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.