Brands ‘R Us

— by Geoff Olson —

Performing in the early nineties, the comic Bill Hicks offered some dubious advice to members of his audience. “By the way, if anyone here is in advertising or marketing… kill yourself. It’s just a little thought; I’m just trying to plant seeds.

“Seriously though, if you are, do.”

After describing his targets as “Satan’s little helpers” and the “ruiners of all things good,” Hicks insisted he meant it. “I know what all the marketing people are thinking right now too: ‘Oh, you know what Bill’s doing? He’s going for that anti-marketing dollar. That’s a good market. He’s very smart.’

Oh man, I am not doing that, you f**ing evil scumbags!” Hicks snarled.

I can’t imagine any of today’s comics riffing off Hicks’ lethal shtick. Certainly not on college campuses, those no-go zones for trigger-happy stand-up artists. But this isn’t about black comedy per se; it’s about the unfunny trajectory taken by marketing and advertising since Hicks’ death from pancreatic cancer in 1994.

Whether it’s estimating the dollar value of “biosphere services” from rivers and watersheds, or the harvesting and selling of personal online data, or the rebranding of a racist reality TV star as a presidential candidate, today it’s all about the commodification of everything.

We’ve so successfully internalized market values, we now actively commodify our own selves. From kids curating their Instagram profiles to adults grooming their LinkedIn accounts, it’s all about presenting a shiny, happy, marketable self to the world.

I recognize that some self-promotion is necessary for anyone with a sales-worthy service, effective product or worthy cause. Obviously, I’m not about to endorse Bill Hicks’ sarcastic advice as a real-world strategy for me or anyone with an Etsy account. As a freelancer, I depend on advertising revenue for a paycheque.

That said, personal branding has leapt from the self-help shelf like a virus from a bioweapons lab, to infect brains young and old. You may be halfway making it and halfway faking it, but that won’t fly many places online. Not if you want to sell yourself like a bar of soap and collect followers as a “guru,” “visionary,” “pioneer,” “thought leader,” or “disruptor.”

In a telling scene in Douglas Rushkoff’s 2014 PBS documentary, Generation Like, a group of US students are asked to define “sell-out.” It doesn’t register as an insult to the kids. It doesn’t register at all – none had ever heard it before. The term “sell-out” peaked in 1969 and has been falling ever since, according to Google’s NGram Viewer, which tracks word frequency in books over time. Contrast this with NGram’s spike for “on brand,” which is “something characteristic for the personal image (your brand) you are trying to project,” according to Urban Dictionary.

“Your brand is a perception or emotion, maintained by somebody other than you, that describes the total experience of having a relationship with you,” wrote marketers David McNally and Karl Speak in their influential 1999 book, Be Your Own Brand.

There’s irony in the recent spate of articles on how to spot a narcissist, presumably because it’s become trickier to distinguish personal pitching from a personality disorder. Humility, once considered a virtue, is now something of a capital sin against the culture of self-branding. This is personified in President Twitter Thumbs, who won the White House partly through a combination of toxic celebrity and malignant narcissism.

It’s an infectious mix. When Kanye West held his recent White House hugfest with President Trump, the MAGA-hatted hip-hop star made an interesting remark. “But at Adidas, when I went in, in 2015, we were a $14-billion company losing $2 billion a year. Now we have a $38-billion market cap. It’s called the “Yeezy effect,” he told the gathered press.

Note how West moves from the personal pronoun “I” to the collective pronoun “we” in speaking of Adidas. It’s peak commodification when a wealthy branded performer both endorses, and identifies with, the legal fiction of corporate personhood.

Everyone from billionaires to mommy bloggers are in on the self-branding game, leveraging their social media platforms with the zeal of marketing consultants. This includes teens and preteens, who have nothing to flog beyond their online personas.

When 23-year-old fashion blogger Chidera Eggerue advises followers to “go take dance class or start writing a blog or do something that adds value to you,” does anyone’s radar go off? Nope. Using business terms to pitch personal development is old hat, dating back at least to Napoleon Hill’s 1937 self-improvement book, Think and Grow Rich. It’s just that this mindset has been turbocharged by neoliberalism, with its philosophy that “the market drives not just the economy but all of social life,” in the words of cultural critic Henry Giroux.

So how did we get here? The expansion of the service and information economies has been, in part, a response to the North American contraction of the manufacturing sector, which began in the seventies with the export of blue-collar jobs to foreign shores. Hence the rise of the gig economy, which encourages underemployed workers to reinvent themselves as independent contractors.

Following the World Trade Organization’s 2001 membership welcome, China evolved into the default manufacturer to the First World. This allowed First World workers to furnish their homes with cheaper goods, but it didn’t solve capitalism’s internal contradictions. However, it bought the neoliberal system time to blow up more speculative bubbles, privatize public assets, intensify state authoritarianism and foreign wars, financialize crisis (“disaster capitalism”), and ratchet up social disparities. While continuing to plunder the ecosphere, of course.

All of this was well underway while Hicks was still ranting. “A world where greed is our God and wisdom is sin, where division is key and unity is fantasy, where the ego-driven cleverness of the mind is praised, rather than the intelligence of the heart,” as the comic observed.

Economic historian Karl Marx insisted that mass consciousness is conditioned by economic relations, and the information age is no exception. As the global economy unwinds, we are being confronted by a new set of material conditions. And that means a change in consciousness – in both mind and heart.

“Listen,” Bill Hicks said toward the end of his life, “the next revolution is gonna be a revolution of ideas.”

Geoff Olson, a BC writer and political cartoonist, is rebranding himself as a curmudgeon. He is also available for children’s parties.

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