Where Brands (and Pseudo-knowledge) Go to Die

Readers, I wanted to share the following quote--although not for the reasons you might think:

"More students can identify Mr. Peanut and Joe Camel than can identify Abe Lincoln or Eleanor Roosevelt. They can identify twenty different kinds of cold cereal, but not the trees and birds in their neighborhood."
--Mary Pipher, The Shelter of Each Other

This author's point (and on one level she's right) is that people know far more about brands and consumer products than they know about things that actually matter. Worse, we ingest this consumer product knowledge passively. It's deftly inserted into our minds by the media and advertising all around us.

On another level, however, this is one of those fist-shaking "kids these days" quotes every generation hears from its elders and betters. My generation heard this type of crap argument too: One of my favorite "kids these days" media narratives was those articles citing "studies" of how American kids of my generation were terrible in math (or science, or geography, or whatever) compared to Japanese kids. You can see how the media reflects our society's fears back at us: back in the 1970s and 1980s everybody was afraid the Japanese were going to kick our asses in everything and take over the world. Today, kids probably get to hear how academically pathetic they are compared to Indian kids, or Chinese kids. Probably both.

That's why reading quotes like these--reading them on a literal level, that is--often just makes you dumber. (Although note that meta-reading quotes like these may give you useful hints for which country's economy and stock market will collapse in the next decade.)

How long does psuedo-knowledge live?
But the real reason this quote grabbed me was in the way is shows, entirely unintentionally, how incredibly rapidly knowledge (really, pseudo-knowledge) about brands and consumer products becomes totally useless and obsolete.

Mary Pipher's book was first published in 1996, not that long ago. But already her brand references are unrecognizable to young people today. The first thought from someone under age twenty will likely be "What the heck is a Mr. Peanut?" [1] With Joe Camel, it's even worse: since cigarettes haven't been advertised in a generation, nobody young knows or even cares who Joe Camel is today.

And yet Joe Camel seemed like such a big deal in the 1980s and 1990s. Finger-wagging pundits back then were panic-stricken that millions of innocent children would fatally take up smoking because of this friendly cartoon mascot. [2]

There's one more irony, however, and it's the best of all. Today, Mary Pipher's quote is exactly wrong, and for reasons she'd never imagine. Far, far more kids today can identify Abe Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt than Mr. Peanut and Joe Camel, because nobody young has ever heard of Mr. Peanut or Joe Camel! So I guess that's pretty good.

With a few notable exceptions, the brands and mascots of prior generations have absolutely zero presence in the minds of the generations behind us. Upcoming generations have enough new pseudo-knowledge of their own: new brands, new products, new shows, media, and advertising mascots all deftly inserted into their brains. And in another few decades we'll collectively forget it all, all over again, and learn still more new crap. The pseudo-knowledge never ends, it just changes.

Thus there's a key difference between knowledge and pseudo-knowledge. One is stable, the other is in a constant state of change, always evolving. Trees, birds and major historical figures don't change; cereal brands and peanut mascots do. You'd think we'd find more value in learning the former versus the latter, but each generation, mine included, always seems to learn the pseudo-knowledge rather than the real thing.

READ NEXT: Is "Meet or Beat" Pricing Anti-Consumer?
AND: Rebellion Practice

[1] And yet, weirdly, Wikipedia calls Mr. Peanut "one of the best known icons in advertising history." If anything, this just shows how quickly and fully each generation forgets the prior generation's pseudo-knowledge, while it labors to create (and waste time learning) its own.

[2] Totally unrelated sidenote: Many finger-waggers back then were also convinced, Freudian-like, that Joe Camel's face looked just like a penis. Sadly, once someone tells you this and you Google the image, you can never unsee it. Thanks, finger-waggers.

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