Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The MonaVie Problem

Isn't there some old-timey Hollywood phrase that goes "You should be in pictures?" I always imagine that being said to some dazzling ingĂ©nue working as a waitress, who would then be inspired to shed her small-town ways and head to tinsel town. I've always wished for my own version of that--dreamt that some advertising executive would walk by me someday and blurt "You should be in advertising, doll face!" after overhearing me effusively praising a product or giving blow-by-blow commentary on a Consumer Reports article. The truth is, I've always been "into products." Not that I'm a big consumer by any means. In fact, I spend most of my money at the U-Scans at a trio of area Meijers. Still, I say I'm into products because of how truly enraptured I get while shopping. I cast off my ego and lose all sense of time while scanning shelves, reading the backs of packages, comparing their color-schemes, musing on their brand image and, as an afterthought, deciding whether or not to put it in my basket. (I am exclusively a basket-shopper. Having to navigate and control a cart takes away from product contemplation--and general peace of mind--I've found) And when I do buy something, I'm convinced it’s the best. "I love anything with Arm &Hammer on it" "You absolutely can't go wrong with 3M." "I trust Panasonic. I really do." And of course my most ringing product endorsement is that of older model Volvo cars, even though I seem to love them for the implications of their failings rather than any particular merit. "I love how they hang back when you accelerate! As if they're saying 'who are you to hurry me?!" "I love how unresponsive they are! Like they're too dignified to hop-to just because you turn the wheel!"

I'm the very symbol of brand-loyalty, and the best example of the power of packaging. Anything that's got a crisp, minimalist bent will find its way into my basket. Playful, we're-in-this-together-this isn't really-advertising copy gets me too. And usual bottle shapes? I try to overuse dishwashing liquid just so I can re-purchase Method brand dish soap, in the hourglass bottle. While I know I'm being taken by advertising tricks, I sure do love the wooing. If something wants to romance me with aesthetics, wit, and mock familiarity, by all means. If only my fellow man would put such efforts into my beguiling!
So I should be in advertising! That was today's mock epiphany. But, just to give it a shot, I thought I'd "reconceptualize" a particularly bad brochure I came across. MonaVie is an extremely expensive luxury health drink that comes in wine-style bottles with a label of hushed hunter green and burgundy. The packaging gets high marks, but the brand image is schizophrenic at best. If you care to read on, I suggest searching "MonaVie" on the net so you can see the before to better appreciate the efforts of my after. In my attempt to court to rich folk, I use the tried-and-true method of behaving as if I was too respectful of their "taste" to tell them what they would and wouldn't like. Rich folk like advertising that grovels like a handmaid. "Here's a product, my lord. I know your taste and discernment is so far above mine that I wouldn't be within my rights to tell you its good. But let me humbly offer it for your perusal." ***************************************
The MonaVie problem.
Description: MonaVie is a high-end nutritional drink made from common and exotic fruits. MonaVie, rather than being stocked in health food stores, is offered to the public through door-to-door type distributors, in the mold of Mary Kay products etc. The problem with MonaVie's promotional materials is twofold. First, they seem to want to distance their product (and warrant its fine-wine price) from "health drinks" by marketing it as delicacy and a luxury item. However, much of the promotional materials push MonaVie as a super-charged health-product. These two threads of MonaVie's appeal are never brought together, giving the consumer an impression that MonaVie is neither a bona-fide health product nor a legitimate luxury. Though their brochure ends with boasting that MonaVie "challenges the notion of what a health drink should be", the nature of this challenge is left unsaid, again leaving consumers to think that this so-called "challenge" is nothing but empty copy and a bluff.

Companies with this type of distribution system have an image of shiftiness and desperation in the public's imagination. "Door-to-door salesmen" have about the same reputation as used-car salesmen when it comes to integrity and forthrightness. For this reason, MonaVie needs to work extra hard to make their enterprise, and product, seem legitimate. Particularly because MonaVie wants to present itself as luxury product, they need to counter the stereotypical image of their business model (high-end products are not normally linked with this type of distribution). Unfortunately, the language of MonaVie's brochures is both vague and effusive--the traditional marks of evasiveness in selling. Cases in point: "MonaVie is an exquisite health drink destined to make a profound difference in the lives of countless people of the world" and "it is designed to bring you optimal levels of wellness as well as the finer things in life." These phrases are typical of the copy in their brochures. The language is unclear, and sounds more like much like a carnival-barker selling snake-oil rather than a pithy description of an upscale product.

If I were to work on MonaVie's campaign, I'd begin by writing copy that stressed the uniqueness of MonaVie over its health benefits and quality. Without doing this, consumers will be leafing through the brochure asking themselves "what's this stuff again?" By making a clear statement that situates MonaVie in relation to other health food drinks and "the finer things," readers need not wonder. MonaVie truly is unprecedented, and this fact needs to lead their campaign The vast majority of heavy-duty health drinks are marketed to either the organic/co-op consumers or the serious athlete, and majority of expensive beverages are alcoholic. Since MonaVie wants to market itself as a health drink to status-conscious buyers, they need to reconcile MonaVie's images as both nutritional and designer. Here's a sample of what I'd do.

MonaVie: Your Sensibility. Your Style. Your Health. Your Choice.
You discern. You upgrade. You opt for leather. You spot a knock-off. You buy the original. You trust your taste. But when it comes to nutrition, you find yourself at the mercy of experts. You're told you need certain vitamins, but you're told not to take vitamins, you're told to cut carbs, and then carb-load, you told to eat only fish, or avoid them altogether…Your reliable radar of quality seems useless in the world of daily values, doctors, and diets. Yet taste is more than a sensibility. Its more than a preference. Its an innate ability to know the difference between what's quality and what's hype. MonaVie is a designer health beverage that doesn't condescend to you. It doesn't switch stories. It doesn't tell you what you should and shouldn't drink, or what you should and shouldn't like. That's always been up to you. What MonaVie does do is throw out the old distinction between health food and delicacy, indulgence and benefit. Monavie is an artful blend of nineteen fruits purees, including the rare acai fruit of the Amazon. It’s a powerful medley of antioxidants that has been shown to neutralize harmful free-radicals in the body. But you don't need to broadcast that to your dinner guests. Don't ruin the magic of their first sip with logistics. They can hear all about its health benefits after they stop raving about the exoticism of its flavor, the sensuality of its texture. MonaVie. It's more than a matter of taste.

Monday, July 24, 2006

On a Different Field

In last week's New York Times Book Review, there was a wonderful essay on memoirists by Benjamin Kunkel. Kunkel begins with a complaint about today's memoirists: they only write a narrative of corruption and redemption, illness and recovery, loss and the bounce-back. Kunkel wonders if there's more to life than the little arc of conflict-resolution packed into every strife. Addicts recover, grievers move on in a way befitting the deceased, terminal diseases may or may not subside but the agony is eventually traded for insight, people seem to lose their way just to better appreciate the well-beaten path. Kunkel criticizes these cycles because, in his mind, returning to "baseline"--be it health, sanity, or peace of mind--is awfully unambitious in itself. What of the Romantic writers, and what of Thoreau? Rather than sanctify personal suffering, these writers tried to address the wider, communal suffering that society inflicts upon its members. For Kunkel, an individual's triumphs over personal circumstance amount to little if one never uses his newfound vigor to tackle the more diffuse, more tenacious suffering of everyday life.

Overcoming the Self and its attending circumstances rather than taking on society is like David battling his insecurity while Goliath goes on his merry way. Kunkel is right in pointing out that few memoirists frame the big struggles in terms of daily life and thought. His reading of this seems to be that most people want to avoid these larger issues, out of cowardice or complicity. That's likely true, but why is this the particular way we avoid it? Why think of your life as an up-down-up cycle, and why make that cycle presentational, in the form of a memoir? One answer might be that personal trauma, being acute, immediate, and readily explainable, is simply more manageable. "I was beaten" is a lot easier to say then "I get a shifting sense that every new big thing in pop-culture is but another harbinger for the void." An end to the beating and appropriate therapy/epiphany would solve the first scenario, while the second is unsolvable. If the end is coming and pop culture seems to be heralding it, what can be done? You could "shoot the messenger" by getting a Phd in Pop-Culture and then make a career out of deconstructing Reality TV and MySpace, but there's no PhD is void avoidance.

The behavior of memoirists is like the behavior of anyone who knows they are trapped. In Beckett's Endgame, the two characters gripe over the condition of their garbage cans because griping is all that can be done. The elderly, often doubly trapped in nursing homes and failing bodies, get "crotchety" and "fussy" because they need more and more solvable problems as the Great Unsolvable moves ever nearer. The draft in the room can be fixed if I just summon Nurse So and So…the tea can be served hotter so it actually is warming…the racket down the hall can be silenced if I complain…Creating (or locating, depending on your view) a million little surmountable problems is a way of boosting morale in the face of death. Likewise, by focusing on immediate, personal problems and presenting their solutions as meaningful, memoirists tacitly admit how insurmountable any challenge is outside the self. The irony is that the language of memoirs is often so "inspiring," but the message-behind-the-message is anything but. The narcissism of memoirists isn't ego, its desperation. All there is that can be redeemed, reworked, and recovered is the self. Anything larger is a lost cause.

If the contemporary memoirs' backdrop of fatalism wasn't bad enough, their endings in trophy epiphanies might be even worse. While many memoirs begin with a bleak sketch of a life terribly derailed , they always end more soundly on track then every before with a cargo of insight for their pains. Self-pity may open the book, but self-esteem uniformly ends it. "Feeling sorry" for oneself is a cue to get motivated and enlightened, and a shameful thing should it last too long. The problem with America's disgust at self-pity--and the accompanying belief that one's problems can be solved--is that feeling sorry for ourselves might actually be the most authentic response to our world. But by showing self-pity as a weakness and a delusion that must be overcome, memoirists recast the universal sense of dissatisfaction with the world as personal failing. In this way, memoirists, although they claim to pride self-searching and clear-headedness, actually do their trade in denial. The book may end with sobriety and success, but it also leaves off where the generalized suffering, as Kunkel puts it, "of being a functional adult in a corrupt society" begins.

What would be more of an accomplishment, in life and in writing, would be to find an eloquent mode of self-pity. Not the self-pity borne of extraordinary trauma, but self-pity as a reaction to the overall plight of humankind. Although Oscar Wilde's De Profoundis came out of his imprisonment, his sorrow at himself isn't something to be gotten over. Wilde sees his former life as remarkably colorless, even with its gaiety, exuberance and wit, in comparison with the heightening effects of self-pity. He's sorry for himself, but also sorry for the universal: the inevitability of the end of play, the limits of wit, the fact that mirth only comes in fits and starts, and will never steady into a way of being. The insight Wilde finds is not a way out of self-pity but a realization that self-pity is a more authentic--and braver--response to the world then a willed jauntiness.

Kunkel mentions that one of the appeals of memoirs is that "everyone suffers" and that we "pretend to curious democracy of trauma." While this may be true about our rhetoric about suffering, the lived reality that memoirs leave out is that our suffering, because it has become so particular to the individual, is actually more isolating then ever before. If each of us is born with a task list of thing to overcome (divorce, loss, drugs, whatever), our life must necessarily be a lonely act of checking off plights, one by one. Not matter how deep our support group, the "overcoming" is ultimately a solitary act, simply because no one else is assigned our same difficulty. This certainly explains the memoirists compulsive need to disclose, confess, air the dirty laundry and lay it all on the table. This isn't just a gesture to bring the audience closer, or a flashy show of candor. It also serves to show the deep loneliness and sense of unreality that suffering brings. We wouldn't talk so obsessively about personal suffering and trauma if there weren't some sense that our suffering isn't shared or even quite real.

This need to announce our suffering, and lovingly recount all its dark details, is a way of calling out across the expanse of the self and hoping to hear a "I feel that too" echoing back. But there wouldn't be so much urgency to trot out our personal pain if an acknowledgement of universal suffering were part of the way we interact with each other. Instead, we're always "doing well" we're always "getting over the divorce," "getting clean," "recovering slowly but surely" and remembering, above all, that it’s a "process." What we studiously avoid saying is that even after we've checked off everything on a tribulation checklist, we still suffer. Whatever the cause of that is--be it an ill set-up government, an unimaginative pop-culture, or just the omnipresence of death--we can't ever be sure, because we're always trying to fix the self, just in case that's the problem (it would be like a mechanic only checking the carburetor when a car won't start. Even when he's sure the carburetor's not the problem, he'd convince himself that there was still something wrong with it to prolong his tinkering.) The denial of self-pity is also a barrier to our empathy. If we refuse to believe in the reality of our own day-to-day suffering, if we choose to believe that the self can be manhandled into not only sobriety, health and clarity but into happiness as well, then we choose not to believe that there might be larger reasons to suffer. And if we look upon ourselves with disdain for our own unresolved suffering, then we can't help but look at others that way as well. Another person's unhappiness will always seem just a little weak, just a little indulgent, no matter how much we claim to empathize with them.

In American underdog sports films, especially in scenarios where the team is going to lose (but still battle gamely for the sake of pride, or to honor a newly dead coach, or whatever) the shots of the game are so exhilarating. Rather then the grim, un-evocative look of the "game face," the look on face of these losers is one of wildness, of mirth, of the abandon and risk that comes from losing without shame. And as the game unfolds, the losing team's plays become bolder, more foolhardily, perhaps, but more spectacular as well. The camera then pans over to the dominant, winning team, who, while still sure of their win, is thrown off by a losing team who acts so little like losers. Rather then denying that they're losing and deludedly trying to win, or knowing that they're losing and just going through the motions, this team seems to take the fact of their predetermined loss as cause to cavort. Perhaps someone on the winning team would grunt, through his mouthguard, that they seemed to "be playing on a different field, a different game. And by the looks of it they're winning." But I doubt, in this whole scene, that anybody on the losing team would call attention to his personal weakness in the game-play. "I'm just a little hesitant on defense; I need to work on that." Wouldn't that interrupt the rhythm of the joyous rally-for-rallying sake? Wouldn't that personalizing of the loss be counter to the communal spirit of the thing? I'd like to read a memoir in that spirit--a chronicling of the euphoria and pathos that might come from a shared acknowledgment of a fixed suffering, and a somewhat fixed world.