PRINT October 1989


New Traditionalism and Corporate Identity

DURING THE 1988 PRESIDENTIAL campaign, Bob Dole dismissed George Bush as “nothing but a suit.” This was an apt indictment. It identified Bush with the fuddy-duddy dad of Father Knows Best, the uniform of a federal employee, and the ultimate gray-flannel company man. And although Dole’s comment was meant as a denunciation, it contained the recognition as well of Bush’s uncanny ability to reawaken the stylish mediocrity of the 1950s.

Shortly after Bush’s inauguration as president last January, Good Housekeeping coined the term “New Traditionalism” for a series of ads that offered NT its domestic representation—WASPy moms choosing, once again, to stay home with the kids. Since then we’ve seen increased advertising for brands that have been around since the ’50s but are now aggressively revivified—Kool-Aid, Corn Flakes, Geritol. In just six months, the term “New Traditionalism” and the advertising campaigns it spawned have become pervasive, promoting a backward-looking consumer utopia, a return to the conventions of the nuclear family, and a ’50s-style allegiance to patriarchy and patriotism. After so many news photographs of Barbara walking the dog and George playing horseshoes, we have now come to recognize the Bush family as New Traditionalists. It is this congruence between presidential image and corporate identity that makes New Traditionalism so chilling.

In design terms, corporate identity programs establish a “look,” not only through advertising, but in packaging, logos, letterheads, and graphics. As much of the public personality of the company as can be presented is coordinated visually. In the last two years, there has been a shift in design strategy for constructing corporate identity, moving away from the futuristic and toward the traditional. Here, what is “traditional” is generally an ersatz affirmation of the good old days, an arm’s reach back to postwar prosperity, yet curiously updated. Take two recent examples of New Traditionalism in corporate identity. In 1988 the huge multinational conglomerate IC Industries, which produces, among other products, Progresso Italian foods, Midas mufflers, and Hussmann refrigeration equipment, decided its name was too severe. So IC simply appropriated the name of one of its homier brands and renamed itself Whitman Corp. What could be more reassuring than chocolate? In another instance, Prudential Life Insurance, swept up in an earlier craze for futuristic logos—a trend linked to the high-tech, anonymous, hardball corporate images of the precrash ’80s—had turned its familiar Rock of Gibraltar logo into something that looked like a broken price code bar. But last winter, Prudential—whose stake in New Traditionalist-style stability is great—dropped the striations from its rock and returned to a simpler, realistic line drawing of Gibraltar. This tendency is worth examining as more than just the latest design trend: new consensuses are being formulated and underlined by New Traditionalist visuals. The man-in-the-suit is firmly back in power, and low-key, well-executed design invites us once again to feel comfortable with (or at least uncritical of) this idea.

In terms of sensitivity to the advantages of continuity in corporate identity, General Electric is exemplary. In public relations, General Electric is particularly adept at promotion and survival (hiring, for example, the superpatriot actor Ronald Reagan as spokesperson). Recently, however, the company sought to shake off a spate of bad PR stemming in part from consumer boycotts protesting GE’s nuclear-weapons work. In need of a comfortable, yet authoritative, corporate identity, in 1986 GE hired Landor Associates, the largest corporate design firm in the world, to redesign their graphics program. After two years of research, Landor presented its solution: the same turn-of-the-century GE logo—invaluable because of its recognizability— with just a few millimeters shaved off its curlicues. But to update GE’s look, the logo is now surrounded by a new visual environment. A laser line (a bright, horizontal trajectory) and a “dynamic monogram” (Landor language for a large, fragmented projection of the logo) emphasize and frame the logo’s continuity. When the Landor campaign was implemented, it seemed like mere common sense to combine nostalgia and high-tech. Yet this is the clearest sign of how firm the new consensuses already are: today’s utopias are scenes of the past.

Beyond the subtleties of corporate logo styles, it is most visibly in advertising campaigns that fear of the future is soothed. New Traditionalist ads ask the viewer to compare today with yesterday and tomorrow: they raise anxiety about what’s next; and then they give conservative, gently conservative answers: you’ll be the same in the future, but don’t worry, you won’t be outmoded. For now, the ultimate NT ad campaign is the TV one for the Mazda Miata car. (The name “Miata” itself is apt; it contains the most consumerist word “me,” and it sounds like some new, 1989 Esperanto that combines the languages of Japan and the U.S.). There are two 30-second spots: the Miata in the city and in the country. In the country ad, the camera pans across well-off suburban kids playing on their lawns—the light is too bright, it looks slightly eerie, the voice-over uses past tense. Is this the future or the past? A thirtyish man is shown confusingly with a ’50s haircut and brand-new blue jeans. Eventually we see the bright red car. The tag line is perfect: “It not only gives you a glimpse of 1990, it takes you back as well.” The final image is the nuclear suburban family relaxing on a day in the country. The image of the family underlines the retiring nature of these utopias—even the city ad, which shows the requisite skyscrapers and cars on city streets, includes a shot of a wedding.

These NT utopian images are radically different from more liberatory scenes, ones in which risks, change, and new pleasures can be imagined. The deeply conservative nature of backward-looking utopias has been theorized before, not surprisingly, by Ernst Bloch, a writer who explored why the right had become so popular in the years immediately preceding Nazi Germany. In the early 1930s, writing about German culture as a political battlefield, Bloch pointed out that the desire for such anachronistic utopias can be rooted in fear and can circumvent more constructive fantasies of change. At the same time, he emphasized the lure of cultural messages mixing anachronistic and contemporary visions. This mix is the bait of New Traditionalism in corporate identity programs: NT ads and graphics waylay fear by promising the isolationism (in ’80s parlance, “cocooning”) of the ’50s in a familiar yet up-to-date package. Reassuringly, the future is offered as a retooled version of the past. NT is not simply traditionalism but an up-to-the-minute revamping, a pastiche in which the old is dominant, merely coated with the new.

In financial terms, the consumer must be convinced that a product has some new qualities as well as old. Otherwise, why purchase it? Specifically, these old/new products are offered as a balm to economic anxieties; ads encourage consumers to ward off financial worries by shoring up domestic comfort. For baby-boomers, styled, old-fashioned corporate graphics are symbols familiar since childhood, recalling cozy supermarket and kitchen scenes from the ’50s. Prompted by names like Bosco, Jiffy, and Jell-O, these memories are reassuring, but they shouldn’t keep us from investigating and critiquing corporate power and expecting more substance of the presidency than that provided by a suit.

Maud Lavin, a writer and cultural historian, has recently contributed to the Walker Art Center catalogue Graphic Design in America, 1989.