Why is Madison Avenue gripped by insanity?

After pondering the "cultural meat values" of Peparami, the only question remaining is: What are these guys smoking?

By Ruth Shalit

Published September 29, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Over a late-summer dinner, Robert Deutsch, the cognitive anthropologist, describes his circuitous journey from underpaid policy savant to Madison Avenue oracle. "The Max Planck Institute has a position called Visiting Foreign Fellow," he begins. "But about four and a half months before I was going to do that, Konrad Lorenz had heard me give a talk at the Herbert Marcuse Institute, which is part of the Max Planck Society, about my work. They invited me because they had heard a talk I'd given in France, analyzing the present political situation in South Africa. Now, keep in mind, up until that time I'd spent about 80 percent of my time in the field, living with primitive cultures in New Guinea, Amazonia and the Kalahari."

At this point, both sides of a 60-minute tape have been filled, and we have only gotten as far as 1978. Politely, I ask Deustch if he wouldn't mind skipping ahead to the early '90s, and the anthropologist kindly obliges. "At that point," he says, "I was slated to go back to UCLA Medical School, which has an Institute of Bio-Behavioral Science." By coincidence, he says, the Account Planning Group, the national association of ad-agency strategists, was holding its annual conference in Los Angeles that year. "They said, 'We want Bob Deutsch to give a talk on the nature of the mind,'" Deustch recalls. "I said, 'I'm not interested.' I had never thought of working with advertising agencies. I had never thought about how I could work with advertising agencies."

The ad execs, hungry for Marcuseian tidbits, somehow managed to bring Deutsch around. "I gave the talk," Deutsch recalls. "And part of the audience said, 'What the hell is this?' But the other part said, 'Wow. Come with me. Help me, please.'" Deutsch leans back in his chair and smiles broadly. "Chiat was the first," he says. "Saatchi was the second. And it just took off from there."

Deutsch was eventually snagged by DDB-Needham Worldwide, which last year hired the consultant at a salary reputed to be in the mid-six figures. "During my first meeting with a client [at DDB], I was introduced by a very high-level person," he says. "He told the client, 'This is Dr. Bob. He's our Greek chorus. He sits out there on the meta-stage. He yells at us. Applauds us. Comments on us.' Which I think is a beautiful way to say it. Because that really is what I do best."

To be sure, being a Greek chorus, not to mention sitting on the meta-stage, carries awesome responsibilities. From time to time, Deutsch says, he must admonish his clients that his job is not merely to move merchandise, but to broaden the world's available knowledge concerning human behavior. "I'll give you an example," he says. "A couple of years ago, Chiat asked me to help them think about fast food. I said, 'I'm not interested in fast food. But I am interested in the first word. Fast. So if you'll allow me to help you understand why this culture is so fast, I think I could deliver to you everything you need to know about fast food. Without ever addressing the issue of, uh, fast food.'"

The consultant then rolled up his sleeves and got down to work. "We started looking at what in human experience slows down time," he says. "And we started looking at the drive-through window as a ritual event in an anthropological sense."

A Super Value Meal No. 3 as a ritual event? "Absolutely," Deutsch avers. "There are stages in the process of the drive-through line. And these stages mirror the classic rite of passage. There's the beginning stage, where you sort of accentuate who you are. Then there's the stage where you don't know who you are, the stage of liminality. Then, finally, there's a stage of re-integration into a new identity."

Victor Turner, your Happy Meal is ready! Curiously, however, Deutsch was unable to obtain university funding for these sort of mustard-stained apergus. "I'm very thankful to the advertising industry," he says. "They've given me -- and the industry continues to give me -- venues to look at questions and issues that no one else was willing to really look at, let alone pay me for." Deutsch cites another example of what he is talking about. "A couple years ago, I did a project where I studied three types of experts," he says. "It was such great fun. I studied cosmologists. I studied chief firefighters. And I studied pig auctioneers from Kansas. And I found out that all of them are exactly the same. They're all more concerned with problem structuring than problem solving. They all give themselves leeway to play."

When it came to fleshing out his path-breaking theories, Clothaire Rapaille, too, encountered frustration at every turn. "First came Freud, who deals with the individual and consciousness," he tells me in his charmingly accented French. "Then came Jung, who deals with the species. I came after them. And, of course I learned a lot from them. My theory is that between the individual and the species, there is the culture. I am the missing link between Freud and Jung." Sadly, the academic establishment did not see it quite this way. "I want to understand all the cultures of the world," Rapaille says earnestly. "Who is going to pay me to do that? Not universities. They don't understand what I'm speaking for. Business people -- they understand. Because they see results." Over the last five years, Rapaille has conducted over 200 Archetype Discoveries in more than 20 countries, eliciting atavistic musings on such diverse topics as "Nutrasweet," "Snack Food" and "Nuclear Energy."

Even in this age of incredible material prosperity, it's hard to fathom responsible corporate types forking over the cash to pay for this stuff. Advertising executives, casting about for an explanation, tend to credit the rise of "experiential marketing," and the cult of the brand as a kind of psychosomatic medication through which all of our complexes, vanities and blockages can be channeled. "It's become intellectually proper to acknowledge that people can have a deep relationship with brands," says Gad Romann, chairman of the Romann Group, a Manhattan ad agency. "Even the most serious academics and the most acute existentialists now acknowledge that brands become anthropomorphized. They enter our lives as relationships -- in order to either enhance or dissolve other relationships." Romann, a jaunty, exuberant German in a black turtleneck and jeans, glances at his watch. "Today is what?" he asks. "August 27. All right. As of 10 to 5 on August 27 -- as of today -- advertising is no longer a flimsy business. That's what people have to recognize. Advertising is no longer just jokes and fun, and TV commercials. It's taken a much more serious turn."

The turn probably began back in the '50s, when the admen realized, much to their chagrin, that advances in technology and the growing standardization of ingredients were resulting in brands that were technically identical. The old approach -- reciting product benefits, hammering home a "unique selling proposition" -- didn't work anymore. And so, as the marketers wrung their hands, wondering how to cope with this newfound problem of "rapidly diminishing product differences," the ad agencies groped for new and deeper persuasion techniques, sexier approaches, sharper hooks.

The result, as Richard Tedlow writes in "New and Improved," was the dawn of our current era of image-based marketing -- the insistence that products not only be good, but that they appeal to our hidden yearnings, "deep in the psychological recesses of the mind." By sprinkling onto their creams, deodorants and pancake mixes a variety of traits known to be dispersed among the public -- glamour, efficiency, kindliness, hearty good cheer -- the marketers hoped to give their brands a more deep-down appeal. Toward this end, Tedlow writes, the image mavens at Proctor & Gamble went so far as to craft a portable personality for each of their (technically identical) brands of vegetable shortening, depicting Crisco in the image of a "no-nonsense professional dietician," and Golden Fluffo as a "warm, robust, motherly character."

But somewhere along the way, the process appears to have gotten a bit out of hand. In their zeal to mesmerize an increasingly jaded public, the image builders have pumped the brands so full of personality that they've sagged under their own weight. You hardly need a semiotician to tell you that the consumer brands of today are comically overdetermined, stuffed with signifiers, choking on meaning. Take Yoo Hoo chocolate drink, a whey-based chocolate beverage handled by my agency, Mad Dogs & Englishman. Marketing documents describe its "brand character" as "fun ... charming ... joy ... expressive ... entertaining ... untamed passion ... 'anything is possible' ... 'forms relationships' ... .global." That's quite a tall order for a shelf-stable chocolate drink, even one as delicious as Yoo Hoo.

Once upon a time, the well-packaged brand was supposed to induce a kind of emotional frenzy in the consumer. Women shoppers seeking guidance in their purchases and "splurchases" would be inexorably drawn to "the package that hypnotizes them into picking it," a representative of the Package Designers Council happily told Vance Packard. In the 1990s, in a twist Packard would have relished, marketing history has veered off in a quite different direction. These days, it is the consultants, not consumers, who are in an emotional frenzy, driven to distraction over the psychodrama of the brand.

To hear Bob Deutsch talk about brands -- or, as he calls it, Brand -- you'd think he was referring to some sort of unimpeachable deity. "Brand is not name recognition," he tells me. "Brand is not even positive attributes. Brand is something very specific that the consumer produces. The advertiser doesn't and can't and shouldn't. Brand is this: Brand is when a person creates -- the word I like to use is designs -- a metonymic link between their own self-story and the story of a product, such that to be loyal to the product is a misnomer. It's loyalty to the self."

One might think the idea that the Self is constructed of Yoo Hoo and lollipops and cinnamon buns, that brands are truly constitutive in this real and deep-seated way, would be offensive to social scientists such as Deutsch, who presumably believe that individuals can discriminate between reality and illusion. But as market research comes to take on the character of therapy, such distinctions seem increasingly meaningless. If we are our own brands, as management guru Peter Drucker has theorized, then it follows that our brands are also us. Reading the case studies of the products revitalized by Semiotic Solutions is like reading a psychiatrist's log of his fretful patients, each one a querulous bundle of neuroses and dysfunctions. "Ginny Valentine's semiotic autopsy of Peparami revealed a truly schizophrenic personality," the group reports. "The brand had a unique ability to straddle both cultural meat values (power, masculinity, real food) and snack values (fun, unisexual, improper food) simultaneously." Valentine and Derrida then pull out the big salami: "The advertising has to be as radical as the product itself. Peparami is a rule-breaker, a paradigm shifter, a cultural rebel. That is where the creative strategy had to be located." Putting lunch meat on the couch doesn't come cheap: Semiotic Solutions charges $60,000 per "semiotic autopsy."

Ultimately, of course, there's something more amusing than genuinely disquieting about this new crew of persuaders and their breathless attempts to locate the holy grail of Peparami. There is a poignant disconnect between the ethereality of the theory and the sturdy, Golden Fluffo banality of the product. Consider Clothaire Rapaille's impressive-looking media kit. After a heady series of pages on Carl Jung's theory of archetypal symbolism, Freud's theory of dream significance, Arnheim's theory of Gestalt, the logic of emotion, and the power of the collective cultural unconscious, it's a bit deflating when we learn what all of this is feeding into. "Case Study," Rapaille writes: "The Archetype of Cheese."

And indeed, there are signs that Rapaille himself is ready to move on. "I would change the United Nations to the United Cultures," he says. "You see, the term 'nation' is entirely obsolete. Why do you have the Kurds fighting? They don't want to be a nation. They want to be a culture." Rapaille is growing animated. "America has no foreign policy," he says. "One of the things I would like to do is to help America to have a foreign policy."

But it's not clear that the rest of us will want to relinquish him. As we struggle with data smog, Clinton fatigue and other languors of the millennium, what a comfort to know that the brand builders are turning our world into one big unconscious-friendly theme park, a Jungian Olympus where we can quaff and loll forever amid well-known brands. It is a happy consumer universe, a world where soup delivers voluptuous oral indulgence, jeeps ferry us across wind-wracked wilderness and Tide is a font of all-forgiving mother love. And it's not so bad, life under the beneficent gaze of the new psycho-persuaders. What's the harm, after all, in surrendering to this benign flood of goods and sensations; in allowing Delta to regress us to our infancy; in allowing Shell Oil to submerge us in our own amniotic fluid? It's not as if the depth probers and the people manipulators actually threaten the public of consumers. They merely want to kill us with kindness; to cater to our subsurface needs and desires, to help us do what we already wanted to do. Right?

A half-hour into our phone conversation, Sam Cohen, the ego psychologist and object-relations theorist, tells me he has to go. "A conference call with Microsoft," he says. "I'm doing a project for them." Microsoft? I ask. "I know, it's funny," he says. "Because they have a reputation for being almost -- contemptuous of the consumer." Now, however, they too are strip-searching the consumer mind -- lovingly.

"They have a product that's lagging far behind the competitor," Cohen tells me. "The two brands are equal in terms of quality, but the competitor has a huge advantage in the marketplace. Now they realize that what they need to do is get inside the consumer's head, and become a more meaningful software brand. They've started to talk not just market share, but mindshare."

Maybe Vance Packard was right.

Ruth Shalit

Ruth Shalit is an account planner at Mad Dogs & Englishmen, a New York advertising agency. For more columns by Shalit, visit her column archive.

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