Marketing on Fire. Wish We Were There.
The inspiration to make something culturally and psychologically strong enough exists when you get back to what blew your mind.
For just a moment, you’re a kid in 1970s suburban Los Angeles, ok? Pedal your bicycle to the big Topanga Canyon Boulevard record store. See what I saw: an epic, billboard-sized reprographic image of Pink Floyd’s album, Wish You Were Here, bolted to the side of the record emporium and taking up huge amounts of sky. Big record company marketing budgets could afford to blow a lot of minds in those days.
It was a mysteriously huge, Godzilla-sized piece of pop-surrealism that captured my imagination: A man on fire obliviously shakes hands with another suited man. It’s a random meeting in an abandoned soundstage backlot, like a dream in constant production. The handshake, a blithe and obligatory social grace, appears to hide the true burning intensity of ulterior motives. Or is that something about the fear of getting burned?
This was all the proof I needed for what I had suspected in my young mind all along: People are weird. And deep and funny. And this was weird, deep, and funny marketing.
I got lost in a new kind of alchemy, a mixture of what I both did and did not understand about this album cover. I actually liked not understanding the imagery. There’s power in mystery. Though I knew the marketing for this album was about dreams. Not Disney-esque life goal dreams, not those dreams, but the unsettling world of dreaming. And was this a billboard for an uncomfortable dream? Pink Floyd knew how to show you how dreams really feel. That’s what they do. Later, I’d find out that they made music, too.
Something else that astounded me—although I didn’t know how to name what it was in my monosyllabic, child mind. I can find the word now. The imagery was alluringly unwholesome.
Unwholesome? Yes. Every bit of product marketing I had ever seen in my limited time on earth seemed to dance a giddy dance of the effusive, wholesome-hypnotic, the good—and good for you—wash of the brain. Secret ingredient: sugar. (Or, substitute the word, trustworthiness).
This album cover on the other hand, was marketing that used dream language to call no bullshit, and for me, great marketing began with that album cover.
Eventually, I saw how this imagery shared the same surreal power of the Buddhist monks who had self-immolated in protest of the Vietnam War. Add the imagery of Rene Magritte’s Victorian men floating in the sky, perhaps. That was the era. The era of the inner mind meets social upheaval.
Artwork for Wish You Were Here had a power that purposely reached for what was wrong and yet beautiful about the world.
Like most album covers produced during that slim psychedelic and post psychedelic creative era, meaning and hidden meaning trumped safeness, and it’s difficult to not regard album artwork created of that ilk as a true slice of cultural honesty through the language of symbolic imagery and playfulness.
Chances are, like me, you’d recall the marketing you probably don’t regard as actual marketing, but as something meaningful enough to feel and recall on a deeper level.
That might require you going back in time. When you were a kid. When you were raw-minded. Re-experience what affected you, the unspeakably good montage intro or trailer to a film, the world of colors in the Maoist propaganda poster you saw on Canal Street in NYC, an album cover you forgot you loved, a commercial that rocked your world, a PSA that pulled like a maddened emotion, desperate to free itself from the leash of the everyday.
That’s where the inspiration to make something culturally and psychologically strong enough exists, because it’s still living psychologically and culturally in your mind. That is, if you believe that marketing is actually part art, part storytelling, part psychological event, and is powerful enough to act as a sociological medium that does something amazing.