Don’t Let ‘Dazzle’ Brands Deceive You

By Ben Schott | Bloomberg,

Having watched warily from the wings, McDonald’s Corp. is finally entering the modern meatless-market with a menu of herbivorous items. Top of the list is the plant-based burger, McPlant:

“There are other plant-based burgers out there, but the McPlant delivers our iconic taste in a sink-your-teeth-in (and wipe-your-mouth) kind of sandwich. It’s made with a juicy, plant-based patty and served on a warm, sesame seed bun with all the classic toppings.”

Although McPlant is a notable pivot for a company that grinds through a billion pounds of American beef each year, McDonald’s is being a soupçon coy: The “other plant-based burgers” to which they allude include Burger King’s Impossible Whopper, Wendy’s The Plantiful, White Castle’s Impossible Sliders, and Carl’s Jr. Beyond Burger — as well as groundbreaking consumer products from Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, and Kellogg’s Incogmeato.

Because 89% of meatless-burger consumers are neither vegetarian nor vegan, and because the plant-based meat market may soon be worth $35.4 billion, faux-meat firms seem less keen on promoting plants than blurring the plant/meat divide. This explains their use of beet powder, annatto and heme to simulate the ooze of blood, and the carnivorous tone of their branding.

It’s surely no accident that McPlant retains its corporate prefix, that Beyond Meat and Incogmeato deploy a muscular suffix and that Impossible Foods toys with a knowing oxymoron. These modern plant-based brands are a world away from the earnest worthiness of meatless 1.0 — Quorn, Linda McCartney’s, Turtle Island Foods — a trick they pull off with all the techniques of “dazzle.”

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In 1917, in response to the increasing threat from German submarines, the British artist Norman Wilkinson pioneered a counterintuitive form of marine camouflage(1) that he called “dazzle painting.”

Recognizing that, even before radar, massive ships could never be rendered invisible, Wilkinson proposed making them harder for U-boats to identify, size, track and target.

“So-called invisibility against submarine attack [he wrote] is not only impossible, but dangerous, and consequently if a vessel can be seen at all, it does not matter how visible she is, providing her course remains a matter of question for the attacker.”

Wilkinson fostered enemy uncertainty by painting crazy monochrome zigzags and stripes across every inch of hull, deck and funnel until some 4,000 British and American vessels resembled bizarre aquatic zebras.

The tactical twist of Wilkinson’s dazzle was to ensure that what cannot be concealed should confuse:

“The primary object of this scheme was not so much to cause the enemy to miss his shot when actually in firing position … but to mislead him, when the ship was first sighted, as to the correct position to take up.”

Naturally, such ingenious misdirection is readily applicable to branding.

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Some of the most conspicuous “dazzle” proliferates with “hedonic” brands — those where pleasure-seeking consumers must be persuaded that “bad” is “good”:

That “good” is “bad”:

Or that “bad” is “bad” — but, hey, what the hell:

Modern meatless burgers operate in the intersection of all three dazzles: They are simultaneously meaty (“bad” but delicious), vegetarian (“good” but boring) and a fast-food treat (“naughty but nice”)(2). This dazzling triad also distracts from the complex question of whether meatless burgers are as good for one’s wallet, health or the environment as might be hoped.

Inevitably, hedonistic dazzle is used by a range of adult brands, not least Las Vegas’s hugely successful “What happens here, stays here” campaign — which slyly encouraged the sins of Sin City, even as it elided the wages of sin.

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Many brands, most notably in the auto sector, hide behind bait-and-switch safety disclaimers that dangle the rush of danger while evading its results. Given that 1.35 million people died on the roads in 2018 (including 36,835 Americans), the deployment of “dazzle tags” like “Professional driver on a closed course” and “Demonstration only, do not attempt” seems more akin to using Freddy Krueger to sell kitchen knives than offering a satisfactory deterrent to vehicular mayhem.

Indeed, it’s probably no coincidence that health-related “dazzle tags” often achieve the opposite of their purported aim. In 2017, research by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration concluded that snack foods labelled as “vitamin-fortified” confused consumers into making “poor dietary decisions.” And in 2014, research from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health indicated that alcohol “responsibility messages” (“drink responsibly,” “enjoy in moderation”) were “overwhelmingly used to promote products rather than convey relevant public health information.”

One of the oddest “danger dazzles” was that attempted by Death Cigarettes, a short-lived ’90s venture that trumped the “distraction dazzle” of Big Tobacco (cool camels, rugged cowboys, cut silk) with tombstone packs adorned with a skull and crossbones. While traditional cigarette brands attempt to subvert popular culture, Death Cigarettes set up shop where the unstoppable force of addiction meets the immovable object of death. This is not hiding in plain sight, so much as hiding in the spotlight — and as Rochefoucauld said, “neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily.”(3)

The impact of such blatant dazzle is similar to the optical effect of Anish Kapoor’s deeply pigmented “Void” sculptures, which draw in one’s gaze while defocusing one’s vision. Kapoor defined the illusion thus:

“You can see it with your eyes. Then you can’t see it. Yet you know it. You know it with your body. Your imagination senses it.”

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Just as dazzle painting helped warships to conceal their size, so dazzle branding helps underdogs bark above their bite. There are numerous examples of such shape-shifting strategies, including Volkswagen’s 1959 “Think small” slogan, which neatly mocked the muscle car, and Apple’s 1997 “Think different” campaign, which strove to mainstream the marginalized:

“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes … the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status quo.”

Such campaigns echo the actions of those animals that change their size and shape in order to deter predators and attract mates — two goals shared by brands of every dimension.

One of advertising’s longest underdog dazzles was that deployed by Avis between 1962 and 2012. Unable to conceal its ranking, Avis sought instead to confuse the idea that “biggest is best”:

Significantly, Avis was not defending its second place status but attacking the market leader for being number one and, by extension, for complacence and slapdashery. So effective was this insurgency that the alpha-brand Hertz felt compelled to respond — the advertising equivalent of forcing a U-boat to surface.

An elegant variation on the underdog dazzle was successfully launched in 2000 by the British Teacher Training Agency. Facing the challenge of luring high-caliber candidates into classrooms, they confronted the sneering cliché “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” with a splendidly contrarian campaign, “Those who can, teach.”

One of Britain’s best-loved adverts arose from a similar desire to upend accepted wisdom. In 1983, unable to conceal that its telephone directory was used primarily for “the nasty things in life, like a blocked drain,” Yellow Pages ran an advert that was deeply human, sentimental and above all nice.

Brands that strongly divide consumer sentiment occasionally use dazzle to negate opprobrium or laugh it off. Marmite’s response to 33% of Brits loathing its yeast-extract spread was not to hug the haters but double down on the hate. In so doing it created the instantly viral campaign, “Marmite: You either love it or hate it.”

Similarly, certain fans of the British football club Millwall revel in their unpopularity with the defiant chant “No one likes us we don’t care” (sung to the tune of Rod Stewart’s “Sailing”) which, over time, has evolved into a sub-brand of its own:

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For obvious reasons, dazzle is a finely honed tool of political communication — as the BBC’s Yes Minister elegantly satirized:

Sir Humphrey: As long as we can head him off this Open Government nonsense.  

Bernard: But I thought we were calling the White Paper “Open Government”?

Sir Humphrey: Yes, well, always dispose of the difficult bit in the title. It does less harm there than in the text. 

Sir Arnold: It’s the law of inverse relevance. The less you intend to do about something, the more you have to keep talking about it.

This chimes with the Fox News slogan “Fair and Balanced,” which was devised by Roger Ailes when he launched the network in 1996. As Gabriel Sherman wrote in 2017, when the slogan was retired:

“In the annals of modern advertising, ‘Fair & Balanced’ will be considered a classic. The slogan was Ailes’s cynical genius at its most successful. While liberals mocked the tagline, it allowed Ailes to give viewers the appearance of both sides being heard, when in fact he made sure producers staged segments so that the conservative viewpoint always won.”

Brands regularly turn to dazzle when they find themselves edging toward the wrong side of history.

It is often claimed that Alfred Nobel established his eponymous prizes after reading his own damning obituary (“The merchant of death is dead”) which was erroneously published after his brother’s demise. Whether or not this legend is true, the legacy dazzle worked: How many more people associate the name Nobel with literature, science and peace than with the invention of dynamite?

In 2004, Unilever hired Wolff Olins to transform its impersonal, industrial and Twin Towers-ish identity into something more sensitive, playful and environmentally beguiling:

The result — with its casual script, dazzling sparkles and 24 cute icons — is more akin to a fossil agglomeration than the branding of a global behemoth that emits 100 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents each year. And this exculpatory effect was surely the point.

Similarly, the “green rush” of airlines using carbon offsets to sell “net-zero carbon flights” may be less ecological, than a tactical response to “flygskam” — the Swedish “flight shaming” trend that has taken wing. The dazzle of consumer carbon offsetting was deftly skewered by Camilla Cavendish:

“EasyJet, in pledging to offset the emissions from its flights for what will be less than £1 a ticket, is effectively offering a ‘get out of hell free’ card. Passengers can tick the ‘offset’ box and continue on their merry way, unaware that the offer prices carbon dioxide well below its trading value. … Carbon offsetting is shaping up to be the greatest mis-selling scandal since the Dominican friar Johann Tetzel sold pardons to redeem the dead.”

In 2000, Landor helped British Petroleum transition from a “part of the problem” “big oil” giant to a “part of the solution” “leading energy company.” It did so by dumping the company’s 70-year-old shield for a “helios” sunburst, next to which the lower-case, superscript “bp” name is almost an afterthought.

This (literally) dazzling redesign stumbled in 2010, when BP’s drilling rig Deepwater Horizon exploded, killing 11 and disgorging 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. It’s likely nothing could have limited the damage to BP’s brand after such a disaster, but the chasm between the environmental ostentation of BP’s sunburst and the bleak reality of oil exploration added insult to injury, as evinced by the logo-redesign competition Greenpeace launched:

(Greenpeace is itself arguably something of a dazzle brand. Although the organization espouses non-violence, given its advocacy of dramatic and sometimes damaging direct action, Greenpeace may be green but it is far from entirely pacific.)

Of course, there are limits to what even dazzle can achieve. The story of Monsanto’s brand can be told in three logos:

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It’s a pleasing coincidence that capitalism’s ultimate dazzle brand dazzles literally as well as metaphorically — so much so that almost everything consumers know and feel about diamonds was concocted by De Beers and its roster of advertising talent. As Edward Jay Epstein detailed in his legendary 1982 essay and book:

“The diamond invention — the creation of the idea that diamonds are rare and valuable, and are essential signs of esteem — is a relatively recent development in the history of the diamond trade.”

Although the disco-ball of diamond’s dazzle is multifaceted, a few examples from Epstein and others will suffice:

The “salary rule” that an engagement ring should cost one month’s salary was devised in the 1930s to draw the middle-class into diamond ownership; in the 1980s the rate mysteriously rose to two month’s salary, or three in Japan.

The image of men surprising women with a diamond was insinuated into Hollywood movies both to associate diamonds with romantic love, and because men spend more on jewels when shopping alone.

The “eternity ring” was devised not as a celebration of everlasting love, but to create a new market for a vast cache of miniature Russian diamonds.

In addition to emphasizing the emotional resonance of diamonds, the slogan “A diamond is forever” helped discourage women from selling their jewels and thereby discovering that diamonds may not be the appreciating investment they believed.

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In February, Burger King trumpeted the removal of artificial additives from its sandwiches with an advertisement that depicted a Whopper slowly rotting over 34 time-lapsed days:

This unsettling film (more Peter Greenaway than Bobby Flay) proved as contentious as Burger King’s global CMO Fernando Machado clearly intended:

“I don’t have the media money to throw something at people that’s not going to stand out or get noticed. In this case specifically, we were expecting some controversy and debate.”

Machado also alluded to the power of dazzle:

“The essence of the idea is to show something that you know, in theory, is bad — mold — but it’s shown in such a beautiful, stunning way and you’re talking about it as a positive. … It almost messes with your mind. You know mold isn’t good, but it looks so beautiful!”

Burger King’s spot was unarguably a hit, but what actually “messes with your mind” is the advert’s slight of brand.

While eliminating unnecessary additives is admirable, it’s hardly the defining challenge of fast food compared, say, with its role in obesity, diabetes, addiction, academic performance, depression and social inequality.

Like an arms dealer singing the praises of a gun’s silencer, the “moldy” Whopper’s real success may be diverting our gaze from the uncomfortable nutritional truth that even an Impossible Whopper with unsalted medium fries delivers 1,010 calories, 50 grams of fat, 13 grams of saturated fat, 1,440 milligrams of sodium and 13 grams of sugar.

Kander and Ebb were right:

Give ’em the old razzle dazzleRazzle Dazzle ’emGive ’em an act with lots of flash in itAnd the reaction will be passionateGive ’em the old hocus pocusBead and feather ’emHow can they see with sequins in their eyes?

(1) Although Wilkinson was decisive in the military application of dazzle, the idea of disruptive camouflage owes much to the work of the American artist Abbott Handerson Thayer and the Scottish zoologist John Graham Kerr — both of whom draw the origins of “dazzle” back to the animal kingdom.

(2) “Naughty but nice” was a National Dairy Council campaign to promote fresh cream cakes (!) in the 1970s and ’80s; the slogan was devised by none other than Salman Rushdie.

(3) Le soleil ni la mort ne se peuvent regarder fixement” in the original French.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ben Schott is a Bloomberg Opinion visual columnist. He created the Schott’s Original Miscellany and Schott’s Almanac series, and writes for newspapers and magazines around the world.

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