12.09.2013 1

The tyranny of branding

Bumper_StickerBy Marta H. Mossburg

Has anyone noticed that your brand has replaced yourself?

First impressions have always been important, but became critical to survival when Americans left the farm for the city and needed to get a job from someone they were not related to or friends with. Dale Carnegie cashed in on this demographic shift with his bestselling 1936 book “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”

The advent of social media, however, seems to have unleashed an obsessive inner need to mark our territory like dogs who stop every five feet to spread their scent, and not just on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

I am no scientist, but I’ve noticed you no longer have to Google people to find out who they are. Just look at the back of their car. It will often tell you not just their political affiliation, a long-standing tradition, but where and how much they spend on vacation, their yearly tuition bills, and their social class.

It doesn’t matter what socioeconomic background they come from. The stickers may be different – you don’t see too many stick figure families or “My German Shepherd is smarter than your honor student” stickers on the backs of Land Rovers, for example, but you will see lots of MV (Martha’s Vineyard) or OBX (Outer Banks) ovals affixed next to their private school stickers. Lately I’ve seen a lot of blue squares with two yellow lines – which indicates support for gay marriage and broadcasts an in–the-know hipness since most people could not likely guess what it means.

A few weeks ago The Wall Street Journal ran a funny article by a man annoyed by all the runners with 26.2 and 13.1 bumper stickers he sees in his Midwestern town. As he asked, “What’s with this infatuation with running and the near-mandatory ritual of preening about it?”

But it’s not just running. It’s everything. It’s as if it’s not enough just to believe certain things anymore or like doing certain things or going certain places, you have to brand yourself with them to validate your identity. And it’s not just on cars. Clothes, jewelry and accessories are so logo heavy or so recognizably branded that everything worn is readily identifiable not just to friends and family but to passerby. Brands are not new, but a Ralph Lauren polo logo the size of a grapefruit is, for example. And wealthy women donning totes with massive Tory Burch or Michael Kors hardware is also new for a country where until relatively recently broadcasting wealth or achievement was tacky, particularly so in formerly puritan New England.  And then there are the do-good brands like Toms, which donates a pair of shoes for every one bought, which allows people to think they are philanthropists for wearing trendy footwear. Since giving as a percentage of income has held steady for decades, wearing the ubiquitous rubber bracelets representing myriad causes or donning certain shoes is not making people give more. But it is a fashion statement that broadcasts you “care” — whatever that means since it rarely involves any self-sacrifice.

And there’s the rub — branding is not about becoming a better person, but advertising you are the right sort of person so that like minded people – to go back to the dog analogy — will come sniff your butt. Growing up used to mean shedding that sort of herd mentality but now it is a staple of adulthood.

It’s great that so many people want to “Save the Tatas,” for example, but what about the pancreas, the liver and the epidermis? There are so many pink ribbons and pink everything out there – even on NFL players – in support of breast cancer awareness it seems to have drowned out any information about other types of cancer. Good for the breast cancer people for figuring out how to raise money for their cause, but as a society I can’t help but think that we’ve started to unlearn the difference between popularity and merit and more susceptible to the groupthink that comes from being inundated by seeing only certain images over and over again.

The ‘I brand, therefore I am’ mentality also breeds a need to constantly keep up with the latest important causes and trends in order to stay fresh and relevant to peers. It’s exhausting just thinking about it. So until someone can convince me otherwise, I will continue to drive bumper-sticker-free cars, buy logo-less handbags and enjoy traveling to wherever my family decides to travel anonymously without forcing you to revel in my self-expression as if it were a deity to be worshipped.

Marta H. Mossburg writes frequently about national affairs and about Maryland, where she lives. Follow her on Twitter at @mmossburg.

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