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by Rob Horning

8 Aug 2008

A recent article in the Journal of Consumer Research reports findings of research into the incredibly creepy phenomenon of priming and its relation to brand names. This is the abstract:

This article first examines whether brand exposure elicits automatic behavioral effects as does exposure to social primes. Results support the translation of these effects: participants primed with Apple logos behave more creatively than IBM primed and controls; Disney-primed participants behave more honestly than E!-primed participants and controls. Second, this article investigates the hypothesis that exposure to goal-relevant brands (i.e., those that represent a positively valenced characteristic) elicits behavior that is goal directed in nature. Three experiments demonstrate that the primed behavior showed typical goal-directed qualities, including increased performance postdelay, decreased performance postprogress, and moderation by motivation.

The implications are pretty clear: Brands do far more than affect what consumer decisions we make. They don’t simply lodge the name of a product in our minds. They have a wider sphere of influence, changing all sort of behavior: this is why it makes sense to talk of a consumer society defined by the level with which it is saturated by brands. Brands become associated with behavior and can then elicit that behavior subliminally, since, as the paper notes, “behavioral-priming effects are known to result from automatic processes, requiring no effort, intentionality, or awareness.” Resistance to behavioral branding is futile; we are affected by logos whether we want to be or not.

The paper theorizes that brands may trigger goals of self-fashioning and prompt behavior along those lines, efforts to achieve a desired ideal self.

Via associations with desired human qualities, goal-relevant brands may acquire the ability to trigger these ideal-self goals and shape behavior. For example, the athletic brand Nike is associated with traits such as ‘active’ and ‘confident.’ These characteristics are generally seen as positive in American culture, so Nike likely plays a motivational role for many people, symbolizing desirable future or alternative selves. In the case of Nike, then, we would expect that brand exposure could lead people to pursue goals to be confident and active.

A key question is how brands become associated with certain traits. If this is completely under marketers control, they have tremendous sway over our consequent behavior, possibly over our goals themselves. Logos may not always have the social meanings that their designers intended—they are open to determination by popular usage. But those meanings are more under the sway of commercial determination than other repositories of social meaning—more money is spent via marketing to control those meanings (they are not mere reflections of the public will or mood) and make the symbols more prominent in culture, crowding out other alternatives. The authors of the paper argue that “billboards, product placements, and celebrity endorsements all contribute to the relatively implicit construction of brand representations over time, and to the automatic association of brands with desirable human qualities. Given people’s lack of success at understanding and correcting for external influence (Nisbett and Wilson 1977; Wilson and Brekke 1994), we predict that these brand-trait associations – shaped over time and outside of conscious awareness – will impact behavior in a nonconscious fashion.”

In their research, the authors found that for brands to affect behavior, they need to be associated with behavior that the subjects already found desirable. So the secret to avoiding having brands manipulate us, perhaps, is to aspire to be no one.

by Sean Murphy

7 Aug 2008

Go and Seek Your Rights: The Mighty Diamonds’ Right Time

Big misconception about reggae music: it’s all happy, at the beach, drinking music. Biggest misconception about reggae music: it all sounds the same. Even Bob Marley (and it is both respectful and required to at least mention the great man’s name in any consequential discussion or reggae) had markedly different styles he embraced throughout his career, as his sound evolved from straightforward ska and rocksteady in the ‘60s to the full-fledged rastaman vibration everyone has heard on the radio—or at Happy Hour. Indeed, Marley serves as the most obvious case study for the distinctive sounds reggae has produced: anyone unfamiliar with songs not included on Legend, but curious to explore what else is out there, are encouraged to start with the crucial transition albums from the early ‘70s. You cannot go wrong with African Herbsman, the culmination of his brief but bountiful collaboration with Lee “Scratch” Perry. Or to appreciate the incomparable harmonizing of the original Wailers (Marley along with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer), Catch A Fire and Burnin’ are indispensable cornerstones of any halfway serious reggae collection. And, above all, if it’s possible to single out one work that encapsulates Marley’s genius, Natty Dread is the alpha and the omega: not only is this his masterpiece, this one holds it own with any album, in any genre.

Okay. Even for those who are not sufficiently intrigued by the notion of a deeper dive into reggae’s abundant waters, there are more than a handful of sure things right on the surface. Enter the Mighty Diamonds and their first—and best—album, Right Time from 1976. Like the Wailers, the Mighty Diamonds are a harmonizing trio (with a killer backing band), and these three men, Donald “Tabby” Shaw, Fitzroy “Bunny” Simpson and Lloyd “Judge” Ferguson, created songs that stand tall alongside the very best reggae. Right Time manages to combine several styles and merge them in a seamless, practically flawless whole. This, to be certain, is roots reggae, yet at times it sounds like the most accessible soul music, closer to Motown than Trenchtown.

The group’s allegiance to Rastafarianism is skillfully articulated in the socially conscious lyrics, but the ten tracks on Right Time tackle romantic turmoil, violent crime, and redemption—sometimes all in one song. The title track, equally an ominous call to arms as well as a rallying cry against the system, sets an immediate tone that predicts chaos while promising resolve, pre-dating Culture’s epochal Two Sevens Clash by a year. The brilliance of the songs that follow must be heard to be believed, and it’s difficult to imagine how singing and song craft this tight, spiritual, and emotionally rich could fail to convince. The next two songs, “Why Me Black Brother Why?” and “Shame and Pride” constitute a one-two punch that manages to invoke Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Otis Redding: Gaye’s authentic words, Smokey’s silken voice, and Redding’s gut-rending fervor. If the world was right side up, all of these songs would be standards, familiar to anyone who listens to the soul legends mentioned above. The album’s highlight may be the resplendent anthem “I Need a Roof”—-a rather uncomplicated piece of poetry that invokes Marcus Garvey and Jesus Christ with its (obvious) insistence that without shelter there can be no peace, and without justice there can be no love. Listen: even writing about this record, albeit while offering the highest possible praise, inexorably mutes the message. That message is conveyed with voices that must be heard so that the music can make sense. Go seek it out.

by Bill Gibron

7 Aug 2008

There is is a big difference between legitimate cool and faked cool. The real thing is hard to define and rather ephemeral. It exudes off the subject - film, album, individual - in ways that literally defy description. The counterfeit version is easy to spot. It announces itself like an overly tan lounge lizard in tacky gold chains, and demands that you respect its forced bravado. The latest attempt at recapturing the exploitation vibe from three decades ago, Hell Ride, has a decent pedigree. Executive produced by Quentin Tarantino and created by old school drive-in vet Larry Bishop (Wild in the Streets, The Savage Seven), this is yet another contemporary tap into the original post-modern movie ideal. Unfortunately, the few things this grindhouse wannabe gets right can’t compensate for a distinct aura of unnatural swagger.

Back in ‘76, biker Pistolero promised the soon-to-be-murdered Cherokee Kisum that he would protect a key to a safety deposit box. The contents - supposedly untold amounts of drug money - were for her son, Comanche. Now, over four decades later, an older Pistoler leads the vagabond gang known as the Victors, along with his right hand man The Gent. When member St. Louie is killed by the rogue renegade 666’ers, led by the notoriously unsane Billy Wings and The Deuce, he vows vengeance. He also hopes to locate the last two keys so that Comanche (now part of his crew) can earn his birthright and satisfy the age old vendetta. Of course, any action against the 666’ers will upset the status quo, and that means an end to beer and babes and the beginning of an all out motorcycle holocaust.

Right from the very first image, Hell Ride comes off as a Devil’s Rejects reject. Unfortunately, you quickly realize that Rob Zombie was much more in tune with the exploitation ethic than wannabe Mahon Larry Bishop. Soon, the Tarantino nods start pouring in, staid amalgamations of spaghetti westerns, Asian crime dramas, and overworked schlock motifs. About 40 minutes in you’ve had enough. You can’t stand the back and forth posing, the hopscotching homages, the lack of anything remotely looking like a linear narrative or dimensional character. It’s at this moment when cast and crew make their stand, demanding that you accept them, or simply ignore their over-earnest motion picture pastiche outright and move along. If you can handle such a head on aesthetic collision, you just might enjoy the last act.

But if you don’t, Hell Ride will seem like a literal journey into Satan’s gaping maw. It will test your bare breasting faculties and push the very limits of your need for unnecessary posturing. There is no acting here, just useless channeling of personas past, and when he can’t think of anything clever to convey, writer/director Bishop simply tosses out a few Leone riffs and calls it a day. There are so many mock meaningful close-ups, uses of zoom and soft focus falderal that you swear Guy Madden had discovered the ‘60s and was updating his canon of D.W. Griffith-inspired artiness. Processed to purgatory and back in post-production, the movie tries to super saturate some depth into what is, in essence, a nostalgia borne out of boredom. This is about as ‘grindhouse’ as the similarly styled (and named) films released by QT and his buddy Robert Rodriguez early last year.

Still, if you can stomach Bishop’s bravado, if you can get behind his cut and paste imagination, you may cotton to this Ride. There are definitely scenes that spark with untapped potential. Michael Madsen’s Gent takes on Eric Balfour’s Comanche in a one on one bar fight that discovers some heretofore untapped humor. There is another hilarious moment when a sheepish Dennis Hopper asks a biker babe for a joint (his face is classic). Sure, for every segment that gets you smiling, there’s one like Bishop’s “fire” based stand-off with his ‘old lady’, the lovely Cassandra Hepburn. The duo tosses so many conflagration entendres at each other that you can actually count the ones that ‘burn’, and the many that merely irritate. Some of this film feels like it would read better on the page. Besides, trying to mimic the crudity of the past is no longer clever.   

Indeed, this is Hell Ride‘s biggest problem. Very few filmmakers can accurately recreate the look and feel of ancient b-grade drive-in fare. Zombie is one. The Manson Family‘s Jim Van Bebber is another. Not only do they capture the visuals, they understand the off the cuff, on the run nature of how many of these movies were shot. To suggest that this can be done in some geek’s laptop is ludicrous. Besides, Bishop should know better. He was around when this kind of cinema ruled the subculture, and even acted in a few famous examples. Here, he seems to be looking through digital rose colored glasses. Everything plays like a flashback - albeit one told in a terrific, flashy style that tries desperately to hide how cornball the motoring and machismo really are.

All one can do is submit to Hell Ride‘s ridiculousness and simply allow the movie to make up its own creative logic. You might actually find that you like Bishop’s Birdman of Razzmatazz personality (he’s all grumbles and Van Dykes). If you don’t mind wallowing in excess that never achieves the T&A bounty the narrative suggests (here’s hoping the Unrated DVD solves this problem, pronto), you could find yourself fooled. Had he simply made a standard biker flick, a post-modern update of an old fashioned raincoat crowder, Larry Bishop’s ambition might be more acceptable. But combining 2008 with 1968 (or ‘78) just won’t work, and by the time you’ve surrendered to Hell Ride‘s chopper chic surrealism, you’ll realize what a true waste of time it’s been.

by Rob Horning

7 Aug 2008

Anne Elizabeth’s Moore’s Unmarketable takes an anecdotal look at advertising’s tenacious ability to co-opt any position within a consumer society and use it to its own advantage. Movements that begin as explicitly anti-consumerist end up providing tropes and techniques for ads promoting brands. Part of the problem, as Moore points out, is that “marketing has become so diffuse as to be a social activity” and “friends and acquaintances in the struggle to condemn the bad and support the good have simply gone into advertising.” Advertisers, in apparent good faith, deliberately cultivate ties to underground or subversive art movements in order to spread and popularize their aesthetic (while at the same time selling Toyotas or what have you). These movements succumb to the marketer’s blandishments because the alternative is to languish in obscurity or to end up promoting the same consumerist culture anyway, inadvertently through having their artistic methods appropriated by advertisers without their participation. “Adbusting, subvertising, and many other activities employed by culture jammers and copyfighters alike, whether parodic or satiric, fundamentally reproduce and reinforce brands and the aims of branding,” Moore writes. “They not only reassert the icons they half-heartedly attempt to dismantle, they encourage their continued survival…. The impervious logic of branding means criticism is becoming almost impossible to voice or hear.”

The ubiquity of advertising helps establish that appearance of imperviousness. Moore concludes that it has become impossible to express integrity in the public sphere, because the symbols and the means don’t exist. Advertising destroys them in its need to continually reinvent itself to remain relevant, to continue to surprise audiences and reach them: “marketing strategies are constantly evolving in new directions, any directions, all directions. It is a business dependent upon both expansion and innovation to survive.” Moore quotes a marketing group that boasts its ability to achieve “maximum intrusion” by using guerrilla methods once used by underground artists out of necessity (in a desperate attempt to reach an audience) or as an attempt to shock people out of complacency. As a result, any attempts to present ideas to the public all take on commercial overtones. If they are not directly sponsored, their presentation mirrors forms familiar as advertising. Branding leaves no interstitial space in the culture for alternative conceptions of public communication, for non-commercial expressions of social meanings. All such attempts are quickly assimilated to the mode of branding. Habits become lifestyles, which become reified into branded products. We conceive of ourselves as brands, we brand our work, we present ourselves in quasi-logo form on internet social networks, while twittering slogans for ourselves throughout the day. With more and more of our social existence taking place in a fully quantifiable space online, all forms of social recognition are collapsed into the metrics appropriate to monitoring business. This undermines the possibility of integrity, which may perhaps be defined precisely as that which can’t be measured but only practiced.

by Thomas Hauner

6 Aug 2008

A balmy Tuesday night in New York’s Central Park was the near perfect setting to take in the sonorous melodies and counterculture nostalgia of Crosby, Stills & Nash. Playing in their 40th year together, the trio (this time sans the erratic Neil Young) serenaded the crowd with the more equanimous side of their repertoire during the first set. Breezy and reminiscent, “Marrakesh Express” instantly entranced the audience with patchouli-laden thoughts of seminal rock festivals. David Crosby gingerly sang backup–appearing either stoic or stoned–while Graham Nash paced Persian rugs barefooted and Stephen Stills basked in the glow of his sunburst Gibson at sunset. Other classics like “Southern Cross” and “Long Time Gone” quickly followed.

The second set, opening with the earnest a cappella ballad “You Don’t Have to Cry”, showcased their trademark harmonies and more Stills-led electric rock. Equally known for their infamous anti-establishment and political commentary, “This is My Country” (written by Joel Rafael with backing vocals by Nash and Crosby) was the most biting socially conscious song of the night. Nash then thanked the crowd for listening to his solo performance—apparently the tune fell on less receptive ears at the D.C. show.

Though ostensibly political, the iconic Buffalo Springfield tune “For What It’s Worth” has instead evolved into a go-to group sing-along. It didn’t disappoint as the first encore. Rounding out their two and a half hour show, “Teach Your Children” was as fitting a bestowal to the younger concertgoers as it was a reprise for the older. And in plugging their appearance on The Colbert Report the next day, CSN united the generations too.

//Mixed media

Because Blood Is Drama: Considering Carnage in Video Games and Other Media

// Moving Pixels

"It's easy to dismiss blood and violence as salacious without considering why it is there, what its context is, and what it might communicate.

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