On Monocle, Nat Torkington & Place branding…

08/22/2007

While reading the new issue of incomprehensibly fascinating magazine Monocle–which has a parallel web presence orchestrated by ex-boss Dan Hill that stubbornly (and equally incomprehensibly from my perspective) refuses to include any content whatsoever from the magazine–I stumble upon an article about New Zealand called ‘Slow Zone’. The article is about the nation’s rebranding as a laid-back and ‘pure’ environment. In said article I notice that ex-O’Reilly all-star Nat Torkington is quoted as follows:

The Didsbury vineyard is among those featured on the wine trail along the heavily promoted Matakana Coast, although in the words of the rather tetchy local blogger Nathan Torkington, “Matakana doesn’t have a coast, it has a shitty little muddy river chocked with soil runoff from the farms that line it”.

Yeah that sounds like Nat to me! Very funny! Rather tetchy local blogger may now be on his gravestone. And in some ways that might be a good thing, since his other favourite words are rather more satisfyingly graphic. His wife would probably be delighted with ‘rather tetchy’. Or at least, maybe she’d relieved..? His original post that Monocle quoted is here if you’re interested.

This whole issue of Monocle has been focused around place-branding at the country level, and it started off being fascinating to me but has now started to creep me out. Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of countries–and all their associated concepts of citizenry and representation–with the pure representational illusion of the branding consultancy? Or maybe it’s more than that? Maybe the reason I feel uncomfortable is that I’m feeling my way towards a new understanding of branding, public relations and advertising people.

The questions that are in my head are as follows: (1) Why are people drawn to these careers in the first place? (2) What pleasures does it provide them with? How does it support their self-worth? (3) Is there something in common between branding and advertising people and the kind of people who go into politics, and should we be equally suspicious of people drawn to branding as we are about those drawn to more overt power?

I think what draws people towards these careers has to be in part its core idea: that people can be influenced and changed–that things themselves can become different, transcendentally more than they appear to be–simply through the exercise of pure ingenuity, intelligence and the use of colour, imagery and language. I think it’s that sense of transformation–of the ability to recreate reality–that plays to the self-image of some of the dominant players in the industry. And it makes me very suspicious indeed.

I wonder to myself as I read about work in branding at these scales what a sense of power it must give a man to recarve a planet in their image without having to do anything proletarian like make anything. Something about the whole thing makes me very uncomfortable and seems to have significant parallels with the class system – that there is now an intellectual overclass that sits above and beyond a subjugated general public. But more even still, that this class feels itself able to deform and twist the world around itself with delicate tweaks of long, gossamer-like puppet strings, and that it’s managed to nuance and twist the messages even of its own discipline to such an extent that it’s not even fully aware of the hegemony that it’s created.

There’s something of new orthodoxy of the elite where young men and women are drawn to industries of control and coercion. It’s the same kind of rather alarming power game that meant that Henry Higgins could massage his Eliza Doolittle into someone fit to marry and that somehow we’d be persuaded that this was charming rather than entirely creepy!

And behind it all, there is the support of undergraduate classes in cultural studies and postmodernity that have been appropriated to alleviate the guilt of the reality-deforming by decrying the idea that there’s anything real beyond the rhetoric to protect or fight for.

I used to teach some of those classes. I’m not immune from blame.

Thank god for tetchy bloggers then! People who’ll declare the world as they see it, separate from marketing spiel and describe a glorious branded coast as a ‘shitty little river’. There’s a risk that we celebrate the cynical and consider that to be balance for the depraved, but I don’t think we’re there in this case. And I understand that branding is a force in the world, that it’s a thing that must exist, that there is no unmediated message. And I’ll live with it all. But let’s not celebrate it, eh? That’s just tacky.