And the winner of this year's Celebrity Big Brother is ... Chantelle!
A tiny piece of our British cultural identity expired on the evening of Friday 27 January 2006. Davina McCall's announcement to 11 million members of the television-viewing public had been eagerly anticipated for 23 days. At precisely 9.48pm, she declared to the nation that a previously unknown office temp called Chantelle Houghton had won Channel 4's "Celebrity" Big Brother programme, an announcement which immediately sent social commentators into fits of hysteria. The next day's papers were deluged with various incredulous musings about the apparent malaise penetrating the core of our cultural consciousness.
Had the nation become so vapidly obsessed with the cult of celebrity that neither talent nor looks were any longer a pre-requisite for reaching iconic status? Did this travesty of a national text vote imply that we no longer had any meaningful parameters by which to determine who or what deserves to remain in our common consciousness? Or was it perhaps a simple indication that the British public had chosen to respond to the evident frivolity of reality TV in kind?
Chantelle Houghton represents the pinnacle of modern-day faux-celebrity; the slightly unsettling proof behind that self-fulfilling prophecy of "being famous for being famous". This hapless demise of our cultural consciousness was wonderfully epitomised in the title of Chantelle's spurious song I Want it Right Now. Could there be a more apt leitmotif for a nation so seemingly obsessed with the trappings of instant credit, immediate gratification and fame on demand? The recent announcement that the song is to be recorded for real suggests that those astute business brains at Channel 4 know exactly how to capitalise on this zeitgeist of spurious celebrity.
But perhaps we should start to question whether there may be some merit in this strangely compelling instant fame after all? Having done nothing but appear on television, Chantelle has - for now, at least - become a household name. GlaxoSmithKline paid somewhere in the region of £80 million for a sustained global re-branding effort to achieve slightly less brand awareness than Chantelle has notched up by simply behaving in a rather insipid manner on national television. A nauseating thought indeed.
Admittedly, the seasoned brand theorists will speak out in vehement defence of their livelihoods, citing the inevitable onset of one of the most predictable facets of modern branding theory, "declining salience". After all, who can remember the name of the winner of the second series of Big Brother, or the third for that matter? The brand theorists would probably then put an end to the proceedings by gleefully chanting their spiteful mantra: "No brand, no matter how famous, sustains top-of-mind awareness without an ongoing and carefully devised programme of investment."
Could it be, though, that this "instafame"1 - as embodied by Chantelle Houghton - capitalises on our prevailing cultural mindset to confer upon a brand (or a personality) a totally unique and immediate fast-tracking into the nation's cultural consciousness? Could it be that only then does it become subjected to the standard theories of declining brand salience, having already attained temporary awareness levels that would have ordinarily cost tens of millions of pounds and several carefully orchestrated launch campaigns to achieve?
But exactly how could an unknown brand or personality achieve this meteoric rise to fame? What qualities does it need to possess to capture the nation's collective imagination? Does it need to promise to reconcile some of the acute ideological tensions of the age?2, or could it perhaps bypass the received wisdom of branding theory and achieve pre-eminence in the nation's collective consciousness through a series of ingenious tricks, scams, fabrications and spurious claims?
That is the contention of this thesis. Everything which follows is mere fabrication and speculation. We are about to witness a non-existent brand prophesying its own glorious ascent into the nation's cultural consciousness.
Yet the ascent is documented with such care and attention to the predicted socio-economic context and prevailing cultural landscape that it appears uncannily realistic. Indeed, it is the delicately articulated prophetic visions enumerated throughout the following pages which will ultimately launch this brand in reality, all in accordance with the stated timeline of events.
In fact, this is the absolute intention of this thesis, for it is through adopting the guise of pseudo-historical "fact" and by exhibiting the trappings of "genuine celebrity" that the brand will become noticed in the first place. This will also be the first brand to employ the media value of the industry's own trade journal to launch its identity.
The following pages represent an unabridged submission for the 2012 IPA Advertising Effectiveness Awards. 2012 was noteworthy for being the year in which the IPA elected to confer the unique and much-lauded title of "Perfect Brand" to a small UK-based manufacturing company, established in January 2007. The company's unparalleled branding and advertising practices had been deemed by the IPA to demonstrate every facet of perfect branding. The company is called PODTM, and here follows its remarkable story.
BACKGROUND: THE PODTM3
The POD is a free-standing, self-sealing multimedia capsule designed to accommodate a single human being in a semi-recumbent position. The POD physically resembles a shiny chrysalis, and is constructed from titastic plasma (a titanium-plastic hybrid with pixel-imaging and sound-creation capabilities inside every plasma molecule - the POD's interior is a total surround audio-visual screen).
Its slick exterior contouring is broken only by a single, unobtrusive digital LCD display to denote when the unit is in use. The POD's interior is equipped with advanced Bluetooth-enabled neuro-sensors which measure and record electrical and chemical impulses from the Amygdala system in the occupant's brain4 (a technology patented in March 2008 by the then newly merged corporation Sony- AstraZeneca).
The POD's onboard computer continuously processes each user's unique neurological-response data in order to achieve real-time variations to the exact type of images, sounds and smells that they are exposed to during their "podcoma". (Podcoma has been the colloquial name affectionately used to describe the user experience by journalists and the general public since 2008.) The POD generates its own power from its exterior solar panelling and by harnessing the latent energy released from the binary fission of Xenon traces in exhaled air from the occupant's lungs.5
The POD experience offers unrivalled and unique solace to each user, and the units are frequently found in the staff rooms of corporations, the communal areas of institutions and the public precincts of shopping centres right across the UK. The POD de-stresses, relaxes and recharges both body and mind. The POD also offers the public a place to pray, a place to think, a place to watch videos, to video-conference, to access the web and even to vote. The POD is a neurological life-support machine which offers a slice of serenity in an increasingly fast-paced world.
The POD is predicated on a unique business model. It is completely free to use, in exchange for the user's consent to view brief advertising messages, and to release their unique neurological-response data to POD's subsidiary neuro-marketing organisation, Biocom (www.biocom.org.uk).
SETTING THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT: THE ZEITGEIST OF FIN-DE-SIECLE ANGST
The end of the second millennium was characterised by abnormally pronounced levels of collective human anxiety - much more so than the close of previous centuries. A plethora of historical records document the typical feelings of anxiety experienced by civilisations as they approach the dawn of a new century. They begin to question their core identity and the direction that they will pursue over the following years. The arrival of the third millennium heralded an even greater feeling of concern as the problems associated with the Millennium Bug brought about previously unknown feelings of technical angst. The thought that our own technological creations - the true mark of our advancement as a species - could fail and perhaps even threaten to kill us, represented a huge undermining of our own confidence in who and what we had become.
The traditional fin-de-siecle angst, then, was exacerbated by the unknown threat posed by our own technological inventions. Indeed, this prevailing mindset gave rise to a literary and artistic climate of "questioned authenticity". We defined ourselves through our ever-more-prominent desires to doubt the veracity of even seemingly undeniable truths: Had Diana been assassinated under Prince Philip's orders? Did Neil Armstrong actually set foot on the moon back in 1969? Were the atrocities of 9/11 somehow hauntingly predicted in the Bible? We even lived in a climate in which video and photographic evidence was no longer a trusted purveyor of the truth.6
Indeed, even the most commercially successful film of all time, The Blair Witch Project7, claimed to be a true documentary about a group of students who got lost in the woods, and whose "recovered" footage was distributed as a real-life tribute to their alleged "deaths". The film's huge success was attributed to the cunning manner in which it went about disseminating "truths" across the internet, even though people subconsciously knew they couldn't have been substantiated. The public became willingly complicit in devouring these intriguing internet-based stories, which were in fact rather ingenious hype-generators for the upcoming film. It worked to such an extent that the film acquired an almost cult-like status before anyone had even seen it.
In September 2007, Wendy Gordon published her seminal paper, entitled The Socio-cultural Allure of Consp-iracy8, in which she identified a series of key global events and literary publications which had cultivated and promoted this climate of fascination with the conspiracy theory. She observed that: "In addition to the general public's gradual loss of deference for trusted institutions and the insidious erosion of respect for traditional figures of authority, it was perhaps the public's irrepressible fascination with more compelling fictitious realities or paranormal explanations for otherwise ordinary events and phenomena that created this shift in cultural climate towards the end of the first decade of the third millennium.
"This climate was conducive to the incubation, and then hatching9, of the first successful entirely spurious brand10 in the UK in 2007. Never before had a brand so adeptly prophesied and engineered its own superiority and salience, and - through entirely fabricated claims - managed to earn such a genuinely respected position within the nation's consciousness."
POD AS SPURIOUS BRAND
Indeed, the POD's was the first organised brand communication strategy entirely predicated on spurious - but incredibly well-researched - claims, observations and pseudo-facts.
The story began in January 2007, when Companies House received an inauspicious application from POD Holdings to register as a limited company. Two weeks later, POD Global (a separate and entirely fictitious company) published its fabricated first-year accounts for 2006, as well as several intriguing but entirely innocuous-sounding neurological patents filed through the UK Patent Office.
Initial public reaction was non- existent, but after various carefully seeded e-mails, blogs, message-forum observations and a handful of carefully targeted letters of allegedly impartial intrigue to publications such as New Scientist, people began to believe that POD was at the forefront of understanding about the intricate workings of the human brain; that it had begun to develop the ability to correlate visual imagery with neuro-specific data; and finally, that it was on the cusp of discovering how to generate power from molecular binary fission by harnessing the higher Xenon concentrations in exhaled air.
The buzz spread insidiously through the city and within academic journals. It wasn't long before it attracted legions of sci-fi and conspiracy theorists in its wake. People were desperate to experience first-hand the "neuro-enhanced escapism" alleged in the articles. The fact that some recent scientific discoveries concurred with the claims in the articles was an ingeniously timed marketing kick-start for the brand.
Other claims, such as the neurological breakthroughs, were fabricated. Curiously, however, more money was earmarked by the major pharmaceutical companies for research into these exact same neurological studies - presumably galvanised into action through fear they would lose their competitive edge in the wake of these alleged developments being reported by a rival company.
Their increased investment hastened the genuine discovery of those spurious scientific claims. The false claims, then, became an incredibly useful self-fulfilling prophecy both for science at large and for the POD brand itself.
In June 2007, Malcolm Gladwell, in his illuminating successor to The Tipping Point, called The Linguistic Epidemic of Conspiracy Branding, concluded that: "The mavens and connectors of the 1990s had become replaced by a hugely influential and well-connected group of techno-savvy City analysts able to sense the next pharmaceutical or neurological breakthrough in the world of science. It was basically their word which dictated what was hot or not."11 If Gladwell's observations were correct, this huge buzz about the spurious brand had capitalised on the irrepressible hunger of the City analysts and seemingly provided them with rather tempting bait. The bait about POD's activities was disseminated across the internet, and took these brand sleuths12 into a complex and protracted series of investigations into journals, blogs and letters about the research and development being conducted by POD Global. It was an exercise worthy of Robert Langdon's attentions, and it fortunately tempted a huge section of the UK sleuthing populus.13
It was here that the valuable initial perceptions of POD's brand personality were forged in people's minds. Nobody knew what it was, but everyone wanted to know more. It promised to revolutionise the human condition, and as such became perceived as aspirational, cutting-edge and trendy. Jeremy Bullmore later concluded that "since the brand didn't exist other than as buzz on the internet and in the mind, it couldn't be tainted by the usual theories associated with typical branding. There were no 'unaccountable number of brand stimuli', which usually helped to create potentially negative perceptions in the minds of the general public. The only perceptions could be positive, and the way this important formative period was managed was a true masterstroke of modern-day branding."14 As yet, nobody had seen any physical products from POD Global, thus furthering its allure to the population. At this point in time, people only knew that the company was developing a revolutionary brand experience using apparently patented neurological data.
By late 2007, the marketing community had begun to sit up and take notice. Then came the second masterstroke. The company released a paper attesting to the effectiveness of its overall inception and disseminated it amongst the marketing community on the pretence of furthering modern-day Brand Theory. On one hand, it was a cheap joke to poke fun at an occasionally pompous industry that could be pre-occupied with its own self-importance, (although this was certainly a way of giving the paper the requisite stand-out) but on the other hand it demonstrated an intelligent understanding of the power to leverage this zeitgeist of spurious celebrity, conspiracy theories and the self-fulfilling prophecy. Effectively, the brand concept was being incubated within the journals of advertising theory in order to shore up goodwill towards a brand that didn't even exist.
By falsely claiming its own brand salience, POD was beginning to get noticed in academic journals and starting to achieve just that. It was effectively the Chantelle Houghton of brands. The self-awarding of the IPA Perfect Brand Effectiveness Award in 2012, combined with the careful seeding of e-mails to opinion-formers, had effectively created the necessary buzz.
Seth Godin, in his November 2008 follow-up to Unleashing the Idea Virus, called The Dreamweavers15, concludes that "sneezers" and "hives" are replaced by "brand fantasists" and "e-publicists" - one who comes up with a great spurious brand idea and then passes it onto an expert copywriter with knowledge of influential e-sites, who begins to invent stories surrounding the brand successes in such captivating anecdotal form that it has licence to chart its own ascent into the nation's consciousness.
It was Emmanuel Rosen16 who observed in 2008 that there was a gene in the human brain which guards against seeming out of touch with what is meant to be perceived as "cool". He noted how in the 2006 Celebrity Big Brother programme: "Chantelle was voted ninth in a line-up of 12 celebrities according to their level of fame as voted by themselves, and she somehow managed to convince a group of real celebrities that she legitimately displayed some of their characteristics." Rosen identified that brands which attest to their own status and credibility amongst carefully targeted groups of social influencers would be actively embraced on the grounds that they appear to fill a need within that group, and therefore end up evincing the credentials of genuine celebrity by so doing.
So it came to pass, by late 2007, that POD had listed an entirely fabricated set of annual accounts and awarded itself a completely fictitious accolade for perfect branding. The initial perceptions of the brand could be only positive, because of the fact that only intrigue and fascination had been spread about it. The public were pre-disposed to the brand before they actually experienced it, on the grounds that they enjoyed the innovative way in which it had been allowed to incubate in their consciousness before they had actually experienced it in reality. This achieved two things: (1) nationwide awareness on a non-existent marketing budget, and more importantly, (2) a huge wave of anticipation to experience the actual brand promise itself.
The next stage of POD's meteoric rise was to retain and capitalise on its fictitious salience. POD had achieved such a rapid and spuriously founded ascent into the nation's consciousness that even Paul Feldwick grudgingly conceded that his outmoded statement which had formed the cornerstone of basic branding theory for almost two decades - a brand is merely a collection of perceptions in the mind of the consumer - was now in drastic need of revision. He proposed that a brand was now "merely a collection of perceptions or spuriously planted cerebral cognitions in the mind of the consumer". However, he became so disenfranchised with the fundamental debunking of so much of his own core branding theory in the year 2009 that he sadly retired from contributing to the advancement of branding debates soon afterwards.
The more traditional brand theorists were initially dismissive of "The Great POD Fiasco", as it became known in January 2008 after it had finally emerged that all the stories about its development were fabricated. Although the public were initially impressed with the spurious brand's ability to leverage the current prevailing obsession with faux-celebrity, conspiracy theories and examples of success against all the odds, these angry detractors sought solace from the fact that all brands, no matter how salient at any one given moment in time, needed to invest in maintaining their salience. More importantly, they also needed to deliver a genuinely rewarding and differentiating product experience - unlike, for example, The Blair Witch Project17. POD responded ferociously - it was not about to haemorrhage the positive effects of this accumulated ocean of goodwill.
The management team appointed David Young as its brand salience director in March 2008. His first initiative was to write a letter to the marketing community called "What's keeping this Great White moving?"18 as an ironic reference to the fact that he understood the great fortune of his current predicament, yet also possessed enough marketing acumen to realise the need to maintain and build upon the public goodwill towards turning the brand into a reality. In that paper, and still unable to unleash any real details about the product itself, Young decided instead to give an insight into the actual naming of the brand itself, which is what follows here:
WHAT'S IN A NAME? POD AND LINGUISTIC BRANDING
Not only was "POD" an accurate lexical descriptor of the shape and self-sealing properties of the units that were about to go into physical production, but it was also an acronym which succinctly described the overall product experience itself. "Privacy On Demand" - POD. POD was predicated on the notion that employees in busy corporations never quite knew how to spend their lunchtimes, and that the 2008 Gallup Poll had revealed that the national average lunchtime had slipped from 45 to 40 minutes19 - not quite enough time to go to the local gym - and this is where the POD had identified its niche. It offered 20 minutes solace from the pressures of work by allowing the user to climb inside and personalise their POD experience by selecting their preferred sounds, sights and smells.
Sony and AstraZeneca had joined forces in March 2008. The merger had been undertaken solely for the purposes of identifying, measuring and storing levels of chemical and electrical neuro-stimulation in the brain using advanced electronic visual-stimulus equipment. The hardware they produced monitored brainwave responses to various different sensory stimuli and modulated all of the resulting images accordingly to ensure that each Podcoma was the equivalent of an almost semi-hypnotised euphoria. Thus, the notion of Privacy On Demand had become not only a memorable acronym for the physical product itself, but an accurate proposition for the benefit of the experience it delivered. Young seized on this happy coincidence and wrote to the advertising community in July 2008 with a thesis entitled What's In a Name? Products, Propositions and Positionings Never Tasted So Sweet. This continued to generate word-of-mouth buzz around the fledgling spurious brand.
Keen to generate marketable buzz at every opportunity, Young then spuriously post-rationalised a theory that part of the success of POD was attributable to extensive semantic analysis at the point of the brand's inception. Young researched academic papers by the late linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and then anonymously initiated various threads of e-discussions and blogs among the academic community with the proposal that: "Many words uttered in conversational speech had the latent potential to behave as cerebral micro-adverts in their minds."20 He advanced the suggestion that the most resonant branded word in the English language was "exterminate", on the grounds that it immediately and unequivocally painted a picture of the time-travelling Doctor and his crude robotic adversaries in the minds of more than 98 per cent of the population. Young seized upon this unharnessed semantic power and referred to it as "lingua-branding" in the various academic and intellectual debates that ensued. After his terminology had gained critical mass in academic circles, he wrote an article in The Times called "Adam's Apple of Fortune", in which he taught the public about the powers of lingua-branding, and suggested the POD brand owed its worldwide acclaim to the expedience of its lexical parity to Apple's most significant and successful product of the century, the iPod.
Young cogently argued that every time the word "iPod" was uttered in conversation, it subconsciously engineered positive associations with his own POD product. He contended that his brand was behaving in a "linguistically parasitic fashion"21. His mono-syllabic phoneme of a brand, POD, was innocuously nestling within the lexical descriptor for the most famous brand of the century, iPod. In so doing, POD was subconsciously appropriating some of the goodwill towards Apple's product and diverting it into its own. His brand had been the first to engage in such stealth lingua-parasitic branding. Young decided that even if the contention wasn't true, that he should argue with such (anonymous) vehemence that it gained academic consideration, and thus would become a crucially self-fulfilling prophecy.
At this point, Will Collin inadvertently contributed to the continued success of the POD brand. Having spoken and written very authoritatively about the fragmentation of media channels and the failure to engage consumers through the misguided use of the terminology of warfare, Collin was forced to concede to a U-turn in his thinking. In 2008, he - albeit reluctantly - published a paper called All is Not Necessarily Fairer in Love than War. In it, he concedes that ambush tactics upon unsuspecting consumers can in fact occasionally achieve great things. He cites: "POD was the seminal case in which a brand hijacked the goodwill associated with another famous brand and very persuasively manipulated that to its own ends. Crucially, however, Young carefully created a clear distinction between his own theories behind lingua-parasitic branding and this alleged association between the POD and the iPod brand.
"In so doing, Young was able to ensure that the rather down-and-dirty 'pseudo-academic' tactics of planting these self-fulfilling thoughts in people's minds didn't actually compromise the integrity of the brand itself. He had created a separate and seemingly legitimate platform of authority to comment on his own brand, thus avoiding any unfortunate contamination of the main brand with the somewhat questionable and manipulative tactics he had deployed."22
So, rather than the advertising strategy having employed the tactics of warfare in a way that would threaten to disengage the consumer, the brand itself had engaged in a kind of stealth semantic warfare to such an extent that the consumer wasn't even aware that their goodwill towards Apple's brand was being diverted towards the POD brand. In the beginning, it wasn't actually happening at all, but since the public were being told that it was by a number of seemingly authoritative sources, they began to believe it was.
This is where the true genius of the stealth strategy lay: at the point that the public may have begun to doubt the brand, they had accumulated such an intrigue in the psychologies of faux-branding that they were prepared to be positively predisposed to it. Giep Franzen called this the "willing suspension of advertising disbelief" in his 2008 study War of the Worlds and Other Broadcast Scams23, in which he draws a correlation between the level of ingenuity of the scam and the amount of positive goodwill accorded to the brand in question. In Franzen's study, Orson Welles' "live" reporting of a Martian invasion (based on HG Wells' War of the Worlds novel), on national radio in October 1938, tops his list for ingenuity.
POD AND LINGUISTIC SPONSORSHIP
Young took POD one stage further. Rather than just capitalising on the latent positive goodwill afforded by those iconic brands with lexical similarity to his own, he also wanted to engineer situations in which the brand's name could be inadvertently uttered. In July 2008 Young appointed the world's first Lexical Sponsorship Director to join the marketing team at POD Global. The LSD would leverage the potential for sponsored utterances of "POD" in a non-advertising context within theatrical or cinematic works.
Young hired Gerry Eisenberg, who had recently successfully revived Tom Stoppard's play The Real Thing in both London and New York as a covert branding opportunity for the Coca-Cola Schweppes company.
Recent qualitative research had demonstrated that even though the world's leading brand's endline had evolved since "The Real Thing", there was still sufficient residual association with the old line to be spontaneously attributed to the brand upon first hearing. In fact, the very notion that the brand endline was not current made the covert theatrical branding opportunity less likely to attract negative repercussions.
Studies showed that the subliminal associations with the brand endline and Stoppard's theatrical masterpiece resulted in a 1 per cent uplift in Coca-Cola sales in both London and New York throughout the show's run. This represented a twofold return on investment, as well as the fact that valuable links were developed between the traditionally brand-cynical theatrical community and the Coca-Cola brand.
Eisenberg said that: "Consumers are now acutely wary of direct product placement and blatant advertising sponsorships, and are often distrusting of the clumsy links contrived between brand and event. However, by covertly capitalising on phrases and endlines only subconsciously associated with those products, we can deploy a kind of guerrilla advertising strategy that is unleashed from within the very fabric of language itself."
For POD, Eisenberg commissioned Alan Bennett to write a play, Peas in a Pod, which surmised the prevailing societal concerns, namely the epidemic of commitment-phobia amongst twenty- and thirty-something adults in major conurbations across the country.
The play resolved by proposing that a greater awareness of our spiritual essence would help to eclipse our obsession with material advancement and the incidence of work-related stress.24
It all subtly pointed towards respecting time and private space - a delicate allusion to the sensory and spiritual escapism offered by the POD itself. The sponsorship effort ensured that POD reached top-of-mind awareness, yet didn't register any of the typical negativity or cynicism that is so frequently associated with blatantly crude sponsorship.
The social commentators Franzen and Clifton wrote of POD in 2008 "that it owed its success not only to an ongoing programme of marketing initiatives which sought to leverage its relevance against a series of carefully selected current affairs, but because the product itself purported to offer the individual the opportunity to experience a rare moment of their own personal and private personality in an environment (eg. an office) that had never before been associated with this kind of freedom. It apparently tapped into the needs of a nation, and simultaneously cross-fertilised the professional identity with that of the private identity, in a third space.
"The hybrid identity that is developed inside the POD itself is one which unleashes a whole new set of behavioural characteristics and complex social interplays. This newness of experience, combined with all of the obvious product credentials associated with the unique user experience itself, guaranteed that it continued to remain relevant with each changing of epoch, since it allowed for a constantly fresh perspective on that change."
POD: WHERE THE HYPE MET REALITY
At the point that POD actually went into physical production in September 2008, following 18 months of entirely fabricated publicity, it had registereed 50,000 forward orders from corporations keen to demonstrate to their workforce that they were interested in investing in their welfare. The hard launch date was a theoretical misnomer, since the public had a faint notion that the POD had been in existence for more than a year. Although many knew of the marketing scam and were positively pre-disposed to consideration of the brand owing to the ingenuity of its creation, the hard launch still had to be managed tactfully.
Young leveraged the opportunity and playfully announced its arrival as "The second coming of the corporate Messiah" as an ironic statement about the fact that everyone was beginning to doubt its existence. It also lent a risque air of pseudo-religious anticipation to the occasion, and somewhat heretically aligned the POD with the miracle-working capabilities of Christ, our Saviour.
The ensuing hysterical fervour from the orthodox religious community ensured that the POD concept was extensively debated by a hugely influential sector of society25. Before their musings were allowed to potentially taint the brand with suggestions of its sacrilegious nomenclature or a potential furthering of an undesirable intrigue in the occult, Young deftly demonstrated to this sector of the community how the POD could be used to achieve religious solace and shared faith with "POD-networking Gospels" as just one programme available from a whole religious menu of experiences. They were hugely appeased, and churches across the country began ordering PODs for their vestries, as well as mobile units for their religion-on-wheels service, which was rolled out in 2009.
The hard launch date was also cleverly coincided with the publication of the latest NOP survey, which lamented the UK's longest working hours in Europe, for the tenth year running. Stress levels were at an all-time high, and people slept on average for an hour less than only five years before26. POD sponsored the provision of herbal sleeping tablets emblazoned with the word POD to various influential corporations across the land, as a way of cunningly leveraging the desirable soporific qualities of the POD experience, and the appeal of a 20-minute post-prandial slumber in the office.
POD AS NEURO-ADVERTISING EFFECTIVENESS TOOL
So, the story thus far is one of the unprecedented and carefully contrived meteoric ascent of a spurious brand into the nation's consciousness through leveraging the prevailing obsessions with conspiracy theories and faux-celebrity to achieve its own prophesied glory. It also speaks of how it continually reasserts its relevance, like any good brand, by leveraging the manifold opportunities created by the results of national surveys, technological discoveries and current affairs. Mark Earls invented a tool called a "Brand Blog Salience Half-life"27 which became a respected way of measuring the effect to which a marketing initiative had penetrated the social consciousness. He stated in 2008 that: "The almost ubiquitous presence of the blog and blog search engines made it possible to chart the number of mentions relating to a specific branding stunt in the days immediately following its launch. The time it took for the number of daily blogs relating to that stunt to halve was subsequently known as its 'Blog Salience Half-life'." Young's marketing objectives were set against the requirement to initiate a new marketing stunt each time the half-life had been reached for his previous stunt. Earls suggested that this was "marketing gone crazy" in 2009, but conceded it was achieving the right effects for the POD brand.
The POD is a freestanding media unit capable of offering the zenith of the Advertising Grail: a willing and attentive audience who are prepared to receive advertising messages. TV breaks had long been subjected to the inglorious reality that people used them to relieve themselves or indulge their channel-hopping curiosity. The 10,000 messages faced by consumers each day28 made it nearly impossible to achieve cut-through. POD, however, offered a unique portal into the neurological sensibilities of each of its users. During the experience of listening to music, seeing images and smelling different aromas, the levels of the chemical x3R1029 in the Amygdala region of the brain were monitored by the POD's neuro-sensory interface. In fact, all sensory stimuli were monitored until those which correlated with the user's own optimum sensory impact were found.
Many branding commentators asserted that the traditional loyalty-card scheme was the strongest tool in the marketing arsenal, and this may explain why large percentages of above-the-line budgets were often appropriated by customer relationship marketing teams for investing in loyalty initiatives in the early 90s. However, the POD represented the flawless loyalty scheme, for rather than just arming the retailer with purchasing data (which is dependent on all manner of unquantifiable data) the POD provides neuro-statistical data, which gives an indication about that person's unique cerebral wiring. For example, if being shown an image of an apple elicits a greater degree of neuro-stimulus and serotonin release than seeing an image of a banana, the POD logs the data accordingly. The POD reconfigures the images and sounds it plays to the customer to elicit the most pleasurable and positive experience - all based on the unique set-up of that person's brain. This demonstrates how the POD possesses the core materials required to make it the most efficient advertising vehicle known to man.
Indeed, Rita Carter even suggested in her illuminating essay30 on neuro-specific advertising (NSA) that: "The POD represented the first working example of a media vehicle in the public domain which could tailor advertising imagery to the pre-existing sensibilities of the user." Mark Earls fought back in April that year, marshalling Benedick's words in Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing: "Doth not the appetite alter? A man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age."31 Young was actually overjoyed because the commentators were now independently promoting the POD brand by vigorously debating its credentials.
The POD had effectively become a media space which offered unrivalled neurological data to prospective advertisers: users gained 20 minutes' free exposure to the semi-hypnotic euphoria delivered by the machine in exchange for the consent to release their neurological data, as well as the consent to view two minutes of advertising communication which would be specifically tailored to the neurological sense data gathered by the POD. Advertising awareness levels reached 100 per cent for the first time ever, on the basis that the users were not only willing and focused on the communication, but they were guaranteed to be stimulated by the way in which the product was presented to them. Collin declared that the holy grail of engaging the consumer had been finally achieved and that "to the delight of financial directors up and down the land, advertising had at long last become a broadly quantifiable science".
The human liberty movement was not at all impressed. They fought back with a well-researched paper called The Hidden Neuro-persuaders in an attempt to re-ignite the terror surrounding the ideas of subconscious manipulation (initially outlined by Vance Packard in 1957). However, the courts were adamant that the POD represented a completely transparent business ethic. They ruled that the subscription to the POD was an entirely voluntary act, and that people had the power to withhold their neurological data from the third-party marketing organisation, Biocom, by electing to pay for the POD experience instead of receiving it for free.
However, the real threat posed by POD was to the Qualitative Research Agencies. The accuracy of the neurological data was so great that Millward Brown were forced to dissolve the Qualitative Research arm of the business in late 2011 and merged with Pfizer to form PfizerMillwardBrown in early 2012, to create a rival neurological research division. POD became the home to advertising which regularly achieved Awareness Index scores of 100 with a completely loyal and dedicated audience. The neuro-marketing arm of POD's activities began selling the neurological data to insurance, financial and leisure organisations, on the grounds that it provided the most insightful audience profiling data ever recorded.
The real crunch came in early 2012 when, after five years in existence, the public were no longer willing to consent to providing their neurological data in exchange for a bespoke podcoma. The neurological equivalent of diminishing marginal returns had set in, and the public began demanding some kind of remuneration for the invaluable data they were providing to Biocom. They realised that by consenting to receive advertising messaging which they were neurologically certain to find appealing, they represented an incredibly significant role in that company's cashflow forecasts32.
It was a basic tenet of branding theory that trusted brands were able to charge a price premium and make certain predictions about their cashflow on the basis of anticipated loyalties and increased propensity for repeat purchase. With the arrival of neurological data, the consumer could now be ranked in precise numbers relating to their neuro-affiliation to the brand. This was calculated by measuring the chemical activity in the Amygdala region of the brain during a show parade of competing products. With this, a new unit of brand loyalty was devised. Depending on levels of chemical activity, a brand was scored accordingly. "Granny Smith 40mg/1" would demonstrate 20mg more activity than "Pink Lady 20mg/1".
The time factor was also included to ensure that brands which had slower recognition times but equally strong affiliations were also captured: "Cox's 40mg/2" meant that the same overall level of positive brain activity was recorded for Cox's apples, although it took twice as long for this chemical level to be reached as it did for Granny Smith's. Rita Carter33 refers to this as the "neuro-loyalty index" and proposes that: "For the first time ever, a brand was now able to accurately measure the level of pre-disposition to a product for every consumer for whom they hold this neurological data."
It was Jeremy Bullmore who famously asserted that: "Every time we encounter a brand, we make an infinitesimal and subconscious adjustment to our personally constructed brand picture", although in the light of this scientific development he conceded that: "For the first time ever each one of these pre-existing stimuli can be collectively quantified by the exact nature of the brain's neurological response to seeing it, and any such variations in their neurological responses can be continually reassessed over time."
POD'S SOCIAL AGENDA
Having proved POD's ability to be a brand that was able to continually refresh its salience, as well as a powerful qualitative neuro-research tool and a unique media vehicle, Young sought to tackle ways in which to leverage the capabilities of the machine into a corporate social responsibility programme that would positively affect the whole community:
Following on from Steve Hilton's excellent essay The Social Value of Brands, in which he states that the most influential way in which a brand can contribute to society is not just by operating a programme of CSR, but by more proactively engaging in corporate social leadership, Hilton chose to base his 2010 paper on the multivalent manner in which the POD's capabilities had been marshalled to effect a positive change in society. "POD managed not only to engage in leading a programme of improving social interaction and promoting benevolence, but it elevated the significance of this broad social agenda into one of the very organising principles of the product's function from the outset,"34 he wrote. By leveraging the unique physical capabilities of the product, POD colluded with the COI35 in launching such initiatives as: "Tax Confessional" (opportunity for individuals to anonymously shop tax evaders); "Remote Literacy Programme" (people encouraged to give up half-an-hour to make a PODcall to under-privileged children and give them real-time spelling tests). The POD was able to forge connections across social and geographical boundaries that hadn't been witnessed since the dawn of e-mail communication. Hilton concluded that "POD demonstrated remarkable versatility as a unilateral education tool and a crime prevention unit at the same time as offering the zenith of leisure experiences - the exemplar of a socially proactive brand."
POD AS ICON
It seems apt to conclude that a spuriously conceived brand should ultimately remain in people's consciousness as an icon. When Douglas Holt wrote his illuminating essay What Becomes an Icon Most, he intelligently observed how "iconic brands embody ... myths that attempt to resolve acute tensions people feel between their own lives and society's prevailing ideology". This observation was harnessed by Young in developing the POD as he realised the device itself had all the credentials to become iconic. Its actual physical presence served as its own powerful visual brand identity (simply drawn and instantly recognisable - like Nissan Micra's line- drawn outline).
The POD offered ultimate privacy and the opportunity for solace from societal pressures, thanks largely to its neuro-response mechanism, which optimised each user experience. POD therefore represented not only the prevailing societal myth itself, but the actual device which could deliver the resolution of these "acute tensions" that contributed to that very myth. Holt suggested, in 2009, in Brand Mythology for the 21st Century36 that the POD had offered people the opportunity to find what they actually found to be the most personally fulfilling combination of sensory phenomena. "A podcoma is like a communion with God as you come to experience the extremities of your human senses. POD isn't about resolving acute tensions in society at large, but about those of the individual and their own corporeal form. In that respect, it's everyone's own personal icon," he wrote.
POD global continues to trade into 2012, always looking to leverage new brand salience opportunities, and continuing to pioneer ways in which to optimise the use of personal neuro-sensory data to enhance individual experience, as well as using it to explore ways in which to contribute to the common good of society at large. The POD is a revolution, a phenomenon and a national institution.
The POD doesn't even exist, except as a figment of my imagination. Yet we have witnessed examples of its credible social leadership strategy; its comprehensive lingua-parasitic branding tactics; and its highly credible neurological effectiveness data-collection methods, which threaten to finally transform the hazy realms of advertising effectiveness measurements.
POD has speculated its own way into your cerebral cognition, and by so doing has begun to shape a perception about a brand that doesn't even exist. It becomes easy to envisage its appearance, its touch and its impact on society. By working out how to leverage the powers of human perception, combined with a rough knowledge of basic branding theory, it is possible to conjure a brand from thin air and ensure that its associations are continually reinforced in a positive way. This paper is the first piece of spurious marketing for the POD brand which I intend to launch next year - the paper aims to provoke debate in such a way that the fledgling brand has salience before the actual concept is even scientifically possible. By behaving as if POD has already achieved these goals, it has effectively etched a trajectory of its own development onto the blank canvas of the future. Simply by announcing this fact, we have already become a little more receptive to the notion of it fulfilling that prophecy in actuality. Rather like the way Chantelle Houghton is now famous for simply behaving as if she was, and rather like the way a great number of people will buy her song despite her obvious inability to sing.
We have reached a turning point in our society where there is a kind of celestial alignment of prevailing cultural trends: the obsession with immediate fame; the fascination with conspiracy; the desire to decode and uncover unknown facts. Each of these combine in an almost alchemical way to produce the next evolution in brand theory. The climate has now been created to incubate and sustain faux-brands through self-fulfilling prophecies.
In six years' time, POD will be that case study.
1 "Instafame" - The kind of term that F Popcorn and A Hanft would use in their Dictionary of the Future.
2 Douglas Holt, What Becomes an Icon Most? He proposes that for a brand to be recognised as a true icon, it must somehow offer to reconcile these societal tensions.
3 The POD concept was trademarked in May 2006. Hereafter, all references to the PODTM will be cited POD for the sake of legibility. Please visit www.thepod.org.uk.
4 Professor Michael Gazzaniga, Conversations in the Cognitive Neuro-sciences, 2000. Gazzaniga discovered in 2007 that the Amygdala region of the brain released different chemicals according to the nature of the visual stimulus. SonyAstraZeneca collaborated with Gazzaniga and developed a patent for machinery able to measure, record and meaningfully interpret this neurological data in 2008.
5 Power-generation through molecular fission using Xenon in exhaled air was discovered by Stephen Hawking in November 2007 and is now predominantly used to generate additional power in the cabins of aeroplanes and other confined spaces in which humans are respiring.
6 Piers Morgan, former editor of the Daily Mirror, was dismissed for publishing doctored photographs in 2004.
7 The film yielded a 10,931 per cent return on investment, grossing $240.5m from an initial production cost of merely $22,000.
8 Wendy Gordon, The Socio-Cultural Allure of Conspiracy, March 2007, pp34-35.
9 Gordon tended to refer to spurious brands as being "hatched" rather than launched, owing to the more apt semantic connotations of deception and artificial engineering upon which these faux-brands were predicated.
10 Gordon is referring to the POD, which was conceived online through false e-journals in January 2007.
11 Malcolm Gladwell, The Linguistic Epidemic of Conspiracy Branding, 2007, pp36-37.
12 Gladwell refers to people with this innate desire to discover brands before they become widely known as "Brand Sleuths" (ibid, p.20).
13 The huge success of Dan Brown's protagonist Robert Langdon perhaps epitomises the nation's fascination with code-breaking literary investigations and the desire to unearth elusive truths which perfectly set the climate for faux-brands to be disseminated across the internet.
14 Jeremy Bullmore, Essays on Iconic Brands of 21st Century, 2009.
15 Seth Godin, The Dreamweavers, 2008, p23.
16 Emanuel Rosen, Never be the Last to Know, September 2008.
17 While The Blair Witch Project was the most commercially successful film of all time, its sequel was almost the exact opposite. This is because the reality of the first film itself fell so far short of the hype, and people became so angered with themselves for being so willingly taken in by it, that they actively ignored the sequel as a kind of retaliatory gesture to heal their bruised egos.
18 It was widely speculated that the title of Young's paper was a playful reference to the brand strategy approach subscribed to by his agency at that time, RKCR/Y&R. Their website stated that: "Brands are like sharks, they need to keep moving or else they will die."
19 Gallup poll, June 2007.
20 Excerpt from Young's blog to the English Faculty at Oxford University on 21 May 2007.
21 "Lingua-parasitic branding" became a completely independent school of branding theory in late 2009.
22 Will Collin chose to refer to this as a "self-referential detached media platform". It was effectively the careful creation of a secondary brand communications forum, which purports to be separate and distinct from the main brand, yet is able to comment positively upon it. The potential for positive brand amplification achieved through the kind of self-referencing platforms that Young pioneered was phenomenal.
23 Giep Franzen, War of the Worlds, and Other Broadcast Scams, 2008, p56.
24 Kate Fox, sociologist and author of Watching the English, identified these cultural trends as being prevalent in 2008, in her lead essay of that same year, English Homegrown Malaise.
25 Church attendance underwent a positive step-change in 2007 following the nationwide terrorist attacks of 12/1/07, after which many people sought religious comfort as a way of coming to terms with the various atrocities.
26 NOP results, November 2008. Since 2009, all NOP surveys have been conducted in PODs.
27 Mark Earls, E-herd Mentality, 2008, p67.
28 Will Collin suggested in 2008 that average message exposure had increased exponentially, predominantly owing to the phenomenal success of Stelios' first mass communications agency, called easyBlipverts, in late 2007. His cinema network gave free film entry to all audiences prepared to be exposed to three one-minute barrages of single-frame branded images (4,320 brand messages in total).
29 Professor Gazzaniga discovered this sensory- responsive chemical in the brain in March 2008.
30 Rita Carter, Pushing All the Right Cerebral Buttons: Neuro-Specific Advertising of the Future, 2008.
31 William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, Act II, Sc III.
32 Even Peter Doyle couldn't have predicted the huge impact on cashflow forecasting provided by neurological response data.
33 Rita Carter, Pushing All the Right Cerebral Buttons: Neuro-Specific Advertising of the Future, 2009.
34 Steve Hilton, Paragon of Virtue, 2010.
35 PODCOI. This public/private collaboration was formed in 2010 and was granted the world's first non-geographic licence for each POD to serve as a polling booth for the 2010 general elections. more than 96 per cent of the voting population voted that year.
36 Douglas Holt, Brand Mythology for the 21st Century, 2009.