Thursday, May 7, 2009

Obama is a brand

image from New York Fashion

Branding human flesh has a long history, including as part of early Christianity and predates the colonization of "the new world." In the days of slavery and the plantation economy of colonial capitalism, enslaved people were considered less than human by those who claimed themselves to be superior. Horrifically, some African Americans were branded like animals, that is, literally, their flesh was branded and burned with the mark of the person who was exploiting their labour and lives, that is, the person who thought he or she owned their lives and bodies. They were branded to show possession and sometimes for punishment for running away.

Today, the idea and practice of branding has changed. Now, many of us willingly brand ourselves. Some literally get symbols burned into their flesh to show their supposed renegade lifestyles or make a statement on their supposed uniqueness. But for many more of us, we symbolically brand ourselves, and we do that with a passion that we defend. We become walking billboards for corporations, doing the work of advertising their products (see, for example, Collections on the Parasuco site).

But not only people brand themselves, institutions (like universities) and countries do, too.

Obama may be the first African American man to become the US president, but he is also an industry, an image, and a symbolic brand. From small time entrepreneurs looking for their piece of the Obama brand or marketing service vendors helping to get the Obama brand into the White House door via t-shirts, mugs and magnets, to the heart of the US itself: neo-liberal corporate capitalism, the cult of Obama offers consumer-citizens new pleasures of illusion. Chris Hedges has written an excellent piece "Buying Brand Obama", which I have excerpted below, but should be read in its entirety:

"Brand Obama offers us an image that appears radically individualistic and new. It inoculates us from seeing that the old engines of corporate power and the vast military-industrial complex continue to plunder the country. Corporations, which control our politics, no longer produce products that are essentially different, but brands that are different. Brand Obama does not threaten the core of the corporate state any more than did Brand George W. Bush. The Bush brand collapsed. We became immune to its studied folksiness. We saw through its artifice. This is a common deflation in the world of advertising. So we have been given a new Obama brand with an exciting and faintly erotic appeal. Benetton and Calvin Klein were the precursors to the Obama brand, using ads to associate themselves with risqué art and progressive politics. It gave their products an edge. But the goal, as with all brands, was to make passive consumers mistake a brand with an experience."

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