Reading Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw, I got to his essay, “True Colors: Hair Dye and the Hidden History of Postwar America.” He argues that the difference between Clairol’s “Does She or Doesn’t She?” and L’Oreal’s “Because I’m Worth It,” is the difference between 1950s and 1970s feminism. Moreover, even when the two product’s pitches had essentially merged (Gladwell was writing in 1999), their buyer’s different self-images lingered on. Smart ad men know they’re selling more than a product, they’re selling an experience, or an image. Sometimes, that image or dream ties into a larger social change or movement, and that that’s both a reflection and an agent of that change:
This notion of household products as psychological furniture is, when you think about it, a radical idea. When we give an account of how we got to where we are, we’re inclined to credit the philosophical over the physical, and the products of art over the products of commerce…
“Because I’m worth it,” and “Does she or doesn’t she?” were powerful, then, precisely because they were commercials, for commercials come with products attached, and products offer something that songs and poems and political movements and radical ideologies do not, which is an immediate and affordable means of transformation.
Far from trivializing a political, social, or economic movement, commercialization can help make it personal and accessible, and therefore less threatening and more familiar.
We’ve seen a couple of Tea Party movies, one explicitly so, (Atlas Shrugged), and one implicitly (Robin Hood). Thus far, I’m aware of only one commercial that implies a Tea Party presence, the Starbucks commercial with the angry old loner who yells at town halls, which would be a bit like L’Oreal selling “Because I’m worth it” using Nurse Ratchet or Gloria Steinem, who quickly became a caricature of herself.
It may be that we have to wait until the Tea Party sees more success, in winning hearts and minds if not yet national elections, before companies are willing to bet their products’ success on its messaging. But just as feminism succeeded in making the political personal (and more destructively, the personal political), and as environmentalism succeeded in making small actions and then products green, the Tea Party might get farther by doing something similar for its own themes.
It’s not wise to choose your political message based on the products it might sell, but certain themes will sell better than others. We can search forever in the tall grass of social history to discover how much of feminism’s public appeal was based on opportunity, and how much drew from raging against The Patriarchy, but there’s no question that positive sells. Ilon Specht may have been angry when she wrote, “Because I’m worth it,” but the slogan expresses liberation, not anger.
To be sure, it faces some hurdles in doing this. If the theme is fiscal responsibility, most families already need to spend less than they make. If it’s personal liberty, the government’s probably a tougher customer to disobeying rules, tougher than most companies. And to the extent that it dwells on what used to be, rather than what might be, its message is nostalgia, and the only products it will sell are baseball and Coca-Cola. You want to get people to invite your ideas into their homes, you need to be relevant to how they’re living their lives today, and want to be living them tomorrow.
So, what products do you see as being right for capturing the Tea Party ethos, and allowing people to internalize it? Which themes are best suited to commercialization? And what messages should go in their commercials? How would you write such a commercial?