Why we need those shoes: the power of branding

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As the turn of the millennium nears, branding images rule.

Branding images are simple, often stark in composition. They occur when form and content collide. They associate a single, distinctive idea with a product, news event, or person. Branding images provoke a visceral reaction.

According to Stanford University professor Hazel Markus, Americans are exposed to 3,500 such images a day. Both advertisers and the news media are trying to attract our attention in the midst of this cacophony of images.

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September's Vogue announces on its cover that it totals "700 plus pages of glorious fall fashion." The season's fashion magazines are the size of New York City phone books, not because their editors have decided to put a tome-worth of stories into their publications, but to accommodate all the ads.

ABC, which will air January's Super Bowl, has already sold 90 percent of the game's commercial spots - at $1.9 million for a 30-second ad. Monster.com is buying two slots. "The cost of impressions is huge. But the opportunity," USA Today quoted Monster.com CEO Jeff Taylor as saying, "is even larger."

And this month, The New York Times dedicated an entire Sunday magazine to the "Triumph of the Image," as its lead article announced. "Imagery has reached such a throbbing pitch that it is understandably likened to noise," wrote Luc Sante.

And while place-explicit, detail-driven, content-banal images are out there in force - think advertisements for dish detergent or photographs of last night's city council meeting - the images that surmount the hoi polloi of pictures to be remembered are the branding ones.

The news media understand the power of images that embody a plain message. Disasters have their signature notes: earthquake images of pancaked buildings and the frantic digging out of a dirt-encrusted hand; hurricane images of wave-racked shorelines and the waterlogged rescue of a small child.

Giving the public such pictures is an attempt at branding. Images of trauma are intrinsic to the marketing of the news.

And branding is now essential to the rest of corporate America. Branding ads are a way of associating in the public's mind a company and an idea, almost to the exclusion of its products.

Branding images confront viewers with a startling idea, often arrived at by juxtaposing two seemingly irreconcilable notions.

Cole Haan, which makes expensive men's shoes, is running a crisp black-and-white ad this fall of a closeup of a man's wingtip shoe, cocked on the steel footpeg of a motorcycle.

Rather than trying to pitch us shoes, when our closet may already be full, Cole Haan's branding tries to pitch us a lifestyle that we may aspire to. Cole Haan is for the elite, cutting-edge male - and, oh yes, it makes shoes.

Marlboro has long traded on the color-saturated images of a square-jawed cowboy riding through rugged country - with nary a breath-stealing, pollution-making cigarette in sight.

And an evocative menswear double-page advertisement this fall features four young, sun-drenched women. Captured almost life-size, from their bare shoulders up, the four stare straight at the readers. The only copy is: "Perry Ellis for Men." Pictures of actual Perry Ellis products would not only be superfluous, they'd distract from the campaign's message.

Branding images, by design, are reductive. While the news media may not be jostling one another to convince us that they will make us powerful, rugged, or attractive, they are elbowing each other to stand out as the newspaper of record, the television network of breaking news, the magazine for "news you can use."

Whether in advertising or in the news, branding borrows from a repertoire of stereotypes rather than insisting on a complex reality. Branding may depict "a" truth, but it doesn't show "the" truth.

Showing the truth demands - at a minimum - context, pages of copy, and lots of disclaimers.

*Susan D. Moeller is the director of the journalism program at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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