Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Retro-Cool: How Marketing and Advertising Send You on a Bad Trip, Daddy-o

Yes, the retro marketing craze continues unabated! We as a culture continue to concede that no one has come up with any good original ideas in the last, oh, 20 years or so, and as a result nostalgia for stuff we barely had time to forget is currently all the rage.

Take, for example, "Pepsi Throwback," which Pepsico is currently offering for a limited time only (unless it makes boatloads of money, I'm sure). It features the "old school" Pepsi logo and is made with REAL honest-to-goodness sugar! Woo-hoo! Man, you know it's a sad state of affairs when we're nostalgic for the good ol' days when we were only being poisoned with diabetes-inflicting cane/beet sugar, as opposed to the super-high-octane super-concentrated high-fructose corn syrup that infuses everything now.

That's right folks! Hop in our time machine and travel with Pepsico as they "throw you back" (isn't that something you do with a bad fish?) into the mists of yesteryear and rot your teeth the old-fashioned way! Yes, it was a simpler time back then, when no one dared to challenge their corporate masters' concern for the public's "well-being."*

More importantly, I think this trend speaks to a pervasive human weakness - one from which I am sadly not immune. That is, our tendency to romanticize the past regardless of how crappy that past may have actually been. It seems that things we associate with a younger, more innocent time (perhaps a healthier and safer time as well) always end up enshrouded in a glaze of rose-colored nostalgia, regardless of the truth of the situation. It matters not that we eventually learn Pepsi is dreadfully bad for us (or that our favorite TV show actually sucked, or our favorite music is sub-par). The important thing is we were awash in those pop culture symbols at a key point in our development, and hence we still have positive feelings for them.

Most well-socialized Americans will always have a strong affection for SOME token of consumer culture. We try to distance ourselves from these feelings as we get older by using intellectual weapons like irony, but their hold on us will always remain pretty powerful. Coca-Cola, for example, has always trounced Pepsi around the holidays because of the strong connotations Coke has forged between holiday imagery and the sugary beverage.

This is what makes corporate America so insidious and disingenuous: they try to downplay the role of branding and consumer culture in our lives (especially when someone calls them to task on their questionable marketing practices), but not only are they fully aware of the seductive power they wield, they're actively COUNTING on that power in lieu of being allowed to physically force us into buying stuff! You think they spend billions of dollars on PR, marketing and advertising every year because they think they CAN'T unduly influence us?

In other words, Pepsi (as well as the filmmakers who plunder bad TV shows, or the music exec's who keep re-selling us the same music in different packages) know exactly what they're doing when they try to push our nostalgia buttons; they're exploiting an evolutionary glitch that bestows virtue upon whatever sneakers we were wearing the night we first got laid (or whatever).

Even worse, we now live in a "savvy post-modern era" so marketers feel compelled to try and convince us that they're all "in" on the joke by using irony and self-awareness in the same way we do. It's almost like they're saying, "Haha! Yeah, we know this stuff is cheesy crap, but don't you love it? Haha! 20 dollars, please." Hell, as long as we keep buying whatever junk they toss our way they don't really care how we relate to it psychologically.

A particularly egregious example of this trend is the "Enzyte" (male enhancement) commercial. Although it is a recent product, the company's commercial exhibits the worst traits of Madison Avenue's many attempts to co-opt both nostalgia and post-modernism. Ostensibly a spoof of old-time advertising, television, and 50's "lifestyles", the makers of this commercial clearly missed an important lesson: Irony originally gained popularity in the mainstream as a means of subverting, questioning and commenting on the crap our culture constantly feeds us. (And let's not even get started on the type of vanity and insecurity that an ad like this is pandering to in the first place.)

Irony and self-awareness are used to greatest effect when someone is satirizing or undermining some aspect of the subject at hand, not when they're trying really hard to promote that thing! In other words, an exaggerated, cutesy spoof of 50's media works better as a critique of the messages media sends us; why the hell would someone want to buy a product from a commercial that effectively reminds us advertising can't be trusted and needs to be subverted?**

Simply stated, the answer is that all this stuff is just too overwhelming for any of us to think about on a regular basis. Corporate America hopes we'll just be so exhausted by them that we'll "go with the flow" just for the sake of our own sanity. The marketers' goal is to tap into the zeitgeist and then expertly exploit it; they're hoping they can hit a few of the "right notes" (be it nostalgia, irony, self-parody or whatever) and that'll be enough to send us scurrying for the malls. Unfortunately, it seems to work more often than not.

Excuse me one second.... what's that???? Target is selling Pac-Man pajamas??? COOL!!!!!!!!***


*And by the way, "natural sugar"? Yeah, I know sugar is a natural ingredient, but the connotation of the word "natural" is that it carries some kind of wholesome-y goodness. Is Pepsi health food now? Not sure if belting back 40 grams of the sweet stuff in one sitting really fits the bill of "healthy." I wonder if this is Pepsi's token attempt at "going green" for the year 2010? After all, corporate America has never witnessed a movement they didn't see fit to exploit.

** I'm aware the makers of Enzyte would probably argue their ad is merely a playful "parody" or "affectionate homage" designed to get idiots like me talking. Well, parody or not, the commercial is poking fun at a long-gone era, and as such, it reminds us - however unwittingly - that pop culture and the media should always be viewed with a suspicious eye.

***What a lame cop-out ending. Wakka-wakka, game over.

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