Stealing Genius: Make It Matter

I hear it a lot in meetings, someone inevitably says, “…there are no new ideas”.  This in itself is not a new idea, as T.S. Eliot said, “Talent Imitates, Genius Steals”.  Personally, I prefer Jean Luc Godard via Jim Jarmusch, “It’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take things to.”

I agree with Jean Luc and Jim, which is why I’ve been curious about the plethora of Founding Fathers sightings in advertising recently.  I started noticing it back in May when Citizens Bank used the Founding Fathers to make the following argument with consumers:  ‘Our country was founded on ‘citizenship’—- banking is a direct descendent of that ideal—-thus we, Citizens Bank, are a direct descendent of the ideals of our countryhence you should bank with us.’

This campaign ostensibly stemmed directly from some research Citizens Bank fielded.  In a BrandWeek  article of May, 2010, Theresa McLaughlin, group EVP and CMO of Citizens Financial Group, said the new campaign stemmed from research that showed 78 percent of consumers want to do business with companies that have “shared values.” “[That number] was a key stat for us as we put this campaign together,” she said.  She went on to say that while “we’re exposing our values and our credo to prospects and consumers,” she added. 

So, if I understand what she is saying, their values are best expressed our through the values of our Founding Fathers, specifically Alexander Hamilton’s exhortation that “good banking equals good citizenship”.

Then I noticed President Washington driving, literally, through a line of fearfully awed Redcoats.  As this happens, Dodge Challenger tells us that Americans have always done two things well:  cars and freedom—in that order.  Oh yes: cars, freedom and apparently, vehicular manslaughter.  Personally I think we are a bit more than that, but war—and branding—is hell, so the bigger ‘gun’ wins and really, to an American, according to Dodge, nothing comes before a muscle car with a Hemi V8. 

Jefferson then threw a pissy little fit because some suburban mom stole his ‘Homestyle Mac-n-Cheese’ recipe.  Not his finest moment and I’ve read David McCullough’s biography of John Adams where Jefferson has few, if any, good moments.

Bud Light, it seems, took us backwards to the original Fourth of July, which consisted of the Founding Fathers getting jiggy with some old school, powdered hoochie mamas—and one clumsy guy accidentally setting off a canon creating the first fireworks.  Ahh, boobs, bombs and beer…. We are American because we party like it’s 1776!  Rock on, dudes!

And finally, I guess because there are no more live white men to make fun of in ads, Geico took on poor Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary in a convoluted story about telling the truth, or maybe it’s the perils of telling the truth, I’m not sure anymore.  Geico, as usual, gets the humor right at least (and really, the jokes on us women because as per usual whenever that question is asked:  Yes, Mary your ass looked huge in that dress).

I can see where these brands are coming from:  we’ve all seen research that tells us that during difficult times we look to find comfort in brands that we can trust.  But is that enough?  First, is borrowing the genius of the Founding Fathers enough to get us to trust these brands? 

Maybe not: It turns out that the American public aren’t so gullible:  we believe politicians, even some of our more iconic founding fathers, lie to us. Shock!  Horror!

And stealing the genius of “Americana” isn’t as easy as shoving  a be-wigged statesman into your commercial.  In fact, most polls and people will tell you that ‘being American’ is being/living a set of ideals and values:  from the driven curiosity of “Go west, young man” to the iconic meaning of the cowboy and the white picket fence to the power inherent in the freedom of diversity, speech and more.

Second, did they take us to somewhere better for having the Founding Fathers as the centerpiece of their messages?  Who knows—I guess that is a subjective call.  But I can tell you that taking a cynical, savvy consumer base to a better place is difficult—but not impossible—to do and doesn’t require the power of a historic statesman to do it. Take the simplicity of a walk.  A walk can be a long history like the one for Johnnie Walker in “The Man Who Walked Around the World”, or it can be many quietly intimate excursions like for LL Bean in their new ad, “Journey”.  Each walk came from a different place—deep within their soul—and more importantly, each took us to a different place. 

We’ve all imitated talent and stolen genius, but if the proof is in what you do with that genius, then as a consumer and ad person I’m asking, nay begging, take it (and me) somewhere that matters!.  Make your brand matter to me, help me to understand why I should trust my dollar with you. And whether that journey is through awe or surprise, whether it grosses me out and/or teaches me something, whether you utilize a dead president, an employee or a ‘regular joe’, don’t’ let the genius you stole be nothing more than just a simple prop.


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