Wednesday, May 23, 2007

the aerodynamics of marketing

When I was in Taiwan in 2000 I realized that the new ambition of marketing was to shrink the profile of the brand. The emerging ideal was to be aerodynamic. Drag or friction – the friction of words, verbosity, hard sell – was to be reduced. This streamlining was to be achieved through a transformation from the use of words, oral and written, to the use of logos. The constant is that the logo, like the word it replaced, frames and directs a picture. But it itself becomes more pictorial.

What I saw in Taiwan was a commercial in which a man slam-dunks a basketball. The arc of his leap congealed, slowed, leaving him suspended, crystalline in the strobing flashes, arm and ball inching overhead – until the last moment. Time sped up and he slammed the ball fluidly and disappeared, leaving a small white shape on the screen: a shape I only know how to describe, ironically, with the name of the company that appropriated it. It is the “Nike symbol,” or a “swoosh,” as it is now becoming known.

My hunch is that marketers have two aims in mind. The first is to reduce the friction of annoyance – the frustration of aggravated consumers who swipe the air but can never be rid of the buzz of the ad-mosquito in their ear. The second is to consolidate and deepen the hooks of the brand name in consumer’s minds by making the name itself disappear. The consolidation of the name into the logo enshrines and demonstrates its dominance in people’s minds. The logo is, literally, a shrine to the memory of the name. The shrine-logo’s ritual appearance calls to mind the corporation.

So the footprint of commercial occupation is reduced, to use current military wordiage. The genius is that such a reduction or streamlining indicates and demands a deepening of the brand’s hold. The mosquito, to extend the metaphor above, has slipped inside the consumer’s ear and cannot be gotten out. The company exploits consumer’s power of memory and recognition; in exercising such powers, the consumer unwittingly pushes the brand-barbs deeper into his or her mental skin.

The marketer’s conceit is that they have, in subtracting the name, and replacing it with a logo, regressed to a more primitive stage before language, a stage in which pictures speak directly to the human brain without the mediation of language. In fact, they have added a step – for the logo, though pictographic, is abstract and does not possess independent meaning. Without the memory of the holy name Nike, the symbol is dead as symbol. The sight of the “swoosh” exercises the memory, arousing the brand name. By adding a step of work - consumers must work now, even to get “advertisements” – the marketers have made advertising interactive. The consumer is made a collaborator in his own entrapment. The passive recognition exploited for 6 or 7 decades is giving way, partially, to active recognition, a recognition resting fully on memory.

So if on the surface some of the “noise” of advertising, its visual and verbal clutter, is reduced, in fact all that means is that such clutter is transferred to the memory of the consumer. The brand-name and all the noise of all the ad campaigns over the years, are effectively installed in consumer memory. Of course they have always rested, passively fading away, decomposing like vegetation to be replaced, until now. Now that decomposing muck is to become serviceable to commerce. The sight of the meaningless logo calls the names forth, rouses them, activates them; they attach their noisy selves to the logo. The circle of meaning is completed. Swoosh. And it is nothing but net.

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