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Posted at 02:16 PM ET, 06/24/2011

The malign tailors: al-Qaeda, branding and sequelitis


More of the same. (©Disney/Pixar - ©Disney/Pixar)
Some say our biggest problem as a society is the recession or the debt limit or the fact that we are laboring under the delusion that the Kardashians are people you Keep Up With rather than People You Ostracize and Pointedly Ignore When You Spot Them At The Grocery.

But judging by this week, I think it’s sequelitis.

Everywhere you look, there are sequels. “Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon.” “Harry Potter 7.5.” “Cars 2.” “The Hangover 2.” The biggest selling point in a movie title is no longer the franchise name. It’s the numeral.

It’s almost ridiculous. “Final Fantasy 3”? Doesn’t that make the original “Antepenultimate Fantasy”? If it’s not sequels, it’s prequels. If it’s not sequels or prequels, it’s reboots. In the past 10 years, all 10 top-grossing movies have been sequels — except “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” and that hardly counts as original.

There’s a certain amount of risk involved in biting into something you have never tasted before. Try something new? We might not like it.

A film not based on something I already have in my house? A candidate whose name I haven’t already heard a dozen times? Are you crazy?

Forget people. People can change. We don’t want change, in spite of what we said during the last election.

Instead, we want brands.

Brands are people with the inconsistencies removed. They are the promise of more of the same, the standardized product, the reassurance of familiarity. Sarah Palin has even gone so far as to trademark her name.

“Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative,” Oscar Wilde said. Who needs imagination? That might result in something we hadn’t seen before.

2008, as an election, was an overwhelming success — all candidates who’d been “SNL” fixtures for years! 2012 confronts us with new faces — Pawlenty? Is that a kind of Southern breakfast sausage?

The biggest complaint about the Republican primary field, so far, has been that people don’t already know what they think of the candidates. “I don’t have any preformed opinions about them,” they mutter. “Can’t we draft Giuliani?” Novelty? Seems wrong.

But it’s hard to blame us. Everywhere you turn, you can customize your settings. Don’t like Hillary Clinton? There’s an app for that. Don’t want any opinions from the wrong side of the aisle? Just click a button or flip the channel.

Even news is going this route.

AOL, Twitter, Google News and new services like Trove all boast that they will get you the News That You Are Already Interested In. If a tree falls in a forest and nobody has listed Trees Falling In Forests in their news preferences, does it still make a sound? Maybe not.

This is customization nation. Again! More! we shout. Louder!

It’s the flip side of our increasing trend toward a “tailored experience.” Forget tailored suits. We want tailored movies, tailored music, tailored opinions. But tailored suits make you more appealing. Tailored opinions tend to have the opposite effect.

It’s superficially nice. Eating things that don’t agree with you is unpleasant — and yelling at your steak about health-care reform tends to disturb the other restaurant patrons. Listening to things that don’t agree with you is superficially unpleasant as well.

But to cultivate taste, or opinions, or the ability to understand why we liked what we liked, we once had to be exposed to what we didn’t. No longer! Just fill out a questionnaire and an algorithm will handle it for you. Develop the faculty of discrimination? That sounds bad, like something we wisely stopped doing in the ’60s.

“Discriminating means understanding the value of difference,” someone feebly objects. “And you can’t do that if you never encounter anything different.”

“If that’s what you think, I’m unfollowing you on Twitter,” we shoot back.

These days, we move about in our bubbles, getting our news not from the newspaper, where news for People Who Like Sports mingles with news for People Who Could Give A Hoot And Just Bought This Paper For The Crossword, but from our Twitter feeds, with the customization settings ratcheted up to the max. But by never having to hear anything we don’t want to hear, we divest ourselves of the ability to have a discussion that amounts to more than foaming at the mouth.

Once everything is customized to your taste, you begin to forget that it can look any other way. It ceases to be a matter of preference and becomes Simply The Way Things Are.

Disagreement can be unpleasant. So eliminate it! Cling to your corner of the Internet. Sure, they say that if two people always agree, one is unnecessary. But I’m pretty sure it’s the other guy.

“If you know you’ll like it, why bother trying anything else?” we say, lining up for “Transformers 82: The Streets.”

But live by the brand, die by the brand.

Eventually, too much of the same cloys, no matter how much we think it won’t. There is a man in Wisconsin who can eat a Big Mac every day, but most of us lack the tolerance.

That’s where the brands get stuck. They only know how to give us more of what they thought we wanted. Palin’s flagging now — not because she’s changed but because she’s stayed the same, and we’re getting tired of it.

But old habits die hard. If the brand fails, it’s not that trying to produce The Same But Louder grew tiresome! Nonsense! We just need a shinier wrapper. Don’t retreat! Reboot! Rebrand! Mitt Romney unbuttons his collar. Miley Cyrus removes all her clothing and dresses up as a bird. Even Osama bin Laden bought into this; some of his e-mails suggested that al-Qaeda should just rebrand itself to build appeal. How about adding Jihad back into the name?

But this changes nothing.

There is only one known cure for sequelitis: to try something new.

And that sounds risky.

By  |  02:16 PM ET, 06/24/2011

Tags:  customization, brands, Osama

 
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