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The Campfires of...

Battle of Symbols

The Campfires of Brands

“To speak of American ‘materialism’ is … both an understatement and a misstatement. The material goods that historically have been the symbols which elsewhere separated men from one another have become, under American conditions, symbols which hold men together. From the moment of our rising in the morning, the breakfast food we eat, the coffee we drink, the automobile we drive to work – all these and nearly all the things we consume become thin, but not negligible, bonds with thousands of other Americans.”

Daniel J. Boorstin
The Decline of Radicalism

“Truly great brands are far more than just labels for products. They are symbols that encapsulate the desires of consumers; they are standards held aloft under which the masses congregate.”

Tony O’Reilly,
Former CEO, Heinz

One could view the attitude of many Americans to bring back advertising not long after the September 11th atrocities in a few ways. There was the desire to show the terrorists they could not alter the American lifestyle. And, there was the desire to play one’s patriotic part encouraged by messages from President Bush and New York City Mayor Guilliani to start spending again to help “jump start” a falling economy. There was the stated reasons given of simply a desire to return to the “normalcy” of an advertising saturated consumer environment.

Yet behind these reasons might exist more of a subliminal one that historian Daniel Boorstin mentions in his quote above and advertising professor James Twitchell discusses in his important book Lead Us Into Temptation.

One of the common arguments of American advertising critics centers around the powerful persuasive and propagandistic power of advertising to convince consumers to take actions they never would if left to their unadultrated desires. While these arguments are difficult to refute, there is also an argument that consumers need the “things” of advertising in many ways. In Lead Us Into Temptation he starts with the simple observation that “we are powerfully attracted to the world of goods (after all, we don’t call them ‘bads’).”

Twitchell contends that far from being forced upon us against our better judgment, “consumerism is our better judgment.” This is so because increasingly, products and brands are what hold us together as a society, doing the work of “birth, patina, pews, coats of arms, house and social rank” - work previously done by religion and bloodline. For Twitchell, we immediately understand the connotations of status and identity exemplified by the Nike swoosh, the Polo pony, the Guess? Label, the DKNY logo. The commodity alone is not what we are after. Rather, we actively and creatively want that logo and its signification - the social identity it bestows upon us.

Rather than seeing advertising as brainwashing consumers - pulling them into stores and malls against their will - he sees the products and brands of advertising as types of social campfires of warmth in the cold night wilderness of modern life. To Twitchell, the purchase and possession of things are the self-identifying acts of modern life. Not only does the car we drive tell others who we are, it also tells us who we are. The consumption of goods, provides us with both tangible everyday comforts but, even more important, a crucial inner security in a seemingly faithless age.

The invisible community created by gathering around brands and products needs to be seen within the context of declining social capital in America, a growing mistrust of others and a decline in social activities. Harvard professor Robert Putnam had advanced the metaphor of “bowling alone” to describe this America of the 90s in his groundbreaking book Bowling Alone.

Could it be that those few days and weeks immediately after September 11th - when consumers forgot about these product symbols for a while - were too lonely for them? Not only were they “bowling alone” but they were also abandoned by the familiar musak of advertising and its friendly, family symbols.

The return of those symbols of singing toilet bowls and dancing seltzer tablets was not like some door-to-door salesman wedging his way back into the American home. Rather it was a type of place – a warm campfire - that consumers searched for, searched to return to, much more than it searched them down.

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