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Sunday, November 28, 2004

Brands on the Run

Douglas Rushkoff's new documentary 'The Persuaders' aired on PBS a few weeks ago. It's available in Realplayer and Windows Media streaming video on Frontline's website and I strongly suggest that everyone watch it. I was very impressed with the broadcast, particularly since I felt that his previous Frontline documentary, The Merchants of Cool, was lackluster and cliche-ridden. The Persuaders is not "more of the same", it's much more mature, well-developed, eloquent, well-researched, innovative and non-judgemental than its predecessor. The Merchants of Cool depicted advertising strategies that were becoming more "subliminal" and invisible, infused with the environment. In The Persuaders, "ironic" advertising is no longer sufficient, marketers are penetrating the emotional membrane of the public psyche; finding the missing pieces in our lives and producing them in their brand-building exercises. That sounds horrifying at first, but what we witness is really quite remarkable and intricate. The primary focus is on individual, direct marketing. The aggregate model of "mass consumers" is becoming obsolete. Marketers want to know what each individual wants-on a deep, psychological level. This diffuses the arguments against capitalism's homogeneity and cultural imperialism: it becomes more and more aparent as we watch that it is advertisers who are being brain-washed by consumers, not vice versa.

All the interviews are useful and on point. Well known media critics like Naomi Klein and Mark Crispin Miller appear and they don't deliver fluff: their words are heavy and loaded. Crispin is typically cynical and gives gloom and doom predictions about the evolution of advertising, saying "they don't want us to find a way out. The want to become the world." Klein, author of No Logo, an account of the 90's anti-globalization movement, emphasizes that Brands are the most expensive products of the modern corporation. Material production is easy; the intellectual property of brands take time and money to produce. This is emphasized when we see how competitive brand development companies are within their own field. Television commercials are often brand enhancements for the brand development companies themselves, which is why they are often extravagant, conceptual and seem to spend little time discussing the actual product. (The brand is the product.)

The documentary also discusses the market research which both the Kerry and Bush administrations conduct during the 2004 elections. I found another dimension to the bland, meaningless omni-persona we find in public debates. Bush and Kerry both targeted their messages area by area- developing a media identity by county. By creating multiple messages and targeting voters with an appealing message, the candidates become nuanced, geographically specific brands.

Persuaders is too quick to come to a conclusion at the end- marketers are being forced to develop individually targeted advertisements that will, more and more, heft agency onto consumers. "Once the market becomes the lense through which we choose to see the world," Rushkoff says, "then there's no 'us' and 'them' anymore. We're all persuaders." The key word is 'choose', which precludes not wanting to deal with the reality through 'brand logic'. This doesn't address the facts that:

1. Brands are co-created by consumers, but brands aren't the problem. The problem is the obfuscation between brand image and product performance. Now, "branding" is hardly a technical term, it's more of a fluffy buzzword, but one in need of more nuanced critical study. Some brand building agencies believe that Brands transcend intellectual property-they are the very 'essence' of the corporation and are reflected in all aspects of the company from the bottom up. In this model, brands aren't images and narratives, but 'performances' conducted by corporations. If this is the reality, then Rushkoff's conclusion holds true sorta; corporations intensely research our emotional needs and then perform in a way that reflects that. However, this is very often not the case. The idea also only in markets in which there is extensive competition-not markets in which the means of production have been all but consolidated.

2. Brands may be "interactive narratives" but they are selective narratives. They tell us what we want to hear; not what we don't want to hear. I was reading Baffler editor Thomas Frank's excellent One Market Under God, an astute account of American capitalism in the 90's. Here, he details Nike's penetration of skater culture, which they viewed as "cynical" and "jaded". They did this by forming an ad campaign that presented various sports stars being accosted by police mid game, ending with the message "what if other athletes were treated the same way skaters were?". The ad may have trumpeted a message that the skaters wanted broadcast in the mainstream, but it ignored any mention of the original problems which had caused this cynicism to develop in the first place, ie. sweatshops, outsourcing, and civil rights abuse in third world nations. Spreading the skater's gospel is a form of "brand performance" in that endorsing a marginalized message is, in some small way, an action and not just an image. But in performing in a way that effects a particular subset, Nike simply redirected their message rather than performing in other, more humanitarian ways. Would this really change in an individualized-marketing model?

At the core of this debate is the transition of Branding from a narratological model to one more akin to ludology. Agency increases as brands develop individually-targeted research, and the interaction between brand and consumer is one of codependent play rather than top-down culture dumping. But how do corporations themselves relate to brands; are they life models or are they projections? Are they mythologies that fuel the corporation's very soul, or illusions, slights of hand, elaborate smokescreens? Crispin Miller worries that brands are becoming our very oxygen and atmosphere, but Persuaders suggests that a kind of semiotic democracy is taking place-an increase of the consumer's ability to control his or her own cultural environment. Miller misses what I believe to be the real point: it's not brands but branding, brand logic, which is pervading everything it sees. Regulating corporations is important, but we should really be studying advertising because brand logic is becoming a language through which politicians develop their messages, and which individuals and subcultures use to establish themselves and interact with one another. What happens when the market is not how we "choose" to see the world, but how we are more and more unconsciously interacting within it? RoshCorp can give you all of these answers and more, for an introductory membership fee of 19.95

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