Wednesday, September 13, 2006


Time For A Brand New Argument

Neil Boorman's article on brands on Comment Is Free deserves a certain amount of praise for its level tone and moments of self-awareness, but it's still wrong wrong wrong. Here's the set-up:

'Six months ago, I began writing a blog entitled I announced on the site that I was going to destroy every branded item in my possession, having concluded that I was suffering from an addiction to the status and aspirations surrounding brands. . . I imagined that this project would find favour with any number of social groups who face the daily pressure to consume beyond their basic needs; parents beleaguered by the pester power of their kids, teenagers under pressure to conform to peers, and any adult whose credit card contributes to the £200bn of consumer debt that we must repay in the UK.'

Now let's investigate:

'How very wrong I was. On the day my story broke in the papers, the blog was flooded with negative posts, which, on reflection, was to be expected; here was another middle-class London journalist moaning on about the luxuries that many around the world cannot afford. Instead of burning these things, why not give the lot away to charity or, better still, just count my blessings and keep quiet?'

This is the one moment of self-realisation in the article. One of the commenters points out that giving your clothes to charity to be taken to the Third World is actually a bad thing - clothes dumping makes it impossible for local clothing manufacturers to compete, there's no shortage of clothes even in the poorest countries of the world, and there is a good deal of shame involved in wearing western cast-offs for people in the Third World. However, while this sort of charity would be undesirable, counting his blessings, giving a few more quid to Oxfam and keeping quiet would have been much the sensible course to take.

'I think this reaction has less to do with charity than the overall value that we have come to place on branded things; nowadays, to willingly destroy an expensive bag amounts to the same moral and cultural neglect as burning a book.'

On the contrary, I don't think that's the case at all. The reason burning a book symbolises cultural neglect is that books represent ideas, and their destruction shows unwillingness to listen to different perspectives. Even the most dedicated High Street addict would be hard pushed to call a handbag an idea.

'Take two white T-shirts. They are identical in size, shape and quality, only one has a logo on the breast. The plain shirt costs £5 from a market stall, the branded version costs £50 from a department store. Considering they perform the same basic function, the rational choice would be the market option. Yet it seems the majority of us would choose the branded option whenever we could afford it. We would somehow be letting ourselves down otherwise'.

I dispute his use of the word 'rational' here. He actually means utilitarian or better still functionalist. Of course, the 'rational' shopper takes more than just cost into account. He does come to admit this:

'Of course, there is another function that the branded shirt performs; the logo on the breast transforms the experience of wearing the thing. To display the brand is to prove to yourself (and anyone who cares to look) that you are of a certain standing, that you are worth something in life. In this respect the brand transforms the product from something of utilitarian function into an object of meaning and desire. That is why we buy overpriced products, from iPods to Heinz baked beans, over cheaper alternatives. I wonder, if my bonfire contained only non-branded items, would the outrage be quite so great?'

He is of course right - to an extent - that brands confer social status and acceptability (although of course in Guardian circles the lack of brands confers the same) but that's not the only reason people buy branded clothes, mp3 players and food products. As Tim Worstall argues, the foreknowledge of the standard of the product you're purchasing is crucial:

'They’re a signifier of quality, repeatable quality. Heniz baked beans did not become the world’s most consumed simply because of an advertising budget, nor because they are a signifier of a higher social status. Rather, because they were, in an age of uncertain canning techniques, reliable in their quality. The brand became the signifier of this.'

It's the same with everything - people will pay more for a Mercedes than, say, a Trabant not just because it looks better or everyone at the office has one, but because it's less likely to fall apart within 100 yards of the factory gates.

Back to Boorman:

'The brand, then, is both a badge of identity and a means of personal fulfilment; no wonder people feel defensive when they're told it is all an expensive con. But that's what these brands really are. The extra £45 paid on that branded T-shirt purchases a fantasy that does not exist, a quick fix of happiness that does not last.'

£45 is not that far away from what you might pay for a gram of cocaine. That is equally a 'quick fix of happiness', but it defies economic rationalisation. As Frank Skinner pointed out when talking about his alcoholism, you don't not do it for the lows, you do it for the highs. Okay, you might argue that cocaine gives you a much bigger high than an expensive shirt, but by the same token, an expensive shirt lasts a hell of a lot longer.

'I would suggest that most rational people understand that consumption provides little sustainable contentment (for all our affluence, New Scientist places us 24th in the happiness league, behind Nigeria and El Salvador).'

I'm very suspicious of people who quote surveys like this. Quite apart from the obvious fact that it's impossible to measure happiness with any degree of accuracy, I also wonder what they want me to do with the information. Is he suggesting Britain would be a nicer place if it were politically more like Nigeria? I always remember a teacher telling me that they have televised executions on a Saturday morning. That'd be fun, wouldn't it?

'They would also concede that the price we pay for these branded things is far too high and is crippling to our budgets. And the ethics of production? The environmental impact? None of this is news to the average consumer. Yet we continue to consume according to want, not need, each day of our lives.'

I've never understood that comment about the ethics of production. I know Nike and the like don't pay their workers much by western standards, but they probably pay more, with better prospects, than the local clothing factory.

'I simply state that this "want" is manufactured and manipulated by the emotional advertising of brands and, at some point in the future, it has got to stop.'

Even if that were a sensible goal, and I certainly don't agree that it is, how? Such comments betray a man enjoying living in a fantasy world rather than sensibly discussing changing the real one.

Evil incarnate.

I really do wish people would think before they commit to such simplistic notions. The guy sounds like he's trying to convince himself of his original premise whilst admitting that he can't possibly universally justify it. I submit that this chap take his summer holiday in North Berwick and stop worrying. 'Tis truly a magikal place on a warm summer day.
Is North Berwick anywhere near the other Berwick?
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