From Nike to the EFF, brand power gaslights us all
Branding has sold us the lie that corporations are revolutionary movements and politicians are intellectuals - and that they are our friends
“Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” The words of Nike’s new print advertisement are sombrely inspiring, unless you imagine them being murmured by a cult leader, in which case they’re slightly less impressive. But it is the background that has lit fires, both literal and figurative: the face of Colin Kaepernick, American footballer, political activist and tormentor of Donald Trump.
Unsurprisingly, Nike’s decision to use Kaepernick to sell its products has been wildly divisive. Conservatives have roared. Liberals have cheered.
Both camps, however, are united by one alarming trait: both are behaving as if Nike is a person.
The people burning their running shoes are reacting as if an old friend has betrayed them. Liberal fans are describing Nike with words usually reserved for close friends or even lovers: I have read more than one pundit say that they “love the brand”, an admission of a total failure of critical faculties.
Because, of course, Nike is not your friend if you are liberal, just as it is not your enemy if you are conservative. Nike doesn’t have friends or enemies, because it is not a person.
Which is why, as angry Midwesterners decry the campaign’s sanctimony and jubilant city youths hail its courage, seasoned marketing suits are admiring it for something much less naïve: its supreme efficiency.
With a single swoosh, Nike has shed the demographic that might ultimately have tarnished its brand – the same group of Baby Boomers that has transformed Harley-Davidsons from symbols of freewheeling machismo into mechanical Viagra – and won the passionate loyalty of urban 20-somethings; young consumers who have at least another decade of consuming left in them before they, too, are discarded.
Many have described the campaign as brave. This is naïve. Nike did its sums. It worked through the scenarios. It didn’t just expect a backlash: it banked on it. The more petulant the pushback from the Midwest, the more radical and desirable the brand looks to young liberals. And it worked: sales between Labour Day and last Tuesday spiked 31% from last year. In all the excitement nobody bothered to mention that Nike’s founder is a Republican donor and that the company making money off resisting Trump is funnelling some of that cash right back to this fiefdom.
Of course, this is nothing new. A Vox.com article titled “Nike has made billions selling rebellion to young people” reminds us that the company used the Beatles’ Revolution in a 1987 TV commercial – more or less the same time it was employing children in sweatshops in Pakistan and Cambodia.
The difference these days, however, is that we seem to have surrendered entirely to the power of brands, deliberately forgetting that corporations pay brilliant manipulators enormous sums of money to gaslight us into believing that brands are old friends and that owning a particular pair of expensive takkies is a measure of human worth.
If this delusion was isolated to the marketplace we might be able to brush it off with an idiom about fools and their money. But branding doesn’t only affect what we buy: it’s also dictating how we vote.
Consider the eulogies of the late John McCain. Thanks to excellent marketing even left-leaning publications hailed McCain as a bipartisan champion of democracy – the same John McCain who singlehandedly paved the way for a Trump presidency by picking Sarah Palin as his running-mate in 2008 and normalising the idea that populist idiots who “tell it like it is” are fit for high office.
Certainly, some of those plaudits were a reflection of how low the bar has dropped: in Trump’s America, McCain looked like Abraham Lincoln. We’re all too familiar with this syndrome in SA: if a public servant simply does their job moderately competently, we praise them as Mandela Redux.
It’s the same syndrome that has allowed the EFF, for example, to sell itself as a party of revolutionary intellectuals. Trump made McCain look great; Jacob Zuma made the EFF look intelligent.
The rest, however, is branding, and the EFF has done it well. In the past fortnight the party’s most famous PhD, Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, has told us that Mangosuthu Buthelezi should have shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela and that the recession is the fault of White Monopoly Capital. Both statements were raw, unrefined political horse manure, playing to the most credulous of peanut galleries, but thanks to good branding, the EFF and its supporters will continue to trumpet its “superior logic”. The branding has stuck.
All of which makes it more important than ever to remember some fundamental facts.
A PhD in political science does not make a politician an economist or an intellectual.
Corporations are not revolutionary organisations.
Brands are not people.
And above all, they are not your friends.