Whatever you think of starry eyed quests for “social justice” or “fair trade,” you have to admit that they have a certain abstract nobility.Â People who throw themselves behind these causes may choose ineffective, counterproductive, and even morally suspect means to their ends.Â Nevertheless, someone who dedicates herself to combating racism or poverty deserves our respect, even as she may also deserve our opposition. That makes it particularly depressing to contemplate the present state of the activist left. Sure, the perennial social ills are still in the spotlight–albeit a spotlight dimmed by the progress made already on those fronts–but the really hip countercultural sages would have us believe that the truly pernicious factor at work in the modern world is .Â .Â . Starbucks.
Not just Starbucks, of course, but also Walmart, Coke, Nike, The Gap .Â .Â . all of the megabrands. Usually at least some attempt is made to tie logo-hatred to those serious problems. Walmart engages in “unfair business practices” because economies of scale allow them to satisfy low income customers on the cheap. Nike is “exploitative” because they have the temerity to offer third world workers bad jobs .Â .Â . which nevertheless beat the heck out of grueling farm labor and prostitution.Â You know the drill.Â But these are usually sticks thrown upon an already blazing bonfire, almost as an afterthought. The animus towards the brands transcends the specific misdeeds (real or imagined) of any one corporation.Â Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the real misdeed is the act of branding itself.
According to the anti-brand cognoscenti–folks like Naomi Klein, author of the protest-kiddie bible No Logo–corporate icons and imagery are a spiral medallion swung before the public’s glazed eyes.Â Corporations, the line goes, no longer sell products in the conventional sense. Now, the product is the brand itself, and the image or lifestyle associated with it. Through a variety of “coercive” psychological techniques, marketers supposedly convince a sheeplike populace that the talismanic power of a Swoosh, or some other brand logo, will imbue them with charm, grace, athletic prowess, and a renewed passion for life.
In one sense, you’d think that this would be good news to the very people making the critique. As it turns out, Americans aren’t such grubby materialists after all. When people go to the mall, they’re consuming the ingredients of meaning, and not mere physical stuff. And while this may sound unattractive to the anticorp crowd–they’re “commodifying meaning,” the horror!–how different is it, really, from sporting a tie-dyed shirt, or an ankh and black lipstick? For that matter, does anyone really buy a VW Beetle for the trunk space and horsepower? Each of these are statements we make about the sort of people we are, or want to be–statements we make both to the world and to ourselves.
It’s also ironic that the opponents of brands fail to recognize that they themselves, by using reconstructed brand imagery to criticize corporations, are helping to serve one of the primary market functions of brands. In addition to their symbolic functions, brands serve as what economists call “assurance mechanisms.” By relying so much on the power of the Golden Arches symbol, and the McDonalds name, the company makes itself extremely vulnerable to the dilution of those symbols, and its reputation, by a few bad franchises. That’s the whole point, because consumers who recognize this can be relatively confident that this will result in a strong incentive to control quality. In other words, firms deliberately make themselves vulnerable, because they increase confidence by increasing their exposure. This can be harmful to particular companies in the short term, when they make a mistake, or when they misjudge what consumers want. But on the whole, it’s a winning bargain. The focus on names like Nike by, for example, the anti-sweatshop movement, proves the point. If companies like Nike are pressured into changing their labor practices–which would be unfortunate for workers in developing countries–it will be because of the power branding gives consumers over firms.
Now, I won’t join the chorus of those who claim that whatever the market selects is just inherently wonderful; there are some perverse effects of laissez faire culture. Teenagers, for example, constitute a market combining plenty of disposable income with relatively herdlike tastes. Since most adolescents aren’t yet confident enough to have developed their own preferences, winning over a few of the cool kids to the product du jour can mean capturing a huge demographic bloc in one fell swoop. That means huge advertising budgets are focused on promoting television and music geared to thirteen year olds. An unfortunate spillover effect is that plenty of people who are, at least chronologically, older than that become acclimated to adolescent tastes, as more sophisticated fare is crowded out of public view. Lest I begin to sound too much like George Will, though, bear in mind that my idea of a “debased culture” is one in which Modest Mouse doesn’t get enough radio time. And that I long ago gave up thinking that everyone ought to like the music I do, even if I would like to treat Eminem to a personal reenactment of his own lyrics.
Even granting those unfortunate tendencies, there’s something of a dilemma for the logo loathers. If people are bright enough to engage in logo semiotics, to deploy brand meanings for their own communicative purposes, then they’ll do so, and there’s no harm to letting the market rip. If they aren’t, however, why should we expect the same people who lack the mental fortitude to resist Doritos ads to fare any better against the (arguably even more “coercive”) force of monolithic and intolerant pre-consumer cultures?
The relentlessly banal social critic Benjamin Barber does get at least one thing right when he says that the great modern conflict is the struggle between “Jihad” and “McWorld,” which is to say, between traditional, monist culture and postmodern, pluralist commercial culture.Â Â Persons can be subject to the influence of a single, geographically dominant way of life, or to a multitude of competing ones, each pulling in a different direction. If individual autonomy plays any role in the choice of hypothetically weak-willed people, surely it has a greater one in the second scenario, in the equilibrium space created by the opposing pulls of competing goods. And pluralism is pretty hard to disentangle from consumer culture. The idea of tolerance for different lifestyles is much more connected than we normally realize, both historically and psychologically, to the modern fusion of consumer fashion and personal identity. The rise of liberalism in Europe, for example, coincided with a shift from antiquity to fashionableness as the most salient determinant of a good’s status.
A quick personal reality check. McDonalds food is horrendous, and I don’t eat meat anyway. I couldn’t tell you about Starbucks, because I’m absurdly loyal to my local coffeehouse. I seldom drink Coke, and if the only clothing on earth came from the Gap, I’d join a nudist colony. But in eschewing those brands no less than adopting them, I engage in a little bit of semiotic meaning construction that would be impossible without the tools brands provide, through their absence as well as their presence. So bless every one of them, for being there to help people display who they are .Â .Â . and helping me remember who I’m not.