Monday, May 5, 2008

Marketing the Packaging, Not the Product

I read the following on an eco-friendly (aka "tree-hugger") blog a few weeks ago:

It is a new men’s shave gel, which I read about in the New York Times (
The product is called NXT, which is pronounced “next” and is made by Clio
Designs. The shower gel itself is comprised of clear gel balls in a plastic
bottle. But the gel is irrelevant. The whole article was about the bottle. NXT
is packaged in a triangular shaped bottle with a light blue hue. The thing that
freaked me out about this is that every single bottle has an LED light and 2 to
3 triple AAA batteries in it.

Two or three batteries in the PACKAGE, not even for the product
???? . . . The product designer’s idea is that the bottle will let off a
light blue light which will draw us to the shelves to buy it. News articles
about the bottles say they “will glow on the shelves, inviting customers to pick
them up. Every 15 seconds, a light-emitting diode in the bottom of the container
flares on, stays lighted for a few seconds, then fades out.” What are we,

I found pictures and more details on the product’s website,
( which explains that “…our products contain a mini-computer with
LED lighting in the base. One bottle alone is cool but the whole line together
is an experience.” An experience?? No it’s not. It is a bunch of bottles, and
stupidly designed ones at that.

When I read this, I wasn't so concerned about the environmental impact of said shave gel, although that was the original author's point. No, I was more intrigued by the change in marketing strategy that it represented.

Let me say right up front that I am not trained in the fields of marketing or advertising. I'm just interested in how we - the consumers - are marketed to.

The NXT shave gel is just one of many recent examples of how marketers have begun to take the consumer's focus off the product itself, and onto the packaging of the product. In recent weeks, I've seen TV ads and billboards for ergonomically designed water bottles, EZ-grip Coke bottles, and beer cans that look like mini-kegs.

Why this shift in marketing? Perhaps it's getting harder to differentiate Product X from Product Y. After all, there's only so many things you can say about the taste of your bottled water. Or maybe they realize that the product itself is no good, so they have to focus on something else to keep their companies afloat. Would it be too cynical to think that the marketing departments of these companies think that the consumers are too dumb to notice this shift? [Don't answer that.]

Perhaps it's due to the ongoing shift toward form over function, design over usability, where the visible "cool" factor outweighs the practical and where the design department has a bigger budget than the engineering department. In a related shift, we see more and more images and icons where text used to be. Everywhere we look, the emphasis is on appearance (See 1 Samuel 16:7).

Consider what God's word has to say about the importance of words (the written Law, for example, as well as the Bible itself being in written form) vs. visible symbols (idols, for example). Is this shift toward the visual, toward outer appearance, and toward icons and images - and away from words - contrary to Scripture?

Dr. Douglas Groothuis, Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary, has written on this topic. Here's a brief sample:

. . . images, which dominate American and most Western media, are very limited in what they can communicate concerning truth. They cannot directly convey propositions,
but instead evoke emotions. Yes, some are telling and unforgettable, such as the
young Vietnamese girl running naked in the streets after being napalmed. But for
all their poignancy, images may mislead or overwhelm without informing or
educating at a deep level. This image-saturation (if not image-mongering) has
lead to the pandemic debasement of intellectual discourse. Compare the image to
word ratio of a Time Magazine (or Newsweek) from 1950 to that of today. I reckon
that the May 31, 2004, issue of Time had roughly a 50/50 ratio of images to
text. We are no longer a typological society (see Neil Postman,
Ourselves to Death
on this), eager to wrestle meaning from texts over time.
This move away from the text and toward the image (whether stationary or moving)
cheapens discourse and fosters intellectual impatience. We think the pictures
tell the story when, in fact, they can (at best) tell only half the story. The
moral imagination is better served by careful and nuanced descriptions in words
than by a raft of images.

Malcolm Muggerridge (a distinguished British journalist) was close to the truth when he said in Christ and the Media, “The camera always lies.” As a Christian, I don’t take it to be an accident that God gave us a Book (really 66 varied books) and no photography. Moreover, the Second Commandment (Exodus, chapter 20) warns us to not make images of God. That by itself should serve as a general warning as to their limitations (as Postman notes). For a masterful study of this reality, see Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word (Eerdmans, 1985). Daniel Boorstin’s classic, The Image (1961) treats the same general subject with great insight as well.
[Accessed1/7/05 - No longer online at this address]

Do you think Professor Groothuis is overstating the issue? Is it really that serious?

And back to the topic of marketing:
What examples have you seen lately where the marketing & advertising has focused on the packaging instead of the product inside?

Does it matter?

1 comment:

non-metaphysical stephen said...

I know the Ellul book mentioned in the quote, and it's worth looking at.

We really do live in an age where image is everything. I like looking through interior design magazines, and I notice that the kitchens and bathrooms shown often have removed all the spices, shampoos, etc. and placed them in "more artistic" containers. So it's not surprising that companies view packaging as part of the product itself.

I wonder how we as individuals can opt out of this system. What decisions can we make that will reject the marketing values we've been taught to accept as normal and as beneficial?