Celebrity brands

by Rob Horning

21 February 2006


At the end of Rob Walker’s column about Cheerios in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine, we finally start to see what’s at stake in his account of how brands like Cheerios apparently develop personalities that marketers then try to assess and describe to the brands’ owners so they may exploit that character. This leads to the creation of a job called “brand manager” whose role, according to the marketer Walker interviewed, is to ask and answer the somewhat surreal question, “If the brand were a character, what would it want?” The answer in the case of Cheerios: “I think the brand actually wants to enable family connection.”

Actually? Actually, the brand doesn’t want a thing, because it is a concept, not a sentient entity. Have these people lost their minds? Maybe I lack the imagination required to be a marketer (or maybe if I had a sense of the money at stake in these pretend games I could develop some imagination pretty quick) but this all seems like typical adman hucksterism, a pitch gull clients on route to gulling consumers. However, that is when the final spin comes—the admen are merely facillitators, taking the dreams and aspirations of the actual customer-enthusiasts of the brand and making them more tangible. The dopey ad Walker cites is inspired by letters written by actual consumers describing actual emotional experiences spurred by Cheerios. Thus Walker endorses the fundamental pitch: “It’s not what marketers can imagine their product doing, but what customers apparently believe.”

I suspect he supports this because he wants to ratify the claims that customers are not the tools of advertising and big business, and that the autonomy of consumption and the “off-label” uses and unexpected evolution of how products are used by consumers means that the options provided by a consumer society really are fulfilling and gratifying rather than demeaning and fraught with anxiety. It seems to confirm that favorite line of defense for industry, that they are giving people what they want, responding to their needs rather than dictating needs to them, as the more-paranoid purveyors of The Matrix-type cosmologies customarily invoke (We are made to beleive we really want what the System requires us to consume).

But even if this is a case of industry following the tune called by the consumer, it’s still creepy. The idea that customers write letters to celebrate brands suggests not so much gratitude for their existence but a recognition that brands have what society seems most to validate and treasure: fame, celebrity, universal recognition. This grants them the power that customers and marketers alike feel obliged to personalize. We can’t accept that fame at such scale wouldn’t take on a human guise, so we start to supply it. And then we seek eagerly to associate ourselves with it, to tap into the fame ourselves, get a piece of it. Hey, I know that brand too, we think, have know it for years—the way we might if a hgh-school friend was on the news or got a part on Days of Our Lives. When we pretend Cheerios is a part of the family, it’s not because it has brought family members together, but because it’s like having cousin become famous, it’s like having a family member of whom we can be proud, and about whom we can write celebratory letters. The brands become good sons and daughters, well-liked, successful.

We want to live vicariously through brands because they are our conduit to existence on the mass scale, and without them we feel bereft, unable to see ourselves as actors on that grand, international scale. Brands,  like ads, confer a kind of legitimacy, and remind us that any legitimacy we try to sustain independent of the world produced by consumer goods is suspect, not endorsed by the democratic masses, and thus something we should not really be taking comfort in. Brands are corrosive to the whole idea of intimacy; they bring the crowds with them wherever they go, and they are always reminding us that the crowd is more significant, more alluring, more powerful than we are, and anything we do without them is a little beside the point.

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