Jump The Band

This also appeared, in adapted form, in the
January 23, 2006 edition of The Christian Science Monitor.

Just last week, walking through the lobby of my favorite movie megaplex with my children, we were accosted by people paid to bother us. The offered my children tattoos, and stretchy bracelets. They were pitching a mobile phone geared towards kids. Back home, I noticed, forgotten in a pile of family-room detritus, a lime-green stretchy bracelet emblazoned with “July 16, 2005.” I could not recall what important event took place that day that deserved such commemoration. My wife, who knows things, told me that it was the release date for the latest Harry Potter book.

The bright yellow “LIVESTRONG” bracelet took us by storm when Lance Armstrong first began peddling it. It was a cool way to let people know you were down with fighting cancer. Part of its mystique was its mystery. The band didn’t say a word about its cause — just “LIVESTRONG.” Katie Couric and Matt Damon were seen sporting the silicone doodads, as were Olympic athletes in Athens. Of course, Nike was involved as distributors, which added to the cool factor. (John Kerry wore one too, though I do not know whether that helped or hindered in the cool department.)

The siren song proved too strong for those in charge of the “social marketing” of other important causes. There was one for breast cancer (pink), one for poverty (white), one for AIDS and HIV (red). The epilepsy band is red and blue, while the anti-racism band is black and white (natch).

Now, smelling cash, profiteers are pumping out the bracelets with nary a cause in sight. You can buy silicone bracelets to honor your home team or to commemorate a birthday. Web sites compete with one another in offering personalized bands, touting their prowess with orders as few as 20. The social movement has become the micro-statement.

Silicone bracelets are to this decade what colored ribbons were to the 1990’s. Empty symbols, formerly heartfelt but quickly co-opted by marketers of both causes and consumer goods.

But, before we bash the little band, step back a bit. Just after 9/11, American flag decals appeared on cars as a sign of solidarity. I still have one on mine. Then you began to see bumper stickers with slogans attached to the flags, as if just the flags weren’t enough. In the same way, the yellow ribbon of the early 1990’s became the pink ribbon, then the red ribbon. During one telecast of the Academy Awards, at the height of the ribbon frenzy, it seemed everyone had one on their lapel. Now, the tiny ribbon has grown into a magnetic car decal, ribbon-shaped. I can choose from a tapestry of causes to support, from bringing the troops home to helping the learning-disabled. I can switch from day to day, magnetically, to fit my mood.

For organizations, it’s a dilemma. Once something attains the state of “cool” in our society, it becomes an attractive way to get messages out. Most causes are strapped for cash and don’t have multi-millions at their disposal for advertising campaigns. Noting a trend, it is tempting to want to capitalize on it. After all, one of the chief barriers that many causes face is awareness — few know about the cause I may be a deep believer in. So, taking advantage of something that’s cool for no other reason than to boost awareness is understandable.

Those touched by the issue wear the bands, or affix the stickers, all in an authentic attempt to show allegiance. But, add it all up, and there is a tragedy of the commons at work. Mine is not the only cause. There are many organizations just like mine, all of whom see the same “cool” thing out there in popular culture. They seem all to have jumped on board.

Each jumping-on-the-bandwagon move not only lessens the impact for all, but once a tipping point is reached, it makes the whole thing seem silly. Bands and ribbons have reached that state, as the glut of the things attests.

There is a term among observers of popular culture: “jump the shark.” This refers to the episode of “Happy Days” in which the erstwhile cool Fonz jumps over a shark on waterskis. Yes, like Evel Kneivel, only wet. In the eyes of many, the venerable “Happy Days” was never the same after that. The shark episode was the turning point after which the show lost its last bit of relevance. Now, “jumping the shark” refers to any such turning point.

When did silicone bands jump the shark? Was it when the first non-yellow one was produced? Was it when the first eBay listing offering counterfeit versions was posted? Or was this fate foreordained the moment some well-meaning nonprofit executive saw that yellow bracelet on a child and thought, “That could be my message?”

Such is the nature of shark-jumping that you only know it in hindsight. So, it is still too early to say. But I do know this: I have a drawer of colored stretchy bracelets, and couldn’t tell you what half of them are for, nor whether the group that gave them out still exists.

And for that, I don’t blame the manufacturers, nor the wearers, nor even the counterfeiters. But, the social marketers have something to answer for.