We were in Rome a few weeks ago - essentially the bonus portion of my trip to Munich to speak about culture at the UPA conference. Turns out it's cheaper to buy separate return tickets San Francisco-to-Rome and Rome-to-Munich, giving us an extra opportunity to explore. Upon arrival into Rome, we took the train into the city, with jet-lagged eyes upon early morning haze, grabbing clues from the random bits we could see out the window. As we passed through a train station, I spotted a young woman on the platform wearing a sweatshirt that read "Duff Beer" with the typeface and logo that is probably familiar to anyone who's watched The Simpsons. I was intrigued at the notion that the Simpsons was popular enough in Italy that the young-and-hip would be not only be wearing clothing from the show but something more obscure than, say, Bart exclaiming "Non hanno una vacca, l'uomo!"
Later that day we did our obligatory (and wonderful) tourist routine at the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain. As we strolled amidst the gelaterie and souvenir shops we happened upon a window display offering a fine selection of Simpsons merchandise.
We stopped, pointed, and laughed, "Oh, look! They have the Simpsons here, too!" As we stepped away, feeling just a bit globally smug ("Psst, see those cartoons folks in that window...those are OURS!"), we saw a group of Asian men walk past the same window. Tourists themselves, they also stopped, pointed, and laughed at the delicious absurdity of coming across Homer so far from home. It was a densely-packed moment for reflecting on culture from the inside and the outside.
After our brief time in Rome, we headed to Munich for the conference and an opportunity to drink beer.
Returning to Rome, we came across the mysterious Duff Beer once again. Only this time, not on a t-shirt.
Double-take! Triple-take! What? It's a real beer? And not merely a novelty Simpsons tie-in product (remember when 7-11s in the USA were converted to Kwik-E-Marts to promote The Simpsons Movie? The Duff Beer was a can of playing cards).
There was really only one thing to do.
And while this isn't Beer Advocate, I will report that it was authentic to the show: it tasted like crap (despite the anticipation created by their merchandising). The "legendary Duff Bier" is a mild lager, brewed according to the German Beer Purity Laws in the Eschwege monastery brewery.
While the Duff website (in German) makes liberal use of the (dare I say it) comic Simpsons font, the copy emphasizes just regular beer stuff and offers no content that connects back to the actual Simpsons television show. This may be the most quiet, understated bit of post-modern marketing, evar. Even if the product doesn't mention Homer or Springfield, we the consumer have Homer in our minds. We bring that experience to it. Sure, that information is not technically present in the product, so in theory one might come upon the product with no knowledge (that was the premise of The Gods Must Be Crazy). But Homer is everywhere in the culture (probably even in the Kalahari) - you probably can not feasibly experience this Duff Bier without that context. Our encounter with fellow Simpsonsly-bemused tourists is empirical proof of that.
We can go to the Sound of Music town (Salzburg, Austria) or the Field of Dreams site (Dyersville, IA) or a Disney park (in California, Florida, Hong Kong, Paris, or Tokyo) to have an in-the-flesh version of a cinematic experience, but it's the prosaic nature of Duff Beer that holds the key to its authenticity. It's as if the beer from the show escaped the TV screen and landed intact in our world, only German instead of Springfieldian. The beer is not presented as a line extension or manifestation of the core brand in another form (see KISS M&Ms, KISS Coffeehouse) but as its own intact thing. Something that we share with the (fictitious) yellow people of Springfield. See also the Rio Red Swingline stapler that makes no explicit acknowledgement of the film Office Space (though some question the authenticity of Rio Red).
And now I'd like to introduce my favorite word ever: diegesis: the fictional world within which the events of a story take place. In many movies, the diegesis is very similar to reality, except that reality includes the movie as a piece of fiction (and the cast as actors) and the diegesis is as if that movie and those didn't exist but the characters do. Product designers have to do a lot of thinking about this, especially in science fiction (in the diegesis of Battlestar Galactica they have familiar seeming telephones and Cylons, but instead of radar they have DRADIS. In the diegesis of The Last Action Hero, the young protagonist literally enters the diegesis of Jack Slater films, and much PoMo mayhem ensues, such as a movie poster for The Terminator, starring Sylvester Stallone (at the time, in our world, the action-film competitor for Arnold Schwarzenegger, who plays the aforementioned Jack Slater as well as himself).
Product development (design, technology, marketing) has long moved between the diegesis and the real (e.g., The Motorola Star-Tac and the Star Trek communicator; Luigi Colani's frog motorcycle study, and Syd Mead's Tron Light Cycle, or the Minority Report UI). But the Legendary Duff Beer suggests an understated approach to authenticity as an untapped avenue for creating gently fantastical experiences.
Steve Portigal is the founder of Portigal Consulting. In the past 15 years Steve has interviewed families eating breakfast, rock musicians, credit-default swap traders, and radiologists. His work has informed the development of music gear, wine packaging, medical information systems, corporate intranets, videoconferencing systems, and iPod accessories. Steve is an accomplished presenter who speaks about culture, innovation, and design at companies like eBay, Adobe, Nokia, Hewlett-Packard, and Dolby Laboratories. He has a graduate degree in Human-Computer Interaction from the University of Guelph and is an avid photographer who has a Museum of Foreign Groceries in his home.
Design with Personality Spark:03 The More. The Merrier Total Recall: Looking Back at 2004? Shopping for Innovation Debbie Millman: Design Matter. LISTEN NOW (39 min.) | Download 35.3MB (right-click)
Nathan Shedroff on Making Meaning LISTEN NOW | Download 41.7MB (right-click)
Chris Miller of LifePlays LISTEN NOW | Download 33.8MB (right-click)