“My, Those Are Spiffy Sunglasses. Did You Fall Down A Mine?”

Hope, and capitalism, have won out in Chile.

For the past few days I, like the rest of the world, have been captivated by the ongoing saga in Chile as 33 miners were rescued from almost 700 metres below ground, all emerging with shouts, laughs, and plenty of thanks for God and the scientists who have spent the last two months trying to get them out. Frankly, it’s great to hear some good news from the world media, which recently have been depressing us endlessly with their tales of woe about the recession, the impending political reign of morons, and the demise of their own industry. The great mining rescue has also provided the best branding opportunity this year: Oakley sunglasses have suddenly become the eyewear of choice for the discerning miner.

What a coup. The California-based firm is reputedly getting about $41 million worth of exposure – particularly at night, when the distinctive branded “O” on the frames appears more clearly, according to CNBC – for the low, low price of $450/pair ($15 750 total). The Radar lenses are “enhanced with a hydrophobic/oleophobic coating that prevents water from leaving sheens that can obstruct vision. It also sheds mud and repels oils and dust. This will help keep the miners’ vision clear during rescue operations,” according to the company’s website. They are also a stylish charcoal colour and wrap around to make one look extra cool and sporty.  No doubt sales of Oakley products will surge in the next few weeks as all those who want to trade in on the feeling and who feel the need for “high-velocity and high-mass impact resistance” rush out to buy a pair or two. The company’s executives must be about as happy as the miners themselves.

Now, I don’t mean to be unduly critical of Oakley here. The miners needed protective eyewear from somewhere, and from my understanding the company only became involved after being approached by a Chilean journalist asking them to donate the glasses. But it seems to me that one of the oddest things about our world today is that nothing exists without a brand or ad spot anymore. Any historical transplant dropped in from 100 years ago would be shocked at the extent to which everything – from ways of teaching to varieties of apple – has a corporate name and logo. Advertising and branding try to sell feelings and moments, such as inclusion, happiness, and pride, and now it seems feelings and moments wander around in need a sponsor.

I noticed this trend earlier in the year, as I wandered the streets near where I live in Toronto during the annual Pride Week celebrations. There were all the usual naked men and foam phalluses, but the overall vibe was less joyful and hedonistic than usual. Tents had been set up along the major roads to sell rhinestone cowboy hats, leather chaps and hot dogs on a stick (actually). Each sought to capitalize on the party atmosphere and attempt to encapsulate the zeitgeist in its wares. The overall feeling was one of cold and calculated capitalism, which to me is almost the antithesis of the gay pride movement.

We tend to rail against blatant product placement because it is everywhere – on Survivor, at nuit blanchein Steig Larsson novels – and because it feels a lot like trickery. [Side salad: if you’ve read Larsson’s books, click on that last link. I promise you won’t regret it.] Companies are trying to catch us unawares as we try to enjoy some intense mud wrestling for Charmin toilet paper and an immunity necklace – the nerve! But I suspect that we nonetheless fall victim to the effects of “branded entertainment” simply because of the constant barrage. I can’t name more than two brands of sunglasses, but you can bet that after today I’m not going to forget about Oakley.

Is this alarming trend the fault of advertisers? Or is it ours? In a very interesting article on the history of product placement, authors Jay Newell, Charles T. Salmon and Susan Chang argue that directors have historically often included branded products in films without trying to extract money from companies, merely to provide more of a semblance of reality. There is no “intent to influence consumer behavior,” as they say, on the part of the company. And product placement certainly isn’t new: an illustration in Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers included a partial Guinness logo (which apparently caused much ado when it appeared in 1836-37). Yet despite the knee-jerk opposition many of us feel toward it, it’s still around. It’s popular because it works.

No self-respecting CEO today would pass up the opportunity for a canny product plug, no matter the price. Products no longer survive on the merits of their features and benefits alone. Now they rely on the strength of their promotion, too, a survival of the fittest of advertisers and their campaigns. Success or failure of products and companies rests on the ability of advertisers to convince buyers how products can fit seamlessly into their lives, and how moments in their lives are incomplete without a branded product around. (This is exactly how Hallmark manages to get people to buy greeting cards. Love is not love without a sappy poem, after all.) And, in turn, the advertisers brand themselves and their methods. Everything needs a name, and better yet a brand and slogan. Everything can and should be packaged and sold – things, countries, even you. Life’s tender moments are nothing if you can’t take photos of them and turn them into a mass-market greeting card.

Humans are contradictory creatures. It seems that, for all we have been demonizing unbridled capitalism and its effects of late – see media coverage and general opinion of Great Recession, The – we are internalizing its principles more and more. Maybe we should try putting our current feelings of sadness, uncertainty and fear into a bottle, giving it a spiffy name, and selling it. If the marketing’s good enough, somewhere, someone will buy it.

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4 Responses to “My, Those Are Spiffy Sunglasses. Did You Fall Down A Mine?”

  1. Mike says:

    “Products no longer survive on the merits of their features and benefits alone”

    Oh they ever did? Can you give an example?

    Nostalgia for an age that never existed, as a wise man once said.

    • Kathryn Exon Smith says:

      Some products do “sell themselves” – sugar is a good example. It’s advertised now (because of different products, competition, etc.), but research by Sidney Mintz, among others, suggests that as soon as people were able to have sugar, they did – more and more and more.

      I suppose it’s the difference between just a thing that exists to eat and use in cooking and such, and a “product,” because “product” implies something that can be sold and that is branded. Good point. Thank you.

      I also think nostalgia is always for something that is different from reality – hence nostalgia and not just memory. It’s a projection of what we lack into the past, don’t you think? (But I love advertising. I think it’s creative and interesting, and showcases the human ability to connect with each other and tap into deep-rooted emotions.)

  2. Duncan Exon Smith says:

    Reminds me of this comic about Pepsi:
    http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=1024#comic

    (For those that don’t know SMBC, one can reveal an extra punchline by clicking on the red button underneath the comic.)

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