Playboy 60th Anniversary Essay: What Is a Brand?

By Slavoj Žižek Illustration by Tim O'Brien

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Here is an old Polish anti-communist joke: “Socialism is the synthesis of the highest achievements of all previous historical epochs. From tribal society, it took barbarism. From antiquity, it took slavery. From feudalism, it took relations of domination. From capitalism, it took exploitation. And from socialism, it took the name.”

Is it not similar with brand names? Imagine a totally outsourced company—a company like, say, Nike that outsources its material production to Asian or Central American contractors, the distribution of its products to retailers, its financial dealings to a consultant, its marketing strategy and publicity to an ad agency, the design of its products to a designer. And on top of that, it borrows money from a bank to finance its activity. Nike would be nothing “in itself”—nothing other than the pure brand mark “Nike,” an empty sign that connotes experiences pertaining to a certain lifestyle, something like “the Nike touch.” What unites a multitude of properties into a single object is ultimately its brand name—the brand name indicates the mysterious je ne sais quoi that makes Nike sneakers (or Starbucks coffee) into something special.

A couple of decades ago two new labels established themselves in the fruit juice (and also ice cream) market: “forest fruit” and “multivitamin.” Both are associated with clearly identified flavors, but the connection between the label and what it designates is contingent. Any other combination of forest fruits would produce a different flavor, and it would be possible to generate the same flavor artificially (with the same, of course, being true for multivitamin juice). One can imagine a child who, after getting authentic homemade “forest fruit” juice, complains to his mother, “That’s not what I want! I want true forest fruit juice!” Such examples distinguish the gap between what a word really means (in our case, the flavor recognized as multivitamin) and what would have been its meaning if it were to function literally (any juice that has a lot of vitamins). The autonomous “symbolic efficiency” is so strong it can occasionally generate effects that are almost uncannily mysterious.

Can we get rid of this excessive dimension and use only names that directly designate objects and processes? In 1986, Austrian writer Peter Handke wrote Repetition, a novel describing Slovenia in the drab 1960s. Handke compares an Austrian supermarket, with many brands of milk and yogurt, with a modest Slovene grocery store that has only one kind of milk, with no brand name and just the simple inscription MILK. But the moment Handke mentions this brand-less packaging, its innocence is lost. Today such packaging doesn’t just designate milk; it brings along a complex nostalgia for the old times when life was poor but (allegedly) more authentic, less alienated. The absence of a logo thus functions as a brand name for a lost way of life. In a living language, words never directly designate reality; they signal how we relate to that reality.

Another effort to get rid of brand names is grounded not in poverty but in extreme consumerist awareness. In August 2012 the media reported that tobacco companies in Australia would no longer be allowed to display distinctive colors, brand designs or logos on cigarette packs. In order to make smoking as unglamorous as possible, the packs would have to come in a uniformly drab shade of olive and feature graphic health warnings and images of cancer-riddled mouths, blinded eyeballs and sickly children. (A similar measure is under consideration in the European Union parliament.) This is a kind of self-cancellation of the commodity form. With no logo, no “commodity aesthetics,” we are not seduced into buying the product. The package openly and graphically draws attention to the product’s dangerous and harmful qualities. It provides reasons against buying it.

The anti-commodity presentation of a commodity is not a novelty. We find cultural products such as paintings and music worth buying only when we can maintain that they aren’t commodities. Here the commodity-noncommodity antagonism functions in a way opposite to how it functions with logo-less cigarettes. The superego injunction is “You should be ready to pay an exorbitant price for this commodity precisely because it is much more than a mere commodity.” In the case of logo-less cigarettes, we get the raw-use value deprived of its logo form. (In a similar way, we can buy logo-less sugar, coffee, etc. in discount stores.) In the case of a painting, the logo itself sublates use value.

But do such logo-less products really remove us from commodity fetishism? Perhaps they simply provide another example of the fetishist split signaled by the well-known phrase “Je sais tres bien, mais quand meme….” (“I know very well, but nevertheless….”) A decade or so ago there was a German ad for Marlboros. The standard cowboy figure points with his finger toward the obligatory note that reads, “Smoking is dangerous for your health.” But three words were added: Jetzt erst recht, which can be vaguely translated as “Now things are getting serious.” The implication is clear: Now that you know how dangerous it is to smoke, you have a chance to prove you have the courage to continue smoking. In other words, the attitude solicited in the subject is “I know very well the dangers of smoking, but I am not a coward. I am a true man, and as such, I’m ready to take the risk and remain faithful to my smoking commitment.” It is only in this way that smoking effectively becomes a form of consumerism: I am ready to consume cigarettes “beyond the pleasure principle,” beyond petty utilitarian considerations about health.

This dimension of lethal excessive enjoyment is at work in all publicity and commodity appeals. All utilitarian considerations (this food is healthy, it was organically grown, it was produced and paid for under fair-trade conditions, etc.) are just a deceptive surface under which lies a deeper superego injunction: “Enjoy! Enjoy to the end, irrespective of consequences.” Will a smoker, when he buys the -“negatively” packaged Australian cigarettes, hear beneath the negative message the more present voice of the superego? This voice will answer his question: “If all these dangers of smoking are true—and I accept they are—why am I then still buying the package?”

To get an answer to this question, let us turn to Coke as the ultimate capitalist merchandise. It is no surprise that Coke was originally introduced as a medicine. Its taste doesn’t seem to provide any particular satisfaction; it is not directly pleasing or endearing. But in transcending its immediate use value (unlike water and wine, which do quench our thirst or produce other desired effects), Coke embodies the surplus of enjoyment over standard satisfactions. It represents the mysterious factor all of us are after in our compulsive consumption of merchandise.

Since Coke doesn’t satisfy any concrete need, do we drink it as a supplement after another drink has satisfied our substantial need? Or does Coke’s superfluous character make our thirst for it more insatiable? Coke is paradoxical: The more you drink it, the thirstier you get, which in turn leads to a greater need to drink more of it. With Coke’s strange bittersweet taste, our thirst is never effectively quenched. In the old publicity motto “Coke is it” we should discern the entire ambiguity: Coke is never effectively it. Every satisfaction opens up a desire for more. Coke is a commodity whose use value embodies an ineffable spiritual surplus. It’s a commodity with material properties that are already those of a commodity.

This example makes palpable the inherent link between the Marxist concept of surplus value, the Lacanian concept of surplus enjoyment (which Lacan elaborated with direct reference to Marxian surplus value) and the paradox of the superego perceived by Freud: The more you drink Coke, the thirstier you are. The more profit you have, the more you want. The more you obey the superego, the guiltier you become. These paradoxes are the opposite of the paradox of love, which is, in Juliet’s immortal words to Romeo, “The more I give, the more I have.”

The predominance of brand names isn’t new. It is a constant feature of marketing. What has been going on in the past decade is a shift in the accent of marketing. It’s a new stage of commodification that Jeremy Rifkin has designated “cultural capitalism.” We buy a product—say, an organic apple—because it represents a particular lifestyle. An ecological protest against the exploitation of natural resources is already caught in the commodification of experience. Although ecology is perceived as a protest against the virtualization of daily life and an argument for a return to the direct experience of material reality, ecology is simply branded as a new lifestyle. When we purchase organic food we are buying a cultural experience, one of a “healthy ecological lifestyle.” The same goes for every return to “reality”: In an ad widely broadcast on U.S. television a decade or so ago, a group of ordinary people was shown engaged in a barbecue, with country music and dancing, and the accompanying message: “Beef. Real food for real people.” But the beef offered as a symbol of a certain lifestyle (that of “real” Americans) is much more chemically and genetically manipulated than the “organic” food consumed by “artificial” yuppies.

This is what design is truly about: Designers articulate the meaning above and beyond a product’s function. When they try to design a purely functional product, the product displays functionality as its meaning, often at the expense of its real functionality. Prehistoric handaxes, for example, were made by males as sexual displays of power. The excessive and costly perfection of their form served no direct use.

Our experiences have become commodified. What we buy on the market is less a product we want to own and more a life experience—an experience of sex, eating, communicating, cultural consumption or participating in a lifestyle. Material objects serve as props for these experiences and are offered for free to seduce us into buying the true “experiential commodity,” such as the free cell phones we get when we sign a one-year contract. To quote the succinct formula of Mark Slouka, “As more of the hours of our days are spent in synthetic environments, life itself is turned into a commodity. Someone makes it for us; we buy it from them. We become the consumers of our own lives.” We ultimately buy (the time of) our own life. Michel Foucault’s notion of turning one’s self into a work of art thus gets an unexpected confirmation: I buy my physical fitness by joining a gym. I buy my spiritual enlightenment by enrolling in courses on Transcendental Meditation. I buy my public persona by going to restaurants patronized by people with whom I want to be associated.

Let’s return to the example of ecology. There’s something deceptively reassuring in our readiness to assume guilt for threats to the environment. We like to be guilty. If we’re guilty, then it all depends on us. We can save ourselves by changing our lives. What is difficult to accept (at least for us in the West) is that we are reduced to a purely passive role. We are just impotent observers who can only sit and watch what our fate will be. To avoid such a situation, we engage in frantic and obsessive activity. We recycle paper and buy organic food so we can believe we’re doing something. We are like a sports fan who supports his team by shouting and jumping from his seat in front of the TV screen in a superstitious belief that this will somehow influence the outcome of the game.

The typical form of fetishist disavowal apropos ecology is “I know very well (that we are all threatened), but I don’t really believe it (so I’m not ready to do anything important like change my way of life).” But there is also the opposite form of disavowal: “I know very well I can’t really influence processes that can lead to my ruin, but it is nonetheless too traumatic for me to accept. I cannot resist the urge to do something, even if I know it is ultimately meaningless.” Isn’t this why we buy organic food? Who really believes that half-rotten and expensive “organic” apples are healthier? The point is that, by buying them, we do not just buy and consume a product; we simultaneously do something meaningful, show our care and global awareness and participate in a large collective project.

Today we buy commodities neither for their utility nor as status symbols. We buy them to get the experience they provide; we consume them to make our lives meaningful. Consumption should sustain quality of life. Its time should be “quality time”—not a time of alienation, of imitating models imposed on us by society, of the fear of not keeping up with the Joneses. We seek authentic fulfillment of our true selves, of the sensuous play of experience, of caring for others.

An exemplary case of “cultural capitalism” can be found in the Starbucks ad campaign that says, “It’s not just what you’re buying. It’s what you’re buying into.” After celebrating the quality of the coffee, the ad continues: “But when you buy Starbucks, whether you realize it or not, you’re buying into something bigger than a cup of coffee. You’re buying into a coffee ethic. Through our Starbucks Shared Planet program, we purchase more fair-trade coffee than any company in the world, ensuring that the farmers who grow the beans receive a fair price for their work. We invest in and improve coffee-growing practices and communities around the globe. It’s good coffee karma. Oh, and a little bit of the price of a cup of Starbucks coffee helps furnish the place with comfy chairs, good music and the right atmosphere to dream, work and chat in. We all need places like that these days. When you choose Starbucks, you are buying a cup of coffee from a company that cares. No wonder it tastes so good.”

The “cultural” surplus is here spelled out. The price is higher because you are really buying the “coffee ethic,” which includes care for the environment, social responsibility toward producers and a place where you can participate in a communal life (from the beginning Starbucks presented its shops as ersatz community spaces). If this isn’t enough, if your ethical needs are still unsatisfied, if you continue to worry about Third World misery, there are other products you can buy. Consider the description Starbucks offers for its Ethos Water program: “Ethos Water is a brand with a social mission—helping children around the world get clean water and raising awareness of the world water crisis. Every time you purchase a bottle of Ethos Water, Ethos Water will contribute five cents toward our goal of raising at least $10 million by 2010. Through the Starbucks Foundation, Ethos Water supports humanitarian water programs in Africa, Asia and Latin America. To date, Ethos Water grant commitments exceed $6.2 million. These programs will help an estimated 420,000 people gain access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene education.”

Authentic experience matters. This is how capitalism, at the level of consumption, integrates the legacy of 1968. This is how it addresses the critique of alienated consumption. A recent Hilton ad consists of a simple claim: “Travel doesn’t only get us from place A to place B. It should also make us a better person.” Can we imagine such an ad a decade ago? The latest scientific expression of this new spirit is the rise of happiness studies. But how is it that, in this era of spiritualized hedonism, when the goal of life is defined as happiness, anxiety and depression are exploding? It is the enigma of this self-sabotage of happiness and pleasure that makes Freud’s message more actual than ever.

Authenticity and brand names are not mutually exclusive—authenticity echoes beneath every brand name.


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