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Monday, December 1, 2008

Family Photos in the United States of Advertising

Melissa, Sam and Larry - Photo by: Hilary McHone

Melissa Lopata

Paul Krassner, once referred to the USA as the United States of Advertising. So this holiday season, in the spirit of over-analyzing everything I do, I couldn't help but contemplate the power of “the brand”. Branding, in all of its forms, whether understated or over the top, really captures the restless energy of American capitalism. Whether it is how we package our laundry detergent, nail polish or ourselves, the belief that something (or someone) can evoke the possibility of the ultimate life is a big part of this culture. These days, branding oneself is the chance of distinguishing oneself as a free agent in an economy of free agents, in order to be able to live well and prosper. However, outside of any intrinsic economic payback, we are also just plain taken with the allure of how we can differentiate ourselves from the pack.

Nowhere do we see the ubiquitous spell that advertising casts more clearly then around the holidays. Everything and everyone has a chance to be a brand worthy of remark. For instance, I’d never really thought of family holiday greeting cards as a form of personal branding until last year. The cards started trickling in slowly by Thanksgiving, finally reaching their crescendo in December. Right there, in our mailbox, a flurry of characters took shape.

The Merrill family, showed up on a 4X6, black & white matte postcard. Their porcelain complexions retouched to perfection. They looked like a cover of Vanity Fair. Sophisticated, attractive, and chic - A mother, father and toddler gazing confidently into the camera with perfect posture, wearing matching black cashmere turtlenecks. Then came, the Wisemans, wearing flip flops, Bermuda shorts and sundresses, all leaning in towards the camera with enormous, toothy smiles on their marvelous, sun-kissed faces. In the backdrop, a set design of cartoon waves with sand and a huge beach umbrella in bright, bold summer colors. The card read: “Wishing You The Warmest Holiday Ever!”

Even our single friends were in the game. Jessica, our actress friend from LA, sent a glamorous photo of herself wearing an evening dress, billowy hair and a seductive grin.

The Hines, an eccentric, wealthy and fun loving family sent a card with a series of informal comedic scenes. In one scene, the father wore a preppy, plaid outfit, funny enormous glasses and a pipe. In another, the family’s oversized poodle was tangled in brightly lit Christmas lights. On a sailboat, the daughter, son and wife wore wigs and funny expressions while giving a thumbs-up and an exaggerated wink in unison.

One card looked like an album cover. In it, a gorgeously disheveled “earth mother” and rock star looking dad stood by their young son with poker faces like members of his band. The boy wore a badass, black muscle shirt and posed like he was Jimi Hendrix playing his electric guitar. The whole effect seemed like a natural expression of a day in their life. Sort of like, they just rolled out of bed and someone snapped the perfect shot. They looked so irreverent, urban and hip!

Some of the more wholesome and traditional greeting cards sent shots of kids propped on Santa’s lap, or lined up in order of height in front of a Christmas tree. Their stiff bodies turned sideways with their arms to their sides and only their faces dutifully rotated towards the camera like a vintage Norman Rockwell.

"Pine Cone, Not Poop" - Seasons Greetings from the Lopatas
Photo by: Hilary

This year I suddenly became impassioned by the idea of our own family’s debut on a holiday greeting card. I really don’t know why, I guess I just wanted to join the fun. I decided I‘d hire a professional photographer to take our first official family portrait. We met with Hilary McHone, also known as "Brooklyn Hilary" in Prospect Park in the last days of fall. Hilary is an amazing photographer with an easygoing personality that helps put anyone at ease. I needed that. I was nervous because we’re such a new family and I wasn’t sure how our group personality would emerge on film. Would we look dorky? or “too cool for school”? Would it seem too posed or contrived? …. Would my nose look enormous? I wondered if a $4,000 camera could miraculously transform my husband and I into celebrity types.

In the end, the shoot was different then anything I could have planned. To make a long story short … never underestimate the challenges of photographing a toddler! We spent the whole session, periodically feeding him chicken mcnuggets to illicit smiles. We threw leaves into the air, and snapped our fingers in front of us and yelled, “Look at the doggie!! The doggie!!” in order to get my 15 month old son, Sammy, to look straight at the camera.

After an hour, Hilary was able to get a few pretty good shots. In one of them (see photo above), Sammy managed to pick up a pine cone that looked deceptively like a piece of dog poop and walked towards Hilary to offer it to her. Snap!! There we are. The Lopatas immortalized on film: Sammy with what looked like a piece of poop in his hand and us looking on in amusement. It was priceless! That’s our boy! Was the "Pine cone, not poop" photo our new brand identity? I’d hoped that something much more glamorous and pristine would have materialized from the shoot, but somehow this seemed right on target for now.

Our sense of identity as a new family is still evolving. There is always an element of choice in the image we choose to portray to the outside world. I realized that despite the most successful personal branding campaign, the reality of a person lies somewhere in between one’s unpolished core and a specific type of image you are deliberately trying to portray…and sometimes a great brand identity is revealed as an image of yourself you may stumble upon accidentally. I think we may have stumbled upon something. Have a Happy Holiday Season! From the Lopata Family.

Melissa Lopata is the Founding Editor of Hip Slope Mama.