The Pain of Youth | Music Review | Chicago Reader

The Pain of Youth 

Tylenol goes underground to woo the 18-29 set.

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In the current issues of Spin, Arthur, Tokion, and the Fader, there's a free CD called Songs of Hurt and Healing, with three unreleased tracks from Texas drone-pop combo American Analog Set and three more from Brooklyn avant-folk trio White Magic. At a glance the disc looks like it might be a promotional sampler from Drag City or Tiger Style, but turn it over and you'll see an unobtrusive and unlikely credit: "Brought to you by Tylenol."

The CD is part of a multimedia marketing initiative--a "cultural relevance campaign," in the lingo of the business--that pharmaceutical giant McNeil began more than a year ago to sell the pain reliever to the 18-to-29 age group. In an effort to connect with indie rockers, hip-hop hipsters, skateboarders, comic book fans, and the like, McNeil's Ouch! campaign has already attached the Tylenol name to four zines, a set of collectible toys, a short film, a Web site, and more than a dozen events. A diverse roster of respected underground artists--graffiti auteur Stephen Powers, DFA noiseniks Black Dice, extreme sports photographer Tobin Yelland--has been enlisted to create works "inspired by the exploration of pain."

Ouch! is the handiwork of BrainReserve, a New York marketing company headed by trend guru Faith Popcorn. Dubbed the "Nostradamus of marketing" by Fortune magazine, Popcorn urged Pepsi to get into the business of bottled water back in the 80s, when the idea seemed ludicrous, and in the late 90s, well in advance of the fast-food backlash, encouraged McDonald's to create a health-conscious menu. Her company specializes in long-term strategy, and frequently helps large corporations anticipate changes they need to make to keep their brand identities vital and address consumer demands.

In late 2001 Popcorn approached McNeil with the pitch that evolved into the Ouch! initiative. "She said, 'You're about to lose a generation who don't feel you're relevant. To them, Tylenol is something that their mothers use,'" says Ouch! project manager Sophie Wong. In an attempt to dissuade younger consumers from gravitating to newer brands, McNeil and BrainReserve launched Ouch! in fall 2003; the campaign has been expanding steadily since and has cost several million dollars so far.

BrainReserve's first goal was to find out how 18-to-29-year-olds view pain. "For this new generation pain is a badge. Pain is a rite of passage; it means you're living life to the fullest," says Wong. "It's not always very obvious physical pain. It could be the athletic pain of a BMX biker or skateboarder; it can also be emotional pain, creative pain, the pain of being an artist, a suffering artist. The pain of being a musician. There's all sorts of pain. What Ouch! was designed to do was allow that generation to speak and explore pain through their own eyes and their own heroes."

Tom Lunt, co-owner of Chicago-based reissue label the Numero Group and a former creative director for ad agency Leo Burnett, sees this as a clever way for Tylenol to shift the ground under its competitors' feet. "By owning pain, [Tylenol] recognizes and relates not just to negative things like struggle, risk, heartache, and mourning, but also to positive experiences like birth, victory, and creativity, all of which share emotional triggers with ties to pain," he says. "In doing this, Tylenol have made themselves bigger and more human."

Popcorn's MO relies on word of mouth and prioritizes interacting with the target community (or co-opting it, depending on your point of view). BrainReserve has not only recruited artists, musicians, athletes, and the like--what the firm calls "pain partners"--but has also sponsored extreme sports competitions, an underground film festival, a multidisciplinary creativity conference, and several other events across the U.S. and Canada. The campaign's "pain press" runs an Ouch! Web site (ouchthewebsite.com), with exclusive content like MP3s, comics, and interviews, and inserts zines in publications like Spin, Ride BMX, and Giant Robot.

This fall Ouch! teamed with illustrator Ron Rege Jr. and toy designers Critterbox to create three vinyl figures--the Ouch! Twins and the Wizardry Agitator--based on characters in the comic strips Rege had done for Tylenol's Web site. Ouch! took out large ads featuring Rege's work in local weeklies and national publications. The dolls were supposed to be given away starting November 26, but the limited run of 3,500 was snapped up in a single day; complete sets are now fetching close to $200 on eBay.

David Heatley, creator of the comic Deadpan and a contributor to the Ouch! Web site and zines, says he was leery at first but that BrainReserve and McNeil haven't trampled on his work. "I'm a cartoonist, but I also work in advertising," says the former Chicagoan, now an art director for Ogilvy & Mather in New York. "So I'm pretty savvy about branding and about their strategies. But at the same time it's one of the best commercial jobs I've ever had."

"It's still marketing, they still have an agenda to accomplish," says Arthur publisher Laris Kreslins, also an Ouch! contributor and consultant. "But the interesting thing is they don't put too many parameters on the people creating these collateral elements. They're not like, 'You have to slap Tylenol logos everywhere.'"

Though the branding of Ouch! is up-front--Tylenol isn't trying to conceal its hand--it's also low-key. Often you won't see the company's name without looking for it, and good luck finding a bottle or a pill. "It's kind of the antithesis of traditional advertising," says Wong. "The last thing this audience needs is more brands to be shoved down their throats. . . . It's more about building a relationship and having Tylenol talked about in different types of conversations."

Case in point: In 2003 Ouch! helped fund the construction of the Autumn Skate Park in Brooklyn. Although Wong claims there isn't a single piece of signage identifying Tylenol or McNeil as a patron of the park, the skating community almost immediately began referring to it as the Tylenol Bowl. "You can't purchase that," says Wong. "The audience took it themselves and they're marketing it without a dollar being spent."

With this soft sell, though, Tylenol may be ducking an ethical responsibility. The drug's active ingredient, acetaminophen, can cause liver damage and even acute liver failure, especially when combined with regular moderate or heavy alcohol use. Ouch! is aimed at an age group with more than its share of problem drinkers, and since the campaign doesn't discuss the drug's effects, it doesn't lend itself to safety warnings.

There are other, less serious risks involved in marketing to younger consumers: for one thing, they have "massive bullshit detectors," says Lunt. "However, it makes sense that Tylenol would start there, given the connector influence in that segment and the fact that they're relative brand virgins."

Tylenol's efforts to cozy up to indie culture may seem incongruous, but Lunt says that's actually a good sign. "The most successful campaigns tend to have a confounding effect at first," he says. "If you and I are thinking, 'What are they thinking?' then there's usually some serious thinking going on."

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