One of Kingsley Amis’s alcoholic, hen-pecked narrators, I forget which one, refers to the ‘regular blanket ban on mentioning as much as the name of one female to another’. It’s the kind of statement that divides Amis’s readers into those who think he was a disgusting misogynist and those who think he was a disgusting misogynist who occasionally said something undeniable. Sad to admit then, that most brands are guilty of doing just the same thing.
Not gynophobic anxiety, Lynx basically owns that, but an impossible touchiness about the idea of a consumer ever, in passing, however wistfully or late at night, entertaining a thought about another brand. And not just brands from the same sector, although obviously these can only be mentioned through gritted teeth, but brands that sell completely different things.
It’s an absurd pantomime that consumers are asked to participate in: we’ll pretend that you never think of other brands, then we can pretend that our relationship is utterly privileged and special and mutually complimentary. The idea of consumer loyalty has never really applied to the consumer. Even the most devoted customer doesn’t only spend his or her money on one brand. A man literally cannot live on bread alone. Not without terrible scurvy.
No, consumers are promiscuous. It’s the brand that’s there, loyally, every time the consumer comes home for his one and only favourite meatloaf, smelling of someone else’s aftershave.
To a degree it’s a necessary fiction. The matrix of choices that is part of a modern identity is so complex that even if you get two brands to work together, you run the risk of alienating part of your audience. It’s perfectly possible that some readers of Nuts Magazine drive BMWs, but you don’t want to alienate the bmw driver who thinks that Nuts readers might as well wear a sandwich-board that says, ‘Look at me, a mindless sac of testosterone that can only get off looking at shiny objects that bear no relation to women’. And vice versa.
The problem with all this is that it means that a brand’s advertising necessarily exists in a world totally unlike the one in which its consumers live. And it’s doubly ironic, because it’s the brands themselves that are responsible for the utterly brand-sodden media landscape.
But this situation can’t last, for the simple reason that the audience’s knowledge of brands is starting to look like an under-exploited resource, and nothing in advertising stays under-exploited for long.
Consequently advertising that recognises the consumer’s reservoir of brand lore has become canny. The new Telegraph campaign from Adam and Eve [in which different products are juxtaposed], or Fallon’s TV ad for Comic Relief (see slide) are early examples of a mutually beneficial symbiosis. One brand does the talking, but the others pick up on the cachet, and everyone gets to look relaxed, knowing and modern. After all, an open relationship is just demeaning when only one of you is doing it.
Gordon Comstock blogs at notvoodoo.blogspot.com