Breaking The Rules With The Gap

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • John Leo Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute

Are we all looking around for rules to break for the holidays? Well the Gap thinks we should be. One of the company's new ads shows young people prancing around to celebrate "Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa or solstice," while singing "86 the rules, do whatever you like, have a happy do-whatever-you-wannakah and have a cheery night."


Outside of the American League's designated hitter rule, and maybe the Gap's refusal to mention Festivus, there's no rule that really irritates me for the holidays. I imagine that the writer of the ad, after scratching his head for hours trying to think of something original, fell back on the most conventional of all advertising messages to the young: it's ok the break the rules, so please do it.

The ad agencies have been flogging this theme since the heyday of the Boomers. Take Burger King's old mantra, "Sometimes you gotta break the rules" (eating all those Whoppers will give you a blimp-like body and maybe a heart attack, but you just gotta do it anyway). "Just Do It" (Nike) and "Obey Your Thirst" (Sprite) were both bits of rule-breaking advice, slightly disguised. But straightforward and flatfooted anti-rule messages have been more common. There include Outback Steakhouses ("No rules. Just right"), Don Q Rum ("When you have a passion for living, nothing is merely accepted. Nothing is taboo...break all the rules") Another rum, Bacardi Black, ran a campaign promising to take the drinker to a dark and boozy universe where anything goes ("Some people embrace the night because the rules of the day do not apply.") One ad, almost entirely black, showed a wobbly woman in an evening dress, surely hinting that the rule against predatory sex is one of those pesky daytime inhibitions that Bacardi helps us overcome..

The no-rules campaign is everywhere these days, in book titles, songs, album covers, fashion and on Web sites ,e.g., Adobe's, with an ad featuring an elderly woman defying rules (and common sense) by driving her motorbike off a stanchion of a high suspension bridge. The theme has popped up in many totally irrelevant places, such as ads for the theatrical group De La Guarda ("No rules"), Nieman Marcus ("No rules here"), the Ikea "Break the Rules" Bed-making Contest and an ad for Woolite ("all the rules have changed," an ad line says under a photo of a women, presumably a Woolite user, groping or being groped by two men.) Even a shoe ad can promise a world without norms or rules (Our shoe "conforms to your foot you don't have to conform to anything":--Easy Spirit shoes).

The central message here is strongly anti-social--we should all rebel against social order, restraint, all authority, and rules of any kind. Focus groups and psychological research at the ad agencies show that the message works. So advertising creates a feedback loop, pumping back into the culture a stronger version of what's already there. So even a merry little Gap ad has to have a rule-breaking message tucked into it. The point is to make money by associating harmless products with transgression. But don't think about it too much or you may want to ask, what exactly is so transgressive about shopping at the Gap?