Where Were The Brands, Besides Obama?

I was in Washington for the inauguration. Scratch that, I was there for the weekend prior. I didn't get close to the "America I AM" concert. We--my daughter, daughter's second cousin and I--spent Sunday at the museum of the American Indian--where, all day long, there were performances by groups representing different ethnicities. Hawaiian, Afro pop, Klezmer, bluegrass and Afro Cuban. That event struck me as somehow more apropos to the inaugural festivities than the Big Deal "We Are One" event about a mile further down the mall, in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

That monster event was televised on massive screens set up along the mall on the Capitol side of the Washington Monument. As we walked up and down the mall, looking for in-laws, we passed screen after screen around which crowds of a few hundred watched Usher, or Beyonce or Bono, or--inexplicably--Jack Black, lecture, sing, prance and pontificate about how we are all one. The joke was: "We are all one ... but all one what, exactly?" I confess that at first, I thought I was watching a football halftime show, until I realized that it was the Lincoln Memorial behind Beyonce's back.



The Obama half-time show, which I watched intermittently while walking about mindlessly on the mall looking for relatives, was profoundly entertaining. Bono was great singing "In the Name of Love." There was remarkably little branding. I was surprised that there was as little brand CPG brand activity: no candy bars, no PowerAde, no blizzard of coupons.

I had the good fortune to see Obama speak in Baltimore on Saturday. About 30,000 people showed up, maybe a few more. But we got lucky. We got in. People waited some four hours in the freezing weather. That event was pretty straightforward--lots of Baltimore dignitaries and a feeling of political currency, with people booing the governor (who used to be Baltimore's mayor), and the conspicuous absence of the current and embattled mayor. A gospel orchestra sang. It was local. The "One America We Are One" was made-for-TV national feel-good jingoism designed, like good marketing, as a branding exercise to--paraphrasing Beyonce--"We Are One"ify us.

The Presidential rock concert is kind of new, isn't it? I remember Clinton had something like that, with Barbra Streisand and folks performing prior to his taking the oath of office. But is this new? I don't have Internet here on the bus home; otherwise I'd use Google to tell me what I don't know. But it does worry me a little that there has to be a pre-show "American Idolatry" event before the work starts.

I wonder if Americans are "One" only if we are glued to some form of entertaining brand performance. I wonder, and I suppose I'm repeating myself for rhetorical effect, if we are "One" only when we are consumers of branding delivered by entertainers. How many would have shown up for a day celebrating Martin Luther King's birthday and Barack Obama's apotheosis if it had featured concerts by city ballets, operas, choirs or jazz bands? No stars, just Americans. Who, besides PBS, would have carried that? Many far more intelligent observers than I have commented on America (and maybe every other place whose inhabitants haven't taste-tested a Whopper) as populated by beings who are slowly getting entertained to death.

The planners surely patterned MLK's B'Day Bash for Barack after a football halftime show. The crowd of several hundred thousand cheered appropriately, holding up iPhones playing images of cigarette lighter flames (presumably) when Bruce, Bono, Beyonce and a fashionably unshaven Black took the stage to sing, pontificate, and invoke and evoke gods and tag lines for Barack. How cool is that? Democracy rocks and whatnot. But just tune me out when the policy sessions start. I just wish they'd keep the screens up on the mall for the Super Bowl. Or at least for the Super Bowl commercials.

But I am remiss because I promised my editor I'd make this a piece about branding. That gives me at least three choices: Pepsi, Ikea or Obama. Pepsi had street teams handing out lapel pins up and down the Mall. The little pins were in bright pastels with sayings that played on the Obama logo, with the Pepsi circle forming the "O" in "Joy", "Yes, You Can," "Wow," and whatnot. Ikea's ads were all over the Metro stations with banners and posters that tied furniture to health education and welfare, with a change theme.

I did Obama, the brand.

2 comments about "Where Were The Brands, Besides Obama? ".
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  1. Marilyn Casey from MC Public Relations, January 20, 2009 at 9:24 a.m.

    Hi Karl,

    Look (an "Obam-ism," in case you didn't catch the opening reference), I love the man. I supported him. I voted for him. I pray for him to live up to the hype. But I get at least one email every day from President-soon-to-be Obama The Brand and his crew. It's the hype, man! Waaay to much. Watching the Barack/MLK Day 1/2-time made me feel a little queasy, too. I mean, I get it. Please don't hit me over the head with it.
    -- MC from Automotive Events

  2. Dan Romero from Harry Fox Agency, January 20, 2009 at 10:09 a.m.

    I too am an Obama supporter, however, the musical line-up was in a word too obvious and the lack of diversity in branding was boring. Uninspired!

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