Marketing, June 1, 1998
Some people have started making uncharitable noises in the public prints about the apparent ubiquity of University of Toronto assistant philosophy professor Mark Kingwell, Ph.D. He’s currently promoting his new book, Better Living: In Pursuit of Happiness from Plato to Prozac (Viking/Penguin, $32).
If you haven’t read this book or its two predecessors, you may have seen him on television. (He’s a reliable stalwart on CBC, CTV and TVO; Pamela Wallin says he’s “one of the most brilliant thinkers in Canada today.”) He broadcasts his wisdom on radio, too. There are speaking engagements (an informed source reliably figures he’s one of the five busiest speakers in the country), columns for Saturday Night and, most recently, a thumb-sucker on speed in the May issue of Harper’s. (No matter how fast we go, we’re all going to die — who knew?)
That is a pretty good extracurricular effort for an assistant professor. But why does it rankle? As any marketer knows, it’s just standard procedure. You establish a product (Weighty Musings on What It All Means), create a brand identity for your product (college professor who’s “hep” to what’s “phat” with the “kids” of today), then flog both like a red-headed stepchild. The peevishness seems disingenuous and premature. If folks are this annoyed by the early, buzz-building stages of the Kingwell campaign, what will they have to complain about with the advent of Kingwell™ the Fragrance, Kingwell™ the Action Figure, Kingwell™ the Lunchbox and Kingwell™ the Twelve-Inch Ambient Dub Remix compilation?
We’re kidding, of course. Marky-Mark wouldn’t be foolish enough to overextend himself to the point that any mention of his name induces gagging or giggling. As Kingwell explains in Better Living (Viking/Penguin, $32), you can’t get away from advertising. He’s counted: we’re bombarded by some 3,000 advertising assaults every day. But where you and I — plebeian slobs that we are — don’t even notice most of them, Kingwell can’t ignore them. They get stuck in his big brain, then reverberate, driving him halfway screwy with their base crassness and the envy they arouse. It’s a kind of millennial autism, this inability to tune out advertising. But hey, we saw Rain Man. We know that even something as potentially debilitating as autism can yield a fat payoff if you apply it right.
Dr. Kingwell’s got exactly the right kind of intelligence to join the vanguard at the supercooled bleeding edge of the culture. He should start his own advertising agency. Spike Lee’s Spike DDB is bringing urban phattitude to Snapple and Nike, among others. Jerry Seinfeld says he, too, would like to start an agency. We wouldn’t mention the possibility unless we were sure Kingwell had already thought of it himself.
His book makes it clear that while most of us are helpless drones, slaves to our marketer-manipulated desires, he’s at least aware he’s being manipulated, even though he goes on to admit he’s just as helpless to resist. Better Living details an unnamed agency’s hiring him to explain people in their twenties to marketers. Why filter Kingwell™ brand smarts through the thick fingers of agency dolts, most of whom aren’t smart enough to apply it correctly anyway? Not only would advertising by Kingwell™ be better — hipper, smarter, more groovalicious — than the swill we’re currently having to put up with, it’d ennoble and elevate all of us...maybe not to the same level of enlightenment Dr. Kingwell has achieved, but a couple of feet above the muck of ignorance he says we’re currently mired in.
He’s already got a lock on what Aristotle would’ve thought of Marilyn Manson or Ally McBeal. It’s not much of a leap from there to figuring out why Plato would find the all-beef frankfurter closer to the Platonic Wiener than cheaper tubesteak.
In Better Living ($32, etc.), Kingwell says he cannot imagine getting through a day without his Nike Air Pegasuses. Given that kind of identification with the product, it’d be a snap for him to explain in 30 seconds why Jacques Derrida would argue that the Air Pegasus not only renders every other sneaker meaningless, but negates itself, its signifier and its signified while deconstructing the very idea of “the sneaker.”
Rather than having some faceless voice-over tell us a luxury car is quiet, why not let Ludwig “Wiggy” Wittgenstein do it: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereon one must remain silent. Coupe de Ville. By Cadillac.”
Cast off your mind-forged manacles, marketers: Nietzsche’s übermensch is here. Why not let Kingwell™ Koncepts® manifest the transvaluation of value-added advertising for your product and banish the existential dread of only connecting with your customer? You know it makes sense. And the kids will love it.