Photograph by Kenneth Krushel, 2006
I am the family face;
Flesh perishes, I live on,
Projecting trait and trace
Through time to times anon,
And leaping from place to place
Thomas Hardy, Heredity
They're in every supermarket in America, peeking out from soap boxes and soda bottles, from cookie canisters and cans of soup. Mostly Caucasian and permanently arrested in an incessant state of euphoria, they stare fixedly, frozenly. They're invariably smiling though not necessarily at any one, or any thing in particular. They're neither conspicuously beautiful (as you might find in, say, a fashion or entertainment magazine) nor are they jarringly unpleasant. Rather, they 're an odd synthesis of vacuous and perky, of wholesome cheer mixed with generic blandness. They're innocuous, ambiguous, and yes ubiquitous.
Yet what is perhaps most vexing is the underlying infrastructure a cohesive, carefully coordinated marketing engine that not only allows but seems to celebrate this sort of visual apathy, an insidious form of propaganda that uses fake faces to sell real things. Faces on supermarket packaging conform to a research-based "psychographic" that hasn't fundamentally changed in more than two decades. What is it about our self-image that identifies, at least on a consumer basis, with such fictional, even farcical lifestyles?
Salesmanship in general (and advertising in particular) has long dabbled in propaganda. Take cable, for example: twenty years ago, communities across the United States awarded cable television franchises to companies who borrowed money to finance the construction of actual cable systems. As is the case in any new venture, many cable operators reached deep down to find their own inner hubris, thereby convincing banks and pension funds to lend monies based on what was, in all fairness, a rather predictive cash flow. In an effort to maximize their subscription services, operators begrudgingly budgeted for things like marketing typically penciling in 4% of revenue and dutifully paying homage to such perfunctory measures as bill stuffing and telemarketing. (Why bother with innovative marketing strategy if nearly 40% of the viewing public just wanted their MTV?)
Then just as quickly as it had begun, the subscription needle froze at around 40 percent home penetration, thereby invalidating promises to "win the franchise" which, in those days, included home security, utility monitoring, videotext, and advanced fiber optics, services that proved at once impractical and costly. Bankers began to get nervous by the performance (or lack thereof) of the over-leveraged industry they had birthed, even as cable operators argued that their companies should not be measured by revenue but rather on asset value.
I vividly recall sitting in one such meeting with a "media guru" from Mullen Advertising, who explained that 60 percent of the potential subscribing universe resided uneasily on a spectrum ranging from uninterested to never. Our mutual goal, he solemnly announced, would be to target these as-yet unreached groups not demographically, but psychographically, whereupon he produced half a dozen poster-sized glossy photos: a family of four labeled "young accumulators, cautious spenders"; a single, artistic woman (Sister Corita print in the background) resistant to any imposed viewing schedule or the aesthetics of a media company; an imperious, distinguished-looking investment banker whose manicured hands held a blue-chip annual report; a retired couple channelling their inner American Gothic; an inner-city couple, channelling their inner bordeom with the world; and finally, an academic, seated in a leather armchair holding an open book while his distaff professorial partner across the hearth does the same. A headline, superimposed upon the photo, read: Mr. and Mrs. Never.
The guru pointed out that the photos addressed values, attitudes and lifestyle criteria. He explained how the agency had carefully constructed profiles of these often reluctant psychographic categories by triangulating demos, behavior and attitudes, by targeting specific communities and maximizing yield. He went on to say that while cable had done an adequate job attracting so-called outer directed consumers, the challenge now was to convince the inner directed. He referred to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, explaining that with survivalists and belongers already subscribing, the task was to now attract the socially conscious and people not so easily influenced by peer models.
There would be no copy, he added. It was the photo the faces and the implied behavior that would communicate the message.
I was then (and am now) intrigued by how an agency, based on its psychographic research, actually went about choosing such pictures. Of course, there were focus groups and market research but something here remained cryptic, if not utterly mysterious. Not only were we meant to guess about our potential subscribers, but we were expected, too, to somehow determine what sorts of images would pierce the veil of the Mr. and Mrs. Nevers of the world, and spin them into new subscribers. Ultimately, a direct mail campaign did target a kind of parsed "psychographic" (wherein the Financial News Network was pitched to the investment bankers, A&E promoted to the urbanites, and so on) thereby nudging the subscription needle to the half-way mark. The bankers were thrilled, the cable franchises evolved and the rest, as they say, is history.
Never say never. Today, some two decades later, the faces haven't really changed at all. Cheerful soccer moms, Grannies with pince-nez, freckle-faced kids and red-cheeked babies: such are the "psychographic" faces that so expertly frame the consumer's orbit, a visual backdrop of perfect teeth, perfect skin, perfect everything. The faces of consumer America are like faces in a crowd, a blur of anonymity. And there they persist ecumenical, unassailable and pure a chorus of pure oblivion.
Kenneth Krushel is CEO of a media company that develops software for digital video applications. He is a former journalist.
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