I Like to Watch

Does your personal brand warrant a bar code? Who moves more product when they cry, Tyra Banks or Jonathan Antin? Is levitation a marketable skill?

Published July 17, 2005 8:00PM (EDT)

Branding on the shoulders of giants
In today's ever-changing global economy, it's tough to keep up with the rapid pace without getting crushed under the wheels of progress like a bug. Luckily, most of us have been quick to abandon antiquated notions of "personality" and "identity," focusing our energy instead on developing bulletproof personal brands that are immune to fickle shifts in consumer taste.

Just look at Tom Cruise! Not only does the market system work on a very personal level, but it makes life way simpler! Instead of treating our innermost thoughts and feelings as a complicated universe meant to be explored through arduous therapy sessions, we simply revise our marketing strategy, rethink our target demographic, and focus on making our personal brand more robust! Don't cry to me, girlfriend -- get a haircut and hire a new publicist!

Sadly, though, upon locating our target market and moving our product at a reliable clip, many of us begin to overestimate the reach of our personal brand. Perhaps our sales team is a little too motivated by their incentive package, or maybe we're taking the glowing talk from the marketing department a little too seriously. Before long, we begin to imagine that we might someday have the word "Enterprises" or "Omnimedia" after our brand name, even though cross-platform, cross-market seamlessness is hardly an achievable goal for our particular product.

Embodying empowerment
Take Tyra Banks -- please! It seems that this fall, Tyra will star in her very own one-hour, daily talk show, which will focus on the "the dreams, hopes and challenges of today's young women," according to the press release. Apparently the goal of Tyra's show is to "empower women to be the best they can be for themselves, their families and their communities." The show "will reflect the positive attitude, compassion and energy that Tyra Banks embodies."

Luckily, we've managed to secure our very own copy of the premiere of Tyra's new show (originally titled, simply, "Badonkadonk!"), so we can be the first to view Tyra in this new format. The transcript below is taken from a segment called "You Go, Girl!" during which Tyra meets with a young activist or aspiring something or other, and encourages her to keep doing whatever it is she does. The young woman in this interview, Hannah, seems to have started some kind of charity event for disabled aspiring actresses.

Tyra: So, girl, tell me all about your little project! It sounds so interesting!

Hannah: Well, as you probably know, Tyra, there are a lot of aspiring actresses out there who are disabled and, as a result, can't work.

Tyra: How would I know that?

Hannah: Well, you were an aspiring actress at one time...

Tyra: Excuse me?

Hannah: Well, you were in "Coyote Ugly"...

Tyra: Who are you callin' ugly? You have no idea what I've been through! But I'm not a victim, I grow from it and I learn!

Hannah: No, I mean...

Tyra: I'm extremely disappointed in you, Hannah. You've been through anger management, you've been through your grandmother getting her lights turned off to buy you some pantyhose for this talk show, and then you go over there and you joke and you laugh?

Hannah: Over where? My grandmother isn't even...

Tyra: Be quiet, Hannah! Be quiet! Stop it! I have never in my life yelled at a girl like this! I was rooting for you! We were all rooting for you! How dare you! Learn something from this! You take responsibility for yourself!

This brand is your brand

Dear ILTW,

I couldn't agree more about the Wannabe TV, although I'm hoping "America's Next Top Model" will be back with much ferocity next season. Somehow, though, you got a dis in to my beloved "Blow Out," which didn't even fit the genre so I don't even understand why you're hatin' on it. In the words of "ANTM's" fair Brandy of Season 4, "Don't say nothin' to me, 'cause I ain't said nothin' else to you, and you don't know me like that to be sitting up here gettin' an attitude over nothing. If we didn't get kicked off for hitting somebody, your ass would be tore up right now, because I ain't said shit to you."

That's how I feel about your "Blow Out" remark. There is no ego on television larger than Jonathan Antin's, and reality TV is all about trying to find the largest ego, harness it in an hour and display it for all its glory. This season is especially good because of all the crying. And there will be no crying over truly horrific events like tsunamis, subway bombings or hurricanes. No, no, all crying will result from the perfect package for Jonathan (TM) product, the love of an adoring sister who massages your ego enough to produce tears, and, of course, the tears of sadness that can only be produced by the fulfillment of a lifelong dream to have bar codes stamped on your product.

You see, before fame-whoring it up for "Blow Out," his product line was not mass produced and was lacking a bar code and had ugly garage-sale-style stickers where a clerk would have to type in numerals on the cash register and said clerk would have to hit the "other" key to denote that this was not a perm or color that was sold but a product that had no true definition. Now that Jonathan (TM) has bar codes, his product will be scannable by millions of POS machines and that, my friend, is enough to move anyone to tears. And real tears are the reality I want to see.

Josh Klapow
Sacramento, Calif.

Dear Josh,

When Jonathan cries, the whole world cries with him. Do you know why? Because, like Jonathan (or Tyra!), we've all spent years building a winning personal brand, and when those brands make their way into the hands of the consumer, either via the shelves of Sephora or the bowels of Match.com, we all feel a real sense of achievement.

At that big moment, all the questions -- Have we properly identified our target demographic? Are the price points appropriate? Is our marketing plan sustainable? -- fade into the background, and we savor the sweetness of it all, perhaps with some tears and some hugs and a little self-involved chatter.

Does Tyra really think that her Bossy Mommy routine will carry her through a talk show that runs for one full hour a day, five days a week? Does Jonathan honestly believe that prettily packaged hair goop will save him from his sad existence as a depressed, egomaniacal simpleton? For one sweet moment, none of these questions matter.

That's when we all take a second to celebrate. Jonathan celebrates by going to visit his therapist to talk about how feeling happy makes him feel all sad and lonely inside. Then he cries a little more, and instead of employing the handy tissues within reach, he sniffles snottily and wipes his eyes with his fists like a cartoon baby.

See, we're all so much like Jonathan! Sure, most of us don't start petty egotistical battles with relative strangers or slam our arms into doors or encourage our employees to whine and snipe at each other like wild animals, but that's only because the rest of us aren't driven by something quite as compelling as a love of beautiful hair!

Unfortunately, though, just as those picky consumers on Match.com appreciate our "confident, smart, open-minded" attitudes for only a few months before they're shopping for an upgrade, so, too, do fickle audiences find "Blow Out" very boring whenever Jonathan isn't throwing hair product at the wall or resting his head in his hands or hanging up on one of his sales cronies or lamenting that he's being pulled in too many different directions at once or lashing out at his employees or sobbing cartoon-baby tears at his therapist's office. Yes, luckily, Jonathan does these things at least once per episode, but that leaves approximately 18 minutes per episode where all we see is some snippy hairdresser who works for him explaining why the employees at a fine Beverly Hills salon should do their jobs with the hushed reverence of foreign diplomats at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, and anything less is a personal slight to him and to his fine clientele of meticulously coiffed hoochie mamas.

There's not much that trumps a self-serious hair stylist in the world of high comedy. OK, a self-serious supermodel has a shot at it. But let's not pretend that they're the only humans on earth who take themselves way too seriously! Hey, we all have to walk around, acting like our pointless little tasks add up to something vaguely worthwhile, something that at least deserves its very own bar code. We all long to have our own talk shows, deep down inside, or at least we sometimes wish we had bright orange Krusty the Clown hair like our role model, Tyra Banks!

Walking brand in brand
And even if we don't think we deserve our own talk shows or our own bright-orange extensions, at least we feel that we deserve love. And we do! But we'll get it only with a wise marketing strategy that promotes our winning personal brand and downplays our bad skin and our fault-finding urges and our mood swings and our self-destructive tendencies.

To study this marketing process in all its self-deluding glory, ABC News presents "Hooking Up," which showcases the thrills and spills of online dating (see also: mergers and acquisitions) by following a handful of single women in New York City looking for love online.

Just as ABC News intends to lure in a whole new audience by taking flimsy, silly reality-show fodder and dressing it up in a smart suit and calling it "news," so, too, do single women in the Big Apple employ all kinds of different tactics for packaging themselves to lure in the right guy.

What's fascinating about "Hooking Up" is that the women with a really sound product often aren't the ones who have customers lined up around the block. Take Lisa, a pretty doctor. The fact that she's smart and has a solid, lucrative career seems to turn men off, so she doesn't tell them she's a doctor until she gets to know them. She says she does this because she wants someone to love her for her, and men practically propose the second they find out she makes good money. But when you see the change in attitude that takes place with one guy once she admits she's a doctor -- he goes from thinking she's adorable to being turned off -- it's pretty obvious that her strengths are a liability to many men. The guy claims that her dishonesty bugs him, but his shift in attitude is so dramatic, it's pretty obvious that he's not attracted to anyone who he considers a peer.

And then there's Amy, a round, goofy doll from South Dakota who giggles and blurts out on first dates that she's "looking for a husband" and wants to "make babies." Not only is this the most piss-poor marketing strategy I've ever witnessed, but frankly, her personal brand seems far too weak and generic to even warrant inclusion on the shelves of the local 99-cent store.

What happens next is likely to baffle market analysts for decades to come. First, Amy's date says he can't believe she said she was looking for a husband. Next, Amy goes to a rugby match with him, and he points out his beautiful ex-girlfriend sitting a few feet away. At home, we think: This girl has no chance. She's targeting a higher-end market than she can handle. Amy squirms. She says she's not sure she has a chance. Then she brings the guy to meet her bossy little sister, who basically admits that she controls Amy's life.

Soon afterward, without warning, it becomes obvious that the guy is madly in love with Amy. Amy's response? Dump him over the phone.

In the next episode -- oh, sorry, news segment -- Amy dates another guy who seems way out of her league: cute, good job, nice place, knows how to cook. Soon, he's cuddling up to her while she giggles and calls him a "yummy boy." All he can think about is her! All we can think is, "Where did you get that terrible off-the-shoulder pink sweater?"

Just as we're completely stumped, just as we're deciding that consumer behavior is truly impossible to predict, that's when we remember that old marketing adage we learned way back in business school: "Big bouncing boobies win every time."

Which just goes to show you those who forget the lessons of last week's column are doomed to repeat them in this week's column.

Where is my mind-freak?
But forget sweet Midwestern girls with big boobs for a second (if you can). What's truly amazing is when someone with a totally unmarketable product somehow builds a loyal consumer base anyway.

Remember how you used to feel sorry for that kid down the street with the rocker hair and the eyeliner who was always doing dorky magic tricks, because everybody called him a freak? Well, now he has his own magic show on A&E, called, appropriately enough, "Criss Angel: Mindfreak" (premieres Wednesday, July 20, at 10 p.m.).

Sure, you may not consider levitation a marketable skill, but Criss Angel sells it, over and over again on the streets of Las Vegas. And while you might not believe that everything you see isn't just a trick with smoke, mirrors and digital effects, the audiences on the street are clearly mystified. In one segment, Angel levitates himself a few feet above the ground, causing the people around him to scream. In another, he hypnotizes and levitates a total stranger (I know, I know, but she really does seem like a stranger, and she really does appear to be floating, and, and, and...)

My favorite scene, though, is when he stops people on the street, shows them a voodoo doll, and then has them turn their backs while he burns the doll's hand or leg. One guy grabs his hand in pain, then turns around and seems to want to kick Angel's ass. I can't explain what the hell is going on in these scenes, but if they're acted then Angel has a seriously impressive casting director.

And after setting himself on fire and disappearing and baffling every stranger within sight, the most unsettling moment of the whole show comes when Angel's brother refers to all of it as "illusions." Illusions! What the hell is he talking about? Is he saying it's not real?

Either way, it's about time a magician got himself on television, thereby wiping out the dirty memory of David Copperfield, dressed in sequins, surrounded by a cloud of dry ice, standing on a stage that is, supposedly, in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle, I can't remember why, exactly. Something about missing ships, Atlantis? We'd rather see magicians where they belong: on the street, making people really angry.

Branded for life
You see, sometimes you have to take to the streets to move your product. Other times, you can hire an elite sales team to do all that grunt work for you, while you sit at a pool bar somewhere, eating all the macadamia nuts out of the little bowls of Chex mix they give you. The most important thing, though, is that you believe in what it is you're selling, or at least pretend that you do. Look, if Jonathan Antin can get his own TV show and hair product line just by prattling on about the all-consuming importance of beautiful hair, don't you think you can build a bulletproof brand around whatever paltry skills or sorry notions about the world you have at your disposal? If Tyra Banks can pretend to be some kind of guru for young girls and unemployed rocker dudes can find work in Vegas, obviously you can build a winning personal brand from just your pathological urges and your own overblown sense of self.

Just remember, there are no crappy products -- well, there are crappy products, but that's not what determines whether they sell or not. What matters is the packaging, and the people you hire to do actual work so you don't have to, and whether you even know how to have fun once you're rich enough not to work anymore. But let's face it, after a lifetime of working overtime to achieve your dreams, you'll probably forget how to have fun completely and you'll have wasted your youth talking about branding and emerging markets and bar codes, and you'll have nothing to turn to but expensive drugs and high-priced whores. Yum!

Next week: Even more uplifting messages and bad television shows to distract you from your depressingly crappy personal brand!

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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