Icons and Iconoclasm

Okay, enough about Judaism as Judaism for today. Here’s a little piece I wrote for an upcoming issue of Rolling Stone about “The Power of Icons.” I suppose its Jewish-themed, after all, since I see the starting point of Judaism as iconoclasm. Ahh. No escape.

The Power of Icons

Take a look at an empty electrical outlet on the wall. No, really – go look. What do you see? Chances are, if you’re like most people, you see a face. It looks a little surprised, maybe. Or anguished, like the face in Munch’s “The Scream.”

It’s in that moment when our imagination participates in rendering something very identifiable out of just a few simple lines that the icon draws its tremendous power. The socket is elevated to image because we make it so. Unlike a fully realized painting, where the details are drawn for us, the icon is interactive. It requires our identification.

That’s why the characters we’re supposed to identify with in a Disney cartoon are drawn so simply. The fewer lines defining their faces, the less specific they are and the more easily we can see ourselves in them. We experience these stories through the iconic Snow White and the Little Mermaid, while we shun the more fully drawn Evil Queen and Ursula, who remain the objects of our contempt. (See Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics” for more on this.)

For we don’t just look at icons – we resonate with them. To really take one in, some part of us must say: it is me. The more of us who do that, the more universal its acceptance.

When this principle is applied to brands, watch out: the process through which we define our very selves gets leveraged by the massive power and reach of the corporate conglomerate.

Of course the original purpose of brands was simply to identify the cattle into whose hides we seared them. It was a way to trace a lost or stolen calf back to its rightful owner. Later, brands became a way of taking responsibility for the quality of a product. If you have a problem with these oats, blame the guy who owns this brand. It’s his trademark.

But by the early 20th Century, savvy marketers realized that these brand icons might be able to communicate something all by themselves. The symbol for trustworthy oats became a smiling old Quaker, and the brand image was born.

Ever since, in addition to proving accountability, brands also served as a medium through which values could be transmitted. From the tiger in your tank to the man who wore the star, they invested an otherwise meaningless brand with whatever values its marketers wanted to call into our minds. Baseball, Apple Pie, Chevrolet.

As time compressed and the television dial expanded, brands have had to convey their highly constructed value systems instantaneously. The logo on a coffee cup, a passing delivery truck, or even a sneaker in motion were soon charged with representing and communicating an entire corporate ethos.

And as our brands became international, they resorted to the universal language of the icon – so that everyone from Tijuana to Togo would know that swoosh meant Just Do It. And thus, Nike means me. What brand managers forgot about, however, was that accountability part.

If the confrontation with an icon demands the active participation of the viewer, what happens when that viewer says nyet? When Golden Arches and Coke-bottle wave have already been invested with spirit of American optimism and infinite growth, what happens when those values no longer resonate with the target audience? Or worse, when those values are actively despised?

Then, instead of simply being accountable for the product they mark, these icons and the corporations they serve become liable for the values with which they’ve inextricably merged themselves. Their target audiences stop seeing themselves in these icons, and start seeing the icons as targets.

And in the blink of on eye, they turn these companies from Snow White into the Evil Queen.