At first glance he was just one of countless blue collar workers living with his wife of 22 years in Queens, NY. It was the early 1970’s – a time of turmoil – anti-war protests, student unrest, civil rights activism- and a time that made the conservative Republican yearn for the ‘good old days’. Living with he and his wife were their adult daughter and her husband, an avowed liberal. The two men’s political and cultural differences – exaggerated by limited living space – combined to create quite a few tension filled interchanges between them.
The father-in-law – clearly bigoted – was a product of his upbringing. Born on May 20, 1924 – a Taurus – he allegedly suffered both verbal and physical abuse at the hand of his father. In spite of that, his father’s beliefs became ingrained with his own. He frequently told his wife to ‘stifle yourself’ and ‘dummy up’. His son-in-law was known as ‘meathead’ (dead from the neck up) – and dumb Polack. His use of ethnic slurs – “spics”, “hebes”, “coons”, “fags” – was commonplace. They were aimed at anybody that was different than he – certainly prejudiced but not intended to be malicious. He was loud, a buffoon, spewing malapropisms and logic which at times was clever but often not logical at all.
In spite of all of his views – his obvious bigotry – he became one of the most beloved men in America. That love was real – but the man was not. He was the lead character in a sitcom created by Norman Lear. It was a show inspired by a British comedy, Till Death Do Us Part. In conjunction with ABC television, Lear produced to two pilots in 1968 – Justice for All followed by Those Were the Days. Concerned with language and situations, they were ultimately rejected.
Robert Wood had become the new president of CBS and wanted programming directed at a younger audience – with that, Lear’s project was revived. The two battled over issues such as Lear wanting to film in black and white (Lear lost) and Woods wanted to eliminate some language and sexual innuendo (Lear held firm).
Some well known actors turned down the lead role until finally Lear offered the part to Carroll O’Conner. He accepted, but was skeptical about the potential success of the show to the point that, as part of his signing, he negotiated round trip airfare back to Italy where he was living. O’Conner, it turns out, was the perfect person for the part. He brought the character to life in a manner which allowed people to think of him as a real person.
The show that had been thrown to the junk heap – the show that had the network so nervous they added staff to answer the flood of calls they expected – the show that actually had a warning label of sorts – turned out to be the highest rated show for five consecutive years. The show remained on air for thirteen years – eight years in its original format.
Viewers that saw the intended satire – the effort to open eyes and change beliefs – loved the show’s lead character and the humor. The viewers that identified with the lead – those on whom the satire was lost – found the show funny and his views accurate. There was even a grassroots campaign to have him elected as President of the U.S. The show – All In The Family – set viewing records which lasted for decades, led to a half dozen spin-off shows and with them launched many careers.
The stratospheric success of the show is not what defined a fearless brand. It was a fearless brand. It was a fearless brand built from the creative mind of Norman Lear and the acting skills of Carroll O’Conner – that drove those impressive results. That fearless brand was, of course, Archie Bunker.
Fearless Brands are not strangers to criticism.
The show featured a disclaimer at its inception which read –
“The program you are about to see is ‘All in the Family.’ It seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices and concerns. By making them a source of laughter, we hope to show—in a mature fashion—just how absurd they are.”
From its first airing, All in the Family – and Archie Bunker in particular – sparked a very passionate debate about the effect of the show. One school believed that satirically showing the elements of bigotry would educate the public as to the breadth and depth of prejudice. Many felt that the opposite would result – that the show would soften the harsh edges of bigotry and make it seem in some way acceptable.
In only its fifth episode, All in the Family, introduced to television what is thought to be the first openly gay character. Lear used him to help break down stereotypical beliefs – the character, Steve, was a former football linebacker who loved archery and photography. What a great example of the quandary Archie was faced with numerous times throughout the series.
Through the years it was Archie Bunker that would soften. Through life experiences, he would become more aware of the fallacy of many of his beliefs. He would become more accepting – if not more understanding – of Judaism and Catholicism. Through his neighbors – George, Louise and Lionel Jefferson – he learned that his preconceptions of African-Americans were fraught with fallacy.
The debate as to the effectiveness of satire to change rather than reinforce beliefs continues to this day. I suspect that controversy is a long way from being resolved. What is not in question is the impact that Archie Bunker had on the television industry and the public.
So what can we learn from Archie Bunker about building our own fearless brands?
It’s the public that defines your brand – How can the same loud, blue collar, insensitive bigot be embraced equally by both those who appreciated the satire and those who found Bunker to be speaking the truth? Selective perception. Humans tend to notice and appreciate things they relate to and not see or forget things they find uncomfortable. That is why people can perceive the exact same stimulus in different ways and underscores that the best one can do is manage their brand – those that find relevance in your value will be attracted to you.
Multiple factors impact your brand – Archie Bunker’s character – our fearless brand – was shaped by numerous factors, beginning with a show in Britain. Norman Lear’s creativity, political beliefs and vision created the brand’s framework. The acting genius of Carroll O’Conner brought the brand to life. Consider all elements which affect how your brand is built. By example, if you’re an employer, embrace the full value of your employees.
Was Archie Bunker controversial? Absolutely. Did the character – the brand – bring all elements to bear to deliver the exact value it was built to be? Yes. There is not requirement to be controversial, but if your brand is genuine, don’t avoid conflict. Your success is determined by your value – discover it, embrace it, embellish it…whatever you do, don’t stifle it.