Can You Steal Me Now? Brand Appropriation at its Best

The wheel

What do Khloe Kardashian’s Bantu knots and Oberlin College’s sushi menu have in common? You might not see the connection at first glance, but many would argue they’re both examples of cultural appropriation.

In the last year, accusations of appropriation have spawned countless think pieces and heated debates. While cultural appropriation is defined as one culture adopting elements of another, controversies ensue when a group in power exploits a disempowered culture for profit. This is why Ratatouille is rarely considered an assault on French values, but Coldplay’s recent romp through India has raised more than a few eyebrows.

Cultural appropriation is almost never okay, but what about creative appropriation? It can be found in every realm of human expression, especially advertising. It’s how the Budweiser frogs gave way to the Geico Gecko and the Michelin Man begot Kool-Aid Man. But what happens when one company appropriates a competitor’s entire branding strategy, right down to its spokesman?

Enter Paul Marcarelli, aka Verizon guy, aka Sprint guy.

Sure, he’s grown softer with age and ditched his trademark gray jacket for a sunny yellow hue, but the impact of his latest endorsement is undeniable. When I watched Paul appear in Sprint’s café-laden commercial for the first time, the only thought that came to mind was, “Damn, Verizon just burned.”

During the fledgling years of the flip-phone revolution, Paul’s face was everywhere, from Verizon billboards and television spots to the folder that came with my first cellphone contract. Paul wasn’t flashy like Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World.” He wasn’t quirky like the Snapple Lady or funny like the Dell Dude. I didn’t even know his name. He simply exuded average guyness — a no frills competence that seemed perfectly in sync with the ethos of Verizon, a corporate monolith who would never, ever drop your call.

Of course, Paul’s defection isn’t of the magnitude of, say, Colonel Sanders pitching for Popeye’s or Mr. Clean repping for Tilex. But it might be enough to make loyal customers stop and consider switching cell networks. Until I saw the Sprint ad, I hadn’t realized he actually left the company in 2010. By nabbing Paul for its own purposes, Sprint has turned appropriation upside down: this time it’s the little guy who’s raiding the cell tower, stealing from the corporate titan. By appropriating Verizon’s high-profile brand ambassador, Sprint is reaping all the hard-earned trust and goodwill Paul built up during his decade-long career at Verizon.

Having a spokesperson can be a quick road to marketing gold, but unlike the Snuggle Bear or the Hamburger Helper glove, real people are flawed creatures who can damage your brand. Who can forget the fantastically reptilian ShamWow spokesman, who went down in a 2009 prostitution and battery arrest? And in more recent times, it’s hard to imagine how Subway will recover from the Jared Fogle fiasco.

Marcarelli’s switch to Sprint is far from a Subway-sized debacle. On the contrary, the Sprint spokesman seems pretty even keeled — even boringly so — with a long history of representing the giants of telecom. But despite his less-than-scandalous demeanor, Marcarelli has done his part in tarnishing Verizon’s reputation. He recently offered up dirty details about Verizon’s draconian contract and his subsequent firing by email. After turning his burn into a win, yes, Paul — we can certainly hear you now. Perhaps the best defense against brand appropriation is to treat your spokespeople like, well, people.

Written by Laura Newsome on August 29, 2016


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Written by
Laura Newsome