Realm magazine

January 01, 2000

Reinventing Their Image The Corporate Co-opting of Indie Cool By: Hal Niedzviecki

“It’s totally reflexive. It was an experiment in how far you can take an absurd idea using all the devices of advertising and propaganda used to infiltrate a society.” ten years ago, Shepard Fairey launched a grassroots, youth-oriented marketing campaign called Giant. Since then, he’s distributed 5,000 posters and over a million stickers exhorting innocent bystanders to “Obey Giant!”

Now 29, Fairey runs a graphic design firm catering to corporate marketeers eager to capitalize on his skills in reaching the cynical yet highly coveted 18-to 30-year-old market. After hearing Fairey speak about the phenomenal success of Giant, soft drink conglomerate Pepsi was so impressed that the company hired the young entrepreneur to apply his image-weaving skills to redesign the can for Mountain Dew.

So, where can you buy the craftily marketed product that propelled Fairey to fame and fortune? The answer is: nowhere. Giant doesn’t exist. “There’s no concept,” Fairey explains on the phone from Black Market, his San Diego, Califronia-based design firm. “It’s totally reflexive. It was an experiment in how far you can take an absurd idea using all the devices of advertising and propaganda used to infiltrate a society.”

Confused? What Fairey did was create a marketing campaign without a product – a somewhat radical demonstration of the superiority image has over product in today’s consumer market. There’s nothing to buy but more ads for Giant. Write to Fairey and he’ll send you a package of stickers featuring the slightly bastardized face of the late wrestling superstar obey giant, reshaped with the unique imprint of indie cool and a definite youth culture spin.

Is the message here that the successful young entrepreneur can get attention and jobs by manufacturing a fake spectacle? Absolutely. But there is at least one other important lesson to be gleaned from Giant – a lesson about the shape-shifting nature of information and image in the post-modern work environment – and the inherent power a grassroots image can have in the corporate world.

Where once it was the goal of the marketeer to convince people of the efficacy and utility of a certain product, now it is commonly accepted that the product, as in the case of Giant, is secondary to the lifestyle image it is deemed to represent. “Information is the crucial commodity,” Canadian media seer Marshall McLuhan informed us not long ago. “Solid products are merely incidental to information movement.”

And what, you might wonder, is the lifestyle that the 21st-century conglomerate wants us to associate with everything from cheese spread to perfume to movies? Fairey’s success, which parlayed his bizarre experiment into a career, suggests the answer: most products today stand for freedom, for cool, for individuality. Commercials don’t say, “Use this perfume, you’ll like the way it smells”; instead, marketers create a rhetoric to lure us away from homegrown, local products and turn us on to mass-marketed products branded with a fictional cool.

Let’s look more closely at how this works. Recently, I was contacted about putting an ad banner for TD Bank on the website of my small magazine on underground culture in Canada. I politely declined, then asked the fellow if he would mind meeting with me to answer a few questions. Surprisingly, my caller was eager to talk. Turns out he was a 20-year-old university student working for a new media ad agency for the summer. We set up a meeting, at which point I asked him what the TD cyber-campaign was all about.

“What they want is to make TD Bank look fun and cool by making a TD community called Greenville,” he said. “One of the mottoes of Greenville is that everyone in Greenville is perfectly happy because they are all using TD banking. They are trying to make it fun and fresh, like it’s not really an ad for a product.”

So what exactly is Greenville? I asked.

“You’re on this website, people see flashy colours and the page features these fun boxes. One fun box has a girl and you click on her and get her to dance in different ways. So it’s fun. She’s wearing a TD Visa T-shirt. From there you can go right into TD and sign up. This whole campaign is really about trying to be fun.”

This is post-modern marketing at its best. Got something to sell? Hawk a generic brand of hip. Make it look ‘cool’ and the kids will come running. You may have noticed a series of ads for Calvin Klein’s perfume, One. Each ad features a close-up of a beautiful person with an accompanying e-mail address. I e-mailed and was rewarded with a return e-mail from the fictional Tia, who confided in me her love life and asked me to e-mail her current paramour, Ian. “Could you see if you can find out anything?” Tia anxiously asked me, like she surely asked all the other young people who had undoubtedly been sucked into this cologned soap opera.

The point here is not whether these kinds of faux hip interventions really work. By blurring the distinction between genuine and fake, indie and corporate, cool and lame, marketeers are inadvertently putting a lot of power into the hands of the genuine creators of indie cool. Independent entrepreneurs and small business owners can take heart in the fact that the corporate entity is paying so much attention to eliminating the last vestiges of opposition, because this is a sign that the opposition, in the form of localized indie alternatives, is growing.

How then, should the fledgling entrepreneur respond to the co-opting of cool? I wish there were a simple answer. In a world of fakes, we crave authenticity. Not “the real thing” Coca-Cola promises, but the capacity to have substantive experiences without feeling like we are being reduced to quota numbers, statistics or cogs in the machine. This isn’t something we can buy or sell. It is something that, as Giant shows us, comes from genuinely being in a position as a small business or independent entrepreneur. If nothing else, Fairey’s decade-long, ongoing commitment to his bizarre project indicates that we, as individuals, can reshape our lives and the lives of others outside of the corporate structure. And this suggests that in the McLuhanesque information age, there will be no truth, no product, no “real thing”. Which means we will all have an equal capacity to reinvent and to be reinvented. This puts us on equal footing with the big boys who, for all their desperate machinations, are only succeeding in adding to the confusion and permeability of a marketing environment which, obsessed with portraying a kind of ersatz uniqueness, has the effect of stimulating within us a desire for genuine individuality. That, in turn, gives us indie operators if not an edge, at least equal opportunity to perpetuate our particular version of authenticity.