I was flipping through a magazine recently, when I came across a sort of four-page, full-color, foldout spread. Running boldly from border to border on the first two pages was the following copy:
renegade fearless visionary idyllic unexpected bold proud maverick true spontaneous wild undaunted curious intriguing resolute poetic unwavering rare dynamic soulful brash provocative unconventional intuitive genuine strong romantic daring uncommon authentic brave irreverent brazen unorthodox deft absolute unusual radical dreamer.
The amalgamation of words didn’t leave me intrigued as much as disturbed; it was as though I had seen or heard them all before. Upon opening the foldout I was confronted with the image of an SUV and the accompanying headline: "You are. It is." My immediate reaction was not dissimilar to that of Charlton Heston’s when, in the climactic scene of Planet Of the Apes, he discovers the Statue Of Liberty buried up to her neck in sand. "My God," I thought aloud, "you maniacs, you finally went and did it! You literally ran the brief. Damn you, damn you all to Hell."
And of course this wasn’t just any brief; this was The Brief. The Universal Brief. The "all-purpose digital wireless button fly stuffed crust cold filtered you’re a rebel and you can’t play by the Man’s rules" brief. Read enough of these briefs and you would be hard pressed not to come to the conclusion that every brand's target market is Chuck Yeager and the product the Beatles' White Album.
But how can this be possible? Or rather, how can this be credible? Is the Holy Planning Trinity of research, focus groups and trend watchers correct; that the consumer is a Rebel Without a Spending Limit clamoring to be recognized as a bulwark of iconoclasm? Or is The Universal Brief merely what you wind up with when the planning department fails to ask itself if it is still plausible for a consumer to believe or an advertiser to suggest that by merely embracing the majority of mass-produced, mass-marketed consumer goods and services, an individual can get in touch with his inner-disenfranchised Beatnik Poet Warlord?
Perhaps it isn't so much the consumer who has become conditioned to identify himself with this imagery, as much as it is the advertising industry that has become accustomed to positioning almost every brand and product as a panacea to conformity. Without doing much research, you could conclude that in the last half of the 20th century one of the most popular ways to market a brand was to position it as the alternative to the current, and in the vernacular of the times, seemingly "uptight" category leader. So wild, visionary Pepsi-Cola was, as opposed to Coca-Cola, "The choice of a new generation," daring Burger King let you "Have it your way" instead of McDonald's way.
For the longest time, this approach continued to make sense since most competing brands had a sort of Lokai-and-Bele relationship to one another. For clarification, Lokai and Bele were two aliens on an episode of Star Trek perpetually at odds with one another. At the heart of their struggle was the fact that the right side of Lokai's body was black and the left side white, while Bele was the reverse. This nuance of perception becomes prophetic relative to advertising in as much as the "You and Me against the world" marketing approach eventually lost its relevance since it relied on the anomaly that once upon a time, the alternative to one brand was coincidentally the opposite. I stress coincidentally because while it is sometimes assumed that alternative and opposite are synonyms, they're not. True, an Apple Computer is an alternative to a PC, but if its operating system proves just as quirky and user-unfriendly, it certainly isn't the opposite.
So the next time you sit down and read or write The Universal Brief, ask yourself: Are we positioning our brand relative to what we know about the consumer, or are we making absurd assumptions about the consumer based on what we'd like to believe about our brand?
Ernest Lupinacci is a freelance copywriter based in New York. This column appears in the March issue of Creativity.