October 2008

The implicit argument: any other milk is dumb. The extent to which consumers need to be complimented on their purchases—especially by their purchases. The extent to which commodities attempt to differentiate themselves via symbolism and “soft” arguments.

My question: Who decided mauve would be a good color for a milk carton?

I think a comparative study of milk cartons—across time, across brands, across regions—would be a fascinating book. Bottles and Cartons: Our Changing Relationship with the Packaging of Milk. 

Flowers set in a vase present the appearance of loosely managed chaos, of the organic whims of nature managed only slightly by where stems fall against the glass radius of the vase’s mouth. But look closer:

Thin, nearly invisible strips of tape enforce the order of the arrangement. This chaos is contrived. The tape is the floral equivalent of mousse in one’s artfully-mussed hair. For every arrangement of objects, the code and rules behind it. What techniques do we use to purposefully arrange the world around us?

Tokyo, 1964

The first Olympic Games to be held in Asia premiered on October 10, 1964, in Tokyo, Japan. The Tokyo Games were rife with symbolism: The Olympic torch was lit by Yoshinori Sakai, who was born in Hiroshima the day the city was destroyed by the atomic bomb, and the Games were regarded as Japan’s announcement of its successful reconstruction following World War II. 

But the symbolism was also literal: To communicate with Olympic visitors who didn’t speak Japanese, the Tokyo Games invented a set of pictograms, a method of communication designed to be “independent of language and culture.” The Tokyo pictograms were regarded as groundbreaking, and every Summer Olympics since has featured its own unique set of pictograms.

The Tokyo pictograms were one of 28 pictogram families from around the world selected for study by the United States Department of Transportation as part of an effort to create a system of unified transportation pictograms. The pictograms used at the Tokyo Games are part of a historical continuum but also represent a shift in modern visual communication, both in the design of the pictograms and the reasons for their use.


Also pictograms.

Toilet-stall graffiti: a peak into the zeitgeist. Photo taken on a ferry running from area code 206 (Seattle, WA) to area code 360 (the Kitsap peninsula). The “3-6-ohhh” (360) here scratched out, replaced by the 206. These are artificial, top-down-imposed, geographically-linked, group identities, that have been adopted, internalized and extended by those they touch. Exaptation in action. Whose turf is it, anyway?

These identities have made the leap to that ignoble time-trap, thefacebook, where people join groups to broadcast their identity. A quick scan of area codes reveals: “The 203” (southwestern Connecticut), “I’M SO 504 YOU GOTTA KILL ME HERE” (greater New Orleans, LA) and “206 TILL’ I DIE” (Seattle metro area). (No pro-360 groups or at least none that manage to break past the noise created by pro-Xbox-360 groups.)

Aside from the notice-me-notice-me CAPITAL LETTERS, none of these group names explicitly mention the geographic area they are associated with. Because—and this is key—those who would join that group already know what the name means. (Is this, perhaps, a demonstration of the local/non-local split?)

How and why do we collapse our identity into aspects of our data shadow

A shout-out to the terrific BLDGBLOG for a recent post on micro-territoriality, which spurred me to revisit my own work on this idea.

The promotion (above) spotted in the wild (below).

What is the upper limit of popular sensibility? What won’t we do for a buck?

Interesting that this driver has both Sunoco and AAA stickers.

I was at a talk last Thursday given by Helene York, who directs the Bon Appetit Management Company Foundation. At one point in the talk, she said something that caught my attention: Bon Appetit operates 400 food service locations and serves more than 80 million meals every year, but you can’t buy a meal from Bon Appetit. They operate food service locations at colleges and universities, on corporate campuses, and in museums or sports complexes—they buy food from suppliers, hire and train the kitchen staff who prepare it, and run the front-of-house, all on the behalf of another organization. They are an invisible brand.

This reminded me of the BASF commercial, shown above. Their slogan is, “We don’t make a lot of the products you buy. We make a lot of the products you buy better.” These commercials mystify me: Why advertise to a public that cannot purchase your product? 

A lot of corporate advertising has this problem. General Electric advertises products you can’t buy. The New York Stock Exchange advertises a service most of us won’t use. (They’ve abanandoned “The World Puts Its Stock In Us,” which was an excellent example of a literal slogan, for the blander “One Market, Infinite Possibilities.”) Boeing advertises too. (I love the Boeing ads: Despite the generic third-world-diversity montages, they’re beautiful, tightly packaged promotional pieces that are optimistic, uplifting, and imaginative, with a touch of can-do attitude. The ads perfectly demonstrate the slogan—”Forever New Frontiers”—and the slogan perfectly caps the ads. I could—and probably will—devote a whole post to the history of Boeing’s logo.) 

GE, Boeing, and the NYSE, at least, are corporations that still connect, at some level, with consumers. You can buy GE lightbulbs (or not); you can fly on Boeing aircraft (or not); you can trade on the NYSE (or not). But BASF is the ultimate invisible brand: Not only is there no way for me to choose to purchase a BASF product (or not), but I may have the choice between buying between several brands from several different companies that all use the same BASF product. There is no way for a consumer to directly interact with the company.

(And the advertising isn’t really meant for consumers; it’s meant for the people who are going to make decisions. But why advertise to consumers? As this blog points out, it is unlikely that any Pentagon official high-up enough to make purchasing decisions about aircraft will be riding the Metro to work.)

Interestingly, it seems that BASF advertises for similar reasons as Target: Both are selling goods obtainable elsewhere and therefore need to differentiate themselves from competitors. An advertising executive’s take on the matter:

“A better way to differentiate is through personal services like R&D support or on-site field services. Not only are service programs harder to duplicate, but they’re virtually impossible to compare on an apples-to-apples basis. This is why becoming known as an innovative, service-oriented company is the ultimate differentiating strategy. Also, such a reputation connotes the anticipation of future services. If a customer thinks you are going to be more capable in a certain area, then you are. If he thinks you’re more innovative, you are.” – Robert Lamons

So BASF is advertising in part because they have nothing to advertise (which is funny, right?). They’re kind of like Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in that way (not the Skylink-has-wipers part, the where-is-their-competition part) because both companies provide fungible goods or services. Therefore the brand image they create becomes all the more important. It’s like they’re struggling to provide something physical, to break out of the constraints of invisibility. Every iPod that Apple sells is a physical advertisement for Apple, both for the purchaser and for those around her; BASF doesn’t have that luxury. So we’re left with feel-good commercials advertising a company we’ll never interact with, in a desperate attempt to produce a tangible product where none exists.

A skeuomorph is “a design feature copied from a similar artifact in another material, even when not functionally necessary,” as explained in a recent a-word-a-day email forwarded by tmworld’s dad. (Although I think Wikipedia’s definition—”a derivative object which retains ornamental design cues to structure that were necessary in the original”—is a little clearer.)

Examples of skeuomorphs include the shutter sound made by cameraphones to indicate a photo has been taken, even they do not have shutters, or the copper cladding on zinc pennies. Interesting stuff, but esoteric and seemingly isolated to a handful of cases.

And so I was astonished to encounter the above cup. It looks like its normal paper-and-plastic disposable to-go cup brethren (pictured at the top of this post) but it is in fact constructed wholly from plastic and is designed to be reusuable. The cup is a production of Capital Cups, which it as being a “spill-proof, reusable, recyclable, insulated beverage cup.” You can see examples of cups they’ve done for other clients; I think the Dunkin’ Donuts cup is especially skeuomorphical. 

Several of my friends were handed these cups by employees outside our local Au Bon Pain, a fast-casual bakery chain on the east coast, similar to Panera or Cosi, as part of some promotion, apparently. ABP is now selling these “travel mugs” for $2.99 in their stores, but if you have one you can buy coffee there at the refill price. My friends who have them, like them: they’re pretty good travel mugs and make it easy to take coffee or tea to-go from the dining halls. They say they’re not any more likely to buy coffee at ABP than they were before—especially because the dining halls always have fresh coffee.

But the cleverness of the cup isn’t in whether the person you hand it to becomes a regular ABP customer: The cleverness is that the people around that person will see them using an ABP cup. It looks like a to-go cup, so those around you would naturally assume that you’d just been to ABP. The cup is physical viral marketing. (I’m reminded somehow of Bloomingdale’s Medium Brown Bag Tote Bag, which is a $35 replica of the brown paper bags they give away in-store.)

I could think of one other example of a skeuomorph in physical advertising: Replica food. This is primarily a Japanese phenomenon, meant to be a sort of physical menu showing how food and drink will look, although my family owns a Café Du Monde Christmas ornament that is a replica of one of their famous beignets. The purposes of these two types of replica food are different, obviously—both are advertisements, but one is meant to compel purchases, while the other is meant to induce nostalgia—but the format is the same. (Ikea and other furniture stores often display feature fake TVs and DVD players; while skeuomorphs, these props are designed to be place-holders for their real counterparts, not to advertise those counterparts.)

For skeuomorphs in food, the question of reality is clear-cut: The real food is food you can eat. But here the question is more difficult: Which cup is real? The travel mug, because of how it presents itself, is more postmodern (and therefore less real): how things appear has trumped what things are. The irony is that the travel mug is better at being a cup than the “real” cup. It is stronger, more portable, reusable, and holds liquid longer. How valid are these claims? Is one cup more real than the other?

Competing ideas of work but identical ways of transmitting them. How do these proclamations affect our views of the companies these vans represent, or the workers who drive them? 

(Yes, the second is the same van from earlier. More ruminations on bumper stickers here and here.)

Next Page »