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The Meaning of Life According to Brands

Naomi Klein's No Logo has become a rather influential book that discusses the growing presence of advertisements and branding in society and the corresponding effects it has on our daily lives. I had the pleasure of discussing some of the implications of her work with my students last week using the tobacco industry’s attempts to brand a cool and hip identity for their cigarettes.

Klein nicely chronicles the evolution of advertising over the past several decades where companies have shifted away from advertising a product to building a brand identity to which consumers can attribute meaning. Examples include Starbucks’ “It’s the romance of the coffee experience”, GM’s “New age of spirituality”, Polaroid’s “A social lubricant”, and Nike’s “Enhance people’s lives through sport and fitness”.

I asked my students whether they were okay with a society where the mechanisms through which we attach meaning and identity to our lives originate from business? To my surprise, I received three common responses:

Most common is that this is ultimately okay because consumers will always have a choice to detach from these identities. Indeed many of these students will be able to step back from these messages. But there is a presumption here that the average consumer has the ability and foresight to decouple from the emotional messages they are receiving. This view also overlooks the inherent incentive on the part of business to influence what information is available to the consumer, how that information is interpreted, and what choices consumers do have to respond to that information. These three cognitive pivot points are important levers for companies who are searching for repeat consumers. The rather pervasive climate change denial campaign is an effective illustration of how companies can play an effective role in shifting how consumers interpret information related to climate change science.

The second response is that this is a good thing. Our lives revolve around finding meaning and companies are merely one of the actors in society that allow this to happen. On the bright side, is there really something wrong with identifying yourself with the Body Shop’s brand of ethics and the environment? I often wonder whether people my students’ age are able to conceive of a life that isn’t solely dominated by commercial transactions when the only alternative to capitalism existed when they were 2 or 3 years old.

The third response is that this is a major issue and that if we allow this to go unchallenged in society, peoples’ interpretations of reality will be based on a confluence of company identity messages that dictate what a person should or should not be doing to find meaning in life. There was a time when the state assumed this role…a time when the church assumed this role. Now is the time when corporations assume this role. As Klein explained, this is where we start to see the profound imperialistic aspirations of capitalism. These students worry that in light of a corporation’s narrowly defined purpose of profit maximization, they are poorly positioned to determine what we as society define as meaningful.

There is no doubt that everything we see around us throughout our daily lives is a social construction. The very idea of an objective reality is indeed difficult to grasp. But does that mean that we should allow power imbalances to afford certain actors in society to inform that social construction in a way that benefits them? One of my students sent me a song that nicely answers this very question.

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