The astronomical growth in the wealth and cultural influence of multinational corporations over the last fifteen years can arguably be traced back to a single, seemingly innocuous idea developed by management theorists in the mid-1980s: that successful corporations must primarily produce brands, as opposed to products.
It’s helpful to go back briefly and look at where the idea of branding first began. Though the words are often used interchangeably, branding and advertising are not the same process. Advertising any given product is only one part of branding’s grand plan, as are sponsorship and logo licensing. Think of the brand as the core meaning of the modern corporation, and of the advertisement as one vehicle used to convey that meaning to the world.
This was the secret, it seemed, of all the success stories of the late eighties and early nineties. The lesson of Marlboro Friday was that there never really was a brand crisis—only brands that had crises of confidence. The brands would be okay, Wall Street concluded, so long as they believed fervently in the principles of branding and never, ever blinked. Overnight, “Brands, not products!” became the rallying cry for a marketing renaissance led by a new breed of companies that saw themselves as “meaning brokers” instead of product producers. What was changing was the idea of what—in both advertising and branding—was being sold. The old paradigm had it that all marketing was selling a product. In the new model, however, the product always takes a back seat to the real product, the brand, and the selling of the brand acquired an extra component that can only be described as spiritual. Advertising is about hawking product. Branding, in its truest and most advanced incarnations, is about corporate transcendence.
The project of transforming culture into little more than a collection of brand-extensions-in-waiting would not have been possible without the deregulation and privatization policies of the past three decades. In Canada under Brian Mulroney, in the U.S. under Ronald Reagan and in Britain under Margaret Thatcher (and in many other parts of the world as well), corporate taxes were dramatically lowered, a move that eroded the tax base and gradually starved out the public sector. (see Table 2.1) As government spending dwindled, schools, museums and broadcasters were desperate to make up their budget shortfalls and thus ripe for partnerships with private corporations. It also didn’t hurt that the political climate during this time ensured that there was almost no vocabulary to speak passionately about the value of a non-commercialized public sphere. This was the time of the Big Government bogeyman and deficit hysteria, when any political move that was not overtly designed to increase the freedom of corporations was vilified as an endorsement of national bankruptcy. It was against this backdrop that, in rapid order, sponsorship went from being a rare occurrence (in the 1970s) to an exploding growth industry (by the mid-eighties), picking up momentum in 1984 at the Los Angeles Olympics (see Table 2.2).
The irony of these branding experiments, of course, is that they only seem to make brands more resentful of the media that host them. Inevitably, the lifestyle brands begin to ask why they need to attach themselves to someone else’s media project in the first place. Why, even after proving they can integrate into the most stylish and trendiest of magazines, should they be kept at arm’s length or, worse, branded with the word “Advertisement,” like the health warnings on packs of cigarettes? So, with lifestyle magazines looking more and more like catalogs for designers, designer catalogs have begun to look more and more like magazines: Abercrombie & Fitch, J. Crew, Harry Rosen and Diesel have all shifted to a storybook format, where characters frolic along sketchily drawn plotlines.
The merger between media and catalog reached a new high with the launch of the teen TV drama Dawson’s Creek in January of 1998. Not only did the characters all wear J. Crew clothes, not only did the windswept, nautical set make them look as if they had stepped off the pages of a J. Crew catalog, and not only did the characters spout dialogue like “He looks like he stepped out of a J. Crew catalog,” but the cast was also featured on the cover of the January J. Crew catalog. Inside the new “freestyle magalog,” the young actors are pictured in rowboats and on docks—looking as if they just stepped off the set of a Dawson’s Creek episode.
[...] Nike has even succeeded in branding the basketball courts where it goes bro-ing through its philanthropic wing, P.L.A.Y (Participate in the Lives of Youth). P.L.A.Y sponsors inner-city sports programs in exchange for high swoosh visibility, including giant swooshes at the center of resurfaced urban basketball courts. In tonier parts of the city, that kind of thing would be called an ad and the space would come at a price, but on this side of the tracks, Nike pays nothing, and files the cost under charity.
the acronym lmao
When those students aren’t watching Channel One or surfing with ZapMe!, an in-school Internet browser first offered free to American schools in 1998, they may turn their attention to their textbooks—and those too may be sending out more messages to “Just Do It” or “CK Be.” The Cover Concepts company sells slick ads that wrap around books to 30,000 U.S. schools, where teachers use them instead of plastic or tinfoil as protective jackets. And when lunchtime arrives, more ads are literally on the menu at many schools. In 1997, Twentieth Century-Fox managed to get cafeteria menu items named after characters from its film Anastasia in forty U.S. elementary schools. Students could dine on “Rasputin Rib-B-Cue on Bartok Bun” and “Dimitri’s Peanut Butter Fudge.” Disney and Kellogg’s have engaged in similar lunch-menu promotions through School Marketing, a company that describes itself as a “school-lunch ad agency.”
pano inspo - pepper the childhood sections with commercial references (modern childhood inundated with branding, makes corporations seem ubiquitous and therefore benign)
Students may also find that brand wars are being waged over the pop machine outside the gym. In Canada and the U.S., many school boards have given exclusive vending rights to the Pepsi-Cola Company in exchange for generally undisclosed lump sums. What Pepsi negotiates in return varies from district to district. In Toronto, it gets to fill the 560 public schools with its vending machines, to block the sales of Coke and other competitors, and to distribute “Pepsi Achievement Awards” and other goodies emblazoned with its logo. In communities like Cayuga, a rural Ontario tobacco-farming town, Pepsi buys the right to brand entire schools. “Pepsi—Official Soft Drink of Cayuga Secondary School” reads the giant sign beside the road. At South Fork High School in Florida, there is a blunt, hard-sell arrangement: the school has a clause in its Pepsi contract committing the school to “make its best effort to maximize all sales opportunities for Pepsi-Cola products.”
There is also a more insidious level of interference that takes place at universities every day, interference that occurs before research even begins, prior, even, to proposals being committed to paper. As John V. Lombardi, president of the University of Florida at Gainesville, says: “We have taken the great leap forward and said: ‘Let’s pretend we’re a corporation.’”27 What such a leap means back on the ground is that studies are designed to fit the mandate of corporate-endowed research chairs with such grand names as the Taco Bell Distinguished Professor of Hotel and Restaurant Administration at Washington State University, the Yahoo! Chair of Information-Systems Technology at Stanford University and the Lego Professorship of Learning Research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. J. Patrick Kelly, the professor who holds the Kmart Chair of Marketing at Wayne State, estimates that his research has saved Kmart “many more times” the amount of the $2 million donation that created his position.28 The professor who holds the Kmart-endowed chair at West Virginia University, meanwhile, has such a hands-on relationship with the retailer that he or she is required by contract to spend a minimum of thirty days a year training assistant managers.
Roy Edward Disney Professor of Creative Writing ...
But by the time my generation inherited these ideas, often two or three times removed, representation was no longer one tool among many, it was the key. In the absence of a clear legal or political strategy, we traced back almost all of society’s problems to the media and the curriculum, either through their perpetuation of negative stereotypes or simply by omission. Asians and lesbians were made to feel “invisible,” gays were stereotyped as deviants, blacks as criminals and women as weak and inferior: a self-fulfilling prophecy responsible for almost all real-world inequalities. And so our battlefields were sitcoms with gay neighbors who never got laid, newspapers filled with pictures of old white men, magazines that advanced what author Naomi Wolf termed “the beauty myth,” reading lists that we expected to look like Benetton ads, Benetton ads that trivialized our reading-list demands. So outraged were we media children by the narrow and oppressive portrayals in magazines, in books and on television that we convinced ourselves that if the typecast images and loaded language changed, so too would the reality. We thought we would find salvation in the reformation of MTV, CNN and Calvin Klein. And why not? Since media seemed to be the source of so many of our problems, surely if we could only “subvert” them to better represent us, they could save us instead. With better collective mirrors, self-esteem would rise and prejudices would magically fall away, as society became suddenly inspired to live up to the beautiful and worthy reflection we had retouched in its image.
For a generation that grew up mediated, transforming the world through pop culture was second nature. The problem was that these fixations began to transform us in the process. Over time, campus identity politics became so consumed by personal politics that they all but eclipsed the rest of the world. The slogan “the personal is political” came to replace the economic as political and, in the end, the Political as political as well. The more importance we placed on representation issues, the more central a role they seemed to elbow for themselves in our lives—perhaps because, in the absence of more tangible political goals, any movement that is about fighting for better social mirrors is going to eventually fall victim to its own narcissism.