I’m currently reading Rob Walker’s 2008 book, Buying in: the Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are. I’m finding Walker’s chapter on “Hello Kitty” especially interesting in its own right and also because his description of the success of Hello Kitty has helped me to understand Sarah Palin.
Walker repeatedly points out that corporate logos are symbols and it is the consumers of modern corporate symbols (not those who create or promote those symbols) who imbue these symbols with meaning. Hello Kitty is an especially good example.
The Hello Kitty logo was created out of thin air in 1974 by the Japanese firm, Sanrio. Hello Kitty was not a character in a movie or story. When Hello Kitty was created, the symbol was “empty of specific meaning.” The Hello Kitty artwork was the work of an employee of Sanrio, Yuko Shimizu, who had been asked to design some logos to place on some small vinyl purses. Fast forward to the present. Hello Kitty can now be found on toys, clothes, computers, watches and lingerie. The symbol has had “astonishing success.” The Hello Kitty line has developed under licensing arrangements worth more than $1 billion a year in sales.
What is the secret of hello Kitty? According to Sanrio, “We work very hard to avoid things that would define the character.” The “mouthless cat” cannot be said to stand for any social or cultural idea, according to Walker. “Hello Kitty stands for nothing.” Yuko Shimizu indicates that she was simply trying to make an image that would appeal to little girls. A scholar named Brian McVeigh (quoted by Walker) indicates that Hello Kitty succeeds because the symbol has “projectability.”
Hello Kitty’s blank cryptic simplicity, he argues, is among her great strengths; standing for nothing, she is “waiting to be interpreted,” and this is precisely how an “ambiguous”– and let’s be frank: meaningless– symbol comes to stand for nostalgia to one person, fashion ability to another, camp to a third, vague subversiveness to a fourth.
“Without the mouth, it is easier for the person looking at Hello Kitty to project their feelings onto the character, explains a Sanrio spokesman quoted by McVeigh: “A person can be happy or sad together with Hello Kitty.” Hello Kitty, McVeigh argues, is a mirror that reflects whatever image, desire or fantasy in individual brings to it.
Belson and Bremner (also mentioned in Walker’s book) return to this theme repeatedly in their own book on Hello Kitty.
“What makes Kitty so intriguing is that she projects entirely different meanings depending on the consumer,” they write. The cat is “an icon that allows viewers to assign whatever meaning to her that they want.” . . . not only can Logos have meaning, and not only can that meeting be manufactured– it can be manufactured by consumers. Ultimately, a cultural symbol that catches on is almost never simply imposed, but rather is created and then tacitly agreed upon by those who choose to accept its meaning, wherever that meaning may have originated. That’s what Hello Kitty is: a cultural symbol. And a successful brand.
(Walker, pages 15 to 19). This idea of an empty and projectable logo also seems to describe Sarah Palin. Many conservatives loved Palin before they knew anything substantial about her. Granted, they knew Palin could read a teleprompter and rev up a crowd of conservatives, but what did they know about Palin’s character, her knowledge base and her ability to govern? They knew nothing about those critically important issues early on, but that didn’t stop them from making wild claims that Sarah Palin would make a great Vice-President. Now that freely available information shows that Palin is actually an ill-informed, spiteful, secretive woman deeply entrenched in cronyism, many conservatives love her all the more.
Those who, in the absence of substantiating evidence, believe that Sarah Palin has what it takes to be Vice-President are projecting. They are defining Palin rather than taking the time to learn who Palin really is.
Even though Sarah Palin actually has a mouth, her well-rehearsed beauty pageant smile, combined with the serious office she seeks, leaves us with a wide range of interpretations of who she is. Is she your girlfriend, your mother, a small town mayor, a Vice-President, an attack dog, a flirt, a hyper-moral woman, a neo-conservative, a maverick, a super-mom, a neglectful mother, a quick-study or someone who is proudly ignorant? Palin offers a lot of real estate to you as material for your personal projection as to who she is. And, vague as all of this is, this is as coherent as it gets–this is who she is, at least for those of us who are allergic to facts.