During the twentieth century branding and advertising became central to shaping our ideas of what the good life is and how it can be realised through our consumption of commercial products and experiences. Branding and advertising are a fundamental part of our media culture. In advertiser-funded media - like newspapers, magazines, television and social media - brands are arguably the critical component. These media businesses depend on creating value for brands, without funds flowing from advertisers the business would collapse.
By following brands, and how they change over time, we can understand how media are used to exercise power and to organise cultural life. To begin, my provocation is that during the twentieth century brands operated predominantly in an ideological fashion. They purchased advertisements in mass media like newspapers, radio and television. Those advertisements made claims about the qualities of products or the people who consumed them. If consumers found those claims persuasive or appealing they would go and buy the products.
By the late twentieth century however, brands had become woven into our lives and identities in more complicated ways. This process kicked off in the 1960s with the creative revolution. Advertising creatives like Bill Bernbach created a style of ‘anti-advertising’ that played on the public’s mistrust of advertising. He created advertisements that critiqued the mass society and poked fun at advertising itself. By making this move, advertising was no longer caught up in trying to protect the sincerity of its claims. Instead, advertising acknowledged that savvy consumers had grown cynical about the claims brands made, and responded by weaving themselves into our everyday lives. Making less emphatic claims about the qualities of their products, and instead claims about the hip and savvy people who consumed them.
Advertisers began to devise ways to let consumers play a role in attaching whatever meanings they liked to brands. In the past decade, social media platforms have engineered a system of media that works entirely on the terms set by brands. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram and increasingly Snapchat depend on attracting money from brands to make a profit. And so, they are invested in engineering a platform for participatory and data-driven promotion that brands want to pay for. Branding on social media is participatory in the sense that we weave brands into the depiction of our everyday lives. And, branding on social media is data-driven in the sense that we submit to surveillance of our expressions, movements, preferences and relationships. This data is incorporated into the algorithmic judgments of brand culture.
Brands are not just logos, they are social processes. By this we mean that to understand how brands work we need to pay attention not just to texts and their meanings, but also to the social interactions between people of which those texts are a part. From the mid-20th century brands and advertisements began to transition beyond simply informational claims about a product, to more deliberately position products within desirable ways of life. Advertisements did not just teach consumers about product attributes, they also taught consumers how to incorporate products within their lifestyles.
Here’s a Folgers coffee advertisement from the 1950s.
Folgers coffee ads are all over YouTube because they are infamous examples of the sexism of mid-century advertising. In this one, a young housewife seeks advice on how to please her husband, who is dissatisfied with the coffee she is making at home. Papa Eddie suggests Folgers because it is never bitter. Here, the advertisement makes a definitive claim about the qualities of a product: the coffee is natural, not bitter, grown in the mountains. Advertising and branding started out making claims about the specific attributes of products, and they still do this of course. But, that isn’t the whole story.
What we see develop over time is that brands make claims not just about product qualities, but also how the product is positioned in a way of life. So, in this Folgers ad the coffee is positioned within an idealised suburban life – complete with its antiquated gender norms. The claim being made is not just that Folgers coffee tastes good, but that you the housewife should buy Folgers coffee because it would please your husband. That consuming this kind of coffee makes you a ‘good’ housewife, something it assumes women want to be.
The advertisement doesn’t just say something about the quality of the coffee, it makes a claim about the kind of person who buys this coffee. It addresses women as if what they desire is to be a good housewife. This advertisement would of course not work today because it does not fit with today’s cultural norms and values. A brand could not successfully address women in this way. This is how brands work as social processes, they reflect the cultural norms of the specific cultural setting they are operating within. Brands have a long history of engaging with and reflecting gender norms. Here’s a famous Australian example.
In VB’s Hard Earned Thirst advertisements real men – men who do manual labour, engage exclusively in homosocial pastimes, play football, drive utes – drink VB. The ad says, more or less, who wouldn’t want to be one of these real men? This ad is from the 1970s. Let’s note an important difference with the Folger’s coffee ad from the 1950s. This VB ad says nothing about the product itself, it only talks about the kind of man that consumes the product. The ad positions the product within a way of life and its identities. This ad represents what the consumption of a product means and says about the consumer. Throughout the twentieth century brands increasingly put themselves at the centre of our cultural experiences.
Since the turn of the millennium brands have also increasingly established themselves as platforms for ethical and political action. They offer an opportunity or tool for acting as an ethical consumer. Here’s an example from Singapore.
A mobile phone company launches an app that helps vision-impaired people navigate the world. They take a photo with their phone, share it to an app, and micro-volunteers write a description of what’s in the image. The brand offers a tool to help people be ‘ethical’ or ‘good’ people. The brand offers tools for you to ‘act out’ your values and ethics. The brand becomes part of how you see yourself as a good person in the world. The brand helps you make your values tangible actions.
We see this everywhere. When we buy Starbucks coffee we are told it is not just a cup of coffee but a ‘coffee ethics’ – the coffee is fair trade, sustainable, contributes toward development projects and so on. When we buy Tom’s shoes, a pair of shoes is sent to the developing world.
In a café I was in this morning I could buy the toilet paper in the bathroom, with the profits going to sanitation projects in the developing world. In each of these cases I don’t just buy the product and its utilitarian attributes: the coffee, the shoes, the toilet paper. I also am buying a certain ethics, an opportunity to feel good about myself, and convey my values to the world, and in a small way share the good life with others. When we purchase products we are often making decisions not just about the specific attributes or uses of the product, but also what purchasing that product says about us: our taste, politics, ethics and values.
The problem is though that this can feel futile. We somehow feel responsible in our individual consumption choices for larger political, social and market structures. Here’s a provocative illustration of this dilemma from the satire of hipster life in Portland, Oregan – Portlandia – the famous chicken scene.
So, in the scene we have two hip ethical consumers deliberating about whether to eat an organic chicken. It is satire. But, it contains a kernel of truth. In these moments when we feel our individual consumption decisions have larger ramifications, we somehow feel a sense of absurd responsibility. The decision to eat a chicken isn’t just a decision about feeling hungry or what you like to eat, it is also a decision about your ethics and values, and your role in perpetuating a system of industrial farming. Here’s the thing though. Individual moments of consumption are probably not where larger market dynamics get changed. Better or more ethical farming could only emerge through collective action: policy change, industry accountability, regulatory frameworks and so on.
Ethical consumption is arguably then more a way for brands to present themselves as in-sync with our values, or to offer us symbolic resources to convey our values, rather than a really politically effective way of orchestrating change in the world. This discussion alerts as though to the various ways in which consumption is hard work. Not just because it conveys our ethics and values, but also because of the ways in which our consumption decisions convey our sense of taste. Often, this is part of a kind of loop between our consumption practices and our social media use. When we go to cool venues, fancy restaurants, buy new clothes they’ll often appear conspicuously or subtly in our social media profiles. They say something about our taste. We incorporate brands into our self-narratives. Our consumption choices can say a lot about us.
In the Netflix comedy series Master of None by Aziz Ansari there’s a wonderful scene where he is obsessively searching google and Yelp to try and find the best taco in New York. He spends so long looking for the best taco truck in New York that by the time he finds it, it is shut down.
It’s cutting because it’s something many of us spend a lot of time doing – trying to figure out the best place to go.
These are the judgments of making ‘tasteful’ consumption decisions. Furthermore, our media devices, apps and platforms are central to the work of searching, evaluating, locating the best options – and once we’ve made our choice, promoting our good judgement to our peer networks in the form of images and updates. We pull out the phone and research the best place to go for a drink with friends, once there we use the phone to take photos that tell everyone what a great decision we made.
If, during the past generation, brands came to rely more and more on our capacity to incorporate brands within our lives, then social media provides the tools dramatically intensify these practices. On social media, brands rely less on telling us what to think and more on providing us with the resources we need to include brands within the streams of images, videos, comments and likes that we create.
Brands teach us something profound about the how our current media system operates.
This is a media system organised around the logics of participation and surveillance.
Participation. The continuous translation of our lived experience into images, comments and ratings. We do the work of creating narratives about consumer culture that our peers sees. This enables an incredibly powerful form of branding to emerge, one where brands can operate in highly reflexives and customised ways. A brand can come to mean many different things, depending on the cultural context and social network within which it is being made meaningful by consumers.
Surveillance. Brands can operate in a more participatory way because social media platforms facilitate the translation of lived experience into streams of data. This data enables brands to make predictions about and respond to consumers in increasingly customised ways.
On social media platforms brands don’t rely on our sincere belief of their claims, as much as they rely on our continuous participatory incorporation of them into our lives and our willingness to be monitored.