Sunday, April 12, 2009

Brand Loyalty Oaths

What ever happened to soap? I envision some genius in the marketing department at Proctor & Gamble saying, "You know, our soap smells far too pleasant and produces a rich lather. Let's change it to a slick bar with no discernible scent that leaves an oily residue that is hard to wash off, but also put specks of grit in it that are uncomfortable on the skin and tell the public that it's good for them." Before you know it, every bar in the soap aisle is either anti-bacterial, or Ivory, which brings back bad memories of childhood punishments for cursing. I gave my heart to Safeguard, and then they took it away from me. The whole concept of lather disappeared in order to sell you a new, gel "body wash" in a plastic, disposable container. Of course, that makes the puffy bath net on a rope a necessity and then you're into a whole new category of bathroom accessories. A similar thing happened with Vanilla Pepsi. I had finally found the proper mixture of cola, carbonation, and taste and was pledging my loyalty to Pepsi by listening to Michael Jackson records and watching old Joan Crawford movies, when they cut me off cold-turkey. I protested the bait-and-switch like a true Southerner and turned to Royal Crown Cola. It's hair tonic today and Bug Be Gone tomorrow. Packaged groceries are shrinking in size, trusted brands are disappearing from the shelves, and somehow the Watson's Girl just doesn't seem as sexy in her new incarnation as the Family Leisure Woman.

That's why, ever since the age of awareness, I have tried to be cautious of developing brand loyalties. But then I'm not like other people, if only for the fact that I put my pants on two legs at a time; always have. I sit at the edge of the bed, britches in hand, rock back and place both legs in at once, and spring to my feet fully trousered. I figure it saves me 15-20 seconds a day, which may not seem like much, but accumulated over many years it gives me an extra few hours at the end of my life to just mess around. That sort of thinking, plus a few college advertising classes, made me cognizant of tricks used by image peddlers who know that if they hook you young enough on their product, they've got you for life. Joe Camel was no accident. Neither were subliminal images contained within advertising, mostly in popular magazines. I saw devil heads painted into ice cubes in liquor ads without actually having to drink the stuff. I once considered advertising as a career for a minute until I realized I'd be lying for a living, and had I wanted to do that, I would have gone to law school. Over the years, I cast away the brand name products for common sense, but there was a time when brand preferences went a long way in determining social acceptance.

I wore a uniform back then, just like all my friends. But we weren't in a military academy or assigned a school uniform; just in Junior High, trying to be cool. We created a self-imposed, official, "cool" outfit and became slaves to fashion and the brand names. I wore Oxford cloth, Gant, button-down collared shirts in white, blue, yellow, or pink, H-I-S slacks in navy or khaki, Burlington Gold Cup socks, and Bass Weejuns. Upon enlightenment, I shed the uniform for simpler garb; the light blue workshirt, bell bottom jeans, and chukka boots. Then one day I looked around and realized that everyone was wearing exactly the same outfit and that I was back in uniform again. My clothing decisions these days are based more on comfort than style, but I have steadfastly refused to display a designer label on my ass or be anybody's walking billboard; Marvin Gaye and Barack Obama T-shirts excluded.

Back when American cars were the world's standard, they produced the fiercest brand loyalties. Beginning in 1934, my grandfather owned one long series of Buicks for his entire life. My first car was a Pontiac Tempest Le Mans ragtop and I loved it dearly. I had read in one of my big sister's "Teen" magazines that a gentleman should keep a scarf in the glove compartment so his female passengers wouldn't have to mess up their hair when the top was down. I had a variety of colors. After a few hundred trips back and forth from Knoxville, however, I began to notice something known within the industry as "planned obsolescence." Without constant maintenance, these cars weren't designed to last very long, and the ragtop wasn't so impressive at 85mph on the interstate. I would shove in an 8-Track of the Steve Miller Band and let him and Boz Scaggs battle the howling wind for noise dominance in the vehicle. Major mechanical problems began to develop in the car's third year, and that's only because it sat idle in my parents' driveway for nine months while I obeyed the UT rule forbidding freshmen from having cars on campus.

After an angst-ridden stretch in a doomed 1969 Mercury Cougar and a hippie pipe dream gone horribly wrong with a stripped-down, short-lived VW Minibus, I abandoned buying American cars completely for an alternating group of Hondas and Datsun/Nissans, the last of which I drove for ten years. I lease a car now, and I guess we show a little Honda favoritism since Melody drives the Accord and I drive the Metropolitan scooter. In the cola wars, I prefer to drink whatever is on sale that week. I am very fond of the Fender electric guitar, although I have owned others, but I have played the same cracked, hollow-body Gibson acoustic for 47 years. To power my home stereo, I still use the Marantz amplifier I bought for $75 from my former college roommate in 1972. That was a good deal, but the one I'm not so proud of was selling a 1962 Fender Stratocaster to Buddy Davis for $175. He was a good guitarist, I wasn't, and I thought he could make better use of it. That same guitar is worth over $12,000 today. Buddy ultimately sold it too, so there's someone out there with a prize. I only hope they know it.

As I have aged, my brand loyalties have dropped away one by one; Ultra-Brite toothpaste, Mennen Speed Stick, English Leather, any razor of any type, and since I've been married; Stouffer's Lean Cuisine and Sweet Sue Chicken and Dumplings. I have no favorite football team although I can't say the same for basketball, and I always root for the old hometown, as difficult as it sometimes gets. I seldom read fiction unless it is forced on me. I have owned both Apple and PC computers. Because I have 1000 songs at my fingertips at all times, I have no need for an iPod and I never listen to music through headphones or when I'm in public. I hate the cellphone and I refuse to text because that's essentially typing on the phone. I've entered the digital age, but saved my albums, and yes, I'll probably end up buying the newly mastered Beatles albums for the fifth separate time. All it takes to make me happy these days is a box of real Kleenex with Aloe and my remaining three undying brand loyalties which perfectly illustrate my priorities; Charmin Ultra, Jockey, and the Democratic Party.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Another great post! Love the graphics.
Anyone who grew up with the education of digesting the REAL Mad Magazine knew about the tricks of advertising and should always be prepared for disappointment.

Anonymous said...

John Simmons put me onto this blog several months ago and it's one of the greatest. I just happen to agree with everything you say and that helps. I wish I were half as good with the words. keep up the good work.

Geoff Russell

Mr. Natural said...

You hit the nail on the head when you described the mind-numbing conformity of middle/high school days. No one would dare to break the dress code or any of the other procribed behaviors that governed every aspect of the culture. Those who adhered were 'in' while those who didn't were social pariahs. And when everyone decided not to conform when the counter-culture appeared, they all non-conformed in the same way producing another type of the same old conformist situation. I guess no one really wants to stray too far from the herd. In truth, there are precious few true non-conformists who do so in a genuine,non-self conscious way. I guess that's a good thing, though. If the herd takes a liking to the way some non-conformist is living, another culture of sameness with all of its strictures will evolve. More people need to adopt a screw the herd mentality. If you don't, the herd will wind up screwing you for not following its dictates. Who needs to be lorded over by the 'other'. It's a slavish way to live.

Anonymous said...

Good commentary. We need more individuals who think and act for themselves. We need a renaissance of the teachings of Thoreau. He was one of the key inspirations behind the counter-culture, even though it did eventually fall into just another conformist trip. Back then I wouldn't even consider being seen in public wihtout my bell-bottoms. Shame on me. And screw the herd.