I noticed an article in Huffington Post a few months ago that caught my eye. Coca-Cola had decided to eliminate all labeling from its cans for a period of time in several Middle Eastern Countries. The familiar red and white design remained, but all product names and logos were absent. The point the beverage giant wanted to make was a simple one: "Labels are for cans, not people."
We live in a world obsessed with labeling everything. Companies spend millions to cement their name and product benefits in our collective minds. In what will stand for many years as this concept on steroids, it has been impossible to escape Star Wars references, promotions, tie-ins, and products for the last several months. The movie is set to break all previous records for what a movie can gross, due in no small part to the massive marketing and branding job on its behalf.
There are brand names, like Kleenex or Xerox, that are so common the names has become the generic terms for an entire product type. No one asks for a facial tissue or to make a copy of something, rather we want a kleenex or a xerox of something. Google has become the most-used shorthand for "search for something on the Internet."
Unfortunately, our familiarity and use of labeling extends to more than products and services. Now, it is just as common to describe people, politics, or a world view. If I say "the Liberal Elite," or "The Mainstream Media" odds are you instantly have a reaction, good or bad. Similarly, "Evangelicals," or "Conservatives" prompts a response.
In today's super-charged political landscape, labels like immigrants, Republicans, Democrats, pro-this or pro-that positions are designed to trigger an instant gut reaction. "Soft on crime," "soft on immigration, soft on ....anything is meant to disparage.
Labeling is a very human trait meant to simplify something. It can be useful when saying something is good, like the performance of a drain cleaner, or a movie. A restaurant labeled with poor customer service is likely to see a serious drop off in business. I think of my Honda as dependable.
But, labeling can become a serious negative when it is used to simplify something that is much more complex, like human beings. It becomes mental or emotional shorthand. It ends up painting someone with a brush that is impossibly wide. It projects an entire range of character traits on someone who may not resemble that description at all.
Frankly, using labels in this way is lazy. It requires no real thought process, just the repetition of a word or phrase that has assumed a particular meaning. Too often it is used in a way to be hurtful and damaging. It is meant to diminish another person or position.
I am not sure when the idea of compromise, of learning from others, or of having an open mind became a negative trait. Having a firm opinion on something is not the problem; assuming that position is the only one that is right is what causes so much strife in our world.
At one point virtually the entire human population was absolutely convinced the world was flat. Anyone who disagreed was either crazy or the devil. For hundreds of years, slavery was thought to be part of the divine plan and an economic necessity. Abolitionists were the scum of the earth. While a long way from completely eradicated, that mindset is no longer accepted.
The point is labels change. Labels are often wrong. Like everything on this planet, labels must evolve. When they don't, we have problems.
Coke was on to something with their "labels are for cans, not people." I wish their insight was shared by more of us more of the time.