The Cartoon Wears Prada

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

Fashion house Prada is breaking new ground with multi-media creative content.

Its latest effort is a CGI short called "Trembled Blossom," in which a neutered cartoon  character strolls through an antiseptic forest to acquire a gender (high heels and a dress) and a handbag (a cloven character transforms a fish to make it).


Prada has sponsored various art projects over the past half-decade or more, debuting wallpapers and photography, along with its textile designs, in its locations that double as performance spaces in the U.S. and Japan.

This corporate sponsorship of art is in line with a tradition that gave us the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the Night Watch, Rodin’s Thinker, and most of the classical music ever written. If it weren’t for the rich and powerful paying the poor and powerless to create stuff, there’d be far less art created by starving artists, and many more artists who simply starved.

The challenge and opportunity is to translate this cultural largesse into business benefit.

The easy answer is to say it’s branding

Connecting brand names to creative content is far from an exact science; in fact, costly experiments from BMW’s movie shorts and Budweiser’s online programming have failed to yield any return. There’s a thriving industry devoted to getting corporations to spend money on programming as a replacement for ads, as if there’s some residual, rub-off sponsorship benefit that could be as effective as a direct sell.

So branding is the absence of any relevant or useful reason to remember a tidbit of creative content? Yuck. I’d hate to be the marketer responsible for defending that waste of…er, that expenditure on an experimental vision.   

The harder answer would be easier to explain and perhaps more meaningful, though, if the question is truly to create real business benefit through branding: what qualities would content need to exhibit in order to work for the business? Let’s ponder Prada:

  • Make it real art. "Trembled Blossom" is a lame excuse for an art short. The imagery is derivative of 30 year-old Moebius cartoons, at best, with a slight dose of Peter Max graphics (or Styx’s "The Grand Illusion" album cover) thrown in for good measure. To make four minutes of animation so stunningly boring is an accomplishment, of sorts, but it certainly isn’t art. If Prada customers knew that the company was truly breaking new, meaningful cultural ground, the effort would be far more credible than being merely a marketing ploy. Maybe it could choose a medium — maybe one somewhat related to fashion design? — and quite literally own the latest and best creativity, as the Medicis of old might have done?
  • Make it unique. The world doesn’t need another funny viral short. Your company certainly doesn’t need to fund it. And there are enough self-styled artists in our world of self-styled everything to make so much of the stuff we hear, watch, or read seem like infinite variations on some very finite creative ideas. I think the content worth sponsoring would have to be truly different — not just another "personal vision" — and thus be nearly ownable by a business, or a brand.
  • Make it exclusive. So if you’re creating something important, and it’s really unique, it has value; now the challenge is what to do with it. Again, there’s still the nagging issue of the content having no thematic or relevant claim to a corporate purpose so, for instance, why not make its distribution valuable…make it true value added content for the people with whom you want to forge a relationship? Remember that lots of the static art and music created over the past few centuries was often created for small audiences, sometimes single families. Maybe the idea here is to skip the unlimited exposure-as-awareness fantasy of Internet distribution, and replace it with a focused sharing-as-recognition reality of direct distribution?

We’re going to see a lot more content passed-off as branding over the next few years. Smart people work overtime to make the case that brands gain something from being juxtaposed with content that has no redeeming economic or cultural purpose: it’s called repurposing content for a reason.

But if the content isn’t relevant or useful to your customers — i.e., it’s not part of an economic transaction, since they don’t buy it, nor does it contribute to other things that they purchase from you — then make it culturally valuable. 

Make it real art, make it unique, and make it exclusive.

Hats off to Prada for trying to do something interesting. 

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