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Marketing Madness!

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Note to readers: Please read this piece with a light heart; it is not meant to be taken too seriously.

I was getting a cup of coffee a few months ago at a local shop when I noticed a sign on the door that read, "Mocha Madness". I'd seen that sign before, many times in fact. Always before I had ignored the message implicit in the sign, but something about seeing it that day got me thinking. "Why on earth", I though suddenly, "does this coffee shop want me to associate their tasty coffee beverage with mental illness?". Think about it. It does seem to be a strange association to want to make.

Since that day, I've been noticing more than a few uses of what you might call 'mental illness imagery' in use by (North American) advertisers. I don't pretend to have any grand theories to share about these curious uses of 'madness' imagery, but there do seem to be consistent themes involved that suggest a curious ambivalence towards mental illness at work in the popular culture. As you well know, mental illness generally has a pretty bad reputation; people are afraid of becoming mentally ill or 'weak in the mind' and will generally discriminate against persons who are suffering. Some progress has been made in the last 20 years or so, but generally the stigma of mental illness remains in place. For this reason, I wasn't initially expecting there to be any ambivalence towards mental illness in the advertising messages. So it came as something of a shock to me - a happy shock - that the advertising I was noticing did sometimes suggest a set of implicit 'positive' qualities associated with mental illness. Although mentally ill people were clearly being portrayed in some communications as 'weird' and 'stupid' and as people you can take advantage of, there were also messages in which mental illness was the focus of a certain kind of envy and perhaps even an odd form of respect. It's not much of a positive message, but I hadn't noticed it before, and, given the very real continuing stigma surrounding mental illness in contemporary society, I'll take what good I can find.

I identified four or so themes used by modern marketers that have to do with using images of mental illness to sell products. I've listed these themes below and accompany each theme with my take on the message implicit in that theme. I don't pretend that this is a comprehensive listing. There may be many more commercials and promotional pieces out there that I've not come across which could be used to augment this list. Feel free to contribute further examples or themes (by making a comment below) if you can find them.

  1. Take advantage of the stupid crazy people

    The first message that got me thinking about how advertising uses mental illness themes to move products was the "Mocha Madness" ad I referred to above. The picture accompanying this tag line was very simple; a photograph of a cup of mocha. In so far as I could tell the company in question was describing their beverage policy as a form of 'madness' because their prices were supposed to be cheap. As far as I could tell, what they were suggesting was, "We must be insane to sell our Mocha beverage so cheaply. Our judgment is off, we are gullible. You should take advantage of us before we come to our senses."

    In thinking on "Mocha Madness", I immediately recalled an earlier example where a similar 'take advantage of our madness' theme was developed to a very high degree. I grew up on Long Island (a suburb of New York City) during the late 70s and early 80s. At that time in that place there was a chain of electronics stores called "Crazy Eddie". Crazy Eddies (they're still around but seem to be only a website now) was/is perhaps the all time master of the, "Our prices are low because we're crazy and therefore too stupid to know how to price things properly so come in and take advantage of our stupidity", school of marketing. Where the coffee shop could be said to have just dabbled in the negative stereotype imagery, Crazy Eddie bathed in it; had based its entire marketing plan on that one theme. As I recall, the Crazy Eddie television commercials featured lots of frenetic jumping up and down and shouting as if to emphasize just how mad the owner of the chain really was.

  2. I want to get carried away (just like the mad people)

    Luckily for us, not all madness marketing turns on the "I'm stupid so take advantage of me" theme however. Consider Sonny the Cocoa Puffs (tm) General Mills cereal mascot, (shown here on what looks like a 1960's box cover) a happy loony dancing bird who is "coo-coo for cocoa puffs" and demonstrates just how loony and exuberant he is to his audience of children by diving head first into a gigantic bowl of breakfast cereal. Sonny's antics are far more exuberant than they need to be to drive home the message that this cereal tastes good. In fact, Sonny appears to fit pretty well into a manic presentation (as in Bipolar Disorder). At the very least he is majorly hyperactive (as in ADHD). Whatever the cause or indication, Sonny's exuberance and lack of impulse control make him capable of doing things that are beyond the boundary of common sense. In this ancient campaign (Sonny hails from the 1960s I'm told) madness is sold as enjoyable Dyonisian exuberant excess. The bird shares the lack of good judgment that characterizes Crazy Eddie and the Mocha Madness folks, but rather than the suggestion being that the appropriate response is to take advantage of the poor stupid mad people, here the suggestion is that manic exuberance is an acceptable (if wacky) individual response that a person can have towards something he likes (in this case Cocoa Puffs (tm) cereal). Sonny goes overboard in his enthusiasm and sensual extremism but the audience is left with the implicit idea that they too could experience this joyful exuberance if only they were to purchase this cereal. Some products are sold by pairing them with sex, but in the case of cocoa puffs (which is aimed at children after all) the product is sold by pairing it with a pleasant image of mania.

  3. Being unconventional (which is a form of madness) can be a good thing

    Here is another twist on the theme of madness. The Motley Fools are popular business writers who publish books and a website and host a radio show, all focused on business and personal finance topics. Their differentiating feature (which serves to make them more memorable than the host of alternative financial advisers out there) is that they wear court-jester's clown hats. And it's a pretty good image I think to see photos of these folks in their business attire but with clown hats on too. It's memorable and it constitutes a brand. The reason it works is because the image is so incongruous. The very last person that most people want to trust their money to would be a clown. Clowns (court jesters being a type of clown) are generally known for being silly and stupid and to have poor judgment (the very opposite of what you'd look for in a financial adviser). Money is too precious a commodity to trust to a clown.

    Clowns are special and very ancient creatures that share many characteristics with stereotypes of mentally ill persons. Both clowns and mentally ill persons are known to act in silly unconventional ways, to be ignorant of reality, and to demonstrate poor judgment. It is this base of characteristics that clowns and mentally ill persons appear to share that (at least to my mind) accounts for a lot of why we find both groups to be 'entertaining'.

    Court jesters are a special type of clown, because they clown for the rulers of countries. As a king's personal clown and comedian, the court jester is often the only one in the entire court who can make jokes about the king without getting his head cut off. He is able to crack wise on the king because he is a fool (and therefore is stupid and silly and known for having poor judgment and is nothing more than an object to be ridiculed anyway). Who could take a clown seriously even when he is insulting the king?

    Because they are fools, court jesters have license to act unconventionally and to get away with it. It is this quality of legitimate unconventionality that the Motley Fools have capitalized upon. Under the safe tent of their clown hats, they are free to dispense unconventional advice, to take risks, and perhaps to be forgiven if their advice falls short of earning their customers a profit. Wearing the clown hat is also a covert way of playing David to convention's Goliath; a way of saying, "I'm calling myself a feeble-minded irresponsible fool on the outside, but in reality, my advice is better than yours and those who follow it will do better (financially) than those who follow more conventional advice." Here the mentally ill person's foolishness (lack of judgment, odd behavior and outcast status) is cast into the image of the 'wise fool'; secretly smarter and more in touch with reality than conventional people. This is a positive depiction of mental illness, if an obscure one.

  4. Crazy people are passionate outsiders whom no one understands. I can relate to that.

    Another arena of popular culture which makes a lot of use of mental illness images is 'heavy metal' music. I'm old enough now to be completely out of it these days musically and so won't comment on modern music for kids, but when I was a kid (in the 80s say) there was a moment when the metal bands liked images of people in straight jackets almost as much as they liked distortion, pyrotechnics, lipstick and leather. For the prototypical example, see Quiet Riot's 'Metal Health' album cover. What can you say about this? I dunno except that in the classic rock and roll tradition of wanting to be the music your parents would hate, these bands hit upon the idea that being 'crazy' (in fact, so unable to function that you needed to be locked up in a mental hospital and protected from harming yourself with a straight jacket) was cool. There are maybe two themes here; the earlier 'being carried away with passions' theme (e.g., Cocoa Puffs (tm)), but also a grand theme having to do with being a misunderstood outsider. I think there was something about the intensity of being 'wild-eyed insane' and in the grip of passions you can't control, being a central focus of attention (especially negative attention), and being considered a danger to self and to others that was felt to be - well - not sexy, but perhaps powerful; something that differentiated you from others and reinforced your youthful feeling of not being understood. In this sense, metal music was maybe using mental illness imagery as a symbol of/for 'teen anguish'.

So there you have my list. These are the themes that I've found in the popular culture uses of mental illness imagery. There is a certain 'personality' that seems to be depicted in these images which isn't necessarily quite as negative as you might expect. The popular personality granted to the mentally ill is both gullible and foolish, but also unconventional and exuberant and passionate. Someone to take advantage of when possible, but also someone who, by virtue of their outsiderness, has more freedom than the average conforming person. It could be a worse picture that has been painted. Of course, this marketing imagery bears little resemblance to the realities of managing what are often unromantic chronic diseases (depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, eating disorders, etc.). But given that we can't do much about how the mentally ill are depicted in media (the unenlightened will always outnumber the enlightened and greed will always trump awareness) it's maybe comforting and a little humorous to realize that there are people out there who aspire to characteristics they imagine the mentally ill as having.

What's your take? Let us know by leaving a comment.