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The Perfect Cultural Storm


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A study of how the Hummer brand was appropriated by popular culture and how to rewrite its myth.

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The Perfect Cultural Storm

  1. 1. The Perfect Cultural Storm:<br />A Study of How Popular Culture Appropriated The HUMMER Brand<br />By Jay Pattisall<br />January 28, 2008<br />Executive Summary<br />In order to chart a course for the future of the Hummer brand, research was commissioned to help GM and it’s agency of record determine how the current perceptions of Hummer made their way into popular culture and how to alter these perceptions and beliefs in favor of the brand’s long-term sustainability.<br />The research was to enable GM and its creative agency understand the complex system of communication, symbols and meaning that led to the perceptions and beliefs in popular culture about the Hummer brand.<br />The analysis shows that Hummer has a very coherent and consistent image characterized by dominance, power, strength, masculinity and aggression in the urban environment. This image was a powerful extension of the brand’s military heritage and a masterful reworking of the SUV category focus on power in the off-road environment. Culturally, the Hummer image was very in sync with consumer’s fears and need for protection in post-9/11 Americana.<br />However, a seismic shift in the American cultural conscious has occurred in which many of our former beliefs, such as bigger being better, brute force being a path to success, or American isolationism and superiority are now lapsed cultural ideas and have been replaced by a new set of dominant and emergent ideas. There are many reasons for this change that relate to the economic, political, environmental and general pop-cultural discourses. But collectively these changes have fundamentally reshaped the societal context that Hummer exists within.<br />Unfortunately, the Hummer image stands in direct opposition to a new set of beliefs by consistently encoding the ugly side of American individualism, one that is about dominance, masculinity, power, status, quarantine and aggression. It is for these reasons that negative associations of Hummer owners are so prevalent, that the mainstream media commonly uses Hummer as a foil or villain and why vehicles have suffered vandalism and ridicule.<br />In order for GM to alter the negativity around Hummer we must re-write the brand’s mythology to be one of exploration, not domination; accessibility, not brute capability; freedom, not fear; to be progressive, not aggressive; to be empowering, not just powerful.<br />Put simply, GM must create a more spiritual and experiential Hummer; one that is about access to the outdoors and the transformational experiences had during exploration and discovery.<br />Research Methodology<br />Unlike conventional market research, which gathers groups of people or individuals in a room to understand the attitudes and opinions inside their head, this research is concerned with how attitudes and opinions are formed and how their beliefs get into their heads in the first place.<br />The formal description of the research method is called semiotic analysis. Semiotics is often referred to as the science of symbols and their meaning in culture. It is a branch of anthropology and has been practiced since the late 19th Century. But only recently has this discipline been put to use in the marketing and branding world. And unlike esoteric academic applications, this approach is very practical to define why popular culture feels negatively about Hummer and steps can be taken to change those perceptions.<br />Specifically, we looked at many cultural representations of Hummer, including all advertising and marketing, newspaper and magazine articles, television and movies, website and the blogasphere to frame this analysis. Simultaneously, we conducted qualitative research to ensure the attitudes and perceptions observed are, in fact, true and consistent among SUV consumers and Hummer owners.<br />The Consistent Image of HUMMER<br />The analysis shows a very strong and consistent image of the Hummer brand since the launch of the H2 in 2002. <br />The concept of power as dominance has been very successfully and consistently encoded into the brand via its communications. Historical Hummer advertising has created a strong system meaning that conveys dominance in a myriad of forms. Observable elements of Hummer communications that suggest this interpretation are:<br />Large amounts of negative space connoting focus and singularity.<br />A view from space focusing in on the vehicle signifying size, importance and power over the environment.<br />Implied situations in which the viewer is the hunted that would like to become the hunter.<br />A hard-charging soundtrack that underscores the urban application of the vehicle.<br />Color palettes that are serious and masculine.<br />Evolutionary rhetoric connoting both survival of the fittest and apex predator status. The vehicle caries the persona of a brute, or a monster to be mastered for the drivers’ individual purpose.<br />Muscular or domineering iconography (i.e. the vehicle poised to pounce).<br />Indeed, many of these same cues can be found in other forms of pop culture, including television shows like CSI: Miami and 24; movies like Three Kings and Transformers, music videos from hip hop artists; video games, like DIRT; and Hummer converted to a stretch limousine on the highway. All of these suggest a narrative of personal transformation through power, the power of a semi-living machine that can be harnessed by an individual for her/his own survival of the fittest strategy. Implied in this narrative is the concept that survival is both at risk and can be secured through Hummer.<br />It should be noted that conventional SUV notions essentially exist to communicate freedom and access to adventure. These too are codes of 'transformation', i.e. “SUVs are vehicles that gives the power to take you places out of reach to others.”<br />Hummer succeeded in effectively trumping these codes through a reworking vis-à-vis its military provenance. Through the launch of the H2 GM radicalized the SUV sector beyond all recognition, removing the playfulness and reworking the vibrancy of the vehicle not as personal potential but rather as personal protection. In so doing the Hummer brand becomes a vehicle that breaks one of the SUV category’s key codes, that of ‘freedom to’; reframing it as ‘freedom from.’ This makes Hummer much more a mobile fortress than a passport to adventure.<br />In effect, this reworking makes the Hummer myth and the communication that built it an exemplary case of a brand being too successful at harnessing the cultural zeitgeist. Americas’ post-9/11 collective was that of a culture of fear. America became the ‘urban threatscape’ in which we navigated by fortifying our borders and points of entry, eavesdropping on our citizens, and carrying duct tape and gas masks. The Hummer and the tailor-made system for the brand to harness power and personal protection fit perfectly into post-9/11 America. Just as the bomb shelter of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s is the most potent symbol of our feelings regarding cold war nuclear annihilation, Hummer is the most potent symbol of American fear and aggression in the early 21st Century.<br />The problem for Hummer is that America as a culture has transformed very quickly.<br />A Seismic Cultural Shift<br />There has been a fundamental shift in culture in America in the last few years. We can all agree upon that. But what is that shift? How do we define it? What have we moved from? And what are we moving toward?<br />Put plainly American culture has begun to move away from the neo-con isolationist beliefs that began to take hold in the late nineties and took off after 9/11. We have been living in a renewed era of urban preparedness, the likes of which we have not seen since the cold war. Driven by our fear of the unknown and “evils from outside” we’ve fortified America, fenced our borders and started a war there to keep them out of here. These only underscore the ideological enclosure in which Americans are hemmed in by Bush to the East and Schwarzeneggar to the West.<br />But in the context of recession, global warming, the price of oil, a failed unilateral war policy, the abruptness of cowboy diplomacy, a weak $, our tattered image abroad, and our domestic failures with Katrina has caused us to rethink our position.<br />America is now moving towards globalization and joining internationalism and the world community. Many Americans are simply tired of paying the price of going it alone. Consequently, Americans as a whole are beginning to take more and more responsibility for their actions and their consumption. The harsh wake-up call from Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (whether actual fact or fiction) and the power of the Green Movement have grabbed hold of our cultural conciseness. Americans are looking for change as we saw in the 2006 mid-term election as a referendum on Iraq. The optimism surrounding the 2008 presidential election is a strong indicator or our collective desire to get back on track and join the rest of the world to solve our mutual problems.<br />Consequently, many previously accepted and celebrated ideas that were so prevalent 5 years ago have been called into question. The most notable is the idea that bigger is better and the biggest is the best. Bigness has been replaced by “just big enough.” Brute force has been replaced with “intelligence”<br />If being replaced isn’t enough, many of these notions have been recast to mean the exact opposite. The Federal governments’ failure to adequately prepare and administer aid to victims of Hurricane Katrina demonstrates that bigger is in fact worse. Bigger is incapable. Bigger is dangerous. Bigger is selfish. That Osama Bin Laden remains at large is an example of how brute force is not successful, rather incapable. The Gravity Of The HUMMER Situation<br />The significance of the analysis is that Hummer has become not just a signifier of several lapsed notions but has been appropriated by pop culture as THE symbol of what is wrong with American excess.<br />The current Hummer image stands in direct repudiation of America’s newly found internationalism and emerging ideas by constantly encoding a retrenched Nationalism that is all about the individual, their needs, separation from the outside, and their survival at all costs. Put plainly, Hummer became THE icon of Individualism in America. But this is not the heroic, celebrated individualism of the 1950’s cowboy hero or the 1960’s and 1970’s poet troubadour. Hummer is about the ugly side of individualism; one that’s aggressive, anti-social, environmentally destructive, and selfish. <br />Popular culture used to revere Hummer owners. But in the context of the new internationalism, a failed unilateral War on Terror, and cowboy diplomacy, Hummer and owners are seen a dominator. This is dominance gone awry. And, unfortunately, it is a version of dominance that is almost perfectly out of sync with the surrounding culture.<br />Hummer(Lapsed Cultural Codes)Opposition(Dominant/Emergent Cultural Code)BignessJust Big EnoughBrute ForceIntelligenceExtreme EngineeringFresh ThinkingRebellion for the sake of individualismRebellion for the betterment of allModernismRomanticism<br />The New Dimension of the Appropriated HUMMER<br />While it is not uncommon for brands to face an oppositional position with popular culture (i.e. McDonalds and the documentary Super Size Me) the Hummer situation is exacerbated by the dimension the vehicle takes on as a dominator.<br />A Gated Community On Wheels<br />In post 9/11 America the myth of the urban threatscape captivated and played upon our fears. We believed (some still do) that anarchy could be just around the corner. People looked to their vehicles for protection beyond just safety. The SUV, being bigger and more powerful, took on a new significance with Hummer leading the way. The primary purpose of Hummer is giving one an advantage over others, literally on the roads and metaphorically on the road of life. And for those that can afford the biggest, most aggressive vehicle on the road the Hummer becomes a way to keep oneself quarantined from outside dangers. For fortified America, Hummer became the gated community on wheels, providing the elite and advantage through status and intimidation.<br />We spoke with many consumers in the process of this research and the notion of dangerous highways came across time and time again. <br />“It’s war on these highways and I don’t want to be a casualty.”<br />The Militarization of Civilian Space<br />That consumers use of war analogies is not surprising given the prevalence of the military in daily life. The reframed concept of “Homeland” is about reworking geography in America. Like the Gated Community concept, this too works off of fear. We are fortifying our borders, our municipalities, our airports, the public transportation systems to the extent that often one gets a sense of a military police state while traveling. But this concept extends into areas like fashion with the popularity of camouflage in every form including hats, jackets, pants, bags, shorts and more. Video games take this to the next level allowing people to not just look like the military but now act like them by interacting with virtual reality versions of the enemies they see every night on CNN. Kuma/War video game allows players to download and interact with recent battles, such as Uday & Qsay’s Last Stand or Fallujah Police Station Raid.<br />Hummer is one of many ‘civilianized’ military technologies (the Internet, satellite TV, GPS) but certainly one of the most associated with its military roots. Hummer is the ultimate expression of the militarization of civilian space as it patrols not only the battlefields but also the highways.<br />Stop & Stare Culture<br />America is fascinated with excess and grotesque realism that is reflected in our consumption and voyeuristic media habits. Consider these examples: Reality TV shows like “The Biggest Loser,” or “Flavor of Love,” video games like “Grand Theft Auto,” TMZ, My Space and Face Book. Yet, as these aberrations of reality become more and more grotesque Hummer runs the risk of being caught up in the inauthentic aspects of stop and stare aesthetics.<br />Hummer is the ultimate expression of stop and stare. Marketing communication in particular fetishizes the vehicle to the extent that people cannot help but stare. A good deal of Hummer research suggests that despite the vehicle prominence in communication consumers find it difficult to distinguish between H2 and H3. This suggests the stop and stare aesthetics are so strong they overwhelm the size difference. This could in many ways be one of Hummer’s greatest assets – because it suggests what makes a Hummer is its presence not its size.<br />The Cultural Vortex<br />The most troubling aspect of this analysis is the way in which media, both popular media and user generated media use the brand in an increasingly negative light. The Hummer codes are so stable and entirely recognizable they have been successfully mimicked and appropriated by culture as metaphors of waste and ‘worst case’ environmental behavior<br />“Given the amount of energy consumed raising, shipping and selling livestock, a 16-oz. T-bone is like a Hummer on a plate.”<br />- Skip the Steak, TIME, Monday, Mar. 26, 2007. Skip the Steak, Bryan Walsh<br />“We're doing a disservice by tearing them (historic homes) down to build huge Hummer homes.“<br />Country Living; Sep 1, 2007; Meyer, Michele<br />“Our paid consultants, politicians and medical educators are behaving like Detroit: With gas near $3 per gallon, let's make more Hummers -- not because people will buy them, but because we know how<br />Paul Fischer, M.D., Evans, Letters To Editor, Augusta Chronicle, January 28, 2008<br />“Hummers represent the largest achievement in the ‘highway arms race.’”<br />Keith Bradsher, High and Mighty SUVs: The World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles, 2002<br />The above are examples taken from thousands. <br />One of the more extreme examples is the web site in which users are encouraged to post videos of H2s being “flipped off” from the first -person point of view. While this smacks of juvenile and irreverent there is also a malicious quality to that can only be described as hate. The hate-like behavior is one step away from hate crimes.<br />“When Gareth Groves brought home his massive new Hummer, he knew his environmentally friendly neighbors disapproved. But he didn't expect what happened next. The sport utility vehicle was parked for five days on the street before two masked men smashed the windows, slashed the tires and scratched into the body: ‘FOR THE ENVIRON.’”<br />Associated Press, July 19, 2007<br />There are few examples of an object being so hated so quickly. It is surprising, if not alarming, how quickly Hummer went from being revered to being reviled. This lightening-paced reshaping of meaning is due in part to consumers’ ability to access information at will. Gary Whannel describes this phenomenon as “vortexality” because of the instantaneous manner in which information and content is disseminated. The question to consider is - can the brand be turned around as quickly? It took more than 5 years for the Hummer brand to come to this place. It’s likely to take at least that long to dislodge the hate and negativity.<br />The Road Home<br />How do you reverse this perception and meaning? Luckily codes can be borrowed, swapped, and manipulated to achieve the desired outcome and take away. Hummer should create communication to play into the emerging codes to counteract the dominant, aggressive and excessive perceptions.<br />CURRENT HUMMER CONTEXT(TO)EMERGING HUMMER CONTEXT (FROM)DominationExplorationCapabilityAccessibilityAggressiveProgressiveFreedom from fearFreedom to experiencePowerfulEmpowering<br />These emerging dimensions suggest a more spiritual and experiential Hummer; one that’s about exploring the world around rather than dominating it. At its core, the Hummer embodies the spirit of adventure and the transformational experience of challenging yourself, experiencing something new and finding yourself. The out of doors is a much better setting for Hummer than the urban threatscape. The experiential Hummer is about the destination, not the journey getting there; it is about the transformational experience one has being in hard-to-reach places, not the thrill of conquering the road in the vehicle.<br />There are several ways to use this analysis. The end game is for Hummer to be about personal potential in the outdoors, not personal protection in the urban threatscape. The first and most outward facing is marketing, which has played a major role in establishing the brand’s myth. The story should be more about transformational experiences in the outdoors, not metaphorically transforming oneself into the aggressor and dominator on the road. It should be less vehicle focused, as the fetishizing of the vehicle has played a role in stirring negative associations. This should not be interpreted as a recommendation to remove the vehicle from communication. It is not. It is a suggestion to balance the vehicle focus with the experience the vehicle enables. Furthermore, consider using the end frames of commercials to signify access to the earth not the domination that the current earth pull back suggests.<br />