I have always been haunted by Les Tricoteuses. My eight year-old self was fascinated by the ladies, knitting savagely, as beside them head after head fell into the basket of history’s most famous decapitator. I even projected the voices and personalities of my mum’s friends from our very English village into the tableau. “Ooooh, look at him. Guilty little aristocrat….Oh well, another day, another neck. Knit one, pearl one, all the same to me…” I imagined they’d coo and mutter as the Guillotine chopped its way through the Revolution, much like a WI group or a Tupperware party.
The notion of guilt is what stuck with me. The assumption that the aristocracy was just, well, guilty was a strange one. I pondered the acceptance that an entire class were criminally culpable – of wealth, stupidity, cooking fish the wrong way – and deserved to be killed. And while they lost their heads, the women, a microcosm of broad society, watched events and stuck to their knitting.
Perhaps, in a complicated, Gallic way, it bred a later tolerance for public figures guilty of horrible private habits. Slight shrug, eye roll, leave your dirty laundry at the Parliamentary chamber door, Mr President. Only recently – over Strauss Kahn particularly – has there been a wake up to the private restraint/public morality thing, so beloved of British red tops when they had teeth. The mood is shifting, but the law isn’t.
In France, you are guilty until proved innocent.
The opposite of the UK, French justice is a perfect analogy for marketing. Whereas we used to trust brands like Bobbies on bicycles, rivers of powered baby milk scandals, apartheid bankers, food scares, epidemics, vehicle recalls and epic product fails have washed away our blithe acceptance. Even agnosticism is rare, replaced by disinterest, suspicion or outright rejection. Brands are convicted in record time. Consumers, playing judge, jury and executioner, tell your precious little plaintiff it’s going to be taken from here to a place of execution and may God have mercy on its soul. No appeal.
Of course, we all reject stuff for many more reasons than it’s simply guilty. But the notion is useful. People build relationships with brands through repeated, positive, personal experience. They gather enough evidence to be convinced the brand is ‘clean’. Somebody, somewhere, is probably shouting that Toilet Duck Is Innocent even now.
I was always struck by an observation Andy Knowles of JKR made in about 2006. That year, the average UK shopping basket was 57 items. At the same time, the average offering across the Big Six multiples – Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda, Waitrose, Safeway and Morrisons- was a convenient 30,000. (This was before each had invaded the High Street with ‘Local’ branch thinking.) As Andy pointed out, the typical shopper was walking into the typical sized supermarket and immediately rejecting 29, 943 items just like that. Most, for sure, because they were irrelevant. Many, in addition, because they were guilty.
It’s why I find the idea of Parole so powerful. Brands make their way through the landscape under surveillance, a hair’s breadth from being taken into custody for questionable behaviour. While bland and safe isn’t going to get you anywhere, your particular schtick of quirky, charismatic individuality had better be honest and true, or you’re going down. Fast.
It throws an enormous responsibility onto the language you use and the vocabulary you select. As if it wasn’t bleeding obvious in the first place, more than ever marketers have to live with the fact that your word is your brand.