Reflecting on the death of a notorious criminal and master marketeer

October 10, 2013

Image source: Courtesy ABC News online

This week Australia lost one of its most successful authors; TV, radio and press personalities; stand up comedians; brand ambassadors, and the subject of a multi-award winning movie that launched the Hollywood career of a celebrated Australian actor. It also lost an ultra violent, mass murderer and stand over man, whose business for many years, was 'torture most foul'. It was the same person. 

The curiosity from many perspectives, is how these two truths can sit together so seamlessly and from a marketing perspective what can be learnt from this in terms of culture, people and the way brands engage in this context. 

Before I move on - this author and article is certainly not designed to condone the exploits of 'chopper' or any forms of violence, corruption or criminal behaviour.

However the fact that 'Chopper' was so compelling to such a wide range of the Australian community and beyond, even up until two weeks ago where he was selling out theatres for his stand up show highlights the power that his 'brand' had with so many Australians, and literally millions of others around the world.

So what is it about 'Brand Chopper' that is so compelling to so many?

He was a rebel: He was many things, but at the heart of 'Brand Chopper' is the Rebel. This archetype is highly powerful, but often used in a disingenuous or fleeting way by mainstream brands, a nice way to 'spice up' the brand via advertising or promotion, create cut through and buzz before moving back to the centre and not 'upsetting' our core target audience. 

Bourbon brands do it consistently. As for many it is an integral part of their heritage (associations with the Confederate Rebels in the American Civil War and later in the prohibition era, illegal distilleries), however few other category and brands, other than youth (e.g. Converse) and/ or tech oriented (e.g. Apple) spring to mind. NAB 'broke up' with the banks, but certainly stayed friends with the other Big Three. Few established mainstream brands truly go down this path and stick to it consistently and conscientiously.

'Chopper' was a rebel and stuck to this path. He operated in a world that was fundamentally anti-establishment. Then within that world, he went about making his own rules, living by his own code and often went left when everyone else was turning right. He was never so far or perverted from mainstream sensibilities that he lost appeal (e.g. he 'only targeted those in the criminal world, never everyday people').

He was a myth maker: For a man who has written more than 10 books, and conducted countless stand up shows and media interviews, there were many things left unsaid and unexplained. According to the man himself, he has killed or been involved in killing anywhere up to 19 people, but refuses to say exactly who, how many, and in what way. Beyond this he has allegedly been involved in countless other acts of violence and criminality, but again, many of these are often alluded to rather than admitted (obviously for reasons other than just good brand management, but it certainly doesn't hurt).

Do not get me wrong, police reports and court documents will highlight that there are no shortage of crimes committed and violence dealt out, from the shooting death of Siam Ozerkam, to taking hostage a Magistrate at gunpoint, to having his ears cut off when in prison, these acts and others have helped to develop a larger myth around the man that. With his able assistance, he has helped propagate. 

In addition he actively compared and referenced  himself and his deeds to others from a bygone era (e.g. Ned Kelly, Squizzy Taylor), painting a picture of a simpler, more honest time 'where fists, iron bars' and the criminal code ruled, not 'drugs, money and who could call the police first'. The common man, even through the prism of violence and criminality, understands and values this sense of nostalgia for the past.

Again, many brands use mythology to develop and drive desired meaning, but often shy away from such direct comparisons to other people or other times that don't reflect their 'brand truth', worried about the dilution of their brand, and for claims that are not or cannot be substantiated about the legalities of every word, sentence and statement. Where many brands understandably take a very measured and considered approach, Chopper rampages through, threading, truth, exaggeration, and bald face lie into the one narrative in a highly compelling and ultimately successful way.

His style and tone was approachable and endearing: Even as he talked of tales most 'squareheads' (common men) could barely imagine, let alone understand, he always had a sense of self-deprecation in his approach. He was acutely aware and brought to light (much to the anger of many in the criminal world) the ridiculousness of the world he lived in and the common faults and foibles of himself and other men with the most fearsome reputations. 

Most importantly, he was never dull or predictable, but by the same token he was always on brand: For every person he murdered, he wrote a children's book. For every tortured criminal, a donation to a hospital. For every robbery or extortion, a public service announcement on drink driving or violence against women. Part of keeping the brand consistent was keeping the man unpredictable, but he knew what he stood for and said it to anyone who would listen, and often these who didn't.

Despite the predictably serious, responsible tone from the media about his death, pushing the 'let's not celebrate or glorify a man whose business was violence and criminality', they were still more than happy to run front pages, lead stories and in depth articles this week. Moreover, many in the media for many years were more than happy to share in the profits of 'Brand Chopper' as book editors, writers, or simply running a story that they knew would always create attention…'what has Chopper done now', or 'what has Chopper been up to (if he hadn't done anything)'. Why? He had a great brand so why not sell it?

The man himself would be the first to tell you that he was no saint and certainly not a role model. He stated that, one of his many tattoos he has which says 'Je Ne Regrette Rein' (I Regret Nothing - a motto adopted by the French Foreign Legion) is a lie, 'I regret everything'. His life may well have been full of regret, however he was far more than a petty crook.