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Perils of the Lone Ranger

One generation looks kindly on the Wild West, others fail to connect with any aspect bar cowboys, Indians and saloons: in branding terms, a nightmare.

As I passed Johnny Depp's striped face on a local hoarding, I was reminded that it's often the small added parts of projects that can illicit the most interesting insights. This was the case when, working for an alcoholic drinks company, I was asked to gauge reaction quickly to some packaging and advertising copy with a group of young male drinkers.

The packaging and positioning was focused around a Wild West theme and, when I showed the stimulus, I could feel the proverbial tumbleweed rolling across the viewing facility. The guys were totally silent. The Western imagery was clearly understood but they were just not interested in the idea of the Wild West.

The font, colours and icons of the Wild West acted as clear codes but the young drinkers weren't able to come up with any reference points spontaneously beyond generic images of cowboys, Indians and saloon bars. The only modern reference came from Django Unchained, a film more about slavery than the Western frontier, and it wasn't enough to generate any excitement.

They didn't have enough knowledge of or reference points for the Wild West to give reasons why the Wild West didn't work. They just didn't like it.

It seems that Wild West imagery has gradually faded away from advertising. Even the popular Wagon Wheels have recently toned down such themes on its branding, reflecting a lack of resonance with today's kids. I decided to try a little desk research to work out what the semiotic context for the decline of this period in American history could be.

It seems that the term "Wild West" is most commonly associated with news stories about banking practice, corporate malpractice and twitter abuse. This sense of individuals free to do what they want in a lawless culture does not appear to translate from the verbal discourse of the Wild West to the visual semiotics of it.

Instead the imagery appears tame, kitsch and old fashioned. It seems more Milky Bar Kid than Fist Full of Dollars. I noted Topman's new collection for spring 2014, which focused heavily around cowboy imagery and embroidered flowers. Although a fashionable, up to date brand, this doesn't quite carry the imagery of maverick lawlessness.

Then the recent remake of the Lone Ranger was released. Perhaps Johnny Depp could provide a cultural reference point to bring the Wild West imagery back to the lawless dark side. The film, however, has proved a box office flop in the US and is failing to top the UK box office so isn't exactly capturing the imagination of the British public.

Perhaps darkness and lawlessness have relocated in the public imagination to other cultural reference points like gangsters and science fiction films, making it harder for Westerns. A challenge exists for marketers to establish some imagery that can bring to life the lawlessness of the Wild West that is still so prevalent in verbal discourse.

 

Duncan Grimes
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2013