American Pharoah vs. The United States of On Demand
Victor Espinoza said he knew coming out of the first turn.
Knew that the hiccup at the gate wouldn’t matter. That the previous 37 years didn’t either. And that American Pharoah would dictate the terms of the next mile-and-a-quarter, fending off all comers with strides that seemed to stretch the lengths of Cadillacs.
It would take a bit longer for the rest of us to know. But soon we too understood just how transcendent two-and-a-half minutes of flapping silk can be. Still, as the afterglow smoldered into something more contemplative, many of us came to a different conclusion. Consciously or not, we began to register that the previous 37 years did matter, and that they mattered a great deal.
On the Monday following the first triple crown since 1978, sports writers and cultural columnists noted just how rare it was to see a unanimous, uncomplicated joy spread from the grandstand, over the airwaves, and into the digital zeitgeist. Blogs dissected the event. Newsfeeds echoed the homestretch replay. And friends-of-friends who wouldn’t know groom from gelding high-fived in the comments sections. A collective fascination had taken hold. One that certainly had something to do with a remarkable animal accomplishing one of the most difficult feats in sports. But one that had everything to do with the 37 years since it happened last.
In his reliably brilliant way, Charles Pierce used a Grantland column to point out that it wasn’t as much the collection, but the content of those years that struck us so.
This was something that hadn’t happened since before the Internet, before the Macintosh and the iPod, before companies merged and banks swelled, and before instant communications and the marketing thereof. The thrill was vestigial, at least by the standards of our age of perpetual motion. That’s what kept it pure. That was what kept it free. It was people and it was a horse, both genuine creatures from different parts of creation, beyond naming rights and copyrights, an easier place before brands.
“…an easier place before brands.” As a creative director, I’ll be chewing on that one for a while. Maybe because it’s hard to swallow. But maybe because I like the way it tastes.
Like everything along the continuum of arts and sciences, I believe marketing can illuminate the human condition. Unlike those other disciplines, however, it has a pitiful track record of doing so. Far too often we are bludgeoned with advertising that stokes our lesser impulses of greed, insecurity, and intellectual laziness. Far too seldom are we enlightened by messages that invoke the better angels — charm, vulnerability, empathy, wit.
This is why I‘m still savoring the marrow in the bone Pierce picked. We could be doing so much better in this industry. A lighter touch. A kinder eye. A broader focus on what makes us human instead of only what makes us act. The gap between what branding is and what branding could be is immense. Which makes the challenge of narrowing it irresistible.
And it’s certainly not just branding. It’s technology and culture and the unprecedented acceleration of their love affair. Since 1978, we’ve learned to engineer gratification in ways no one who watched Affirmed win the last triple crown could have imagined. We are now the United States of On Demand.
Money ball. Free two-day shipping. The complete new season of your favorite show in a single evening.
These are hardly signs of the apocalypse. And anyone who pretends to not live in an age of unparalleled potential is kidding themselves. But it’s equally delusional to deny that the more you engineer gratification, the less gratifying it becomes.
I suspect that this is what you really heard when Pharoah rounded the final turn, and the grandstand erupted, and 22 million of the rest of us hollered at our screens like lunatics sprung fresh from the booby hatch. This is what echoed on the blogs and in the replays: A collective exultation for something that couldn’t be dictated. Something that wasn’t engineered or even earned, but simply, and most importantly, waited for.
In a world where I’ve become conditioned to binge watch and put all my chips on the black of big data, I’m increasingly grateful for those truly special, rarest of happenings. The ones that none of us, nor all of us, could ever will into being.
So along with all the consumer-empowering innovations sure to keep coming down the pike, I’m now hoping for more things that happen less.
I'm not quite sure what that hope means for brands and the media they use to communicate. But I promise to keep chewing on it.