Trick or treat? The importance of brand consistency in troubled times
Sometime in the 1970s, Halloween got scary. Not Frankenstein scary or zombie scary or even psychotic clown scary, but genuinely terrifying for parents across America, as a glut of news stories reported a wave of “Halloween Sadism” gripping the United States.
In 1970, the New York Times declared that the “plump red apple that Junior gets from a kindly old woman down the block. It may have a razor blade hidden inside. The chocolate “candy” bar may be a laxative, the bubble gum may be sprinkled with lye, the pop corn balls may be coated with camphor, the candy may turn out to be packets containing sleeping pills.” Five years later, Newsweek predicted that “a few children will return home with something more than an upset tummy: in recent years, several children have died and hundreds have narrowly escaped injury from razor blades, sewing needles and shards of glass purposefully put into their goodies by adults.” As late as 1983, the syndicated Dear Abby column confidently decreed that at Halloween, “somebody's child will become violently ill or die after eating poisoned candy or an apple containing a razor blade.”
As it happens, America never really was in the grip of nefarious Halloween child poisoners. Between 1958 and 1984, newspapers reported only 76 alleged incidents, most of which were not serious or were later proved to be untrue. However, the urban myth remains, and a razor blade in an apple is still a potent image to strike fear into parents everywhere as their children head out trick-or-treating. But the rise of “Halloween Sadism”, real or imagined, poses fascinating questions about the culture from which it rises.
In 1970, the Times put feelers out and spoke to Dr Reginald Steen, then chair of the Committee on Mental Hygiene of the Medical Society in New York, who claimed it was the result of “paranoid feelings” and “the permissiveness in today’s society”, reasoning that “the people who give harmful treats to children see criminals and students in campus riots getting away with things, so they think they can get away with it, too.”
Paranoia, permissiveness, unrest: things the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s faced in abundance, and for the most part struggled to come to terms with. Fear and conspiracy abound when times are changing and the future is uncertain, and by striking at the very heart of American innocence, news media could argue that something was rotten at the core of society (razor blade or no razor blade). Arguably, the Watergate scandal two years later showed they were right.
One of the foundational ideas behind branding is consistency: consistency of appearance, consistency of product, consistency of experience and consistency of expectations. Not for nothing is the price of a Big Mac a favoured economic indicator of purchasing power around the world: the product offers a masterclass in providing consistency across contexts which can be radically different. Order a Big Mac in Japan and it will taste (pretty much) the same as one in the US or Brazil or South Africa.
The trope of the foodstuff laced with poison is an incredibly powerful way of unpicking this consistency. The packaging and logo, a visual contract of certainty, become severely compromised when a news story suggests that it might be the one in a million chocolate bar laced with cyanide. In 1984 in Osaka, Japan, a blackmailer known only as “The Mystery Man with 21 Faces” poisoned confectionery made by the Glico and Morinaga companies, ruthlessly mocking the police in the process. No one was killed, partly because the poisoners added warning labels to the adulterated products.
If there is a lesson to be learned from razor blades in apples, poisoned Tylenol and Japanese candies, it's ultimately that brands walk a tightrope, particularly in uncertain times. Consistency and certainty are difficult and essential things to build in consumers’ minds, but they are all too readily lost – sometimes through no fault of the brand. The recent recall of the Samsung Galaxy Note, after a tendency for batteries to combust, and last year’s massive recall of Maggi noodles in India after dangerous levels of lead were allegedly discovered, are far more than costly logistical nightmares – they drive straight to the heart of the consistency that brands require in order to survive.
Brand consistency stands for more than just the quality of a given product or experience, however. In a world which is increasingly volatile and unstable, brands stand in as exemplars of the status quo – the sense that everything is still in order because my Big Mac will still taste the same. However, just as poisoned Halloween treats could be attributed to “paranoid feelings”, social unrest and permissiveness, brands which break the contract of consistency and certainty quickly come to stand in for the various evils, both real and imagined, of the world.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the best known work of literature on market research, David Foster Wallace’s short story Mister Squishy, tackles this question of consistency and vulnerability head on: consumers focus group a new chocolate bar even as a disgruntled employee injects them with ricin in his homemade lab. Wallace’s story should serve as a warning to marketers everywhere: keep an eye on what’s going on in the world around you, before you unwittingly become one of the headlines yourself.
Image source: Mask Magazine
- Article by Josh Dickins