Brand Culture

I left off the last post with a question mark — just what type of human being does “brand culture” seek to nurture, shape, and cultivate besides the obvious answer — “consumer”. Yes, the “loyal consumer” is the ideal of branding. But what figure this loyal consumer cuts in terms of the “fourfold human” needs some ‘splainin’.

There is a certain irony about the counterculture of the sixties and the “Love Generation”. Profiled and portrayed, historically and romantically, and even in terms of that generation’s own self-understanding, it was quite savy and knowledgeable about “the System” and its workings, and had adopted an oppositional, contrarian, and rebellious stance towards “the Establishment” and the status quo. But it ain’t necessarily so.

I mentioned in a previous post the great book on the history of advertising The Golden Fleece by Joseph Seldin (which I highly regard and recommend). Seldin’s very insightful history of branding ends with its publication in 1964, just before the ferment called “counterculture” was about to erupt in both America and Europe. It’s at the endpoint in Sedlin’s narrative that the American cultural historian Thomas Frank begins his historical scrutiny of the counterculture and “the strategy of co-optation” in his book The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism. Frank, apparently, wasn’t familiar with Seldin’s The Golden Fleece (or, at least, I couldn’t find a reference to it there). Where The Golden Fleece ends is largely where The Conquest of Cool begins.

As addressed, in part, by Seldin in The Golden Fleece, and more explicitly in Adam Curtis’ great four part BBC documentary called The Century of the Self, Freudian psychological techniques and “motivational research” began to infiltrate advertising in the postwar fifties, and that means subtle appeals to sexuality. This new emphasis on psychographics corresponds to the shift in branding from the “product” (marketing 1.0) to the focus on the “customer” and the customer’s desires (marketing 2.0). Although the father of public relations (and Freud’s nephew) Edward Bernays had exploited Freud’s libidinal theories earlier, pre-war advertising had been pretty much been shaped by the behaviourism of John Watson (with a sprinkling of Pavlovism) and the “scientific management” theories of Frederick Winslow Taylor (ie, “Taylorism“).

In those terms, appeals to sexuality in advertising beginning in the fifties predated the “make love not war” generation. And there’s plenty in Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool to suggest that the counterculture was, itself, a creation of Madison Avenue from the outset, and not the spontaneous eruption of “new consciousness” as is the usual meme as presented by Theodore Roszak in The Making of a Counterculture or by Charles Reich in The Greening of America (both of whom come in for a beating in Frank’s book). It would certainly be pretty galling and deflating for old hippies and cultural revolutionaries to realise that they were only branded products themselves — the creations of Madison Avenue. It would certainly not accord with the counterculture’s self-understanding. But there is, in fact, good evidence that the advertising industry engineered the youth counterculture in order to harness its energies to remake and restructure a marketplace and a consumerism which was already in the doldrums in the late fifties (a mood captured quite nicely in the film Revolutionary Road) with its ennui, boredom and staid conformity of “the organisation man“, “the lonely crowd“, and “the man in the gray flannel suit“.

The notion that the “spontaneity” of the sixties — the apparent elan vital and joie de vivre as revolt — might have been actually branded behaviour all along is not what most people would want to hear. It recalls “Neo’s” reaction to the Architect of the Matrix when Neo is informed that he is, after all, only the creation of the Matrix itself, the outcome of a calculated attempt to balance an equation; that there were dozens of other “Neos” before him who fulfilled the same scripted and predetermined function of balancing the underlying equation that sustained the Matrix (the structure of the Matrix, apparently, being subject also to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem). His “liberation” was only scripted by the system itself. So, too, “hip consumerism” and “rebel chic”.

(The Matrix was a brilliant movie — well, the first one anyway — because it really is about branded culture).

And it raises some interesting questions about “marketing 3.0” and “holistic branding” and how much of what is presently called “integral movement” is actually already branding and branded — Ken Wilber, for example — and whether “integralism” is simply now another structural requirement of the present system of production and consumption — a necessary logical development for “balancing the equation” of supply and demand.

It’s not a pleasant thought that it might very well be “scripted”, and that it really has nothing to do with the “truth that sets free” or with the emancipation of enlightenment, but only with balancing the equation of the cycles of production and consumption. Holistic branding does, indeed, have a kind of perverse resemblance to Gebser’s “integral consciousness”, and maybe convincing enough to some to preserve and sustain the system of self-alienation through consumption (self-alienation is always disguised as “self-fulfillment” or “self-realisation” through consuming “lifestyles” and brand affiliations). The power (or mana) or value is not in the brands. It’s in the consciousness that perceives these things. Liberation is not about consuming the brand, but of reclaiming that power and that value as belonging to the consciousness that mistakenly perceives it as being “out there”, for this is what projection as “self-alienation” is — endowing external brand entities with “individuality” or “personality” or power that rightfully belongs to the perceiving consciousness itself. It’s your own innate character, power, individuality, personality that flows out into these “brand entities”, and will continue to flow out until there’s nothing left of them. That’s the state that William Blake calls “Non-Entity”.

It’s this condition of Non-Entity (through self-alienation) that Nietzsche knew as “nihilism” and as ex-haustion. And it needs to be understood, because when Sadhguru, for example, make the startling suggestion that he would not be surprised if 40% of young people offed themselves in a couple of generations — fulfilling the logic of self-alienation into Non-Entity — he may well be right. I don’t care what the apologists for brand culture say — ie, that it only provides a “service”. People want meaning in their lives. We will sell them a way of life and a reason for being, say the brandmeisters.

No. That’s not what is happening. Branding is voodoo or necromancy, and everybody in the industry knows that it’s voodoo (although they call it “magic” rather than necromancy or voodoo. OK.. .sometimes some call it “voodoo”). The brand robs you of your own personal power. It’s not your “friend”. It’s a vampire, and it “lives” only as long as you give it your own life energy and personal power (Nietzsche called this process of self-alienation “flowing out into a god”, into an image), until you are nothing yourself (Nietzschean “unselfing” in that sense). That’s why Sadhguru is probably right (rolling suicide epidemics amongst the young are becoming increasingly common, as well as — in Canada as well — a drastic increase in fatal drug overdoses), and why earlier the prophets raged against the idols and idolatry. The words of the Psalmist, in that respect, still pertain today in relation to “brand idolatry” and the culture of narcissism,

The idols of the heathen are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths, but they speak not; eyes have they, but they see not. They have ears, but they hear not; neither is there any breath in their mouths. They that make them are like unto them: so is every one that trusteth in them

Nothing has really changed in that regard. When today it’s described as ‘commodity fetishism’, it’s still the same old problem being described. The fetish eventually becomes your master. And this is what, today, is called “brand loyalty”. It’s brand as fetish and sacred relic. The brand wants you to believe that you just “can’t live without it”. And it’s surprising how effective this voodoo really is. (I have some personal anecdotes about that, too. But they’ll have to wait for another time).


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