“Say, buddy, do I need a password to log on?”

I’m having problems with my Internet. Maybe it’s the summer storms besetting Chicago or maybe one of my routers is faulty. Most likely it’s my Internet Service Provider but at least I’m considering the possibility that it’s something on my end.

In any event, all my tricks to get the Internet back failed. I tried rebooting my machines, the router, etc. Checked all the connections. Nothing turned the trick.

The last thing I want to do is get on the phone with a customer service representative from RCN. Besides I’ve already done everything he or she would tell me to do. If I must I will call them tomorrow morning.

Alas, I need a connection right now. I promised someone I’d send them some important documents, which is why I am now sitting in a Starbucks at 10 PM on a Monday evening.

Good old Starbucks: the office/library/den for so many students, job hunters and various oddballs…just like me. Currently there are about 30 people here, sitting alone, nursing “tall” coffees (the smallest size), logged on to some device and doing whatever it is they do.

What’s funny (though not surprising) is save for the innocuous drone of a CD they’re pimping this relatively full Starbucks is damn quiet. I very much doubt founder Howard Schultz (whom I’ve actually met) had this in mind when he coined Starbucks America’s “third place.” Either way, I’m sure he’s not complaining. Like I said the place is nearly full and it’s late Monday night.

And so I’m having an absolutely unnecessary cup of coffee and writing an absolutely unnecessary blog post…just like everyone else in this joint.


“Where’s my Ipod?”

Toward the end of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker the main character makes a disturbing, little speech to his infant child, essentially stating he’s lost the ability to feel love for anything except defusing bombs. It’s a poignant scene to say the least. Addicted to the adrenalin high of war, the officer becomes hopelessly caught up in it, forsaking his wife and baby boy.

Brutal.

A lot of stories about war portray it as hell on Earth. Hence the phrase “War is Hell.” Not so many assert war is a drug. Apocalypse Now is the other movie comes to mind that took this route. Here we got the ultimate line of dialogue: ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

I believe most of us at least comprehend how and why some people become addicted to booze and drugs. Those things make you feel good. Most folks also get how gambling works on the psyche, same as extreme sports, even sex. The risk and reward is tied together. It becomes irresistible. Literally.

The pull from something dire as war is another matter. The risks far outweigh the rewards, unless, of course, you believe –really believe- in what you’re fighting for. God bless those that do. But, in fact, the main characters in both the movies I’ve referred to do not. These soldiers have become obsessed with war –killing and saving blur together. For them, it truly is a journey into the heart of darkness. There is no turning back. We know this addiction will kill them. And we know that they know it too. That’s what makes both these movies so compelling and intense.

Being drawn to something that will kill you is one hell of a paradox. Yet, addiction is commonplace. Putting my own demons aside, I’m drawn to the concept for pragmatic reasons. As copywriters, when we exploit addictive properties from the brands we work on we are doing our jobs. When we actually create addictive properties for the brands we work on we achieve the penultimate. We become, if you’ll pardon the expression, Gods of Advertising.

Indeed, we make you want what you don’t need. Not just want, but covet. As in can’t live without it. Think Apple, Starbucks, Nike, Play Station, American Girl to name but a few. And while only precious few achieve indelible, cult-like status, many more obtain phenomenal success for periods of time. Fashion brands are notorious for this: Guess. Juicy Couture. Von Dutch. Either way, creating belief systems for places or things is a lot like starting a cult.

As many of you know, this is one of my favorite themes. Cults can be attractive when they’re built around dolls or smart phones. Potentially, they may also turn dangerous as when youths steal and spend precious dollars to acquire products they crave, like gym shoes. Defusing bombs in Iraq more perilous still.

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The Happy Soul Industry on Amazon

My last post was about U2’s 360 Tour, which I generally liked despite having serious issues with Soldier Field. Among numerous comments I received, one stood out for its indictments. Migrane66 wrote the following:

…I suddenly understood why Kurt Cobain put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He looked at his future and saw something like soldier field this weekend: banners reading “Blackberry loves Nirvana”, a huge, dumb stage that was there to take to the focus off the average musicianship emanating from said stage, and a group of musicians who have become mere props in a corporate money grab…

Though I disagree with the writer’s bleak positions, his or her letter got me thinking. (No small feat!) Are not fan disappointment and the band’s success codependent? U2 became hugely popular and now the population holds it against them.

This ironic phenomenon is not limited to bands. Frankly, it applies to many people, places and things. Because of their success the New England Patriots went from unexpected darlings to annoying juggernaut. Now that everyone loves your favorite restaurant you hate going there.

Advertisers should pay special attention. All brands want to get big. But the smart ones worry about it as well. When I worked on Altoids, we rightfully worried that our success would ultimately come back to haunt us. Whenever someone suggested we “merchandise the brand” my spider sense began tingling. New flavors I could accept but Altoids mouth wash? Not on my watch. The key to maintaining Altoids’ cult-like status relied on keeping things under the radar –in brand management and advertising. That was one of the reasons we never did TV.

Has Altoids gone too far? What about Starbucks, Apple or Nike?

Everyone lusts for growth, especially in business. If one isn’t growing their business, one is considered failing. Yet, all around us are age-old examples of people, places and things growing too big or jumping the shark. Hence the above emailer’s brutal review of U2.

Our own industry is hardly immune. Pat Fallon and Jay Chiat both asked, “how big can we get before we get bad?” They got big. One can debate whether they got bad.

The great irony remains. When David slays Goliath we cheer. When David becomes Goliath we jeer. Word of warning to challenger brands: be careful what you wish for.

Finally, GROWTH is not always synonymous with EXCELLENCE. Take cancer for instance.

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Scad's not too shabby campus.

Scad's not too shabby campus!

I recently gave a presentation to the advertising department at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). The topic was Creating Cult-like Belief Systems for Brands. A favorite topic of mine, I’ve covered it on Gods numerous times. It is also an important component of my new novel, The Happy Soul Industry. The idea is converting people into true believers -the Holy Grail for advertisers. Brands like Apple, Nike and Altoids (thank you!) have been able to do this, with marketing playing a key role. Amazon and Starbucks have done it without much advertising. Either way, once a belief system is in place, people worship these products like they’re deity.

To be honest, I half expected SCAD to be a tiny, artsy workshop. Nothing could be further from the truth. With a student body approaching 9,000 students, and covering almost 50 fields relating to design, film and advertising, SCAD is no mere workshop. First of all, the campus encompasses buildings all over the historically famous town of Savannah, capped off by a 28,000 square foot student center housed in a gloriously redone 19th century synagogue! It was there I gave my presentation.

Before my speaking engagement, I visited the Advertising School, auditing Professor William Shanahan’s Advertising Business class. The students were creating integrated marketing communications (IMC) as part of their curriculum. I was impressed at how accurate the process was compared to “real life” IMC plans. Granted, their plans were rudimentary but the program is timely.

In terms of current technology, the school is loaded. These kids were working on the best machines in Apple’s repertoire. In a film editing class, I observed students cutting film on dual monitors with state-of-the-art flat screen preview in front of the class. I was told their professor was the sound editor for the Academy Award winning film, Amadeus. Because of his pedigree, the students actually get to work on that movie. Pretty cool.

Despite what seems like a exceptional education, I told the students it will undoubtedly take time getting gigs in our woeful economy. But that’s true for everyone is almost every field. Oh well, if twenty-year olds have one thing on their side, it’s time. Given the grim prospects (at least for the short term), I can’t think of a better place to hang and learn than SCAD.

Nice layout for Ad school

Nice layout for Ad school

In my day, there were no such schools. Not really. Back then advertising was part of journalism and it was often fairly naïve. For perspective, I took one ad class at the University of Wisconsin and I took it pass/fail. I recall our mid-term featuring a print ad with various blank call-outs. We were to identify the headline, tagline, logo and body copy. Pretty lame. While my alma mater has dramatically improved since then, I doubt even it has the species-specific expertise so obviously on display at SCAD.

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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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