The Karma Of Bad Brandsby Brandon Edmonds / 24.10.2011
Do bad things happen to bad brands? In this case, a resounding yebo yes bejeweled with immensely satisfying schadenfreude. The Hooters in Durban ran a jaw-dropping campaign promoting a Durban July Bums party at that annual horse-race (the evidence is proudly displayed on the official Hooters Facebook page) earlier this year. It entailed giving placards to what may well have been actual homeless people with side-splitting asides like “I’d rather starve than miss this party” and “Bugger money or food Please donate a suit so I can go to this Jol”. I know right? Hilarious. Because see homeless people won’t be allowed in because they’re smelly and like homeless. And they don’t have the R650 entrance fee. And they’re homeless. See? That’s the joke. They’re not like us. They’re smelly. And they’re homeless. Get it? Give me a moment while I like compose myself after laughing so hard. Ahhh. Ha ha. Oh man. That was good. Homeless people at our party. Can you imagine?
In the comments below an image showing a black “bum” someone writes: “what happened!!!” (implying a white guy has grievously swapped races) and Hooters SA replies: “HAHAHAHA!! – way too much sun! just a clever little piece of tactical media we did here at the ad agency… don’t worry”. Someone else writes “Fingers are black from smoking cigs there”. Stop it, please! You’re killing me. I can’t breathe!
Tactical media? Try meathead humour about as funny as running kittens through a grinder. It suggests the quality of mind behind the local incarnation of Hooters. A brand fatally unaware of its surroundings. Imported and fake. A virus uploaded by Uncle Sam. A brand shrugging at the reality of chronic inequality. A brand that, given its regressive sexist commercial angle, those Hooters girls in their lycra tank tops and lurid orange hot pants look hermetically sealed in 80’s cheerleader porn-aesthetics, in the context of a country as cravenly rape-happy as ours, ought to be on its very best behaviour. Instead the appalling Bums campaign suggests a gormless, abrasively tone deaf business culture at work. A jokey entitled racism that thinks it’s being edgy by being politically incorrect without noticing that being politically incorrect is the default setting of hegemonic suburban conformism. It’s pandering to the worst in people.
The Hooters Bums campaign suggests an aggressive neoliberal disdain for the marginalised (those who “rely on handouts” and are “too lazy” to make something of themselves), an attitude familiar to anyone around competitive young white guys threatened by the new employment landscape where blackness reigns (at least in principle) and the poor are convenient ever-present punchbags. At least it helps decode Hooters’ otherwise unfathomable tagline “delightfully tacky, yet unrefined”. While using the homeless as punchlines to shill corporate events is extremely fucking tacky and unrefined, it is not even a little bit delightful. Just go with Tacky. It covers the brand better than those shorts cover your employees’ asses.
Before he was bought out by American investors this year, the guy behind the local Hooters franchise was a Durban entrepreneur called Spencer Shaw. And he is everything an ambitious young go-getter needs to be in what has been called the terminal ‘cancer stage’ of late capitalism. An ego the size of Mexico. A model girlfriend. Casual body fascism (his tweets are 98% exercise related) in which gym membership functions like confession does for Catholics. A spiritual ritual of renewal. And a tendency to talk about himself in the third person. Here he is in an online interview, asked to define Spencer Shaw: “I know he makes for good eye candy for the ladies but he is more than that. I certainly hope that his tireless ambition will at least rub off on all you young aspiring entrepreneurs out there!” Hey, here’s hoping Spence. Again it’s the tone deafness. The bro world-view. The dull conformity (hetero-normativity, lean muscle mass, commercialism) that shines through. Alpha male management makes a bad brand worse.
It’s a conformity that chimes with the Hooters gal-next-door approach. Hooters girls aren’t allowed piercings or visible tattoos. Hair colour needs to be “natural”. Personalities need to be outgoing, upbeat and agreeable. Bodies just so. Here’s the hootersgirl blog: “The Hooters girl image is one of great restriction. Slender, lithe girls with hourglass shapes, large breasts, and narrow hips are the norm. Conventionally pretty faces, large eyes and small noses are de rigueur. Any real deviation from this is unfortunately rare.”
This cleaving unto the conventional, the median, the status quo has grown Hooters into a billion dollar a year global brand. The source of “one of the fastest growing restaurant categories” – according to Entrepreneurship magazine – called ‘breastaurants’ which specialise in retail sexuality – boobs on top of regular comfort food and beer. Hostesses are contractually bound and trained to ‘touch’ the table a lot which means engaging with customers like they matter, like they’re special while fake laughing. Playing gettable geisha’s serving hot wings in lycra. There’s a whole raft of breastaurants in the States including: Burger Girl and the Honey Shack, Bone Daddy’s House of Smoke, Twin Peaks and Titled Kilts. Each with a retail template written in stone. Plasma screens relay sports imagery while risqué uniforms exaggerate the pert breasts and tight asses of fit young women. No wonder the trend is recession-proof.
More hilarity on the official Hooters SA Facebook page includes this image.
The caption: “Sexism – Only ugly bitches complain about it” speeds us deep into the vile heart of the brand. Again in a country where gender violence is all the rage. There it is proudly on display. Shitty image control makes bad brands worse.
Writer Nina Power has pinpointed what is so demeaning and creepy about the kind of post-feminist ‘raunch’ culture that makes breastaurants okay (Hooters admitted that over 20% of their franchises are picketed by women’s groups). Women get cut up into their constituent sexual parts on the open market. Breasts are “assets in the physical and economic senses simultaneously, and as much use as possible is to be extracted from them”.
In other words, retail work today demands you see yourself in the most saleable, demeaning and conventional way. You adopt an internal employer’s gaze and train it on yourself to compete. You turn yourself into the physical embodiment of your own CV. You are your assets. “It’s not clear that contemporary work allows anyone to have an inner life… the blurring of work, social, personal and physical life is almost total.” Forms of domination like sexism make us unfree. Something the fuckheads at Hooters SA ought to consider.
All this scene-setting lets us rejoice at a bad brand caught in the act of being bad. At the Hooters in Fourways in Joburg (depressingly regaled as the largest on the planet) in the same month the Durban July Bums Party happened, 3 black customers were given a bill printed with the term “Darkies” under the Customer Name. The manager allegedly told them it was cool and happens a lot and promised them free drinks next time! They are now suing Hooters for a million Rand. Here’s hoping they win.