Branding and the Search for Authenticity

“AuthenticT: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture” by Sarah Banet-Weiser. NYU Press.

A scant few weeks ago The New York Times published an essay that upset the Internet, entitled How to Live Without Irony, written by a Christy Wampole, assistant professor of French at Princeton. The gist was that we should cool it with all the mocking detachment and just live authentically and kindly. Y’know?

I’m sure you’ve seen such pieces before: Paeans to honest dealing, encomia to loving the ones you’re with, to turning off your cellphone when you go a-mapling in Vermont. No sound is sweeter than the bark of a fox on a chilly morning while you drink that cup of Earl Grey, peering out of your bay window, etc.

I’ve heard foxes bark. What interests me more is why people keep writing these things. I’m subscribed to this mailing list, the Listserve, where once a day a person is selected at random to write whatever they want and send it to the rest of the list, its membership now numbering in the tens of thousands. And nearly every one of these emails ends up with someone telling a bunch of strangers to live, dammit. To love openly and dance like no one’s watching.

I’ve come to resent the Listserve. What’s with this innate assumption that everyone is living in some repressed nightmare? This urge to punish a mass of strangers with bromides that would test the patience even of the editor-in-chief of a fridge magnet company? From whence comes this desperate human urge to advise?

From media, of course. The media comprises people who have dedicated their lives to drawing distinctions for others:

Real things ... Fake things

War in Afghanistan ... Petraeus scandal

Certain kinds of rock music ... Rihanna

Love-inspired sexual intercourse ... Twitter

African teen-agers ... American teenagers

Local ... Artisanal

TV with friends ... Blogs

Seapunk . . . Seapunk

Christmas . . . Fat acceptance

Thus says the contemporary Authentocracy, who derive power and authority by drawing a line of authenticity then saying that anyone who crosses that line is tacky, unspiritual — someone who eats, but without the requisite praying and loving. (Eat, Pray, Love is of course fake.) Our world is filled with authentocrats, propping up velvet ropes wherever they can.

And so, wrote Wampole in the Times: “People may choose to continue hiding behind the ironic mantle, but this choice equals a surrender to commercial and political entities more than happy to act as parents for a self-infantilizing citizenry.”

It’s not just bad to be an ironist; it’s a surrender to infantilizing commerce. That “commerce,” marching through our streets like the Soviets in Red Dawn, is something to which we might surrender is a common bit of received humanist wisdom. It would surprise most people in commerce, by which I mean most of us, to learn how much we are feared.

Which is why AuthenticT: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture, by Sarah Banet-Weiser, is an interesting book, because it makes it its business to find the halfway point between this so-called infantilizing commerce and the world of the authentic and real — thus that “ambivalence.”

“In the contemporary US,” writes the author, “building a brand is about building an affective, authentic relationship with a consumer, one based — just like a relationship between two people — on the accumulation of memories, emotions, personal narratives, and expectations.” Familiar territory for anyone who lived through the No Logo years: We live in a branded world doing branded things and thinking branded thoughts.

But there the book starts to diverge from the nologoesque. Banet-Weiser, a professor at USC, clearly came to this world of commerce with deep academic suspicion, but to her credit she left with — well, not an appreciation, but a sort of hesitant, furrowed-brow empathy. There are worse things than living in the same world as Beyoncé and Applebee’s, and this book, in its attempt to describe the “transformation of culture of everyday living into brand culture,” doesn’t imagine otherwise.

The book leads off with a somewhat perfunctory breakdown of the Dove “Real Beauty” campaign, in which perfectly attractive women who occasionally enjoyed cupcakes were encouraged by Dove Soap to stop thinking of themselves as hideous hag-beasts but rather to esteem themselves and, not coincidentally, to celebrate their unique and perhaps curved bodies by cleaning them with Dove. “When Dove criticizes the beauty industry for damaging girls’ self-esteem through a very visible, social activist campaign that is funded through the selling of beauty products,” concludes Banet-Weiser, “the relationship between political (read: individual) empowerment and consumer culture is intricately, and often ambivalently, configured within the contours of the brand.” By which she means: Dove wants a feminism that sells soap. “Ambivalence” here is almost a synonym for “having it both ways,” but it’s key to remember that “both ways” is a fiction. The folks who want you to sell that soap also want you to feel great about your breasts. That’s noble and all, but it’s happening because they want to get some soap on those breasts. And not just any soap.

The Dove stuff has few surprises, but things pick up a bit when she gets to YouTube. YouTube may be a crap volcano, but its freedoms afford people — her focus here is on girls — the ability to play and explore and perform different identities. OK. But she also points out, and this is an astute observation, that many of these videos are reactions to the larger branded culture: Girls dancing to Single Ladies, for example, or discussing beauty products, or playing with Barbie dolls. “The almost inevitable presence of commercial brands as structuring narratives for YouTube videos,” she writes, “indicates that self-presentation does not imply simply any narrative of the self, created within an endlessly open cultural script, but one that makes sense within a cultural and economic context of recognizable and predetermined texts and values.”

Meaning that all that empowerment and self-expression is happening within the larger context of big brands and big money. With ads layered on top. Living as they do inside of a world filled with commercial narratives, little girls work with what they’ve got. As a result, concludes Banet-Weiser, “The contrast between an offline empowerment that is ‘real’ and an online empowerment that is ‘fake’ is ultimately beside the point.” The same things that make the Internet so socially transformative — its openness, its focus on entrepreneurship —also “provide the logic for the girl’s self-branding,” situating them evermore into a “hegemonic gendered consumer culture.” (As should be clear, this is an academic book. The words situate or situated appear more than 20 times. I counted.) Hegemony aside, this is a useful lens through which to view YouTube videos. What are the messages that are here? To what is this person (often, indeed, a young woman) reacting? What products are mentioned or displayed? Are these people engaging with and seeking some sort of power from those brands, or pushing back against them and demonstrating their control and authority?

Banet-Weiser engages similarly with branded street artists, branded political activism (like breast-cancer ribbons), and religious branding (like “prosperity gospel” types). The goal of the author is to demonstrate that with brand culture ascendant, “realms of culture and society once considered outside the official economy — like politics — are harnessed, reshaped, and made legible in economic terms.”

She does so, but if there’s one big flaw to this book, it’s that “Authentic” chooses its subjects too wisely. Ambivalence comes built-in with Banksy; he’s made himself into a sort of fruit fly for capitalist experiments.

Say there’s a continuum from “traditional” authentic culture (Baptists, banjo music) to “branded” culture (Baby Gap, Britney), with Banksy puckishly dancing in the middle, Dove soap in one hand and a purity ring in the other. Like the maidens of YouTube, all of us exist somewhere along this continuum. We’re called to the authentic at times, but other times we’re beckoned to by the brands. And all this harkening is the source of our ambivalence.

The issue is not just that we live in a branded world and crave the authentic, but that the nature of the “authentic” has become as fluid and reactive as the world of advertising itself. The Authentocracy has the tools, especially but not exclusively with social media, to propose a counter-narrative in which the things they prefer are promoted, the things they despise rejected. Their reward for their efforts is authority, the authority to say what is real and what is not. The modern branding expert’s efforts are spent in an endless attempt to anticipate, to route around, to please, and co-opt - not the “authentic,” which is just a concept after all, but to enlist the Authentocrats themselves. Of course an authentocrat co-opted loses all ability to claim authority; their secret powers fade with the first junket. On and on: This endless loop, this ceaseless, pathological battle, is the great endeavor of modern branding. Within that loop, as Banet-Weiser correctly discerns, is where we live now.