by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

News of recently-teenaged actress Lindsay Lohan's impersonation of still-deceased actress Marilyn Monroe via a nude photo spread in New York magazine says a lot about how brands can devolve.

It seems like only yesterday that Lindsay was that cuddly little ingenue in Disney's remake of The Parent Trap. Well, it was practically yesterday, only since then she has sped through her mildly endearing early teens to slam into a few guardrails with her car, not to mention alcoholism, rehab and, oh yes, a few utterly forgettable movies.

Now, at the ripe old age of 21, she's all but washed-up, revealing herself quite literally in a photo shoot emulating another actress who killed herself soon after her own nudie pics were taken.

If we looked at Lindsay and all actors as "brands," what might it tell us?

Actors and actresses offer particular sets of qualities from which movie-goers can choose, just as readers can pick authors (or listeners prefer one musician over another). There's a Tom Hanks brand that pretty much guarantees a certain type of acting experience, just as Cate Blanchett offers a unique style, etc. Playing with or against such perceptions keeps us interested, and buying tickets, as long as the acting substantiates our expectations and expenditure of time.

Celebrity is something else, tho, and it's only marginally attached to these brands. If the acting itself defines the brand qualities, notoriety and other celeb-related coverage could be seen as the associative qualities

Now, if we were talking about consumer products instead, say, toothpaste:

  • Functional benefits -- like cavity-fighting -- would be substantive branding, like the outcomes from acting
  • Promises that the resulting smile would help you get the boy or girl would be the  celebrity associations

As such, you can see where the latter gets you without the former.

There are rare examples of brands that have a modicum of sustainability without offering any substantive benefits. In the entertainment world, there's Charo, (was) Tiny Tim and, to a extent, we now get to enjoy Paris Hilton's famousness for being famous. In consumer products, there's Monster Cable. 

More surprisingly, there are lots of consumer marketing offers that evidence a disconnect between function and promise. Lots of so-so products and services are marketed by wildly inventive, creative branding. You've seen it. Maybe you've had a hand in creating it for a client or an employer. 

We marketers pride ourselves with our ability to make something out of nothing.

Lindsay's brand got disconnected from her actual acting ability or output soon after she made Freaky Friday (which was a hilarious movie in which she did an amazing job, in my humble opinion). After that, her brand got defined by her increasingly-inane, self-destructive behavior. The actuality of her acting disappeared. 

She became her image, and nobody really likes it anymore. Hence the Marilyn Monroe knock-off photo shoot. We're talking bottom of the barrel stuff. With nothing but image to manipulate, she's running up against the literally physical limits of what she can do with, herself.

I wonder if (and which) consumer products brands run the risk of treading Lohan's road and experiencing her Devolution Track (DTs...get it?).

  • Is there a correlation between how memorable an ad or other marketing artifact might be, and the intensity or amount of scrutiny consumers apply to the actual functions of the product or service?
  • How about when marketing, especially the latest, gee-wiz social stuff, reaches for themes distantly related to the functions of the brand itself (like a tissue maker wasting time and money on videos and chats about moments that make people want to cry?)...does this accentuate a disconnect that consumers perceive?
  • Once a brand gets recognition for something, does that elevate expectations for the next event to be ever-bigger, funnier, or edgier, thereby lessening the integrity of the brand? I'd call this the Super Bowl Effect, only "SBE" isn't anywhere near as punny as "DT."
  • At what point does brand marketing from competing products, just like reports on stupid celebrity antics, start looking the same? Viral video campaigns from two companies that make computers or TVs are as ignorable, and as disassociated from the functions of the products themselves, as reports on Brittany Spears and her stupid little sister, aren't they? In the end, who cares about any of it?

Acting matters to entertainment brands. So do the actual functions of products and services support, or destroy, consumer products branding. 

In both worlds, if the branding gets disassociated from reality, or dependent on associations with non-functional attributes to gain exposure, the brands suffer. They devolve. 

Once that disconnect is fully revealed, they're all but done.

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