What “brand” are you?


“Brands are the express checkout for people living their lives at ever increasing speed.” (Brandweek)

Walking out of the movie theatre, I felt thrilled, invigorated and renewed. I had just seen one of the most original, complex and visually interesting films of recent memory, “The Tree of Life”. While it was certainly a heady film needing patience and an open mind, in my naivety I thought the film would spark some great conversation amongst movie goers.

Instead, what I heard leaving the theatre was a chorus of disgust and downright resentment. Rather than discussing the film’s abstractions and themes, the conversational tone was heavy with betrayal that they, the audience, had paid to see a Brad Pitt film and been handed something quite outside of their expectations.

Fast forward to watching “Drive” with Ryan Gosling earlier this week. It’s a slow moving, off beat crime film in the vein of the antihero films of the 1970’s, complete with retro music and long nuanced silences from the lead character.  This time, I expected somewhat of a negative reaction from both genders, given the title’s suggestion of heavy action (which there isn’t) and the star’s strong romantic appeal (he’s strangely removed and eerily violent in the film).

Still, I was shocked at how vehemently user reviews tore the movie apart. Men spewed bile, expecting there to be more action scenes and shoot em’ up car chases. Women were offended at the violence and irritated by the film’s slow motion grittiness, often scolding Mr.Gosling on a first name basis for being involved in such a project. I suppose his dreamy face on the poster suggested another type of movie. “The Notebook”, maybe?

Had any of these audience members done a touch more research on the purchase of their ticket, they would have discovered that the directors of the films, Terrence Malick and Nicolas Winding Refn, are known for work that requires the audience to engage more patiently than your average Hollywood fare.  Subtext: “These movies might strike you as artsy fartsy crap”.  Had the prospective buyers known this, most of them likely would have stayed away.

It’s a certainty that Mr.Pitt and Mr.Gosling have been encouraged many times in their careers to embrace the trend of “branding”. Certainly the common working actor is sold on the notion constantly – refine what you are into a tightly packaged and highly specific quality so as to placate the consumer of your talent. The buyer wants to know that when they hire Sherry for the role, they’re getting the quirky young yoga Mom that women in Orange County can relate to.  Just give them the archetype at your audition and get out, the entirety of the performance isn’t really all that important.  They’ll know that you’re the brand within 10 seconds of you opening your mouth, after which you’ll start to feel the room temperature rise as everyone itches to check their iPhones.

Where branding used to apply to the sale of Coca Cola or Apple computers, the ideology has crept into many other areas of salesmanship and now people are categorized as products for consumption with the same clinical sales analysis as a piece of software. Thus the histrionics that people go into when Mr.Pitt or Mr.Gosling disappoint their customers with a left turn instead of the expected right. Thankfully, these two actors have decided to eschew expectations of them and take some gambles, thereby sidestepping the trap of branding and acknowledging a truism:

Today’s hottest brand is often tomorrow’s Rubik’s Cube.

As developing technology pushes the gas pedal of lifestyle pace to the floor, branding has become more necessary than ever, as there’s simply no time to explore the market as a consumer. We want to see the logo, the name, the nutshell sales pitch and we want to know what we’re getting before we get it, full stop. Of course, the security of brand name recognition certainly has its place. If one buys a Volvo, they’re entitled to the experience of driving the safest car in the world. If a honeymooning couple books into a Hilton, they should expect crisp linens and chocolates on the pillow.

But are we really going to submit to the soothing yet stale comfort of brand name satisfaction in every area of our lives?  In our rush to keep up with incoming bombardments of stimuli, are we no longer dividing the pragmatic essentials (toilet paper, kitchen utensils) and the ethereal aspects of life (culture, entertainment)?  Are we following the “branding” trail of bread crumbs that leads us perpetually down the garden path of our reinforced comfort zones? “Dear valued customer, you previously purchased this book/movie/life partner. If you enjoyed your experience, perhaps you would be interested in this novel/film/soul mate”.

Where’s the Joie de Vivre? The excitement of walking into a darkened movie house not knowing exactly what to expect?  The reward of risk taking when we gamble on an adventure and accept the possibility of either disappointment or pleasure?

If the branding effect continues to worm its way into our consciousness, imagine our sex lives in the future when the speed of life and the rigidity of expectation has strangled our autonomy completely.  “I’m sorry honey, let’s just crawl into bed and stick with missionary tonight. It’s guaranteed to feel good and the kitchen counter is so cold and not what I expected”.

Is that really a stretch, given that internet dating has commodified people in the quest for romantic bliss?  I’m not questioning the result of the medium, as it ends in domestic fulfillment for millions of its participants.  One just can’t help feeling the branding effect in this online shopping spree for a mate – “Geoff, late 20’s, fit, 420 friendly, enjoys traveling, the outdoors and Brad Pitt movies.”  Proponents of the online dating exercise espouse its virtues, usually proclaiming that it is helpful to cut to the chase and avoid the dreadful inconvenience of sifting through the bargain bin (aka – the nightclub/ultimate frisbee/Chapters bookstore).  Some enterprising person should start a clothing line that customizes t-shirts for singles with their brand emblazoned on the front.  Example: A tank top with a colorful sunflower logo and blazing pink text : “Jennifer, mid 30’s, lover of martinis and chick flicks.  Likes to work hard and play harder.  BTW, these are real.”

The old cliche states that the journey is more important than the destination.  Branding seems to have spoon fed us the destination and provided a user guarantee that the destination will meet our preordained desire.

One would hope that we would all have the zest for life to expect certainty in our lawn mower brands while graciously exploring the more intangible and right brained of life’s experiences. If that ideal is too high minded, I still find it worrisome to witness such vitriol expressed by hurried consumers when their tastes are not fully satiated by something as benign as a movie.  The impatient foot stomping reaction reminds me of a baby screaming for its pacifier.

It’s ironic that in western culture, the cult of the individual continues to thrive in an era of such branding importance.  If we feel “put into a box” or limited by the expectations of another, we immediately react in offense, taking umbrage at their judgements of us and the prideful among us will inform the offending party that they are “stereotyping us” or “judging us” and how dare they, for we are far more complex and undefinable than we seem.  We defy being branded as the individual outside the marketplace.

Interestingly, this defensiveness runs lockstep with an increasing demand that our marketplace meet our narrow expectations, whether the product be an espresso maker or a flesh and blood entertainer.  Mr.Pitt might as well have a barcode embedded in his forehead.

Funny, the term branding originally comes from the hot iron stamping of cattle, indicating ownership and differentiation of the animals.

Hurts, doesn’t it?

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