brought together but kept apart

I felt like I was being chased up the beach by a tidal wave.

Run for your life, anthropologist, run for your life!

I was looking at a new ad for Lexus. Here it is.

So much going on.

See especially the opening chords which are, unless I’m mistaken, played on the gear box of a Lexus.

Then there’s this.

This really got me. The choreography of Zak Ryan Schleger on a parking garage roof top. Astonishing. Dance let loose in the world.

This is the Creative Sparks / No Ceiling campaign for Lexus. It represents a collaboration by songwriting duo Nova Wav, Korean-American R&B artist Audrey Nuna, Argentinian freestyle rapper Ecko, dancer and choreographer Zak Ryan Schlegel, director Sebastian Strasser, Mark Miller at Team One, amongst others, and Vinay Shahani at Lexus, amongst others.

It feels like something important has been accomplished here. (Sure they scared an anthropologist. But I don’t believe any other social scientists were frightened in the making of this campaign.)

Brands have been looking for this Northwest passage forever. In and of themselves they are the poor cousins, sometimes the idiot cousins, of contemporary culture. Shill machines that never really brought anything to the party. Indeed if you bought the Naomi Klein argument, brands were constantly extracting value and meaning from our culture.

But brands kept trying. And why would they not? They could see that all the action in our culture came from the worlds of music, video, subcultures, movies, memes, street fashion, cultural movements, blogs, fanfic, curation, YouTube, Instagram, etc. All the best meanings were being made by someone else. Brands wanted in. What if they could dress themselves in these meanings? Mon dieu. All the riches of Asia awaited them.

Sometimes it would work. More often it was painful. The brand would hire a band (or other creative) and rent a stage. The brand would stand stage-right with a hopeful expression that said something like “do you love me now?” No, the consumer did not love you now. They looked right past the brand to the band. There was no meaning transfer. The brand remained clueless and utterly out of it. And not just because the brander was usually wearing Khaki trousers and a branded golf shirt.

The very worse species of brands seeking culture is the celebrity perfume ad. How awful. Johnny Depp for Sauvage. Charlize Theron for Dior. Wonderful actors both. But as pitch people? Oi. And so bad for the celebrity. Routinely and without a shadow of a doubt, a perfume ad takes some of your credibility and creative accomplishment into the studio parking lot and sets it on fire. I expect that the actor thinks “wow, a vast sum of money and all I have to do is swan about with majestic music and sets in the background. What could possibly go wrong?” Here’s what goes wrong: you look like a self-absorbed ninny, the very creature we are beginning to suspect most celebrities are (and during COVID were), monsters of self consuming narcissism who have ceased to believe in the existence of people other than themselves.

But otherwise, good work was stirring. I love the determination and accomplishments of Jack Conte. There were celebrities prepared to act of design consultants to the brand. Will.I.am has done some interesting things. Years ago BMW hired directors to make short films. More recently Intel and Vice reached out to artists.

This work was brave and interesting. But nothing quite made it all the way to Asia. The Northwest passage remained a mystery.

Until now.

is a miracle. It’s gives us diverse materials brought together but kept apart.

There are media, music, several kinds of music, music video, dance, movements, gestures, post its, traffic jams, parking garages, dance studios, recording studios, texts, artists trying stuff, symphonies, basketball courts, apparitions on roof tops, and yes that gear box, and a flat note (can you find it?), as artists converge on this magical exercise of meaning making for the brand.

And the Lexus is there, present, welcome, seen! There are one too many product features featured for my taste. But otherwise, the Lexus performs brilliantly as a car and the brand. It’s not all golf shirted and Khaki clad attempting to crash the culture. No, here it’s credible and interesting and alive to the game around it. The brand profits! It soaks up this creative fever til it begins to give it off. Indeed this campaign could be the brand’s fever dream. What a Lexus dreams of when asleep in that parking garage.

Who doesn’t want a car like that?

I showed the ad to my wife. She said, “wonderful but not for me.”

I said, “I one. And I don’t drive. And I don’t care about cars.”

What’s the secret of this miracle?

Some of it comes from not flattening the composites. The song, the singing, the dance, the city, the rooftops, all these must be brought in undiminished.

We could think of this in terms of Henry Jenkins’ idea of transmedia. In this case, a single story is let out into the world to play out in lots of media, comic book origins, movies, fanfic, etc. All of this, Jenkins says, is one story and at a stroke he gave us a grouping that was rich and diverse even as the composites all somehow remain within shouting distance of one another, a thing, a we.

David Weinberger gave us the notion of “small pieces loosely joined.” Here too we were treated to a category that did not police its contents, a category that bloomed with an internal diversity, a category that teetered on the edge of the extra-categorical.

This is one of the secrets of the Northwest passage: how to bring things in while honoring their difference. How to bring diverse materials together even as we keep them apart.

No assembly required

How can this happen? In a popular culture, for whom “keep it simple, stupid”(aka “keep it stupid, simple”). The lesson from contemporary culture, this too courtesy of Henry Jenkins, is that we combine diverse meanings and media because the media literacy of the audience is so high. Somehow popular culture turned into culture and in the process we all get smarter.

There are a ton of questions begging for an answer. How do people combine things? Do they choose to work with the materials in the Lexus ad? How do these meanings enter and ricochet around in the brand? How do we engineer meanings, ads and brands that can rise to this occasion?

Oh, and just one more thing. This new kind of brand, the one that now brings diverse materials together even as it keeps them apart. Formally speaking, this is the problem now faced by the whole of contemporary culture. What we know and what we learn could be applied to an American culture that’s on the verge of social structural collapse. Once a robust category, it’s now an unholy mess.

We could help.

I'm an anthropologist & author of Chief Culture Officer. You can reach me at grant27@gmail.com.