A message for my fellow brand whores
Words & images © Paul Ransom
Note: The original version of this piece was created for a business related blog in July 2015. What follows here is an updated, augmented version.
There’s a line in a song by Arcade Fire1. It goes something like this:
Businessmen will drink my blood
Like the kids at art school said they would.
As a freelance writer, independent filmmaker and generally ‘arty’ type, you can probably imagine which side of the stereotypical creativity/commerce divide I tend to identify with. Although this is a somewhat hackneyed and unnecessary dichotomy, I have experienced it in all its moral and ideological colour. I have had my ideas brazenly stolen, my feature film treatment handed to another writer the moment funding became available, and heard other people casually claim the credit for my creations. Yet, I have also written the stomach churning ad copy and charged the hourly rate, made the uneasy compromises and sacrificed what I believed to be quality for what the paymasters regarded as marketing gold.
In this, I am hardly unique – nor even that unusual. Undergraduate fantasies of uncorrupted bohemian virtue, in which the artist pours forth beauty and truth and everyone else genuflects, don’t tend to survive. We live in a world that is, not a world that ought to be. For those of us who don’t have access to trust fund cash or other sources of sustenance, the bottom line is the standard issue elephant. (Not necessarily vicious; but always capable of crushing you.) We creatives may well baulk at the sheer banality of this but no matter how inspired we think we are we cannot seriously expect to live and work in a bubble of purity. Therefore, when we work with (or in the employ of) others, we can expect to be edited and encumbered by the need to be mindful about their objectives and, crucially, about how we intend to go about spending their money.
As a film industry friend recently reminded me: the golden rule is that those who hold the gold rule.
Yet, reasonable though that sounds, in my experience there is often a fundamental and poisoning dislocation at the heart of the creative/client relationship. Put simply, it’s that the client almost invariably wants you to lie. Yes, lie. Whether it’s by obscuring, omitting or over-promising, the net result is that you frequently find yourself creating content that gilds the lily or downplays the issue to an unacceptable extent.
Unacceptable? If you think trust is an issue, sure…and given that trust underpins all human relations and sits at the core of our society and economy, it’s difficult to dismiss it as trivial. Indeed, much of the fractious and febrile tone that has lately infected our political and cultural discourse has emerged from an erosion of trust. What’s more, these divisions and the dramas around them are amplified by the very megaphone of media that we creatives participate in. The content of news, entertainment and advertising is crafted by people like us.
We might think we’re artists, and therefore above all that, but still we write the copy and cut the video. Basically, we are the backroom noisemakers and most, if not all, of those finely crafted messages of ours are forms of marketing.
Whilst it borders on trite to suggest that, ultimately, we’re all selling something, the marketing mavens have greatly sharpened their knives over the last few decades. Today, marketing is the Machiavellian art of reducing human beings to targets. This dehumanising agenda has given us the almighty brand and boiled the complexities of living down to the colour schemes and must have accessories of lifestyle. In the crosshairs of the marketing department we are no longer people – we are grocery buyers, millennials, over 35s, etcetera. We can be distilled. Essentialised. We are an abstract audience that they scheme to engage.
Though we recognise this as smart practise when it comes to the selling shower gel or fashion labels, the mantras of marketing have not only entered politics but infiltrated the socio-cultural space. Whereas NGOs used to concern themselves with feeding the poor or saving us from climate change, now they tailor their messages to market segments. Because activism is a brand now and green is a lifestyle choice. Even our most cherished beliefs have become part of our brand profile. Indeed, I had a client in the self-improvement space back in 2015 whose pitch was that she could help you work out what ‘brand you’ was. And of course, the marketing ethos has well and truly colonised the arts (which is where we so-called creatives come in).
Let me illustrate with an example from a few years back. I was involved with what promised to be an incredibly exciting television project. There was a gap in the market, pent-up demand was in evidence and the technology had at last caught up with the vision of seamless on demand streaming. A team of experienced producers, directors and other talent was assembled. Meetings happened. Juices flowed. Promo videos got made.
But then something stalled. Inspiration morphed into marketing. Cutting edge film projects became brand collaboration platforms. In short, integrity turned into a database capture exercise. Colour palettes, key words and touch points conquered the content. The old adage – content is king – was jettisoned and in its place a bold new mantra: the brand is everything.
This was never better illustrated than at a one-on-one I had with the project’s self-appointed CFO. After flattering me with promises of wealth and success he then proceeded to make clear that all of this was contingent on me ‘representing the brand’ at all times. I thought I was being hired to write and direct; but no, first and foremost I was to be a brand ambassador. (I’m sure you can guess how well that went down.)
Of course, the cult of the brand is by now a well-established fiction in the marketplace. We accept it as a given. Yet, when we drill down, what we discover is that the phenomenon of the brand is as hollow and contradictory as the fetish of celebrity. For just as the spectacle of stardom abstracts and obscures the reality of the human being behind the brightness, so too the brand is both a placeholder and a mechanism that allows us to enjoy the upside while simultaneously distancing us from the downside. Moreover, it is the screen behind which companies and individuals can justify their fear-based, second guessing dishonesty. When you have nothing to offer but a profit motive, the brand will be your stand in. When you are so risk averse that you have little left but the blandness of a beige tinted safety, the brand will happily mouth your empty taglines.
The psychological profile of the typical and much vaunted ‘brand relationship’ is akin to the one we endure with the class clown or town bike; the brand effectively grovels for our loyalty to compensate for its own lack of self-esteem. True, it makes a show of itself, but that’s all it is. Colour and movement. The false idol that never truly delivers on its promise of rain and plenty.
The point of all this is to suggest the following heresy. Brands do not exist. A company is not a name and a logo; it is a group of people working together to produce goods and services. This may seem painfully obvious – indeed, it should be – but marketing speak loves to put a gloss on things. A gloss so shiny you can’t see what (or who) is behind it.
No wonder trust is at a premium and that blatant, pathological liars can bully their way to the White House by dog whistling about fake news.
Whether it’s the spin of politics or the coolly crafted copy of hired guns like me, the implied but rarely admitted aim of ‘comms’ is to promise everything without actually promising anything. The contemporary language of media, marketing and management is the contradictory tongue of breathless excitement and expert evasion. Talk about fake.
In defence of this apostasy, I cite the following examples.
1: Whilst working in production for a major festival event in my hometown of Melbourne, Australia it was made clear to me (off the record, of course) that the top priority in all my outgoing comms was to ‘say nothing that might get us sued.’
2: Whilst writing web copy for the aforementioned TV company I was constantly invoking terms like ‘high end’ and ‘innovative’ for content that not only did not yet exist but which had barely even gotten beyond the ‘note on a napkin’ stage. In other words, I was selling little more than the fantasies of the principals. (Or was it the brand promise?)
The salient point here centres on accountability. Indeed, where there is no accountability there is no grounds for trust; and ultimately it is only human beings that can take responsibility. All the while governments and corporations can shuffle and rebrand personal responsibility into an abstraction they will always have trust issues. The CEO may fall on their sword or the Minister resign, but no one really feels responsible for the bridge collapse or the baby food contamination; and as a result their scripted apologies routinely strike us as insincere at best, downright cynical at worst.
However, there is a sobering flipside. Whilst it’s fun to get righteous and fire salvos at the ‘way of things’, people like me need to remember our own rhetoric. It’s far too easy to fall into system blaming, to rail against the status quo, to conjure up vampiric men in dark suits and sheet everything home to them. Yet this oppositional stance is frequently as dishonest as the brand. To invoice the devil is simply to be on his payroll – and what does that make us?
Freelance suppliers – creatives, consultants, tradies, etcetera – also need to be trustworthy. For some of us though, this trust extends beyond the immediate client/provider contract and outwards to the end user; the client’s customers. By writing seamlessly smooth brand lies for that TV company I too was culpable in making ultimately false promises to the people who ended up investing. When I got home that night, I knew it.
It is no surprise that I do not work for them anymore; nor even that the principals effectively cannibalised the company when the investor cash finally rolled in. In the end, all that integrity amounted to little more than a squabble over a crowd funded windfall. Lesson learned.
Perhaps, if we are finding integrity hard to locate, we should offer it first; and we can start with a simple act of accepting and acknowledging our personal responsibility for the promises we make and the products we sell. By doing this we are returning the locus of relationship to where it belongs; with people. Not systems, not procedures, not brands – but you and I.
Yes, those businessmen may well have a taste for my blood but I do not need to offer them my neck.
1: The song is called Ready To Start and it comes from Arcade Fire’s 2010 album The Suburbs; which, by the way, won the Grammy for Album of the Year.