Thursday, November 10, 2016

Tough nut to crack: brand strategy, sugar, and the global obesity crisis

Dan Wasserman from Boston Globe mocking Coca-Cola strategy....
As a kid, my mom would occasionally bring me for a special treat, called rock candy. Beautiful like a clear quartz crystal, this candy was simply and elegantly large rocks of crystallized sugar - that we would buy at the pharmacy counter no less. Yes, I would suck and chew on pure sugar rocks, something that would be considered practically criminal today in some circles. Three-ish decades on, many in food policy circles think of sugar much in the same way they think of tobacco: it’s bad for one's overall health, and it’s the driver of a global public health crisis with obesity now surpassing hunger worldwide. Such critics attribute responsibility for the obesity crisis to the brands that “push” these products, along with other entities such as manufacturing associations. They look to tobacco legislation as a model in their fight. Warnings about the health effects of sugar in soda are surely filtering through to the public as soda sales in the US at least have been dropping for a decade, and this trend is likely to spread to other global regions. And brands are strategizing against such a drop in sales. Hence comes the apparently scientific article produced recently by Coca-Cola funded scientists(see cartoon above) which concludes that exercise counts more than calorie consumption for reducing obesity. Hmmmm - interesting. Critics respond with the point that industry funded research is biased, almost invariably favoring the product researched. It is hard to keep track of the back and forth. There is vitriol.

While both tobacco use and sugar consumption share that people have an almost sensual physical relationship to these products that is hard to ignore, they’re actually quite different in their distribution and consumption so applying the model of “big tobacco” to "big food" isn’t clear cut. Tobacco isn’t contained within practically everything you find on a shelf in the supermarket, whereas some form of sugar is. Sugar is an ingredient not only in a serious majority of processed food products, but it is also very much present in both fruits and vegetables, meaning that in some way, sugar in whole foods can be part of a healthy diet. So dealing with tobacco meant something much more direct; with sugar, the target isn't as clear.

Creative approaches came into play: New York's soda tax against drinks 16 oz and larger meant to deal with the sugar problem is one, but it was hard sell and there was much debate. Now it is being copied in other places and considered on the federal level as US policy. At the same time, there are a number of nutrition scientists trying to build the evidence base for sugar addiction. Results are pointing in favor of it, but evidence isn't clear yet either.

CULTURE COMES INTO PLAY

There are complicated ideas that have developed around sugar as a product. Sugar is a stubborn nugget of intertwined cultural associations - some are very positive. Sugar is part of fruit - fruit is good for you - positive association. What about dessert? Too much dessert bad, but does anyone really think that apple pie, the iconic American dessert is making anyone fat? Americans remain warm and fuzzy on this point. I know I do. Then there are the issues of portion sizes and general changes in our lifestyles as a contributing factor. Herein lies the problem with good legislation targeting sugar.

My oven burnt my pie but it was still yummy
The cherry on top is that there are also many other forms that sugar takes, including high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, fructose, xylitol and all of the sugar substitutes, stevia, raw sugar, demerara, muscovado (love the names...), not to mention honey and so on. Ideas around many of these products aren’t as developed as they are around sugar itself- pure white, soft, clean- versus HFCS - sugar’s liquid form - distilled, processed, gooey, sticky, unclean, practically sugar's evil twin at this stage of the public discussion.


Questions: How do we separate out all of these pieces to come up with a brand strategy? 


Answer: The response is actually a series of many smaller and (longer-term) moves based on teasing out the variety of associations. 


Teasing out the culture/s of sugar...

The "natural": Ironically, the idea of sugar has become associated with being more natural because high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has had much bad press. Sugar in Europe mostly comes not from cane but from beets which is a highly processed sugar, but it is the cultural associations that count most. Pepsi deciding to move to sugar from HFCS in 2010 was an obvious sign. What we consider "natural" is hard to predict: it will be different in different countries of course, but sugar, refined may it be, is still perceived as more natural than other sweeteners. (Honey, considered yet more natural, remains for home use rather than industrial use). There is a continuum for where a product can be placed as far as how natural it is perceived. And being more natural -having more natural foods and ingredients- is valuable in a world where there is increasing desire for keeping food "clean" and "wholesome" is certainly part of this dynamic.


Brand Response:

1. USE MORE "NATURAL" SUGARS: the brand Rigoni di Asiago has had unbelievable success with their delicious jams created using concentrated apple juice as a sweetener. Concentrated apple juice is of course a processed sweetener but it IS part of a food we actually eat, apples, so it certainly has some more whole food properties than the white, powdery stuff. The jam is sweet without being overly so and it retains the texture and taste of the actual fruit. As their tag says "Rigoni of Asiago: Nature at heart". The associations with nature are very strategic. They transport us to a time before all our food was highly processed. They make us forget that our food is made by giant machines that process other foods beside our cookie dough (nuts and soybeans). They evoke the Proustian moment - when we might have picked and cooked our own food. Nostalgia for an idyllic past is well represented by landscapes of nature, projecting earthy wisdom and simplicity. And it makes me want to roll around in a pile of hay...

Rigoni of Asiago: Nature at its heart...

Having lived in Italy recently and with a foot in Italian culture for almost two decades, it has been funny for me to find that many mothers consider ice cream (well, it’s ethereal Italian counterpart, gelato) a relatively wholesome nutritious treat. Often with fruit, whole milk and of course there is ample sugar, it is more or less just blended, but we all know gelato is superior to any frozen dessert product on earth. And yet...there is an empire of fruit, milk, chocolate and nut production and their global supply chains behind the simple product. The point being that much of the ado about sugar is in part driven by the scientific nature of industrial food. No one is attacking apple pie or gelato itself. Grom, now an international brand that pushes its wholesomeness and sustainability to the limit, appeals to all of these points to the degree where no one would even dream of isolating the sugar as a problem.
Grom: Gelato like it once was...




Mulino Biano: The pleasure of healthy eating
2.  JUST USE LESS SUGAR IN THE PRODUCT.  Industrial food scientists - this must be their mission. Start doing testing to find the sweet spot, if you will ;-), where the product is just sweet enough to be delicious without going overboard. I *try* to eat highly processed food as little as possible but when I do taste some of the products out there, I find them sickeningly sweet - food science should find that edge to re-educate the public's palate over time and really get out there ahead of the game, promoting this forward thinking, more health-sustainable approach. Now's the time.

3. MOVE TOWARD INCREASING OTHER NATURAL INGREDIENTS to create a more wholesome product where possible. It is an important move that will respond to growing criticism for highly processed food (more on that point shortly). While it doesn't address sugar directly, it addresses the notion that food is just less natural today than it once was (hence, lots of amber waves of grain and other nostalgic agricultural images in current food branding). On the flip side, can we take out all the junk included just for aesthetic reasons, like dyes? Nestle is taking out artificial dyes for instance from candy bars. What is that about anyway? Chocolate is brown, eggs are yellow/orange, butter plus flour is beige! I don't want a blue candy bar, do you? Raspberry isn't blue either.


ON FOOD PROCESSING


I've already mentioned this term several times. Processed is the flip side of natural when it comes to people's perceptions. People who think negatively about food processing are thinking of the "pink slime" scandal. They are thinking artificial dyes. People tend to lump all sorts of processing together, even when at times it is of great benefit to our lifestyle. To be fair on the topic of food processing, even health-foodies should all be exceedingly grateful for some food processing: I love my salad pre-washed, my flour pre-ground, my milk homogenized and my water treated. Food processing isn't all bad - what would working families do without frozen veggies? But it is quite difficult for people to recognize where the lines could reasonably be drawn so "processed food" writ large, comes off as against efforts to establish healthy diets when that doesn't always hold in reality.

Sugar then, likely because of its entanglement with HFCS, is now tied into concerns not only over health, but also general discontent with overly processed, industrialized food.

Industrialized food was initially a cause célèbre in the post-war period. Baby food and white bread made mom's life easier and exemplified how industry served working people well and made busy working livelihoods in new urban centers more convenient. Mass industrialization of the American food system allowed food to be produced more cheaply, offering food itself as a vehicle in which people took part in American industrial prowess and technological achievement - only through the purchase and and enjoyment of the new convenience foods. Many decades later however and after an increasing number of food processing scandals tied to food safety, people crave a demonstrative move toward the wholesome, unprocessed food from a (however idealized) past. People need reassurance that they are not consuming cancer-causing chemicals, pink slime, bacteria or prions. The growth of urban farming and bee-keeping, community supported agriculture, heritage grains and animals and locally grown movements that are spreading across cities in the West is a way that people address these concerns, bringing in a distant market to a local space where people can understand and create a deeper connection to food sources. These are good developments. It doesn't mean we can't have a laugh at the emphasis on baby lettuces, Himalayan salt and charred bergamot lovingly smudged on my pasture-fed, heritage quail though.

There will be multiple pathways for food brands to deal with the issue of sugar but the biggest strategy of all: Connect to community concerns. Come to the table with food policy councils, universities and any food conscious stakeholders you can engage. Don’t be afraid to work with the very people that seem to be the rivals to find the desired ways into the problem. Understand their goals and contribute to efforts that help consumption of healthy foods overall. In many ways, sugar is just part of that much bigger package.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Quick and dirty brand analysis. Neal's Yard Remedies.

Neal's Yard Remedies, founded in 1981, is a British beauty classic.  I'm surprised it isn't more widespread than it is outside of the UK. But then again, conscientious growth just goes with their ethical, earth-aware ethos. Still, NYR is a bit solemn - they have established their authority as a leader in the organic field, earned our trust, won awards and I think they need to have a little fun. NYR is now on Snapchat (just during the writing of this post!) and I'm curious to see how that goes. How would it work? They are clearly not playing to the Snapchat audience. I think they can move in that direction though by unleashing their inner cool, and I have ideas for how that could happen.

With the increasing interest in both personalized medicine and nutrition, as well as the ever-expanding holistic approaches to health and wellness, Neal's Yard will have a a lot of foment to tap into in the coming years. It is alternative healing - beauty and body homeopathy to the allopathic, aseptic pharmaceutical beauty brand La Roche-Posay. A Boiron to Pfizer. Both the ethics and the local nature of their products are core to the brand and to the "go local" phenomenon which remains dominant. While taking environmental and even social sustainability head-on (Argan oil is sourced from Moroccan women's work cooperatives), they speak to people looking for natural solutions to stress, sun protection, aging and chemical sensitivities. Without being too technical, NYR inform you on the maladies of modern life and how their products deal so harmonically with them. They're empowering their consumers with information and education, to take their healing into their own hands - all so good.




Their iconic blue - regal, tranquil, staid, a bit traditional, somewhat austere- is offset by a soft, modern looking serif font. The glass packaging and label is also a key symbol - a calming watery vehicle connecting us back to the earth - the colors of beach glass. Part of their color palate even includes the beige-y sand. It is an interesting contrast to the tree logo - the mirrored reflection suggests NYR works on building up, rather than depleting the earth. They embody the solid earth. That the power of what we see is fueled by what we don't - the roots underground. This extends to their products - simple yet powerful, the oomph of the earth within them. The glass packaging? Another visionary move way before the effects of BPA became part of the public discussion. Together, there is honesty, calm, authority, trust, elegance, longevity and simplicity, sustainability: moral satisfaction for the post-Aquarian eco activist, or the traveler who needs to be enveloped in the soothing, grounded, earthy goodness. It is a place where Rachel Carson would undoubtedly shop. But you can still imagine its hippie chic origins in the colorful Covent Garden store.

Rachel Carson, the marine biologist and visionary author of Silent Spring

I see a fitting comparison in Kiehl's Since 1851, even if it is a more luxury brand - it has something to suggest to NYR. With its own fun take on natural beauty medicine, it's signal is more quirky than NYR - in a good way. I don't love some of their brighter colored packaging, but as old as the company is, Kiehl's comes out more strongly on the cool factor: more badass rockabilly with its motorcycle and skeleton - Mr. Bones displayed in store.  The original location in the West Village (where I bought a product a few weeks ago)  is on the apothecary tip of beauty and wellness - where you might have found the old naturalists bringing ingredients to the ol' alchemists one-hundred-ish years back. At the same time, their products gain some legitimacy as a "treatment" through the association with the pharmacy structure, the in-store consultants donning white coats to demonstrate the scientific transformation of nature into its purified, medicinal state - a bit too pharmaceutical for NYR.


But NYR promote actual health much more than Kiehl's, and I had a truly wonderful in-store experience at Neal's Yard, Victoria Station when passing through London recently. The service was so knowledgeable, it would have been comical, crunchy madness, if I didn't feel so comforted by the fact that I felt I'd leave with what I needed. The product selection wasn't overwhelming - it felt like everything I might have wanted was there. I ended up creating my own delicious body oil blend. And then I got it home and kind of forgot what exactly was in the bottle. It wasn't written down anywhere for me. NYR probably captured this info as they charged it out but it suggested something missing in the experience. Though I have some bigger suggestions, I'll start here:

Suggestion 1: Community building. They are spot-on - clear leaders- with so many options for personalization, but NYR should offer a way for me to refer back to what I'd actually purchased. The in-store experience is a chance to really play and I had no way to follow up that process with an online engagement. They've laid the foundation but need to follow through by allowing people to solidify an individual experience rather than a generalized one - have a two-way conversation for customers excited about the great product they'd developed: Me "Mmm, an argan body oil with neroli and frankincense" do you love it as much as I do?" Neal's Yard rep: "great blend...For those of you who don't know about those gems, the benefits of that should be x, y and z" and so on. Link retail and digital more thoroughly.

Suggestion 2: Bring it to the Men - We are well into the age where men are accustomed to taking more attentive care of themselves. NYR aren't just pampering products. They are the very basics that we all need for ongoing good maintenance. The revolution in men's face hair in the past few years has allowed them exposure to new products that can become a gateway to more careful attention. Men's grooming is actually a thing. NYR boasts a small masculine line, but I think the majority of NYR, as well as the packaging, is gender neutral which is great. Start hitting #mensgrooming #mensproducts #fathersday #menwithstyle #forthemen. There should be a Men's kit along with the other skincare kits. Plus, the basis of every masculine fragrance is here - black pepper, cedarwood, bergamot, coriander . There is so much to mine at NYR for the men. However, there is little to no signaling to the men that these are products for them too - beside the shaving cream. Masculinity is turning inside out right now - NYR should be on the cutting edge of gender developments.

While more targeted research is needed, here are two quick options for cool/interesting masculine venues:
AnOtherman (a division of AnOthermag)
The Art of Manliness

Suggestion 3: Strategic collaborations that brings NYR into tribes and territories that would share the organic and sustainable vibe with some well-selected products, or limited-release products for each extension, to ADD SOME FUN by just extending a bit. This approach may be off their radar because they just seem to be speaking to an older audience - too serious. Their low-key, life affirming path is wonderful but frankincense and neroli, ylang ylang - these are sensual - NYR has to bring out that there are MANY tribes that fit within their range - the lavender and a quiet cup of tea feels entirely too contained. Young people are increasingly conscious of the sustainability of organic products and they're also concerned about sun protection and aging. But NYR has to update not only the technology but brand-feel accordingly and young people are more likely to take notice if they see NYR enjoying the ride, and see people enjoying their NYR products.


CATCH THE WAVE. Semiotics informed directions that can extend the brand: build an aquatic element into the NYR line. It is already contained in the dark blue glass and the lighter blue labeling - the beach glass. Aquatics would represent a striking, yet intuitive, organic complement to their earth base, held so beautifully in their logo with tree and roots. Earth provides the solid base, water flows - allows different, new energy, even as they work together. In the same way, the water element makes sense from a national perspective, as a British brand, the water all around the isles. The seashore taps into all the calm and tranquility NYR aims for yet it could bring a bit of edginess, lighten the mood up a bit - "fresh" and "oceanic" "marine" and "sea". Without veering sensorially into the coconut, vanilla and pineapple when going for a youthful audience, it can always be made to cut across segments with florals and citrus, bay leaf.  The aquatic element adds in beautiful products around seaweeds, kelps and sea salts both for body and as remedies or supplements - there are currently one or two products but it could become a more integrated, intentional strategy.



Seaweed, Salty AND Earthy
There is salt: Maldon of course, which is a mainstay in my home, but I can also imagine some hand-harvested fair-trade/ethical sourcing, highlighting the UK such as the Hebridean or Cornish Sea Salt but also supporting salt harvesters in other parts of the world. As much, it easily brings NYR beauty and wellness activism to oceanic and climate change routes. Sun care could add-in "beach/sea" care and beyond that, there are already so many water associated products to incorporate, though I'd love to see NYR adopt something like a Seaweed Absolute (bladderwrack) or Oakmoss in their essential oils to align with the theme. It feels right and it keeps the elegance and the sustainability core.

H&M Collab with Swedish Surfer Collective Nordsurf
Surf Styling - this is the part I love about adding an aquatic element to NYR. The potential for brand partnerships and NYR champions in the surfing community is very cool. Surfers are environmentalists - the sport requires being in accord with nature.  They are serious about their sport and about the environment but have a reputation for being lighthearted about life - groundedness of earth, "flow" of water. Partnering with sustainable and earth-conscious brands, surfer foundations and surfers as influencers and champions unleashes the hidden cool I am seeking here. Here are a few partners, just to get started: The first one is an obvious choice: The Green Wave, based in the UK is about sustainable surfing, gear and lifestyle products. Another is TwoThirds—a striking brand, relatively new from Spain that combines surfing and environmentalism in order to follow their philosophy, "Protect what you love." The Surfrider Foundation is a decades old non-profit that has a separate European arm whose mission is to protect beaches and shorelines. They work with corporate sponsors - how much fun would it be for NYR to help start a UK chapter of Surfrider?



Have a few beach parties to launch in select UK surf locations and highlight the new strategy, environmental concerns and some new products. Aquatics allow many new possibilities for keeping to the core feel of NYR but bring new products and new segments without being too forceful or even going too far afield.






Thursday, January 14, 2016

India's "Make in India" brand: The third wave of futurism...


The branding of India's new national innovation program "Make in India" is truly eye candy. Launched in late 2014, the initiative was developed by the Modi government to (re) build a national economy that not only suffered in the recent global economic crisis but also failed to live up to the almost boundless growth that China had experienced. This brand initiative wants to put India back in the game - to ensure that being the fast growing global economy is a lead they hold onto. It wants to point the world toward India. The imagery (re)evokes the kind of mass industrial prowess of which the US in particular seems no longer capable. The world economy is just set up differently now and the Taylorist style factory cities (to the left) which brought the US wealth and empire status are now more common to national economies that are thought of as "catching up". According to the Nation Brands Report (2015), India's brand value increased by 32% from USD 1.62 trillion in 2014 to USD 2.14 trillion in 2015. If you believe that indicator is meaningful, something might be coming from this initiative. But I find the meanings behind these images very curious. It makes me think the strategy is to downplay the cultural gulf that might exist when trying to do business in parts of the world not one's own. But it's more than that. 

The more inward looking campaign "Be Indian Buy Indian" aimed within India's boundary, hoping to connect an Indian consumer's decision-making to national sentiment. In contrast, these brand materials, not the first attempt to brand Indian industry, clearly point outward - the primary logo gives us a wild animal, an exotic, yet elegant view of India as a place where you can still find wild animals roaming, a place whose open space for investment is as wide as an open plain.  The lion - wise, regal and ferocious-  the king of the forest, is tamed and modernized by removing it from a natural landscape and imbued with bright primary colors or sleek patterned overlays depending upon need. Almost prowling forward, it declares "We are the future".


There is deep design touch that owes so much to a modernist faith in technology as a central feature. It is all about industrialization. While the Make in India brand covers 30 different sectors, it seems to be aiming for tech and heavy industry/capital goods and infrastructure - semi-conductors, space, shipping, military, although global pharma knows all too well that India also has major competency in drug development.

Yet the accompanying images connote a deep understanding of the economic past; the heavy machinery evokes (for me, as an American) what was once the American lifeblood. This is what technology once meant, depicted by Charles Sheeler in his Ford factory in Detroit. Sheeler's work defined a brave, new, modern world led by American ingenuity in the 20th century.
Charles Sheeler, American, 1883-1965; Ford Plant, River Rouge, Criss-Crossed Conveyors,
1927; gelatin silver print. Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Lane Collection
While the Make in India designs certainly borrow this energy, they are even more laden with associations of the mass industrial planning characteristic of the 1920's and 30's in Russia and in Germany. The, heavy, block-y font is pure Russian Futurism. The designs are so flat, abstract and retro, with bright, rich contrasting colors and laser cut angles - the precisionism of Sheeler, the monumentality of Soviet Constructivism or national socialism. The representations produced during that era were part of very rationalized social and economic systems in a complex package that grew wealth of nations, but were also foundational to the nationalist sentiments caught up in WWII and then the Cold War. In a nutshell: techno-fascism.

If you look quickly, the PPP could be mistaken for a CCCP...
Much as I appreciate the aesthetic itself  - I went through a Stenberg Brothers and a Rodchenko phase- what dominates this story is not people but machinery. These intend to make you feel awe in the face of the grand capacity for building. Wheels and moving parts, shiny, larger than life. Technology as the driver of human progress. Yet people disappear in and are dominated by such machinery and its relentless movement. As a social theory and a theory of management, Taylorism wanted people to bend to the will of the machine, to become part of it ("a cog in the machine") but even this idea quickly gave way to more anthropocentric understanding of the human-machine interface. Check out Chaplin's important critique of factory life in his film Modern Times (1936). Chaplin masterfully depicted how difficult were human's insertion into a steel clad environment.




No matter. Investors want to see the goods. But where are the people in this #MakeinIndia campaign? Was leaving them out intentional, a way to nullify the pesky issues concerning cultural differences, in work habits, institutional understanding, business practices? I suppose that is the point. The people that do exist in the story aren't the workers - the movers and shakers in the Indian economy- they are the global investors, those invited to participate in what is depicted as a new Industrial Revolution, happening in India. A call to arms, um - I mean to action.


And who are these anticipated investors?  To what region of the world are these images directed? Their feel might be too Socialist, too "red" for an American audience. Perhaps the underlying strategy is, "...to revive not only the Silk Road, but all the ancient trade routes crisscrossing the huge Eurasian land mass of the former Soviet Union in all directions."* In that context, the campaign makes much sense. After all, Narendra Modi and Putin just had their 16th bilateral summit where their love-fest was sanctified in sixteen different agreements that should reinforce partnership across security, trade, commerce, science and technology, defense, and energy - key "Make in India" sectors. They also aim to strengthen their defense partnership and encourage joint manufacturing of defense products in India. This will eventually pave the way for India becoming a central player in the global defense market. An important lesson from the Cold War: Centralized industrial planning is, as a political endeavor, as much an effort toward military build-up as it is an economic strategy. The "Make in India" imagery, in all its historical and artistic associations, is paying homage to a key partner and investor in Russia as much as it hopes to inspire as to the inevitability of India as the global center of production. But it will also have the capacity to defend this position with a new military strength, allied with Russia. Who only knows what that would eventually mean, in particular with talk of a new Cold War between the US and Russia*?

This montage-y image  could be mistaken for one produced 70 years ago, were it not for the
wind turbines. I love the hope provided by the color contrasts of sustainable technology against a bleak hospital seagreen background, smokestacks notably lack the smoke characteristic of dirty industrial development very common in China.
Charles Sheeler: he glorified, and beautified technology, making it a subject of awe, highlighting
its power. This, an elevator shaft gives us a true impression of height - and feels
like it must have inspired a Hitchcock film
Alexander Rodchenko, Suchov-Sendeturm (Shuchov transmission tower), 1929.
Gelatin silver print, 5 13/16 x 8 7/8 in. © Rodchenko & Stepanova Archive, DACS 2010
*Vinay Shukla for Russia Insider. "Here's Why India is Vitally Interested in Good Russia Relations Sep 18, 2015. http://dspace.mit.edu/bitstream/handle/1721.1/64262/sovietnazieconom00temi.pdf

Sumit Kumar for The Diplomat. New Momentum for India-Russia Relations?: In a state visit, Indian PM Narendra Modi gives the relationship a boost. January 03, 2016. http://thediplomat.com/2016/01/new-momentum-for-india-russia-relations/

Andrej Krickovic and Yuval Weber. Why a new Cold War with Russia is inevitable. Brookings Institute blog: September 30, 2015. http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/order-from-chaos/posts/2015/09/30-new-cold-war-with-russia-krickovic-weber


Thursday, November 26, 2015

Gendered stories on film: the wax and wane of tradition

Gender and sexuality are in a great state of flux. As our understanding of these concepts expand, we also develop new language (which in turn, will affect other people's experience of themselves and the world around them): how many learned the word cisgender only around the recent transformation of Bruce to Caitlyn Jenner and were, for a moment, brought to feel grateful for the fortune of feeling comfortable in their own skin? Still, social change is slow and traditional representations remain very prevalent in the media. We can decode the underlying stories as another means to understand how society may be changing - and often how people in power feel about those changes. 



Take, for instance, Judd Apatow's films. I loved the 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up. Yet these and even Trainwreck, written by Amy Schumer tend to reinforce notions of traditional courtship and marriage as our ultimate life goal. In Apatow's hands, Schumer's normally raucous, sex positive brand becomes a comedic morality tale which finds her character getting on the wagon and committing to monogamy. In the film poster pictured, her index finger in the foreground means to say "Wait, wait while I take a swig to deal with this monogamy thing!!" but it is as much a finger wag taking women to task: Don't find yourself in the position of being a successful 30-something woman without a ring on your finger - complete with shocked, judgmental guy overlooking the hot mess. (Third meaning: "Watch as I put my true destiny on hold, drinking and shagging myself silly"). Clearly this was not Schumer's ending but Apatow's. Schumer's brand is as shameless and unapologetic as is Lena Dunham's. But Apatow's stories support the goodness of traditionality, precisely because they make us laugh.

But when we think about children's movies, it is not a stretch to say that representations of social life become a more important topic. Movies and media more generally socialize children - they create the cognitive models that kids use to interpret the world throughout their lives. They have a more hungry and intense connection to stories and images. One interesting children's film, How to Train Your Dragon 2, brings up the changing scope of masculinity and legitimates new kinds of masculine challenge and talent for a new generation of kids. 

The protagonist Hiccup is a smallish, uncertain and soul-searching young hero who doesn’t understand his trajectory in the world. He has talent but needs to establish himself independently from his father, Stoick the Vast (boisterous, courageous freewheeling, strong, certain, larger than life). In short, a “lad”. Rather than braun, it is Hiccup's tenderness and technical prowess with dragons, an unusual but highly important skill, that lie at his core. Yet, his talented, sporting and much more confident girlfriend Astrid is unimpressed by his boyish inability to see the obvious path to chiefdom clearly ahead of him. Unsatisfied with the ease of success by birthright, he required a cathartic experience, like all heroes going back to Odysseus, to feel worthy of the honor. He had to look for trouble and earn his way out of it to feel he could lay claim to being chief. He identifies more with his mother when he finds her. She is strong, agile and intelligent, driven by a similar passion for dragons, but she is also tender and rather than particularly “caring” - she did abandon him as a child after all- she could be called “protective”in her relationship to the dragons.

Fergus caricatures tradition masculinity
Many of these traits expand the profile of a “new” or alternative masculinity - an archetype that gives more voice to what was once thought of as a weak man. Rather than brute strength (think Brave's King Fergus - a caricature himself), new men can be talkative, sensitive, quietly intelligent, tender and choose love over war or be indecisive at times. Of course, it isn't that such guys didn't exist before - it is that they are portrayed as legitimate, valid ways of being masculine compared to the past where a "real man" meant not too much more than physical strength - pure corporeality.

Another recent film, Son of a Gun (2015) narrates this shift perfectly as it pits these two pure archetypes against one another: JR, the young protagonist of the film and Brendan (played by Ewan McGregor) who likened the difference between these two models to that between Chimps (forceful, independent) and Bonobos (who just "want to stand in a huddle and fuck"). Guess who triumphs?

He-man and the alternative in Son of a Gun
Well, unsurprisingly, the less aggressive guys do - bonobos can win. The narrative structure is a classic "overcoming the monster", but the cultural content is different. The overall message we're seeing is that Brendan's analogy of two types of guys doesn't hold. Two of the traditionally masculine archetypes , Snotlout and Eret, in the How to Train Your Dragon 2 film, ultimately follow Hiccup's lead, won over by the intelligence of his plan. Most importantly, the underdog who triumphs isn't a grotesque sort of caricature like he once was - as are the nerds in "The Revenge of…” series from the 1980s. This newer model is more complex reflecting different, important competencies in a less war-ridden and less manufacturing based reality. It connects more with young men who will also experience their own questions of identity in a world where economic uncertainty is high, with the soul crushing challenge of no chance for an adventure to prove themselves. These boys might have other forms of intelligence -emotional or technical intelligence- that give them alternative pathways to success. A world where many paths, at least in the West, have been cut off as a result of de-industrialization. Part of what legitimates these new forms of masculinity is not only making the characters more likable, but also handsome, or at least "cute" or physically attractive in any way at all.

The nerds are complete misfits; While you were rooting for them, you could never identify with them. 
One needs to look back only as far as 1999 to observe how these types were contrasted more forcefully (and more brilliantly), as in The Fight Club, for instance where Ed Norton’s character is a drab, exhausted, overly feminized, half-a-man, who is considered a sort of distortion of historical circumstances. Instead, 15 years later, we celebrate Hiccup, who wouldn’t be so rude as to manspread on the subway, yet can recruit an army of dragons.

There are other fascinating undercurrents in the film, for instance the way the differences between self-assured, talented and sporty Astrid is contrasted to Hiccup, reflecting how boys and girls are differently performing in school today; or how the confrontation between Hiccup and Drago seems to presage the revival of Cold War divisions as manifested between Obama and Putin...but enough of that. 

The wax and wane, moving forward while pulling back on the reins of cultural change isn't so surprising. As some people push for change, others resist, sometimes forcefully. Social change tends to be more evolution than revolution.  The results we see little by little. 

Riley - the little ice hockey badass from Inside Out. 
Girls rawk math, drums and skateboards, Thanks ED...

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Multi-functionality and technology: Case in point...The playground slide

Here, you'll find nothing too complex beyond a bunch of cute kids playing. Right? We know kids can be more innovative than the rest of us. I caught it on tape.


video

There are certain fundamental principles of the process of technological innovation to be gleaned in this video I made at the behest of some pride-filled children They were elated to have discovered something new. Neither a fossil nor a piece of shrapnel from WWI, items that until recently are more easily found in this slice of the planet, what these children discovered was that instead of going down the slide, which had likely become boring beyond compare after five years of THAT, they found a new use for it, doing some crazy Parkour, super-hero jumps right off the top. It was nearly six feet off the ground. They weren't analytic about it - these daily revelations are part of playtime. They watched each other and goaded one another on. Some of them took the jump fearlessly; one took the initial risk and the others followed along, eager to experience the mix of fear and triumph, not to be left out. They landed differently. Others didn't even conceive of taking the leap. Maybe they followed along on another day. They wanted others to take notice - they wanted to share their discovery.

Once we understand what the slide is for, what any technology is for (yes, the slide is a technology...), it just seems inevitable that we use it the way its design seems to suggest. Especially if is designed well. There is even an onomatopoeia to the word slide (say it slowly to yourself to hear it) which let's you know how to use one. The slide is nearly perfect in its precision and yet a seemingly ancillary aspect of its design as a part of this live "play-station" led to the joyful frenzy in the video. There is a sweet spot in envisioning the possibilities for a developer and children seem to be particularly keen in finding new uses for mundane things. Thinking parents love toys - or learning technologies- that are general usage because they inspire creativity. Blocks, Legos, or Lego Mixels which have the best of both worlds, a kit with lots of prompts to mix up the guys and create crazy, new monsters.
I love the Lego Mixel Chilbo - I'm sure the creator had Groucho Marx in mind... 

We don't truly know the uses/purposes/abuses of technologies until they're released into the wild. Technologies often don't conform to the designer's intent. Slides are for children, correct? Who knew that child-safety obsessed, aka helicopter parents, would start going down slides with their kids to *increase* their safety, leading to a rash of toddler tibial fractures on slides in the US. Playgrounds - designed for children. On that note, did the creators of the television know it would become the world's cheapest and most convenient babysitter?


This one uses pots and pans for drums and also to check himself out!

Though it would serve equally well as a coaster, I don't use my iPhone as one (well, not since the screen cracked as I'm afraid water will seep in). Our smart phones are generative as technologies, like those basic toys we love for our children. Now that they're understood as life management devices, developers can conceive of infinite uses for them through apps. Not the case with more specific technologies, designed to be single-use devices, but whose ultimate utiliti/es are for the world-at-large to decide.

Our nature is really to color outside of the lines. Go up the slide. Jump off the top of it. Then we're socialized out of that kind of behavior. Where are the playgrounds for adults? Think about the excitement of creativity in this video next time you tell your kid to follow the boring rules, and then follow their lead.


Monday, October 12, 2015

Columbusing and Kendall Jenner as white people translator

There was some talk recently which I noticed on bustle.comfeaturing Kendall Jenner wearing a traditional style of dress from South Asia called a salwar kameez, consisting of a pair of tapered pants with a long shirt worn over it. Except the original trendspotters (not sure who...) were excited about her look without having acknowledged the cultural origin of the outfit. It allows some thinking out loud on transmission of culture.


Kendall Jenner was being her celebrity self in the spotlight, but the initial (or otherwise) lack of acknowledgement of the origins of her attire is being discussed as cultural appropriation, with an interesting (and relatively new) word attached to it - Columbusing- that I just learned from @Soc_Imagination (Compliments to The Sociological Imagination for bringing me up to speed). 

In case you haven't heard the term, Urban Dictionary one of my favorite websites, defines it as as "When white people claim they have invented/discovered something that has been around for years, decades, even centuries". The founding example is its namesake - the idea that Columbus "discovered" America, never mind that it had been landed upon previously by other European ships or the ongoing power dynamics and the bloody colonial history attached to territorial "discovery". Laughably, the iconic example at this point is how Miley Cyrus columbused twerking.  If you would call that dance she did at the VMA awards properly twerking. Perhaps her twerk did introduce the term to the 50 or so people who hadn't heard it previously.

Columbusing works as a description because it so deftly captures the "appropriation" aspect - the borrowing, taking, or employing of something that once more "naturally" belonged to another group. The way Ricetec, a Texas based ag firm tried to columbus Basmati rice, filing a patent for it in 1997 which would have robbed India and its farmers the economic wealth derived from its national culinary staple and agricultural heritage - to say the very least. 
Good for India that Dr. Vandana Shiva lead the charge against Ricetec.
But what I think the term also highlights is how particular individuals -cultural intermediaries, sentinels, nodes in network speak, trendsetters for the fashion bloggers, disruptors for innovation and brand thinkers- become translators of other groups' culture for white people, then commodified for rabid consumption. In many places in the West, that is simply the "dominant" culture. Kendall Jenner became part of the "white people" translation process by wearing what high-end fashion brand The Row, called a "tunic" (going for a whopping $3690) over the traditional term for the dress. The designers took what tends to be a very colorful and decisively modest dress style and wiped it of the ornamentation and colors that normally define it to meet their monochrome chic style. It was lightly transformed and sold in a venue where few people making under 150K a year could afford to shop (see black leggings for 430 euros...). Then the trendspotters reached near rapture over the originality of the "anti-crop top" and the story is told. At what point did the cultural appropriation happen? As I've described it, it is a process and often no single actor can be extracted from the equation. 

Kendall Jenner's tunic is a good, simple example of cultural translation, of which the appropriation aspect of 'columbusing' is sometimes, but not always a part. On becoming an American citizen (after about 30 years in the US) my father changed his heroic Greek name Konstantinos, after Constantine the Great, to "Costas", which seemed to him easier for the Americans. Assimilation or Americanization is a result of many cultural translation/s over time, of a similar sort. He changed the name because it was too annoying to spell Konstantinos for Americans over the phone. Many immigrants changed their names for similar reasons, making the cultural differences between them and the locals less stark, more easily digestible for the xenophobic. Each of these decisions accumulate, one by one, to create a larger effect, like Americanization - which can sometimes appear like a watered down, saltless version of something more harmonic and intense. Something is certainly concealed or lost in this process for the base culture. Do you think this example of translation is columbusing? Discuss, and let me know what you think.

Yet in many cases, the translation process creates something altogether innovative for the dominant culture - who don't receive it as a degraded copy of some platonic cultural meme, but as something new and fascinating. For a sort of trivial example, the director Ridley Scott translated Swiss surrealist HR Giger's perverse and disturbing alien imagery into a blockbuster film in the Alien series. While the movie was terrifying and disgusting (for me), it was re-packaged well enough to highlight how the translation process also enables cultural diffusion. This photo shows HR Giger's work - complete with head as giant phallus - to be consumable to a relatively limited audience.   Monet's waterlilies this is not. Throw1979 Sigourney Weaver in the mix and you have one of the biggest sci-fi hits of all times.


Cultural translation often doesn't require the translators to come from the target group or dominant culture - in music there are clear examples from the 1950s and 1960s of columbusing of innovative music by black artists by white translators for white audiences (Elvis and The Rolling Stones are the common examples). In contrast, take NWA, whose origins were recently featured in the film Straight 'Outta Compton. Through their raw stories and talent, they brought the violence of inner city ghettos and the black male experience to a young white audience eager to understand and empathize and sometimes emulate the urban styling. Cultural translation is science journalists who interpret the encoded language of published academic articles for a non-science audience of readers in the New York and LA Times. There are many other examples of cultural translation which may have this more neutral or positive character - can you think of one?  

Columbusing is then the negative side of cultural translation which, on the other hand, is one mode of creativity and more broadly of social change. It is the space where cultural innovation and diffusion often takes place.

Happy Columbus Day?


On that note, I'll leave you with this video on the absurdity of Columbus Day from the brilliant John Oliver.