Kenneth Krushel | Essays

The Face Of Oblivion

Photograph by Kenneth Krushel, 2006

I am the family face;
Flesh perishes, I live on,
Projecting trait and trace
Through time to times anon,
And leaping from place to place
Over oblivion.

— Thomas Hardy, Heredity

They're in every supermarket in America, peeking out from soap boxes and soda bottles, from cookie canisters and cans of soup. Mostly Caucasian and permanently arrested in an incessant state of euphoria, they stare fixedly, frozenly. They're invariably smiling — though not necessarily at any one, or any thing in particular. They're neither conspicuously beautiful (as you might find in, say, a fashion or entertainment magazine) nor are they jarringly unpleasant. Rather, they 're an odd synthesis of vacuous and perky, of wholesome cheer mixed with generic blandness. They're innocuous, ambiguous, and yes — ubiquitous.

Yet what is perhaps most vexing is the underlying infrastructure — a cohesive, carefully coordinated marketing engine — that not only allows but seems to celebrate this sort of visual apathy, an insidious form of propaganda that uses fake faces to sell real things. Faces on supermarket packaging conform to a research-based "psychographic" that hasn't fundamentally changed in more than two decades. What is it about our self-image that identifies, at least on a consumer basis, with such fictional, even farcical lifestyles?

Salesmanship in general (and advertising in particular) has long dabbled in propaganda. Take cable, for example: twenty years ago, communities across the United States awarded cable television franchises to companies who borrowed money to finance the construction of actual cable systems. As is the case in any new venture, many cable operators reached deep down to find their own inner hubris, thereby convincing banks and pension funds to lend monies based on what was, in all fairness, a rather predictive cash flow. In an effort to maximize their subscription services, operators begrudgingly budgeted for things like marketing — typically penciling in 4% of revenue— and dutifully paying homage to such perfunctory measures as bill stuffing and telemarketing. (Why bother with innovative marketing strategy if nearly 40% of the viewing public just wanted their MTV?)

Then just as quickly as it had begun, the subscription needle froze at around 40 percent home penetration, thereby invalidating promises to "win the franchise" — which, in those days, included home security, utility monitoring, videotext, and advanced fiber optics, services that proved at once impractical and costly. Bankers began to get nervous by the performance (or lack thereof) of the over-leveraged industry they had birthed, even as cable operators argued that their companies should not be measured by revenue but rather on asset value.

I vividly recall sitting in one such meeting with a "media guru" from Mullen Advertising, who explained that 60 percent of the potential subscribing universe resided uneasily on a spectrum ranging from uninterested to never. Our mutual goal, he solemnly announced, would be to target these as-yet unreached groups not demographically, but psychographically, whereupon he produced half a dozen poster-sized glossy photos: a family of four labeled "young accumulators, cautious spenders"; a single, artistic woman (Sister Corita print in the background) resistant to any imposed viewing schedule or the aesthetics of a media company; an imperious, distinguished-looking investment banker whose manicured hands held a blue-chip annual report; a retired couple channelling their inner American Gothic; an inner-city couple, channelling their inner bordeom with the world; and finally, an academic, seated in a leather armchair holding an open book while his distaff professorial partner across the hearth does the same. A headline, superimposed upon the photo, read: Mr. and Mrs. Never.

The guru pointed out that the photos addressed values, attitudes and lifestyle criteria. He explained how the agency had carefully constructed profiles of these often reluctant psychographic categories by triangulating demos, behavior and attitudes, by targeting specific communities and maximizing yield. He went on to say that while cable had done an adequate job attracting so-called outer directed consumers, the challenge now was to convince the inner directed. He referred to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, explaining that with survivalists and belongers already subscribing, the task was to now attract the socially conscious and people not so easily influenced by peer models.

There would be no copy, he added. It was the photo — the faces and the implied behavior — that would communicate the message.

I was then (and am now) intrigued by how an agency, based on its psychographic research, actually went about choosing such pictures. Of course, there were focus groups and market research — but something here remained cryptic, if not utterly mysterious. Not only were we meant to guess about our potential subscribers, but we were expected, too, to somehow determine what sorts of images would pierce the veil of the Mr. and Mrs. Nevers of the world, and spin them into new subscribers. Ultimately, a direct mail campaign did target a kind of parsed "psychographic" (wherein the Financial News Network was pitched to the investment bankers, A&E promoted to the urbanites, and so on) thereby nudging the subscription needle to the half-way mark. The bankers were thrilled, the cable franchises evolved — and the rest, as they say, is history.

Never say never. Today, some two decades later, the faces haven't really changed at all. Cheerful soccer moms, Grannies with pince-nez, freckle-faced kids and red-cheeked babies: such are the "psychographic" faces that so expertly frame the consumer's orbit, a visual backdrop of perfect teeth, perfect skin, perfect everything. The faces of consumer America are like faces in a crowd, a blur of anonymity. And there they persist — ecumenical, unassailable and pure — a chorus of pure oblivion.

Kenneth Krushel is CEO of a media company that develops software for digital video applications. He is a former journalist.

Posted in: Business, Photography

Comments [19]

Slightly tangential, please forgive me. Your great piece reminds me of a conversation with a young actor a few years back. She was taking a class to prepare for acting in commercials and she related in exceptional detail the process of eating something in an ad. There was a series of emotions, conveyed through facial expressions, as the food item was off-screen but anticipated, as it made its appearance, as it closed in on the mouth, entered the mouth, was chewed, and then reflected upon. They were trained in detail on the standard way to express each of these phases in order to create the requisite emotional experience for the viewer.
Steve Portigal

As a former adman myself, I never witnessed the conspiratorial guru infrastructure. You have to admit, there is something great, something artful in finding the perfect
Never Family.
felix sockwell

Artful, indeed. Marx would say that these faces are essential to capitalism as they confirm our roles as consumers. And more importantly they hide from us the exploitation that is also necessary to the capitalist machine.

So here's a fun question: As designers, would it be ethical to employ a similar strategy to inspire consumers toward Maslow's fifth level of self-actualization? HHmmmm... this is one that I struggle with...

In the 23 years I have worked in the design business, and 15 in brand design and market research, I have never either conducted or participated in the type of market research you are describing in this article. This "guru" at Mullen that you are referring to--is he still a practicing ad exec? When did he provide you with this information? And was he referring to advertising or package design?

I work with most of the major fast moving consumer goods companies that you will find in any US supermarket or Wal-Mart. While many, or even most, do market research, none that I have ever worked with went about looking for Mr and Mrs Never. Ever. In fact, more than ever before, our clients specifically look for consumers that are not of one specific demographic or psychographic or sensographic (far more interesting, btw), but consumers that are representative of as many diverse groups as possible. In this time of mass brand customization, looking for Mr and Mrs Never is tantimount to brand suicide. One need only look at the massively successful Dove campaign to see a good example of what is happening now, and is happening with more frequency and urgency than ever before.

Furthermore, aside from cereal and games, you will not find many packages with any people featured on them anymore. It is impossible now to put a person (of any sort: age, race, gender, etc) on the front face panel of a package and not receive a polarizing reaction. People often (still) project their fantasties and hopes and aspirations on the brands that they choose (like it or not, this is really not the fault of marketers, but rather in the nature of our brains) and having an image of any one group of people has not proven to be a successful way to market products for as long as I can remember.
debbie millman

Lest anyone think that Mr. Krushel has invented this conspiracy out of thin air, I can testify that when I started my career 26 years ago, this kind of thing was very much in the air, and endures today, as a visit to SRI Consulting's website will confirm: they invented VALS (Values and Lifestyle) analysis back in 1978, and although it's not as ubiquitous now, it was definitely a part of marketing practice in the 80s.

The attachment of images to consumer archetypes is also a common exercise with marketing consultants even today. I agree with Debbie that they don't reach the store shelves with quite the same heavy-handedness as they once did, but the emergence of the "face" that represents a whole "demographic" still happens. Just ask George Chen, better known in the late 90s as Asian Guy.
Michael Bierut

My initial reaction was that this piece seems somewhat out of touch with any contemporary grocery store... I can't recall buying any soap boxes, soda bottles, cookie canisters or cans of soup in the last year (or 5 years for that matter) that have any people on them. Some cereal boxes may have someone in the back, but it seems to be the exception rather than the rule. But then again, I don't consume NuGo.

Debbie also confirmed my suspicion: I can't picture any client, today, asking for a model (or set of models) (much less "mostly caucasian") on the front panel of their products. If anything, I can't count the times "diversity" has been a concern at the outset of a project.

I think this piece would have been on target if it had exchanged "Faces on supermarket packaging" to "Faces on print and TV advertising", where untargeted euphoria is indeed rampant.

For today's version of faces see pg 78-83 of todays NYTs Magazine.

Since the fifties at least, marketing has been trying to convince us that it possessed powerful 'scientific' methods of getting inside people's heads. Of course, the methods keep changing - back then, it was 'motivational research' and Skinnerian behaviourism. Nobody would think of promoting such things today - not only did they not deliver, but even the descriptions sound creepily coercive to our ears. These days the science is trendier and more post-modern in the way it is described, ethnography and psychographics being an example. But it is still hogwash.

If one looks at what has really happened in this time, the pattern is quite the opposite of what was feared. Mass markets have fragmented into ever smaller demographics, and even these are scarcely holding together. It's not even that the world will soon consist of six billion markets of one person each - we're not even internally consistent in our buying behaviour any more.

I recently did some market research with 16 year olds concerned with marketing universities. And although I already give this group quite a lot of credit for its media awareness (I have two teenage kids of my own) I was amazed at their sensitivities for 'fakeness' and 'cheesyness' in photographs of people (marketing shots of students and staff). Anything that had even the meerest hint of having been composed was automatically dismissed by them as contrived and manipulative. If this is what fifty years of marketing has achieved, I'd say that it's done us a big favour.
James Souttar

I can't speak for the American marketplace, but here in Europe the "generic faces" are still in use on various packages. (And, of course, in a million TV commercials.)

Now, the ones I find the most annoying are the Generic Cute Tykes and Babies. Who are these kids? What sort of parents allow them to be in TV ads and on product labels?

We're supposed to think they are "cute", but a kid who ALWAYS SMILES is really creepy.

They are... The Children From Planet X.

I was working on a business teleconferencing service brand a few years ago that had a European counterpart. Images of people were integral to the campaign, but like most people still seen in almost any domestic advertising or branding campaign, the diverse mix of "business people" (i.e., people on telephones not wearing t-shirts or bathrobes) were smiling egregiously.

While this worked well enough in the U.S., as soon as the new brand campaign was rolled out to the European offices, the people imagery had to be completely rethought. Apparently while Americans desire to be disgustingly happy, Europeans just wanted a reliable conferencing service. Makes me wonder what's wrong with this picture?

Andrew Twigg

Not taking sides with anyone in this Discussion.

Both Debbie and Kenneth's Argument have MERIT.

About three to four years ago SONY DECIDED TO MARKET its VHS tapes with People on them.

And of Course the PEOPLE were CAUCASIAN.

In the Words of the LATE GREAT Herb Lubalin I murmured aloud GOD DAMN!!!!!!

That was Herb's Patented Word for PRAISE.

My Reaction wasn't that the Imagery was Caucasian, mainly because all the other VHS tape manufacturers were using ABSTRACT IMAGERY.

SONY, had the COJONES to ZAG when everyone else ZIGGED.

An aside, I waited for other Packaging from SONY to represent other Cultures and Nationalities or any Semblance of Racial Inclusiveness didn't happen.

In my opinion, BRAND SUICIDE!!!!!

Scanning the imagery to send to my Favorite People MILLMAN, BIERUT, and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM.

Hopefully, Michael can Post the Imagery for everyone to Witness.


I have bought a few of those Sony VHS tapes.

While the technical quality of the tape itself was nothing to complain about, I thought the smiling kid on the cover was just another one of the creepy Children From Planet X.

I've got a 100 Spindle of Sony DVD on my Desk.

Have no Idea why the VHS Packaging entered my mind. I've been Recording with DVD for the last two years.

Sony's DVD Packaging for 2006 incorporate People Imagery. The Imagery is Caucasian.

This link should show the current Sony Packaging.

If not Click on Recordable Media if Packaging doesn't load and select a product to view.


Disclaimer, DesignMaven is not and does not Endorse Sony Products. The People Imagery is Relevant to Design Observer's Discussion.

No Brand Loyalty here, I buy whatever DVD Disk are Discounted.


Are psychographics really that different from any other element of demographically-targeted branding?

While there may be a certain mysterious, alchemical property to using images of actual human beings in media, how do we weigh its practice to the hundreds of other demographically identifiable elements that may appear within an image, a scene, a page, or a package alongside these photographic representations?

Mr. Krushel's examination of the culture surrounding this use of the human image is illuminating, but I think the ways in which the myriad other elements of form can serve the same ends might make for some fascinating comparative evaluation.
R Clayton

Really interesting post. Reading it reminded me of something that happened to me the summer between by junior and senior years of high school.

I was trying to get a design internship with a local ad agency when the Creative Director I'd sent a portfolio to contacted me to let me know that they were going to go with someone else. When I asked him if anything was wrong with my work, he had a simple response: "You don't have enough smiling faces in your book. If you're going to use photography in an advertisement you have to show people that your client's good or service is going to make them happy; even if it's an inferior product."

That day I made a pact with myself to never work in advertising.

Jeremy Brown

A suggestion.

You know those images that change when you look at them from another angle?
That technique might make a difference on those generic faces: it's much less creepy if a face changes from unsmiling to smiling, instead of grinning all the time.

A label that changed from neutral to smiling as I walked by, or winked at me -- now, that'd be something.

Speaking of a saccaharine, farcical America - picture Katie Couric. Her sunny, caucasian, tasti-dee-light style of newsreporting landed her a spot as THE face of CBS. She, and the CBS machine who capitalized upon her cheerful soccer-mom-ease, designed her current anchor position to epitomize Krushnels' identified trend.

I realize she's no traditional "frozen" ad, but in effect she is. Her empty presence and inquisitive, mock-adult presence undermines my expectation of the CBS product. I rant on her image, for, here was an unprecedented opportunity for a strong, female voice and presence to mark our minds and thoughts via broadcast with indelible ink. And while I realize that it's early to pass complete judgment, I am dismayed to see this opportunity wax nostalgic for Crayola.
Jessica Gladstone

Producing what we like to call 'collateral' for many service brands - including finance houses - the tradition seems to be to use people shots on brochures about financial products, and so on. But it seems to me that the traditional shots that the original poster is talking about are beginning to disappear. I specialise in language, and my job is to think about point of view and the 'voices' that express the brand - often voices not only of the brand itself, but of customers and other stakeholders. It's often the case that 'happy smiley' people shots are just inappropriate. This is partly because they're looking really dated, and partly because they are just as likely to exclude people as include them for many of the reasons previous writers have identified. Someone looking self-satisfied because they have the right pension may just make potential customers feel inadequate. And if you don't identify with their age, ethnic origin, style of dress, level of attractiveness, and so on, it's unlikely that you're going to want to adopt the reader positioning they suggest.

More often, we're using close-cropped faces, often with gaze directed away from the camera, with people looking at least like they have a thought in their heads, have experienced a bit of life, and are interesting. No nuclear families, to my recollection, have passed my desk in a while. Incidentally, we also do a lot of packaging - for home and personal care, drinks, petfoods, etc. The only animate entities looking generically at the camera are dogs and cats, and I don't even think we're using them much any more (dogs and cats getting on with their lives are more popular). I just checked with our Head of Packaging, and he says that the brands we work with haven't used an image of a person on the label in developed European markets since a shampoo in the 70s. People just don't like them.
Judy Delin

Reading thru these, ive come to realise that faces are still being used to advertise stuff recently - even though it does seem a bit "old". One packaging design that comes to mind is an icecream company who are using people's faces on their ocecream lids. It becomes a litte bit worrying, when their old labelling was perfectly fine - images of the actual icecream. Now it has people on the tub lids, which makes you wonder have they changed the flavour...? Yes icecream is fun to eat but we dont need to be bombarded with smiling people on the front. Its kinda scary.

Jobs | July 23