On the relationship between ecstasy and corporate logos...

Corporations stripping meanings from alternative culture is nothing new. Neither is repackaging the new and exciting into identikit bite-sized consumables. Think Kerouac in the Gap adverts, or pre-packaged alternative rock bands. Or adverts drenched in hallucinogenic swirls. Or cigarettes.

However, I believe that the relationship between ecstasy users and advertising agencies reveals some peculiar features of logos and branding in general. As you would expect, the ad guys see ecstasy users as an interesting market phenomenon and are spending big money to try to gain credibility amongst the gurning. After all, if you have the money to burn on pills, you've also got money to burn on the latest CD/DVD/PC/MPM, right? Hence the pounding dance music advertising the latest debt consolidation loan. But while this is going on, ecstasy users themselves are looking at brands from a different perspective.

But before that, a little background...

There are many ways to ingest MDMA. You can snort it. You can rub it on your gums. You can swallow a small capsule filled with the powder. You can shove it up your ass... Despite all these options, the most popular manner of consuming the stuff is still the humble pill. The reasons for this are various, including the fact that it allows a slow release of the drug, it allows the manufacturers to fill the pill with loads of other good stuff, it means you can carry them in your pocket without losing your stash, and most of all, it's just plain easy. There is only one major problem with the pill format, which was realised in the very early days of ecstasy: you've got no idea what's in your pill. All you have in your hand is a little white pill that looks vaguely like Paracetamol. How can you tell if this is the good stuff?

Well, how do you tell if your chocolate is going to be the good stuff? And your beer? And your television? That’s right, you buy your favourite brand. Following this astounding logic, the early manufacturers of ecstasy tablets began to imprint logos on the pills they made. These logos were chosen for simplicity and comedy, and then stamped onto the pill with all the care of a fine silver hallmark. After all, this was the only chance the chemist had of signing his narcotic masterpiece.

The obvious flaw in the plan is that there is no regulatory body monitoring ecstasy production (which many people think is a shame, but this is not the place for that argument). So less trustworthy manufacturers could print a popular logo on decidedly dodgy pills. This happened famously with doves in England during the early 90's. Until then, the embossed image of a dove was widely recognised as a sign of quality (bear in mind this was all happening before purity tests and the like had caught on). Once the rip-off merchants started producing them, the more careful drug manufacturers had to think of a new logo.

This brings us right up to date. An escalation in demand has required many more ecstasy tablets to be produced, and unscrupulous dealers will claim that all kinds of pills contain MDMA. Ecstasy users, however, have turned this to their advantage. The search is always on for a new logo (since the newer the logo, the more likely the pill contains good stuff). And, since so many logos are needed, why not have fun while choosing them?

By far the most popular type of ecstasy logos at the moment are corporate ones. There is something vaguely satisfying about getting high from a pill embossed with corporate imagery, something vaguely anti-establishment. There are obvious parallels here with the culture jamming and adbusting movements. So, we take our little pills, have a laugh at the suits, and then spend the night speeding towards euphoria.

The advertising industry is catching on fast though. Normally, illegal use of a corporate logo would land the creator with a stiff fine or worse, but since they can't catch the perpetrators, the brand engineers are using them to their advantage. The Mitsubishi Corporation provides an interesting example. Mitsubishis were, about two years ago, by far the most popular pill in England. People went to clubs with Mitsubishi-logos hennaed on their arms, sniggered every time they passed a Mitsubishi car, and squinted hard at the pills, believing they could ascertain the quality of their contents simply by looking at the logo. It was a phenomenon, but once it surfaced in the mainstream, and the Mitsubishi corporation itself had denied any connection to the MDMA manufacturers, someone realised it was time to make some cash. The next Mitsubishi car was released, and the press pack contained... a packet of pills, all embossed with the Mitsubishi logo. Although the company swore that they were highlighting the new cars mystical ability to relieve stress and headaches (the pills were 'imitation Paracetamol'), the underlying plan was plain to see: "Let's make the pill heads love us".

In fact, the logos on pills can teach us a lot about branding and advertising in general. The logo really bears no relation to the content of the pill. The brand is established purely for a bit of fun. Try to remember this next time you're about to buy Calvin Klein underwear...

Below is an incomplete list of some popular logos on ecstasy pills. Please remember that the logo on a pill bears no relation to its contents, and that, although they provide a fun way to be subversive, should never be seen as a mark of quality.

Corporate/copyrighted logos

Source: Personal experiences and http://www.thegooddrugsguide.com/gallery/e_pills_01.htm, http://www.dancesafe.org/support/stuff_poster.php
The dancesafe site offers a poster with illustrations of 176 pills. (thanks mkb!)

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