples are so iconic. To what: The fruit category? Fall? Computers?

The word “icon” or “iconic” is dangerously close to being overused in the way that “awesome” has been. I’m guilty of doing it myself. Especially as it pertains to my tenure in Adland. This typeface is so iconic! And that photograph. And that bottle. And that label. Oh my God, if everything is an icon what isn’t?

Now that popular culture is usurping legitimate culture the matter has gotten exponentially worse. Maybe it started with Andy Warhol. A box of Tide became an icon. A can of soup. Now we can’t go down the grocery aisle without being bombarded by icons. Or alleged icons. If ad agency folk are in the business of creating icons our clients are in the worse habit of declaring their brands to already be icons. How many times have I heard statements like “I don’t know, Steffan. Our brand is an icon. We could never do an ad like that!” Um, it’s fucking motor oil. Real brand icons like the classic Ford Mustang or Coca Cola bottle still resonate. But for how long? For every one of them there are countless poseurs. Poseurs that we embrace like bogus celebrities.

So many icons so little time…

Another guess on the taproot of over-iconizing might be the advent of personal computing, when we all started clicking on icons. There some little symbol represented a bigger property. We added more and more of them to our desktops and now iPhones. Icons upon icons upon icons. In some weird way the entire virtual world became an icon for the real one.

This ubiquity of icons exists on terra firma. If we see something everyday in the same place (a billboard, a building, a homeless dude) it becomes an icon.

Baby, let’s make an iconic!


We’ve been discussing the idea that certain campaigns create myths out of their subjects, allowing them to transcend, or, in some case replace reality. A perfect modern example is Apple. While the product is truly excellent, ever since its “1984” TV commercial, Apple has obtained and maintained cult like status. With its super-sleek design, packaging and advertising, Apple is way more than hardware -it’s Lifeware. Few would argue the point, especially those of us in advertising and design! We blissfully drink the Kool-Aid. We Think Different.

Who or what has achieved myth-like proportions on account of its propaganda? I’d like to offer my notorious nine. (I couldn’t think of a tenth). A few criteria for making this list are that all on it must be on it forever, no flashes-in-the pan. Items must be global in scope, transcending specific cultures. Finally, advertising and/or propaganda must be a primary driver of the entity’s success. Here they are, in no particular order:

1.   God & Heaven Be you Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or miscellaneous, you are praying to something that you have no tangible evidence exists. This is by far the best and most obvious example of my point. From the Bible to the Dead Sea Scrolls, it’s all based on man-made propaganda. Scripture is body copy. The Crucifix is a logo. For more (way more) on this provocative notion, I humbly beseech you to read my new novel, The Happy Soul Industry.

2.   Bottled water Even though countless simple and irrefutable tests have proven bottled water to be no more pure or better for you than most tap water, a staggering majority of us still believe ads that tell us it is. My wife is one such person. Despite my tirades, she continues to bring cases of it into our house every week. I give up.

3.   Apple (see above)

4.   Nike Because of his compelling rhetoric and charismatic persona, a lowly carpenter, Jesus became no less than a Messiah -his creed perhaps the most followed religion in the world. Because of compelling rhetoric and the charismatic persona of a mere basketball player (Michael Jordan), a lowly gym shoe became the Shoes, -its creed a clarion call for anyone who has ever broken a sweat. It is believed God can walk on water. And so, with a pair of Air Jordans, can we.

5.   The British Empire Royals change but the loyal following never does. There is no logical reason why Princes and Queens continue to exist but they do… in England as well as in all our imaginations. The constant, loud discussion of these figures is what drives their popularity. They are important merely for existing. It’s odd, vaguely annoying, and a global phenomenon.

6.   Hollywood The hype, glitz, spin, fame, and glamour of La La Land. Words and pictures about words and pictures. The town can’t help it. It is what it is and has been ever since the “talkies.” More so than DC or NYC, LA’s Hollywood maintains its ridiculous and sublime image. Hurray for Hollywood!

7.   Death As soon as we are born we begin dying. It happens to the best of us. The great equalizer is the most enigmatic concept in the world. Pyramids have been built to house dead people. The best real estate in the world contains dead people. Nothing scares or motivates us like Death. Despite its absolute certainty, we all are uncertain of what Death really means or feels like. We have only our stories, beliefs and memories. Death is the ultimate myth.

8.   Target Their “Design for Everyone” mantra captivated America, redefining the value proposition. Cheap became Chic. Will this mythology carry it through this recession? How about the next boom time?

9.   Starbucks How many of us visit this temple every morning? Grande Skim Lattes. We even speak in tongues! One argument against this selection would be the conspicuous lack of advertising. To their credit, much of Starbuck’s myth is organic. Word of mouth was the first advertising. It’s still the best.

I would have liked to put “America” on this list but as evidenced by current events, our brand changes, for better and for worse. Inspiring belief, our new President certainly has rekindled the potential for America’s myth. We’ll see.

Another notable exclusion are celebrities, alive or dead. Sure, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Elvis are icons. But of what: Sex? Talent? Dying badly? Perhaps they comprise part of bigger myths like Hollywood and the UK?

Last detail: I did not put Altoids on the list. It is the closest thing I’ve got in my portfolio to a mythical brand but I was uncomfortable promoting it here. What do you think, Gentle Reader? Did I miss one or get one wrong?


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