Expressive Commons

Brands Transformed into Self-Expression

When I attended Penn State in the last ’70’s, my parents bought me a school jacket.  It was a standard-issue, dark blue wool jacket with PENN STATE printed boldly in white block letters across the back.  I liked (and needed) the jacket for its warmth, but I really didn’t like having PENN STATE plastered across my back.  I wasn’t exactly ashamed of being associated with Penn State.  It was more about not wanting to feel like I was inadvertently providing free advertising for the school.  I felt vaguely “used” by the institution to promote itself.

And so, I set about to correct the situation.  One night, in my apartment with a small scissors, I began cutting the stitches, one by one, from the inside of the jacket.  I intended to keep the jacket, but lose the PENN STATE.

Perhaps it was the astonishing number of tiny stitches, or maybe it was the clumsiness of the tool I was using, but this was taking forever.  Finally, after much more time and effort than I had expected, I successfully removed one letter.  One down, eight to go.  Holding it up to see my progress, my jacket boldly proclaimed PENN STAT.

And then, of course, it hit me.  Here was a message I could get behind (or, more precisely, put behind me).  A subtle protest to what I considered the dehumanizing nature of such a mass institution.  I imagined that some people — if they noticed it at all — might “get” it; it would be like a sort of “wink” to them.  Still others might understand the intended message and be annoyed; and I was OK with that.

So, I aborted my original plan to remove the remaining letters.  And, transforming serendipity into intention, I proudly wore that jacket around campus from then on.

And, over the years, I’ve noticed some other instances of commercial trademarks or logos being “transformed” into other forms of self-expression.  The most common example I’ve noticed is on the tailgates of Toyota pick-up trucks; by removing the first two and last two letters of the boldly capitalized brand name, one is left with a nicely centered and hard-to-miss “YO” — an expression particularly popular in Philadelphia.

And, just the other day, I noticed some sort of image on the car in front of me.  Looking closely, I noticed it was an owl — created by “enhancing” the Mazda logo:

I don’t know what this phenomenon of transforming brands “means”, if anything.  Some, like my PENN STAT jacket, may be the result of accident turned into purpose.  Others, like the Mazda owl, are creatively premeditated.  But, they all contain some spark of visual jujitsu, in which somebody takes an institution’s identification and turns it into a personal message of an entirely different nature.

So, I’ll keep my eye out for more examples — and welcome any others that people may share.  And, when I see them, I expect to smile.

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