Candlepower

Ad and marketing creatives

The You Decade

I've been seeing a lot of You lately. Not specifically you, dear reader, but You, the second-person advertorial. Yes, after years of talking about us, marketers have taken a shine to You. And they're eager to tell You just how important you are to their business.

Take a look around:

  • Yahoo's latest campaign says the Internet-services giant is "Totally Y!ou." (The exclamation point is part of the Yahoo logo.) In case that's not direct enough, Yahoo is happy to explain: "The Internet is under new management. Yours." And also: "There's a new master of the digital universe: You."
  • The mobile-phone company HTC advertises that it's "all about YOU." "You don't need to get a phone," the ads inform us. "You need a phone that gets you."
  • The Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, in San Francisco, announces on its billboards and website: "You are unlike any other."
  • Last November, Philadelphia unrolled a new city slogan: "Life · Liberty · and You." The three-part tagline is, of course, a twist on the Declaration of Independence's somewhat loftier "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." According to the Philadelphia Business Journal, the you in the new slogan is meant to be "a call to action for individuals to help market the city, including its meetings and conventions business." But it could equally apply to "all of you tourists out there."

Who's this You, and why is the second-person pronoun so ubiquitous in marketing-speak right now?

For starters, it's a different you from the one in marketing efforts of an earlier era. When, in that famous World War I poster, Uncle Sam pointed and glared and insisted that he wanted you, it was because you were being summoned to the front lines. When Smokey the Bear warned for more than half a century that only you could prevent forest fires, it was to shame you into shouldering responsibility for the common good. The you in those campaigns was the object of lectures and warnings.

Now? The new You is the one in charge. You're important, powerful, and — above all — demanding. Do you crave the latest phone apps? Prefer pink unicorns and rainbows on your home page? Want to read only celebrity gossip? No problem — you are in charge of your media, your computer, your car's interior. The cumulative effect of these messages: You're not just the master of your domain; you're the center of the universe — the You-niverse, if you will.

When you get right down to it, the new You looks a lot like the old Me, the star of the Me Decade. Nearly 30 years after Tom Wolfe coined that phrase to describe the passive self-absorption of the 1970s, the narcissistic Me has been transformed into the sycophantic You.

For better and worse, the new You can be found throughout the culture. Dr. Mehmet Oz and Michael Roizen have penned a series of best-selling YOU books that tell you all about the world's most fascinating subject. A partial list includes YOU: The Owner's Manual; YOU: On a Diet; YOU: Staying Young; and YOU: The Smart Patient. They may have been following the advice of numerous business-writing guides that urge "you-attitude" — putting yourself in the customer's shoes and addressing him or her directly.

And the you focus goes all the way to the top. President Obama's version of a fireside chat is called Your Weekly Address — and you can watch it on (what else?) YouTube.

The ads, books, and advice are recent, but there's a long timeline to the You-ification of marketing. Time magazine's 2006 Person of the Year was, of course, you. (Go ahead — put it on your résumé!) The cover featured a mirror. Time's editors wrote:

We're looking at an explosion of productivity and innovation, and it's just getting started, as millions of minds that would otherwise have drowned in obscurity get backhauled into the global intellectual economy. Who are these people? . . . Who has that time and that energy and that passion?

The answer is, you do.

Time was mirroring a decade-long theme. Back in 1997, best-selling business author Tom Peters had written a galvanizing article, "The Brand Called You," for Fast Company. "The good news," Peters wrote, "is that everyone has a chance to stand out." The article ended with a rousing call to arms:

It's this simple: You are a brand. You are in charge of your brand. There is no single path to success. And there is no one right way to create the brand called You. Except this: Start today. Or else.

Around the same time as that Tom Peters article, Microsoft began using "Where Do You Want to Go Today?" as its tagline, positioning the company as a sort of butler or valet in service to the customer's needs. But the true Brand You pioneer may have been — of all things — the U.S. Army, which introduced "Be All That You Can Be" as its slogan in 1981. The slogan lasted a remarkable 20 years and transformed the concept of voluntary military service from patriotic duty to Maslovian self-actualization.

Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with focusing on you, the customer. We tune out companies that talk only about "us." (My personal pet peeve is corporate slogans that harp on "our passion for ___.")  And it can seem disingenuous when companies use "me" and "my" to speak for their customers: (Think "MyYahoo" and all the other My clones that emerged in the original dot-com explosion.)

Still, I confess I'm a bit uncomfortable with the new you in marketing. I want companies to be responsive but not obsequious. And, to be honest, a lot of the new you-talk is about the illusion of control, not substantive change. I, for one, wouldn't mind a little more of Uncle Sam's and Smokey's tough talk and a little less of Time's self-congratulation.

Of course, that's just me. How about you?


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Wednesday February 24th 2010, 3:41 AM
Comment by: Gulnara I. (Karlsruhe Germany)
Very interesting, from the company's perspective I think it is worthwhile to address the customer as you, but from a personal point of view - it is to much. When all the world is poking into you telling, You, yes You! Now or never. I think it too much, sometimes one wants just to shut all windows and stay only in really Your world.
Wednesday February 24th 2010, 9:29 AM
Comment by: Craig B.
I'm sitting here reading your article, staring at my cup of Starbucks coffee:

YOU.
Are a pioneer
in using recycled cups.

Everything we do, you do. Your business lets Starbucks do business in a way that's better for the planet. Like leading the way in cup technology with the first U.S. hot cups made with 10% post-consumer recycled fiber, and cup sleeves that use 60%. Starbucks is working on a cup that's 100% recyclable too. It's what we can do, because of what you do. Good for you, you.

Starbucks
SHARED PLANET
You and Starbucks. It's bigger than coffee.

Find out what else you can do at
starbucks.com/sharedplanet.
Wednesday February 24th 2010, 9:33 AM
Comment by: Denise (charlotte, NC)
If you ( I ) am a brand I hope in this world I am a worthy brand for something greater than just me, myself and I or you or whatever the current term is for self. I would say I am a Christian, but I think that brand has been overused and abused, and honestly it is not even in scripture but about 3 times. Disciple is a brand though far superior to the idea of the narcisssim , far superior to the idea ofme or you that the world so earnestly seeks to create in us.The brand of disciple inspires us to something greater than ourselves and the instant gratification our culture offers. It inspires us to look to the interests of others, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to think of the greater need. Now that is a brand worthy of advertizing!
Wednesday February 24th 2010, 9:59 AM
Comment by: KAR
I do
Wednesday February 24th 2010, 1:17 PM
Comment by: Jacqueline (Hollister, CA)
Interesting article. I look at it as the age we are living. Marketing ideas change with the times. If a company finds it is connecting with customers by addressing them directly and business increases. Then everyone will "ride that train". I am a copywriter and I find readers connect much better with an articles or a blog post using "You". It's like sitting across the table from a friend and having a good conversation.

Then again your call to action without "you" wouldn't work now, would it?
Wednesday February 24th 2010, 2:48 PM
Comment by: ghislain L. (st-pascal Canada)
As in the French language we have two forms for "You" : Vous et TU ,then the marketing will certainly one day address you with "tu" which is more intimate.
Wednesday February 24th 2010, 4:49 PM
Comment by: richard P.
Hi Nancy!
Great piece you! Quite interesting. Christopher Hitchens caught onto this phenomenon a little while ago and wrote about it in Vanity Fair or Slate. I just tried to find the article but couldn't. (He kept seeing little signs in hotel rooms, etc. "You deserve a good night's sleep. "Your breakfast is waiting.")

It's a tricky business. At one level, any company that uses you in the way that large companies like Yahoo! and Microsoft use it, sounds utterly insincere. Completely phony.

In that context, you has become a cheap shortcut to mimic the sound, feel and texture of a real conversation and genuine engagement between company and customer. And typical of these sorts of fetishes, it gets used to the point of absurdity and loses all meaning.

It takes real work, hard work, to write copy that sounds like one person conversing with another. In corporate America, where agencies, department heads, copywriters, PR people, all have a spoon in the pot,
real conversation doesn't stand a chance.

Hence, we have you.

Terrific piece. Thank YOU.
Thursday February 25th 2010, 3:16 AM
Comment by: Trina B.
Thanks Nancy - very interesting article.

Made me think twice about two recent uses of the U-word here in France. The French army has just launched a big advertising campaign with the slogan "Become Yourself" (Devenez Vous-même). And the supermarket chain Casino says: "Casino is good because it's You" (Casino c'est bien parce que c'est Vous - strong accent on the last word).

I shall see all that differently now.
Thursday February 25th 2010, 8:16 AM
Comment by: Denise (charlotte, NC)
When a person says ....."You should go take a nap " or "You should go to that show", I wonder are they actually speaking a subliminal desire of their own into someone else's life.

For example, when he coined the phrase "Where Do You Want to Go Today?", perhaps Tom Peters was in fact in some deep recesses of his mind wondering that very question for himself . Notice the diffference in the ways different people employ the word "you". Usage often gives evidence of the word as a subliminal tool to convey a person's innermost thoughts or desires. Obama was sure he could and conveyed that with "yes WE (you) can...............
Thursday February 25th 2010, 3:11 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, everyone, for your thoughtful comments. Thanks especially to Richard for mentioning Christopher Hitchens and for later emailing me the link: http://www.slate.com/id/2163657/ . Until yesterday, I'd never read that article; if I had, I would have linked to it in the article! That'll teach me to be more diligent and creative in my research.

Trina and Ghislain, thanks for the international perspective!

Good point, Denise, about the subconscious projection that may be at play here. One minor correction: It was Microsoft, not Tom Peters, that came up with "Where Do You Want to Go Today?" Tom Peters is responsible for "Brand You."
Monday March 1st 2010, 7:34 PM
Comment by: Peter R.
"And, to be honest, a lot of the new you-talk is about the illusion of control, not substantive change." That's what it's about, isn't it? The message is: you're really the center of your universe, in command, in control, able to have things just the way you want.." - while outside things spin out of control ever more vertiginously. No? Marketers know what we crave: a sense that, reality notwithstanding, each of us still calls our own shots.

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