What we should be concerned about is how a brand makes a real cultural statement. The sort of statement that the “I am Canadian” campaign made just as American cultural imperialism was making rather obnoxious inroads into Canadian culture.
The idea is that brands become icons by asserting an ideology. And these ideologies more often than not have strong political undertones.
Sometimes, these ideologies are progressive, like Ben & Jerry’s – a tiny company that became famous in the US for its hippie founders speaking out against Reagan’s gunslinger, greed is good,’ ideology. Just as America was lauding its new, exorbitantly paid, Wall Street yuppies, Ben ; Jerry’s received national press for saying that their highest paid employees would never earn more than 3x what their lowest paid employees earned. Just as America’s cold war military muscle-flexing was peaking, they received national attention for launching Peace Pops and becoming the first company to donate a percentage of its profits to social activist cause.
Or sometimes, these ideologies are not so progressive, like Harley-Davidson, a brand that came to prominence through its anti-feminist symbolism, its championing of male-dominated patriarchal values, and its channeling of zenophobia in the late 1970s and early 1980s when it rallied against its Japanese “rice burner” competitors.
But what all icons have in common is that they somehow spin a powerful story to address a deep-seated mass-cultural tension at a particular moment of a nation’s history. What these tensions come from is social changesomething that’s always happening in a nation’s culture. When Reagan’s greed is good’ ideology took off, this caused all sorts of anxieties with progressive, baby boomer, Americans who thought they were selling out their hippie ideals. When America started to outsource all sorts of factory labor to Japan in the 1980s, working men experienced all sorts of tensions and anxieties. Icons become icons by resolving these mass-cultural tensions.
It’s interesting to look at some of these old examples, in part because they look so silly when you’re not thinking about social shifts that were going on at the time.
Coca-Cola’s Hilltop’ teach the world to sing’ ad is perhaps one of the most iconic ads of all time, and yet it seems almost ridiculous when we see it now. It’s interesting, though, when you consider what was going on culturally at the time. Historically, Americans liked to see themselves as “the good guy”; as the GI’s who came in to save the world in WWI and WWIIand Coca-Cola was integral to this GI imagery. But then in the late 60’s, Vietnam happened. People started protesting American military aggression all around the world, and all sorts of domestic unrest started up. When you consider the tension between the historical view and the social shift, the power of the ad suddenly makes a lot more sense. All these smiley kids from around the world singing a peace anthem sort of resonates against American military policy at the time, and provides a symbolic, mythical resolution that all sorts of people wanted to believe in.
Budweiser is another really interesting example. If you see the This Bud’s for You’ campaign today, it seems almost absurd in its earnestnesslike a parody. But at the time, it resonated powerfully. Again, it was playing off a major social shift. Historically, workers in America were valued artisansmembers of craft guilds; the country had strong unions with traditions of pride. But the 1980s saw a massive rationalization of all manufacturing sector jobs. As Reagan liberalized the economy, and Wall Street started to outsource factory work to cheaper overseas factories, the American worker suddenly became expendable. He suffered the largest decline in real wages since the war and suddenly his bread earner status was put into question. What the Budweiser was, was a sort of glorification of the worker’s old craft skillsa sort of affirmation that he was still highly valued. If you listen to the words, it sounds like a respectful factory boss celebrating his employees. We see images of skilled workers welding the statue of liberty or crafting automobile axels in the factoryall to the words: “For all you do, this Bud’s for you”
It’s as though each of these brands “stepped in” at particular moments of the nation’s history to symbolically “repair” the culture for a wide group of individuals. Marlboro took by taking a stance against the technocratic bureaucracy that was dominating American culture at the time; Coca-Cola by taking a stance against Vietnam military aggression; Ben ; Jerry’s by spoke out against Reaganomic greed; more recently, Nike’s Tiger Woods speaking out against American racism; the “if you let me play ad”‘s telling conservative parents to let their daughters play sports. In many if not all of these examples, the brand powerfully questions what’s going on in the country at the time and provides a set of alternative ideals.