The Relationship Between Branding, Co-Creation and Democracy – Third Chapter

I have chosen to post this chapter of my third year dissertation simply because it is the chapter I am most proud of and contains my most valid analysis.

The principles and ideas of democracy can be easily manipulated by those with most influence in society including corporations. We can trace the beginnings of the notion of Market Democracy to the start of the twentieth century.

As I have already briefly referred to in Century of The Self (2002) President Hoover was the first to realise the potential power and influence of advertising within democracy. He and key thinkers such as Sigmund Freud, Walter Lippmann and Edward Bernays¹ saw modern democracy as a mechanism to appease the unconscious motivations of it’s population, controlling them and therefore keeping democratic society stable (Curtis, 2002). Crucially this was to be achieved by Bernays developments in what he called public relations. This however ensured there was a fixed societal elite, in contrast to older and purer concepts of democracy that as Stuart Ewen defines fundamentally involved dramatically altering the relations of power. (Curtis, 2002). Only the Depression witnessed in 1930’s America severely compromised the concept of the free market as the embodiment of democracy and saw a degree of renewed faith in the state and active citizenship under President Truman.

Yet what Century of The Self (2002) fails to sufficiently explain is that in addition to the backdrop of the trauma of WW2 which re-highlighted the potential danger of dangerous forces within society, particularly in Germany, the intense paranoia and fear that the threat of communism created in America during the Cold War was also key to the re-emergence of these previous philosophies which became once more a key driver of American democracy. As such they became central within a complex ideological battle between the USSR and USA. America wanted to all intents and purpose force its brand of democracy to other countries under totalitarian communist control. In 1959 President Nixon, at the American Exhibition in Moscow, flaunted American brands in appliances, cars, fashions and specifically Pepsi as representing a perfect system of democracy, boasting that with a majority of the United States 44 million families owning their own homes in addition to 56 million cars, 50 million televisions and 143 million radios, “The United States comes closest to the ideal of prosperity for all in a classless society” (Cohen, 2003, p.129). Other figures supported this view promoting consumption of brands as “an arsenal of weapons to defend the reputation of capitalist democracy against the evils of communism” (Cohen, 2003, p. 127). This concept of a brand democracy was a manipulation as placed within this ideological battle it was beyond the influence of it’s citizen’s and used to justify abhorrent conflicts like Vietnam which produced unbelievable suffering and created significant citizen opposition that was ignored by politician’s. Critically all this evidence appears to support Klein’s (2000) argument about the dominant influence of branding.

This ethos thereby also seized the concept of citizen consumer so prevalent during Truman’s reign and transformed it into consumer citizen, with a increased emphasis on personal gain and instant gratification. The Premier journal highlights how business aimed to portray itself as a responsible entity replacing WW2 era woman as the principle citizen consumers (Cohen, 2003). They put special emphasis on counselling advertisers and businesses on ways to “demonstrate that the company is striving to serve the best interests of the consumer” (Cohen, 2003, p. 133). In post WW2 a climate which promoted privatisation/free market consumption made it extremely difficult to transcend such a mainstream consensus perpetuated by advertising/branding. Consumer activists (free citizens) were labelled as Communists and the collective people’s well being was a hopeful side effect, albeit welcomed rather than the focus as it had been during President Truman’s reign (Cohen, 2003).

Neo Liberals during this period mistook public democracy for a form of government close to ancient tyranny, ignoring legitimate democracy by which we rule ourselves in common security through a social contract ideally maintained through the public wheel e.g elections which guarantees diversity. Many would counter argue that government represents the collective society limiting the negative results of individuals and their possible negative actions. Equally we must concede government can be and should be effectively restrained by individual rights and those of the collective people, but crucially not destroyed.

Elizabeth Dore shares a similar view in her journal entitled Consumerism and the End of Citizenship (2012). Citizenship as she defines it is the “the active participation of people” (Dore, 2012, p. 1) in the political process of democratic governance. When the market prevails therefore are our moral and public choices, will and action is compromised and we treat people as consumers rather than fellow citizens (Dore and Weeks, 2011). In America today she argues a working democratic system and its social security is decaying as citizens are redefined as consumers, echoing Tucqueville’s warning during his 1830’s tour of America that its beginnings of capitalism may create conditions where “The body is left free, and the soul is enslaved” (Cricks, 2002, p. 136). Subsequently there is less participation and therefore increased abandonment of its principle rights and obligations, such as to obey the law as it is threatened by social divisions based on class ethnicity and organised superstition (Dore and Weeks, 2012).I would like to cautionally stress as we saw in 1930’s Germany, any manipulation of a democratic society can have profound consequences. This in addition to attacks on progressive taxation reflected a agenda that undermined democratic citizenship. This was enacted most excessively in the 1980’s under the Reagan and Thatcher administration’s. Unregulated economic markets increased the influence of private companies/corporations, undid the collective consumer movements of the 1930’s, and lesser extent 60’s while witnessing huge increases in advertising spending. In the case of Nike their spending increased from less than $50 Million in 1985 to over $500 Million in 1997 (Klein,2000, p. 19). Bauham identifies a similar social problem in his online journal The London Riots On Consumerism Coming Home to Roost (2011). “For defective consumers, those contemporary have nots, non shopping is the jarring and festering stigma of a life unfulfilled – and of own nonentity and good – for – nothingness” (Bauham, 2011, p.1). Therefore I believe it seems clear that the presence of democratic liberty in a extreme and unregulated market form – though liberty and individual rights are still critical components of a effective democracy and prevent totalitarianism – has produced a powerful and often criticised capitalist dimension in western countries. This is possibly reflected by the fact that the inequality of income grew enormously during the last two decades of the twentieth century, much of it traceable to Reagan’s new economic policies. Between 1980 and 2000 the top 5 percent of families increased their share of the nation’s total aggregate to 20.8 percent (Cohen, 2003). Do brands as a key element of material consumption however, still to a significant extent represent western democracy today? Unfortunately what else can one conclude when George W Bush’s answer to 9/11 was to go to Disneyworld.

Academics today such as Barber (2008) also refer to infantilazation in discussions of consumerism. This is when adults essentially adopt regressive childish wants and desires, as indicative of our entire contemporary society while advertising aims to “continuously lower the criteria of youthfulness while extending the possibility for seeming youthful to older and older people” (Barber, 2008, p.16). This may suggest a populist but also debased Orwellian like society where “judgements of black and white in politics and religion come to replace the nuanced complexities of adult morality” (Barber, 2008, p.17), thereby compromising transparent democracy. If we recede to capitalisms origins in early puritan America² then it was to meet the very human needs of the people, where a synergy between making profit and aiding fellow citizens existed (Barber, 2008). Yet while cultural critic’s constantly comment that the gap between the rich and poor is increasing and those in poverty are at risk of seclusion Barber concedes however that the market will never meet some inherent needs like parenting, learning and self image (2008). Surely a effective democratic government reminiscent of its origin’s can only meet these. If not then they still remain part of a private market. The problem therefore is perhaps that the Neo liberalist democracy associated with advertising and consumption undermines the positive potential of democracy. Privatization undermines adult public virtues such as critical thinking and citizenship through for example its presence in schools. Barber further argues that these elements in society empower children as consumers but disempowers adults as citizens. (2008)

Neo liberals argue that totalitarian regimes foster dependency on its citizens to maintain control and Indeed this seems logical. However it could also be suggested that the free market has a similar influence, seeking to “inspire child like dependancy on consumers” (Barber, 2008, p.39) while the targeting of children at a young age secludes them from their parents. “As we move into the 21st century children are well trained consumers able to associate Ronald McDonald with good things before they have learned the language” similarly observes Norma Pecora (Barber, 2008, p. 40). A totalitarian state demands a similar loyalty from its youth, though in a such a regime this would surely encompass all aspects of life. Accordingly market segmentation I believe can be potentially viewed as the political equivalent of Quebec’s states individual rights. Nonetheless I would advance a view that a overall Infantilazation of a population is a negative influence that is indeed all encompassing of broader culture/society and which manipulates democracy’s inherent individual rights to suit marketers interests, though from previous analysis I realize that such a broadly effecting risk also exists in the populist aspect of democracy. According to Barber effective democracy demonstrative of early capitalism to a degree achieved a balance between public and individual liberty who’s citizens had the social ability to shape their environment and agenda (2008). Their pursuit of happiness, hard work and founding spirit, is in contemporary form a pursuit of brands that “creates a illusion of private liberty” (Barber, 2008, Pg. 65). If we consider the approaches of brand advertising then I would suggest it is as Barber suggests of Infantilazation – Easy over Hard, Simple over Complex and Fast over Slow – “Consumer market products that make choice easy – products deprived of their malignant property” (Barber, 2008, p. 99). Again we find this in populist cultural and political outlets such as america’s FOX talk radio – with its own brand of I can personally attest reactionary and impulsive comment. Barber also identifies fast edits and jump cuts in films and videos aswell as the instant pop up ads that blitz the internet that all exhibit the frenzied obsession with speed. (2008). I would propose that branding can be be used in both a equal and collective sense if we weakened its link to this Infantilazation however. The notion of a brand democracy may become more realistic if we begin to partly substitute faux needs and manufactured wants, with which advertising plays a central role for the missing real needs of potential consumers in developed societies. The public voice is intended to address the consequences of private market effects but this instantaneous mentality prevents broader public reason.

Free speech is another area where branding has exerted its presence, both in shopping malls and schools. Initially people recognized shopping malls as public spaces that could be used for the benefit of the community (Cohen, 2008). Shopping malls own responses were varied ranging from tolerance to outright opposition resulting in numerous court decisions, depending on the degree to which it was accepted that the shopping centre had become a recognized public forum. As the decades followed and a number of government’s elected conservative the law generally favoured the property rights of shopping centres (Cohen, 2008). Only in six sates was the right free speech guaranteed and In one of these states specifically New Jersey there were limits within its application (Cohen, 2008). The distribution of leaflets was only permitted without additional protection of the citizens right to practice speeches or demonstrations and furthermore leaflets were to be given within time restrictions down to exact hours (Cohen, 2008). Yet despite such limitations New Jersey remains of one of a few states that doesn’t prohibit all possible forms of free political action with the New Jersey Supreme Court reasserting the state constitutions support for free speech in shopping centres in 1994 and 2001 (Cohen, 2008). The collective consequence of this situation is to clearly reduce the available public area for citizens to practice such free speech and gatherings without interference from the law. In No LogoKlein (2000) identifies evidence of branding subverting the right of freedom and protest on school campuses were we can surely assume academic freedom and development should be paramount . In the area of research Klein also highlights cases where this has been manipulated or censored to benefit the sponsoring corporation (2000). Such is the pressure on some University’s funding that they are forced to comply in these practise’s. Specifically in regards to free speech universities have entered what Klein describes as Gag orders. “The University of Kentucky’s deal with Nike for instance has a clause that states that the company has the right to terminate the five year £25 million contract if the University disparages the Nike Brand” (Klein, 2000, p. 97).

As my analysis has proved thus far it is easy to identify the potential undemocratic effects of branding that excludes co-creation. However it is too simplistic to accept purely critical views of Brands such as Klein’s because, as I have repeatedly stated both are extremely complex issues. A striking example of the potential democratic effects of branding and consumerism is it has given previously prosecuted/disempowered groups like African Americans the opportunity to demand and assert their rights against, in many instances large corporate brands. This can be seen in 1930’s America especially with Women and African Americans. Women embraced their new economic role as household brand consumers becoming protectors of consumer interest, citizen protectors and therefore guardians of public welfare (Cohen, 2008).

Even more significant is that during the civil rights and segregationist era in America Cohen (2008)highlights how consumerism aided blacks in exerting community power and creating confidence that black consuming power could be used to advance their race, which was later combined with political struggles. Unsurprisingly Afro Americans expected their new economic opportunities during WW2 and national service in the army to significantly aid them yet continually faced discrimination in housing and public places like theaters and restaurants as the market was closed to them (Cohen, 2008). Clearly it was a painful contradiction to fight the Nazi’s own brand of violent antisemitism then meet similar racial views at home. To them this exclusion represented their true place in a nation supposedly celebrating the victory of democracy over fascism. Their very right to participate in the consumers republic by allowing to engage with brands (either as products or organizations), particularly in regards to housing provided a true purpose for the creation of a more democratic/equal society. Eventually this demand achieved more than in any other spheres of civil rights, leading to the breakdown of many established racial obstacles. (Cohen, 2008). Cohen also comments that The Urban Coloured Population Commission stated at the end of WW2 “every resource must be utilized in an uncompromising campaign to make the virtues of democracy mean something more than empty, insincere words” (Cohen, 2008, p. 184). This example represents a closer link to my original definition of Brand Democracy because brands as, in this specific instance representing a ideal was used to empower minorities, though there is little co operative element between the brand and the minority rather empowerment through pressure. Though as a development in american democracy it was profound it can also be viewed as a equally important development in Brand Democracy that ensured equal rights to minorities.

Within a more contemporary context Pro Logo (2004) argues that brands promote diversity and competitiveness, as we can see by the choice available in a contemporary supermarket. This rivalry as opposed to the examples of branded Schools which Klein identifies is in the authors view arguably to the benefit to the individual consumer whereas ahomogeneous choice means the consumer loses the choices diversity offers (Chevalier and Mazzalovo, 2004). If we accept this argument then I believe we can further propose that branding and purchasing is a strong counter element to the possibility of a totalitarian state where the population are coerced into passive behavior due to non-transparent government, controlled markets and uniformed goods. Crucially however this idea of diverse choice can only be achievable within a broader democratic framework and we must retain a balance between individual choice and collective responsibility.

Another major and positive aspect of branding which Pro Logo (2004) claims is that they encourage innovation, opportunity and participation, for example in the world of communications – such as mobile phones or more recently social media and without branding free press or television would have not developed as rapidly. (Chevalier and Mazzalovo, 2004, p. 79). Indeed the free press are a form of brands themselves that ultimately support the diversified and innovative dissemination of information and culture. This is in contrast to dictatorships where the TV is state run and ultimately controlled. Innovations in branding mean that young consumers in particular are more smarter, informed and aware than previous generations and brands increasingly dependent on consumers and open to criticism. Specifically co-creation allows designers to transform consumer insights into product innovations and while the older brand relationship was hierarchical it is I believe fair to state that co-creation has the potential to create multiple and more human centred connections. In addition, by breaking through existing structures and consequently unifying previously conflicting visions we can realize ideals that were once wholly unrealistic. In this new environment as Deedee Gordon bluntly states “Consumers won’t automatically like an idea because a brand says so” (Gordon in Millmann, 2008, p. 250).

Pro Logo (2004) also asks that we shouldn’t necessarily treat all corporate sponsorship with cynicism. Rather the brand’s promotion of values provides a means of highlighting where undemocratic abuses may otherwise go unnoticed as branding is fundamentally a relationship between consumer and the brand/product. Therefore this relationship is reciprocal and its existence obviously, to a degree, critical upon the honest and transparent action of the brand group. The power that co-creation can provide consumers of brands with places greater responsibility on brands to adhere to the values that there branding/advertising projects. As Chevalier and Mazzalovo further argue their own overexposure provides a antidote (2004).

Therefore though branding itself may be undemocratic at least such overexposure/ claim of values allows a degree of progress to made toward the conditions of democracy, though they have no inherent right to be involved in the actual realm of democratic and political citizenship or social progress. Referring once more to Nike, in the early 90’s Klein (2000) identifies how brands incorporated the growth of identity politics into their campaigns. Nike among other brands heard the call for better representation of minorities by incorporating its issues into their advertising campaigns. Tiger Woods, sponsored by Nike spoke out against then-existent racist segregation on some US golf courses (Klein, 2000). The Nike sweatshop scandal also exposed controversial living wages for its asian factory worker’s, encouraged protest campaigns at universities and to a degree forced action by Nike to improve the situation; Eventually a 30% increase in wages for its Indonesian workers and opening factories to health and safety monitors (Klein, 2000). At the University of Colorado in Boulder students organized a fundraising event in which its supporters payed a entrance fee equivalent to the daily wage for a Nike worker in Vietnam for the opportunity to win a prize equivalent to their three square meals while activists in Texas created a Nike sneaker piñata (Klein, 2000). Michael Moore also extensively covered the issue in his film The Big One (1997). I believe that in today’s co creative context the impact of a similar protest action would have been significantly greater.

What the Nike scandal also potentially shows us is that branding has the ability to unite people where otherwise there maybe be in conflict. Brian Collins states “I remember being in Moscow Revolution square … The figure of Marx emerges….. he happened to be looking toward a giant billboard that my team in New York had designed for Motorola. Now the fact that some kid in Moscow, or a girl in Framingham, Massachusetts, or a kid in Osaka might have the same cell phone says to me that we have hope for a shared future” (Millman, 2011, p. 77). This can also often apply cross generationally in a almost mythic manner – though I would further suggest aggressive market segmentation has not always made this possible and in this example indicates a strictly brand defined future devoid of deeper human centred relationships. This ultimately may be the sole solution to shared understanding.

If we accept branding’s ability to unite I believe it is fair to recognize it as potentially one of the most democratic aspects of branding and one which can be developed most positively by co-creation. For us to truly realize this we must first understand what co-creation fundamentally is however.

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