Brand Monica

Watching the video deposition clips of Monica (rewinding for the pleasure of her expressions and inflections), I keep thinking of that old ad campaign for the furrier Blackglama, with the famous face emerging from the folds of fur and that line of copy: WHAT BECOMES A LEGEND MOST? Not only is Monica’s face iconic by now, but it appears to have assumed a classic beauty too – pearls and a chin held high in adversity will do that. (Lillian Hellman, perhaps the most memorable of the Blackglama models, also testified before Congress and bested the political bullies.) And certainly, whatever else emerges from the impeachment story, there will be the legend, told and retold, of Monica Lewinsky.

She was supposed to be branded by the media maelstrom – slut, victim, valley girl. Instead, she became one of the major brand names of our time.

We’re only in the initial stages of getting our heads around just how brilliantly she’s played this, and how much her media moxie had to do with saving the president of the United States. No doubt much of the continuing impeachment postmortem – there are no heroes is the first week’s knee-jerk analysis – is going to center around the character, the strategy, and the meaning of Monica.

Indeed, we are just beginning to make the mental move from “poor Monica” to “amazing Monica.” During Linda Tripp’s recent coming-out appearance on the Today show, Jamie Gangel, the correspondent conducting a notably cold and dyspeptic interview with Tripp, referred, pityingly, to Monica’s ruined life.

Ruined? Ruined?

Perhaps “ruin” is just the old-fashioned way of saying “transformed.”

Part of the reality flip, of course, is that the media looks at the play of events as though the media is not the prime player in those events. In a less mediacentric culture, Monica might have ended up as a character truly just a little nutty and a little slutty. But with a media that saw her as its own vast opportunity, Monica earned the most valuable economic status available today: not just recognizability, not just celebrity, not just fifteen minutes of famedom, but pervasive, symbolic meaning. She is everywhere. You can’t think about politics, morality, media, careers, people in their twenties, one’s own youth, without thinking of her. The other day, my 7-year-old son was telling a story – this being Black History Month – about Rosa Parks, who, through some telling confusion (just keying on a woman of stature and historic significance), he kept calling Monica Lewinsky.

Monica is some perfectly updated Jimmy Stewart standing firm in the face of media tyranny, prosecutorial villainy, sexual hypocrisy, political gasbaggery, right-wing skulduggery.

She is the new moral center. Really.

How did this happen?

I once worked with a man of almost military bearing from Procter & Gamble. “I’m a branding guy,” he would introduce himself to everyone (P&G is sort of the West Point of branding). “Successful branding,” he’d say, like some Clausewitz gone astray on Madison Avenue, “is a lot like war. It’s strategy and execution. Leave nothing to chance. You can’t just win on the battlefield, you have to win hearts and minds too.”

No doubt, at some critical point – perhaps as early as that first evening after the FBI and prosecutors ganged up on Monica at the Ritz Carlton last February – somebody (why do I think it was her mother?) started to realize, defensively at first and then proactively, that there was a lot to manage here.

DISCIPLINE, my brand manager would write, repeatedly, on the white board, = BRAND.

This sounds more cynical than I mean it to sound. Monica isn’t made up, after all; Monica is real – she gives her own testimony. “A brand is dependent on the performance of the product,” my brand guy never let it be forgotten. Still, someone, certainly, saw the potential advantages in the situation. Properly played, what might this all be worth? Could you find opportunity here?

While one can never be ready for the media tsunami, Monica was clearly readier than most. You’ve got to imagine that she went into her White House internship with all sorts of fantasies about stepping into the limelight, finding fame, being singled out (I, however, do not believe she really said she was going to get her presidential knee pads – even a bad novelist would not accept that level of calculation). Such daydreaming might be true of all interns. And she clearly had further yearnings (she wore the thong of ambition).

There’s a moment in her video testimony when the House managers are asking her about Vernon Jordan’s efforts in the initial stages of her job search – before she was named as a witness in the Paula Jones case – and Monica sniffs, “I hadn’t seen any progress.” You realize at that point that she had an awfully sophisticated understanding of the forces in play. She knew where she ranked; where Jordan ranked; that this was business. Nothing happens, she understood, unless you make it happen. (I have always thought that Jordan’s discussion with Ronald Perelman was probably on the order of, You’ll like this girl, she’s tough, she’s going somewhere, she’s one of us – and, implicit or explicit, she’s connected to a lot of money.)

This may be Ken Starr’s most fundamental miscalculation: He picked on a girl who not only had a hankering for the limelight and who was looking for a new career challenge but who had media resources (not to mention financial resources – where would the president be if he had seduced a poor girl whom Ken Starr could have controlled?). Her mother writes books about celebrities; her mother’s new husband, R. Peter Straus, owned a midsize media company (which included the New York AM station WMCA); her new stepsister, Diane Straus Tucker, late of this magazine and The Village Voice, is now a media entrepreneur in Westchester County. Hell, Monica’s now a cousin by marriage (through the Strauses) to the Sulzberger family and the New York Times. (And she grew up in Beverly Hills, to boot.)

It is not possible to know what effect this brain trust had on the past year. But it is also not possible that these people did not have opinions, strategies, and other people to call upon.

Certainly, Monica executed a flawless media plan: She didn’t run from the media (because it will always hunt you down) – she kept her head up and ignored it (because it is just trying to get you to make a fool of yourself). In fact, you let the media gang up on you. You want it to bully you (the Princess Di principle) – you want the sympathy vote.

Jamie Gangel’s assumption on the Today show that Monica’s life is ruined means, of course, that Gangel thinks Monica is a fallen woman – that her shame has been outed. Shame is a pitiable and clownish condition, most appallingly pitiable and clownish on television. Paula Jones could not surmount her shame. Monica, on the other hand (and Gangel is right; perhaps no woman has been humiliated more than Monica) didn’t break. When she testified in the trial’s penultimate week, she confirmed – with a comfortable satisfaction – what we all knew: She had persevered and survived.

This is it. Not crumbling, not being consumed by shame is the crux of the branding strategy. We all live with sexual humiliation, of a greater or less order. Possibly, there is nothing we can relate to more. We know too that, at least heretofore, sexual humiliation kills. Nobody, not in literature, not in life, survives it.

Until Monica.

Not only does she survive a candid camera zooming in on her almost unbearable – not to mention often ridiculous – emotional neediness, but her very survival (Could you live through this? we all ask ourselves) is what makes her a dignified and unimpeachable witness.

Let us admit there might be another Monica; who can guess what goes on in the mind of that Monica (shamefulness or cold, hard calculation). But the Monica out there – Monica the projection, Monica the brand – that Monica is legitimately heroic.

If she’d crumbled, panicked, cut and run, confessed, we would have discarded her, and chivalry would have required us to discard the president too. But she didn’t. She held. And grew. And grew.

Now, undoubtedly, you would not choose, if you could choose, to come to prominence for giving a blow job. That route would be hard for my brand manager to understand. But often a sudden, overnight brand sensation is something that defies convention. In classic marketing terms it takes not only talent and discipline but often an unexpected opportunity to break through the clutter and thereby achieve real brand equity (at the very least, that equity means lifetime financial security for Monica; beyond that, it offers a range of career opportunities, which the Monica brand managers are no doubt evaluating as you read this). A good brand is counterintuitive: Yahoo, Amazon, Snapple, Monica.

“Once you have established the brand,” my brand manager constantly preached, “you must support it.”

The plan, so far, seems awfully smart.

The fact that Andrew Morton, who had a key hand in developing the Di brand, will write the Monica book is one more savvy move by the Monica team. Indeed, the fact that she isn’t writing the book herself, or pretending to, seems to me a much better way to roll out the legend – let a professional tell the story. The book, scheduled for release March 3, is already one of the most-sought-after titles in the country (No. 1 last week on Amazon’s list of most-ordered books that have not yet been published). Publishing folk, who were once snotty about the property – for which she received an advance of $600,000 – are now talking about its reaching a Colin Powell level, which could yield her several million more.

She will earn another $600,000 from an interview with British television. But she has turned down entreaties from Murdoch – interviews, television shows, product plugs, etc. That seems like a good decision. Don’t devalue your brand – even for Murdoch’s millions.

Barbara Walters, whose interview with Monica is tentatively scheduled to air on March 3 (Ken Starr lifted the embargo on Monica’s press interviews last week), was said to have been wringing her hands about Monica’s early exposure before the Senate. But the Senate’s ambivalence – allowing us to see her, but not enough of her – will surely help catapult the interview into a television event of historic size. Say what you will, you’ll be tuning in.

We know her. We’re rooting for her. We want to know what she’ll do next. That’s brand loyalty.


Brand Monica