Doomed to Repeat It

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

When philosopher George Santayana suggested that failure to learn the lessons of history doomed us to repeat its mistakes, he presumed that we’d at least be aware of it.

Woolworth’s had no such awareness when it offered the "Lolita Midsleeper" bed set for kids. And neither did lots of its customers.

As you know, Lolita is a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, in which an old guy is destroyed by his illicit sexual obsession with an underage girl. The work is considered one of the greats in 20th Century literature because it explores really terrible themes; think MySpace predator, minus the Internet connection. It’s not a happy story.

It took the editor of to question Woolworth’€™s branding choices the when she asked in her chat, "Am I being particularly sensitive, or does anyone else out there think it’s bad taste for Woolies to have a kiddy bed range named ‘Lolita’?"

Here’s the first reply: "sorry for being dense but what is the relevance of the name? Sorry i must have my stupid head on today!"

Turns out that nobody at Woolworth’s knew they’d done something stupid either. Nobody in finance noted it. Manufacturing was oblivious. The buyers didn’€™t notice anything. Nor did the marketers, the web people, or any involved external agencies.

When notified, the company’s spokesman explained, "…quite naturally the people who arranged it had no idea about that word. They’d never heard of the word and in fact, neither had I. I had to go on to Wikipedia to find out the meaning of the word."

Thank goodness the staffer had the fortitude to type 6 letters into a search engine and learn what the word meant. Woolworth’s subsequently pulled the product in response to "consumer demands."

I beg to differ with Santayana.

Being oblivious to history is quite liberating. In fact, you can’t make a mistake if nobody knows why it would be one. And forget about repeating the mistakes of history; the flip side is that you can do bad or just dumb things, over and over.

If nobody knows the difference, we become as fish swimming through our cultural landscape. Everything more than 4 seconds old is new again, and nothing has any lasting associative meaning or value.

And, if your life’s work is to exploit people, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, I guess. But maybe not so good news for brands.

Woolworth’s didn’t admit an error…nobody said "Doh! How could we have been so dumb!" It responded to a noisy special interest group.

I wonder how many more  consumers are dimly aware of the bruhaha, but only remember associating Woolworth’s with kid’s furniture? For all we know, the company gained something because of the controversy.

This raises such intriguing questions about what businesses can hope to accomplish via communications and branding:

  • Maybe controversy is a viable branding tool, in that it prompts attention but then people have little awareness or memory of anything beyond the mention of the brand name
  • If consumers don’t have awareness of broad cultural artifacts, or history, the capacity of branding "building equity" could be questionable; maybe ways to constantly prompt conscious attention are more useful than establishing some brand position and hoping it lasts
  • Any marketing communications that relies on some shared awareness of cultural or historical cues is at risk of falling flat; to find that commonality, do brands have to chase the lowest common denominators (which they do…just think of those Super Bowl spots last night) and, in doing so, all start looking the same?

I know, holding up an unpleasantly important novel form the 1950s  as proof that consumers don’t know much is probably unfair. Few people, including yours truly, can claim to have read the Top Ten novels of 20th Century American lit, let alone the favorites in the UK, France, or Japan. 

But do we know that Hitler branded cosmetics or Ku Klux Klan bedsheets would meet with widespread chagrin? Would it fall to some special interest group to agitate for a change? 

Maybe this Lolita incident is indicative of something. 

Now if only I could remember why that word seems familiar.

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