Saturday, December 31, 2011

Facade and Edifice - Visual Language

Given the recent present-buying season, it seems appropriate to wrap up 2011 with some reflection on brand and marketing. This may be a slight departure from our usual tech-art speak, but it's related to design (yay design!) and fits the bill for horizon-broadening homework.

The above image is of a Tivoli Audio radio. We'll come back to it a bit later.

I love marketing. It's some fantastic stuff. Through the right techniques, an ad can switch your interaction with a product from a logical analysis to a deeply emotional response. The most common way this happens is through association of a product with a lifestyle or social status.  already discussed this subject at length. The tone of said article, however, annoyed me a bit. It seems to suggest, "isn't it pathetic that people fall for this" and "aren't these social constructs sickening?" Primarily the author underlines the flimsiness of the thought process that might lead a reader of the Economist to buy a $100,000 Patek Philippe watch. Yes, such a decision is likely irresponsible for most readers. The assertion, however, implies something interesting about the actual value of said watch, namely that brand doesn't actually add any. But what is value?

Today I went to the Natick Collection with my parents, an upscale mall roughly 40 minutes outside of Boston. While browsing, I found myself inexorably drawn to a Tivoli store containing the product pictured above. I was not drawn to this radio because of the quality of the sound (I had not yet heard it), nor was I drawn to it due to my pressing need for a new radio (Millennials need radios like snakes need socks). I was drawn to this store because the product suggests ironic appreciation of retro-trappings and elegant design. It wasn't the product, but everything else in our culture the product suggests that I wanted to buy. Retro suggests a quirkiness, a certain against-the-grain attitude that hipster meccas like Urban Outfitters have been cashing in on in a major way. Even recognizing that this is the case, I am happy to lean into this perceived image for one reason: others will make the same cognitive leap. It isn't merely a perceived value in my head, but a social trope that will illicit similar reactions in anyone who is similarly suspended in young American culture.

To wheel around back to my thesis, buying a product because its image and associations change how people interact with it isn't imagined value, it's actual and important value. It's value tangible enough that companies spend the majority of their revenue to obtain said value. It's the same sort of value that makes film,  game, and advertising actual art. It's the thing that determines the success or failure of any artistic or commercial venture: context.

Edit: I have to add an awesome bit of copy that I just found. Since looking at Tivoli, wooden clock ads are coming my way. This one from Areaware is great:
"Remember those faux wood grain GE flip clocks that sat on every bedside table just a couple of decades ago? The Alarm Dock uses a nostalgic product language to meet the progressively thin and disappearing profiles of consumer electronics. It is at once a critique and an accommodation to new technology. Place an iPhone or iPod Touch running a flip clock app onto the dock, and see an iconic and meaningful form return to your nightstand, mantel, or shelf."

Remember a couple decades ago? Do you love "nostalgic product language?" How about finding "iconic and meaningful form" for your nightstand, mantel or shelf? Dang, these guys are good.

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