Advertising & pop culture overkill: the icon-ization of everything.

August 26, 2014

“Hey, baby, let’s make an icon together!”

The other day I told someone that I had two fine Redwood trees in the backyard of my new home in Mill Valley. “Those are so iconic to California,” the person responded. At first I nodded in agreement but then I wondered 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 we are going to have. Let’s take a fun but hard look at the “iconizing” of everything. Theses days, the word icon gets tossed around to describe just about anything. For example, someone says ‘those red apples are so iconic.’ To what exactly: The fruit category? Fall? Computers?

It’s gotten to the point that if we see something in the same place a few times (a billboard, a building, a homeless dude) it becomes an icon. The word “icon” or “iconic” has become overused in the same way the word “awesome” has. Hell, I’m guilty of doing it myself. Especially when it pertains to advertising. That typeface is so iconic! And this photograph… And that bottle… And this label…

If everything is an icon then what isn’t?

Mundane, random and yet somehow iconic…

With popular culture 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.

If ad agency folk are in the business of creating icons then 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. We could never do an ad like that! Our brand is an icon.” Um, it’s fucking motor oil. Real brand icons like the classic Ford Mustang or Coca Cola bottle still resonate. But for every one of them there are countless poseurs. Poseurs we embrace like bogus celebrities.

So many icons so little time…

Perhaps another taproot of icon-ubiquity was the advent of personal computing, when and where we all started clicking on icons. There, some little symbol represented a bigger property. More and more of them were added to our desktops and iPhones. Icons upon icons upon icons. The virtual world became an icon for the real one.

The sublime adoration of anything…

(Author’s note: albeit altered, this post is a rewrite of a previous one.)


6 Responses to “Advertising & pop culture overkill: the icon-ization of everything.”

  1. I always liked the semiotic approach to advertising (and, more specifically, branding). In that way, an ‘icon’ is just what you say: a symbol that stands in for an idea. The big problem of branding is when your symbol doesn’t stand for anything (an “empty signifier” in the semiotic vocabulary) or stands for something that is negative or (at least) not value generating for the brand. That’s why posts like this:

    are so funny.

    But, Steffan, I agree: we have another problem which is when a brand owner has done the work to fix an idea to a brand so strongly that it prevents any risk or new work or creative thinking. You could even argue that the drive toward ‘iconization’ is a drive away from experimenting and innovation and discovery. You have to keep a few options open.

  2. narcopathcrusher said

    The murdered cyclops sponge bob painting disturbs me. Icons dp have power

  3. rsaling said

    As a marketer, I worry more when the icon becomes a commodity and describes the entire line of competitors, like Jacuuzi, Kleenex, Roller Blades.

  4. “…it’s fucking…”

    Iconic… Overused…

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