Skipping thought by labelling people is just the next logical step
At the age of 10 I came across an article about breakfast cereals. There was a brand of cereal at the time that had a cartoon character on the box, and the article was explaining how this process worked. The cereal company would ask the company that made the cartoon for the use of their character, and hand over a substantial sum of money. The character would then appear on cereal boxes, and the cartoon company would get paid to have a free ad. This, I thought at the time, seemed like a pretty good deal.
It was, and is. “Getting customers to pay for the privilege of advertising your company” is the business model of an increasing number of clothing manufacturers. Back in primary school, I was often perplexed that kids would wear jumpers with GAP emblazoned across the front in letters of epic proportions. They’d do this on purpose! 10-year-old me sat back smugly, thinking that these people just didn’t get it.
I was wrong. It was me who didn’t get it. I didn’t understand what brands and labels are, or how they work. While I was rolling my eyes, brands and labels were changing the way people think – about everything.
A brand can be many things. It can simply be a way of identifying a consumer good, a name with which to associate attributes that differentiate a product from its competitors. A brand can be a tribal identifier, a way of saying “I belong with these people”. A label can signal social status, wealth, good taste.
What ties these different functions together? The fundamental nature of branding.
What is a label? A shortcut. A shortcut around what? Around thought. See a brand, and if its done its job properly you won’t have to think much about what it’s selling, or how preposterous the pitch really is. ‘High-end’ clothes shops like Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister make genius use of dim lighting, good-looking models and the overwhelming power of peer pressure to distract you from the fact that you just spent €48 on a t-shirt. People will pay hundreds of euro for Dr Dre Beats when they could get vastly cheaper headphones with arguably better sound quality.
Now, shortcuts can be really useful – even essential. We can’t spend our lives assessing every detail of everything we buy. But what about when brands become shortcuts to themselves?
Because the most successful brands do exist in and of themselves. They have no history, no justification – they just are. See that iconic red-and-silver can of coke, and it doesn’t really matter how Coca-Cola the company treat their workers, or the environment, or even whether you really like the taste of coke. That lovely metallic contrast is part of the experience of drinking the cola. Perhaps the most important part – in blind taste tests Coca-Cola regularly loses out to competitors, but take the blindfold off and do an MRI scan of the average cola connoisseur’s brain, and you’ll find that to most people Coke actually tastes better when they know that’s what they’re drinking.
But this way of thinking about things doesn’t stop with consumer products. Look at how our politicians talk about this country. We are now “Brand Ireland”.
If Brand Ireland is doing well, that means other countries who might consider trading with us, and multinationals who might want to set up shop won’t have to think too hard. They won’t really have to engage with Ireland as a country or a people, with a history and a culture. No, those are just bullet points that help sell us as a good product. After all, it’s a busy world out there, and there are all these other brands, sorry, countries, competing for our market share.
And, inevitably, we start thinking in labels and brands when we’re dealing with people, shortcutting right past their individuality, their God-given dignity.
Label someone’s ideas ‘homophobic’ and you can safely avoid engaging with their arguments. Better yet, label them a homophobe and you’ll never have to talk to them at all.
We’re already used to skipping thought by labelling things. Skipping thought by labelling people is just the next logical step.
We’ve all read about how our culture ‘commodifies’ human beings. But look at that word “commodification”. It’s a brand too – a conservative word, perhaps even a fusty word. What it means in the context – the transformation of people and ideas into things to be accepted or discarded, just another set of goods in life’s great marketplace – is rarely given much actual consideration.
The job of Christians is to see the things we buy, the ideas we discuss, and above all the people we’re called to love; not through a glass darkly, but as they truly are. So it’s time to take off the Ray-Bans.