Thursday, December 10, 2009

Heroes of Stock Art

Last night through some Pittsburgh-related web browsing (nothing pertaining to the Steelers of course!) I came across a Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council listing for an event based on an arts marketing conference with the theme "CollaborACTION!". None of this would be at all notable except I looked at the "CollaborACTION!" graphic and thought, "Hey! I used to have that stock image hanging in my bathroom!"

Some six years ago, the company I was working for rolled out an internal brand awareness campaign, which from my perspective began and ended with all of us getting a glossy booklet aimed, I think, at giving us the proverbial "elevator pitch", so that when asked what our business was we would say something other than "I'm getting billed out at X times my salary to a major Government Sponsored Entity" or whatever. The denotative content was harder to understand than the intent: The pattern for each page was a large image of people (generally young, clean-cut, carefully race- and gender-balanced) in some pose suggestive of teamwork with a business-speakish aphorism printed on it in small type. I would describe the overall tone as "cryptically platitudinous".

The branding material held some small fascination for me, both as an objet d'how-much-did-they-pay-for-this and, in those straight-outta-college days, a seemingly pure literary expression of just how grim big-cee Corporate culture was. E.g., the last page was supposed to represent a mirror, but in fact it was a piece of silverized card stock that "reflected" my pallid flesh tone and the fluorescent lights above me as a grotesque, undifferentiated smudge. Creatively stifling!

The best page of all, though, featured a YOU-deliver-the-brand sentiment set against a drawing of flying comic-book superheroes. Not just any superheroes! Bland, genericized superheroes who, in addition to the young / clean-cut / race- and gender-balanced look, had been rendered with about the level of artistry of the kid in my 8th-grade science class who would draw naked versions of the lady X-Men on notebook paper for a couple of bucks. The hero in front looked particularly dopey and out of proportion. It was great! Like some employees on a company retreat got exposed to a bunch of gamma rays, and also they all had preexisting bone disease.

Here it is, of course the very same as above:

I cropped off the bottom of the team there to fit it into a three-by-five Ikea frame, then installed it in my apartment's bathroom, over the toilet tank at about eye level -- The bathroom, I felt, cried out for decor that was bright yet not hard to part with in case it mildewed over, and this provided ample opportunities to meditate on the company's brand identity under appropriate enough circumstances. I wasn't the only person oddly fond of the image; I remember one of my coworkers scanned it and used it as her instant messenger profile picture for a time.

Anyway, the company's branding efforts disappeared after bigger company bought it, I moved to Oregon, I didn't re-hang the illustration... And then it's yesterday, and I see the same superhero art in a web ad. Weird!

Why do I think it's weird? Other than the oddness of seeing something familiar in an unexpected place, the surprise-that-shouldn't-be was that the superhero picture wasn't actually unique to my old company's brand awareness materials. I'd assumed at first that, given how wonky it looks, somebody must have just dashed it off for our particular account, and I never revisited the thought. Now... I can't call it a loss of innocence, but I feel like I have a better-developed sense of just how desirable it is to recycle already-done work.

This is a lot of words to express, basically, (A) Huh, and (B) After all these years I still think that's a pretty crummy drawing. But perhaps wordy pointlessness is the brand I am truly meant to deliver.


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