Anthropologist Grant McCracken writes about brands and business at This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics, an awkwardly titled but highly readable blog that's the latest addition to my blogroll. (Hat tip: Sara Winge.) The first post I read there, on brand names like Firefox and Fire Eagle, expanded my awareness of mythical archetypes in branding. More recently McCracken wrote an appreciation of the current Kleenex ad campaign--the one that urges you to "let it out" and have a good cry. In the ads, people sit on a blue couch and weep, and not always from joy.
Now, this is the last place you would expect a brand to play. Big emotions? In public? People losing control of the feelings? In public?
Something in the culture of marketing balks at this. Emotions in advertising were supposed to be upbeat, cheery, and peppy. That's why we have been forced suffer all that "fun in the sun" advertising. Addled icons like The Doublemint Twins, the forced good humor of a family drive to Knott's Landing¹, the spectacular gratitude that came from discovering just how much fun to operate a George Foreman grill, these were the emotional orthodoxies of the advertising world. Negative emotions were forbidden. The culture created by capitalism was thin and risible.
Plus, something in the culture of marketing balked at associating the brand with something it couldn't "own." What marketers really wanted was the Unique Selling Proposition, the one functional utility the brand possessed over all others. People crying in public? Who could own this?
Here's his conclusion:
The fact that "let it out" appears in this campaign tells us that marketing is becoming a little more anthropological. Brands are listening to their publics more closely. They are taking in aspects of the human experience more broadly. They are playing back things that have a little more narrative or at least dramatic oomph. They are now prepared to send their brands up the value hierarchy. They are making themselves partners to larger, worthier undertakings than fun in the sun.
Well, maybe. There's this one little thing, which irks me as much as it does McCracken: Kimberly-Clark, Kleenex's parent company, has applied for a trademark for the phrase "let it out." And they make sure you know about it. That TM symbol is all over the Let It Out website.
It's enough to make you cry. Or, as McCracken puts it:
When you seek to make cultural meanings part of the brand proposition, you are a guest in someone's house. The moment you start stuffing the silver into your pockets, that's when we're going to ask you to leave.
Here's something interesting, though. There's a Let It Out corporate blog on the Kleenex site; its anonymous author maintains a relentlessly chirpy tone --"I have stopped making resolutions. Instead I choose a theme word for the year"--and the text is littered with TM symbols. Yet something very different is going on in the readers' comments, whose tags include "deppression [sic]," "bewildered," "death," "scary," "bullys [sic]," and "sadness and deciet [sic]." Kleenex encouraged them to Let It Out, and by God, they did. Very moving, even heartbreaking at times.
Kleenex would probably like you to Make It All Go Away by ordering a personalized Kleenex Oval box. $4.99 (each) plus shipping.
Image: 1950s Kleenex ad, via Life Is Marketing.
¹ Sic. I'm pretty sure he means Knott's Berry Farm.