Hollywood and Brand USA.

So, I’ve seen Top Gun: Maverick. Man, I missed my calling!

See, when I was a kid, I wanted to be a fighter pilot. Zip across enemy lines and leave napalm in my wake. Every 1 October, I run onto the streets to wave at the fighter jets streaking across the sky. I saw myself one day in one of those jets. But somehow, I ended up in Brand Management. Yet my father was good to our village people. 

Now, I don’t want to hear the tosh that I have a gift for writing and my gift will make a way for me. First, that Scripture is always quoted out of context. Second, let me ask you: have you been privileged to see me in a Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II? That’s right, you haven’t. Because no one sees me coming! Swoosh and your base is cinder. 

Even if you are not into military movies or haven’t seen Top Gun (1986), you should still see Top Gun: Maverick. Tom Cruise was made for “Maverick” just as Johnny Depp was made for Captain Jack Sparrow. The dialogue, acting, plot and directing were brilliant. It’s a stirring movie. 

But this is not a review of Top Gun: Maverick. This piece is about branding. About how Hollywood and TV are one of the biggest touchpoints for Brand America. 

Think about it. Of all the places on earth a young Superman could tumble into, it had to be Smallville, Kansas. Not Yakutsk. Not Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber or Dorchester-on-Thames. It was Kansas.

And who saves our butt when a heinous alien race rolls up on Eart?  Or when a 1-trillion-kilometer-wide asteroid hurtles towards us? Of course, it’s always the smart people at NASA.

Before visiting America, a lot of my knowledge about American life was gleaned from movies. Growing up, I loved Uncle Sam. How could I not when I saw Chuck Norris kick the butt of 200 Viet Congs all by himself! That was who I wanted to be like when I grew up. Not losers like J.D. Rockefeller, Warren Buffet or Steve Jobs. 

America is deliberate about its perception. It’s the world’s best country and leading power. On the big screen, the CIA is the most renowned spook agency. The NYPD always catches the bad guys and hospitals battle to save lives. The reality is of course different. Your butt had better have health insurance or you’re toast.  

Back to Top Gun: Maverick. It would have been impossible to make the flick without the support of the Department of Defense (DoD). The DoD, through its Entertainment and Media Unit, has been partnering with Hollywood for close to a century. The DoD has found Hollywood to be a great partner in selling the US military to the public and the world. In turn, the DoD helps studios reduce production costs. Building military sets or renting military equipment can be expensive for studios. The DoD helps studios reduce costs by providing equipment and personnel free. You want to shoot a scene on the USS Nimitz? The DoD makes it happen. Need F-22s, tanks, destroyers, Black Hawks or SEALs or Top Gun trainers? You holla at the DoD. They are like a genie.

But there are conditions. The DoD’s Entertainment and Media Unit must read and approve your script. The US military must be portrayed in stellar light. Sensitive equipment or matters can’t be disclosed. Scenes and plots must be accurate in representing the professionalism and capabilities of the US military. If you need US military equipment, location or expertise, you have to agree to their inputs in your story. 

Studios can of course exercise their First Amendment rights and tell the Pentagon to shove it and source your gear some other way. The DoD backed out of supporting Independence Day because the studio refused to remove mentions and scenes about Area 51. The DoD also didn’t support Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty because of the movie’s CIA torture scenes (“America does not torture”) and its understatement of the role the Obama Administration played in tracking and killing Osama Bin Laden. And while there’s always been sustained collaboration between the Pentagon and Marvel, the two fell out in The Avengers. The Pentagon thought the shadowy S.H.I.E.L.D was too “unrealistic.” Marvel didn’t agree. The Pentagon said no can’t deal. Marvel went ahead to produce the movie without Pentagon’s support. But by and large, the Pentagon and Hollywood have always scratched each other’s back.    

In the influential marketing text, How Brands Grow, Byron Sharp argues that the key marketing task is to make a brand easy to buy. For Sharp, this is achieved by building the brand’s mental and physical availability. Building mental availability requires distinctiveness and clear branding. Physical availability requires increasing the breadth and depth of distribution (physical presence). 

So how does Brand America build distinctiveness and clear branding? Well, look no further than American news, TV, and Hollywood. They sell a clear branding message about Uncle Sam.  

The American Dream. 

Land of The Free, Home of the Brave. 

The Founding Fathers. 

We hold this truth to be self-evident…

“There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”

“America is hope. It is compassion. It is excellence. It is valor.”

And for physical availability, oh, America’s presence is everywhere. In sports, embassies, NGOs, corporations, brands, military bases and alliances. The Stars and Stripes is the most recognizable flag in the world. 

If you want to know how persuasive TV can be, think about Russia. Thanks to Hollywood, we grew up believing Russia was a bad deal. Russian villains were the worst. They’ll kill you, kill your dog, kill your dog’s vet and even kill the cat that fought your dog. Russia was unfeeling, cruel and a sworn enemy of freedom and America. When I think of Russia, I think of a cold, austere and soulless place. I think of gulags, a conscience-less KGB and mean soldiers. Yet I have never been to Russia. Many folks probably cannot think of a Russia outside The Hunt for Red October, Tinker Sailor Soldier Spy or Red Sparrow. Not that Comrades Lenin, Stalin and Putin have done Russia’s perceptions any favours. You only need to look at what is going on in Ukraine to agree with the narrative about Russia. 

So, when next you are watching a Hollywood flick, know you are being sold America, subliminally or otherwise. It’s not a bad product. I only like to know when I’m served a Kool-Aid.   

PS: Here’s a fun fact. Top Gun was the highest-grossing movie of 1986. It was in cinemas for months. The United States Navy set up recruitment desks at many cinemas for wannabe flyboys. Many reports claimed recruitment into the US Navy increased by over 500% during the cinema run of the movie!


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