..is another man’s “pop-culture archive.” In Alex Shear’s world, branded products offer both a link to marketing’s past and a bridge to its future.
You can call him a nostalgia marketer, or a cultural anthropologist. You can call him a pop-culture archivist. Heck, you can call Alex Shear crazy if you want.
But if you do call him crazy (and you wouldn’t be the first), be prepared to admit that his insanity is probably of the “like a fox” variety – especially if such “under negotiation” projects as the TV show and book series reach fruition.
While most of the civilized world decries the infiltration of corporate branding into mainstream culture, Shear revels in it. Well, first he finds it. Then he buys it. Then he revels in it.
For the past three decades, Shear has been a collector of “stuff.” Miniature furniture. Packaged goods. Magnets. Branded premiums. Tin men. Product-shaped radios. Sculpted bullet casings. Pillows. If an item had a cherished place in the American home, chances are Shear has it. Maybe even two of it. His upper West Side apartment overflows with the minutiae of Americana, even though he has six other storage sites for the more than 50,000 items he has purchased.
Shear, 59, maintains that he’s had a goal in mind ever since he began visiting flea markets in the ’60s to research ideas for his job at JCPenney. He says he wanted to build an educational and entertaining historical archive that celebrated American pop culture, “then try to figure out how to make a business out of it.” In speaking with him, however, one gets the impression that his simple love of “stuff” (his father was a distributor of toys and seasonal products) had him motivated long before any ulterior plan had been formed.
FOB (Friend of brands)
Shear doesn’t specifically go looking for branded bric-a-brac when he cases the tag sales and flea markets of greater New York. He’s simply looking for anything that is “wow, wonderful, and wacky,” and reflects the time and the people that produced it. “I collect the art of the everyday,” he explains.
His background as a buyer, marketer, merchandiser, and product designer, first for Macy’s and JCPenney, then in entrepreneurial ventures (where he made the money to fund his current endeavors), has probably helped give the collection a certain “brand preference.” But in Shear’s opinion, you can’t talk about American culture without talking about corporate America; to him, America really is baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet.
“I look for items that mirror who we are as a people,” says Shear, whose collection focuses on the second half of the century. What he’s discovered is that packaged goods, advertisements, premiums, and other marketing images reflect the culture as well as any others. “Some of the best art in the world can be found in the refrigerator,” is one of his regular refrains.
“Companies like Coke, Procter & Gamble, and Kodak have had a tremendous influence on our culture,” Shear says. “If you want to see a history of America in this century, go look at Coca-Cola’s advertising.”
Coke is Shear’s favorite example. One need only take a quick tour of his apartment to understand how pervasive the brand has been. (Think Coke’s marketing efforts are overbearing now? Check out the cheerleader trophy made from a Coke can or the bottles of “Coca-Cola Syrup” – marketed as medicinal relief “for nausea and vomiting” – in his study.)
“Coke is brilliant. It’s just a company that sells carbonated, sweetened water,” he says. “But it wrapped itself around America’s popular culture. It rode the coattails of America through thick and thin, in peace and at war. It was there at every picnic,” he says.
Shear has been promoting himself and his collection for years. He’s loaned out items to film producers and ad agencies, but isn’t comfortable doing that anymore. (“Some of the stuff never came back. I realized I was furnishing the offices of creative directors.”) He’s created pop-culture exhibits for several museums, and lectured at schools and industry associations.
His story has always been quirky enough to attract some media attention, but the floodgates opened after The New Yorker ran a lengthy profile on him last July. He’s since received countless requests for interviews, is talking to publishers about a coffee-table book series, and will be in New Orleans for the NATPE conference later this month to pitch Shear Across America, an Antique Road Show-style TV series.
But as far as convincing corporations that his archives provide a trove of marketing possibilities, it’s been a windmill-battling effort. “They would look at my world and say it was totally crazy,” he says. Shear convinced one major brand to take a meeting years back, but arrived at corporate headquarters to find a cadre of lawyers interested in how his collection might infringe on trademark rights. “They just didn’t get it.”
Campbell Soup got it. Shear thinks Camden, NJ-based Campbell was more open to the concept of nostalgia marketing because Andy Warhol proved its potential with his soup-can art in the ’60s. “I can only assume Campbell was unhappy [with Warhol’s art] at first,” he says. “But I think they came to realize that this was one of the greatest [marketing] boosts they would ever get.”
“Andy Warhol elevated us to pop icon status,” concurs Marc Boston, Campbell’s manager of brand communications. “There was an immediate connection with Alex when we met him.”
The company hired Shear last October to emcee a media party held in New York City to formally roll out Campbell’s Ready To Serve Tomato Soup. Shear the artist mixed branded product and household items of different decades and milieus to create exhibits depicting Campbell’s place in American culture. Sporting a Warhol soup-can tie, Shear the showman opened the event with product demonstrations both general (a combination suitcase/traveling iron that somehow never caught on) and brand-specific (a hot plate Campbell’s supplied to roadside diners in days gone by).
“He was able to recreate the history of Campbell’s Soup in his exhibits,” says Boston. “He showed [the brand’s] impact on people’s lives in the past, and foreshadowed the similar impact we hope our new product will have. He took our story beyond the food pages.”
Boston believes Shear “can build on the equity of an existing brand. He can explain a brand’s positioning in the culture – if it has one.”
Although he’s interested only in American culture, Shear thinks such branding road shows can play just as well in Paree’s culture as they do in Peoria’s. “Foreigners go crazy for my stuff. American culture is now global culture. And the good news for me is that I own most of it.”
But he’s willing to share.