News & Views
The trouble with selling legends

In a recent piece for The Washington Post, Justin Moyer posited that Google’s penchant for honouring famous historical and cultural figures in its ‘Google Doodles’ is more harmful than we might realise. He cited the recent Doodle featuring author Zora Neale Hurston as a prime example of how Google consistently appropriates the legacy of a prominent individual, usually on an anniversary or birthday, to generate publicity and goodwill on social media.

“Is Google the right booster for one of the Harlem Renaissance’s greatest treasures?” Moyer asks. “We’d be appalled if McDonald’s used Martin Luther King Jr.’s image to sell hamburgers… So why is it any different when a tech behemoth uses Hurston to hawk searches?”

Moyer raises a salient point about the extent to which many brands co-opt the image of public figures who evoke certain associations. Google Doodles are highly shareable, supposedly worthy attempts to promote the achievements of men and women throughout history, but this can (and does) trickle down to the lowest common denominator.

A markedly different example would be the latest ad for Chanel No.5 on UK television. The clip uses authentic audio footage of Marilyn Monroe explaining why she once told an interviewer she wore nothing to bed but a few drops of the perfume. Monroe has become the unofficial epitome of glamour and feminine allure – no doubt this was a factor in the decision-making behind the Chanel ad, not to mention countless other homages in pop culture. But all too often, Monroe’s deeply troubled personal life and untimely death are overlooked. These aspects of the Monroe legend aren’t sexy, and doubtless wouldn’t sell much perfume. The worrying (albeit somewhat tenuous) conclusion I reached, watching this ad, was that Chanel valued Monroe only as an aesthetically pleasing spokesperson for their product.

Of course, Monroe and Hurston are very different women, with very different legacies. But in each case, surely Chanel and Google are both a little guilty of being more interested in attracting attention for themselves, rather than providing a full picture of the person? Monroe’s image has already been over-used to the point of meaninglessness in popular culture; it would be a crying shame if the same were to happen to writers, artists, scientists and inventors.

“Every brand must know its place,” says Moyer. “We don’t expect or need to learn history from highway billboards or television advertisements. When we do – when Apple sells computers with a ‘Think Different’ ad featuring Gandhi, or Nike uses the Beatles’ ‘Revolution’ for a TV spot, or Mercedes buys MLK’s image to sell cars – capitalists turn artists and statesmen into salesmen.”

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