The New Optimism

There is a particularly touching moment in one episode of The Osbournes. The occasion is Ozzy’s birthday, which falls while he is on tour in Chicago.

Despite Ozzy’s request that his family not come along on the tour, Sharon surreptitiously arranges a party for him, post-concert, in the back room of a fancy restaurant. Ozzy ambles (rather, hobbles) in and is flabbergasted to see his wife and retinue gathered to fete him. But that’s not the touching part. The touching part is when he embraces Sharon and whispers in her ear, “Where are the babies, where are the babies?” Cut to Jack and Kelly, who are so excited to surprise their father that they are practically jumping out of their tattooed and pierced skin.

Do the Osbournes seem dysfunctional to you? They openly curse at one another, the kids drop out of school and ignore curfews—yes, most people would call them dysfunctional. Yet episode after episode, they affirm the core values of strong, confident family love that should be attractive to anyone who believes family is central to the future of our society.

Welcome to subversive affirmation—optimism wrapped in subterfuge. Look around at some of the smartest, most in-tune cultural signposts out there: TV shows like The Osbournes, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Simpsons and Six Feet Under, movies like About Schmidt, books like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. There is a movement emerging that uses the Sturm und Drang of modern family life to tell us, show us, remind us that weirdness, crankiness, stubbornness, selfishness, insensitivity, myopia, miscommunication—all the subatomic elements of modern family dynamics—exist in families whose members truly and deeply love each other.

It is charismatic and compelling because there is a verisimilitude, an honest embrace of flaws and confusion, blemishes and angst. These families all have an edge, and yet within each one there is a core of unflagging resolve, a belief in a positive outcome—witness Jack Nicholson’s transformative final scene in About Schmidt. And whatever the label—jaded optimism, functional dysfunctionality, meta-sentimentalism, irreverent reverence, subversive affirmation —it is a persuasive form of emotional intelligence that has seeped into our cultural communication.

The million-dollar question is, How will this phenomenon influence brand communications? As communication experts, we can’t wave the flag of blind, sanitized optimism anymore. The brands that continue to project a rationalized vision of life, based on the way their corporation wishes it would be, run a much deeper risk than not seeming “hip.” They are in danger of disconnecting from the zeitgeist by not recognizing the power of this emerging cultural truth. They will miss a legitimate business opportunity to forge a deeper, more personal relationship with their customers.

Granted, it will be difficult to balance the nuances, but the brands that are able to utilize this countersensibility effectively (Lipton Sizzle & Stir’s “When you cook, you’re a family” campaign, from Bartle Bogle Hegarty, comes to mind) will create a more intimate bond with their audience. This is not only a persuasive way to secure a place in people’s evoked set of preferred brands, it is an actionable strategy to become one of their favorite brands.

Believe me, there’s nothing wrong with being positive or affirmative. It’s just more compelling and authentic when you add an element of subversiveness. And taking a cue from our artistic brethren, we should inject a sense of hyper-awareness into the recipe to make it successful. Show the flaws, understand the tensions, embrace the shortcomings, celebrate the conflict—in strategies, briefs, research, casting, wardrobe, body copy, headlines, price points, anywhere people touch the brand.

In the end it will only help your credibility. And who knows, if you do it right, you just might make your customer’s day.