When 'cool' messages lose their punch

Walking through the lobby of a movie megaplex with my family recently, we were accosted by hawkers offering my children tattoos and stretchy bracelets. They were pitching a mobile phone for kids. Back home, in a pile of family-room detritus, I came across another lime-green stretchy bracelet emblazoned with "July 16, 2005." (My wife had to remind me that it was the release date for the new Harry Potter book.) Silicone bracelets and their messages, it seems, have conquered every corner of our lives.

The first bright yellow LIVESTRONG bracelets took the world by storm when US cyclist Lance Armstrong began peddling them in May 2004 as he attempted his sixth Tour de France victory. It was made instantly cool when celebrities and politicians were spotted with a stripe of yellow at their cuffs. And the bracelets were wildly successful, raising more than $41 million for cancer research.

Marketers were quick to take the cue, and soon the cause célèbre lapel ribbons of the 1990s morphed into stretchy bands on our wrists. There was one for breast cancer (pink), one for poverty (white), one for HIV/AIDS (red). The antiracism band is, naturally, black and white.

A third wave of bracelets didn't even pretend to fight for noble causes - it was all about you: your home team, your birthday, you name it, you got it.

But our enthusiasm for shouting our personal message is nothing new. Just after 9/11, American flag decals appeared on cars as a sign of solidarity. Next came flag bumper stickers with slogans, as if the flag wasn't enough to get the point across.

When the United States stormed Iraq in 2003, ribbon-shaped magnetic car decals appeared asking us to support our troops. But these, too, have been "borrowed" by other causes. Just last week I spotted this orange magnetic ribbon: "Spay and neuter feral cats."

For organizations, it's a dilemma. Once something attains the state of "cool" in our society, it becomes an attractive way to get messages out. Most causes are strapped for cash and don't have multimillions at their disposal for advertising campaigns. Noting a trend, it is tempting to want to capitalize on it. After all, awareness remains their biggest battle.

But there is a tragedy of the commons at work. Each jump on the bandwagon move not only lessens the impact for all, but once a tipping point is reached, it makes the whole thing seem silly. Bands and ribbons have reached that state, as the glut of the things attests.

When exactly did silicone bands lose their impact? Was it when the first copycat one was produced? Was it when the first eBay listing offering counterfeit versions was posted? Or was their fate sealed the moment some well-meaning nonprofit executive saw that LIVESTRONG bracelet on a child and thought, "That could be my message"?

It is still too early to say for sure. But I do know this: I have a drawer of colored stretchy bracelets and couldn't tell you what half of them are for, nor whether the group that gave them out still exists.

And for that, I don't blame the manufacturers, nor the wearers, nor even the counterfeiters. But marketers may need to head back to the drawing board.

There are plenty of people in need, including our troops, who could use our continued support and recognition. But it's going to take more creative efforts than catchy slogans or a flash of neon to help us stay focused on what really matters most.

Brad Rourke is a consultant who works on ethics and civic issues.

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