Advertising Journalism Politics

On Monocle, Nat Torkington & Place branding…

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.

4 replies on “On Monocle, Nat Torkington & Place branding…”

Excellent post Tom; I bought the first couple of issues of Monocle, and really disliked them – like you, it riled me in some way. It felt to me rather to meta and removed (which is what I think you’ve nailed here) – as if it was for people interested in being interested in things, rather than the things themselves.

The manga at the back was just dreadful and the articles, long and seriously designed though they were, seemed to skate along the surface of whatever it was they were writing about.

One piece in particular summed it up for me; it was on creativity in Taiwan – a really interesting topic for me, since I deal with a lot of PC hardware for work, and it’s all built out there – the piece started well but developed into talking about the choice of wooden floors and who designed the chairs at the creative institute in Taipei, rather than on what it would actually teach. As you say, it was about the influencing, the colouring of things, rather than the actual doing.

This is probably the most thoughtful critique of place branding that I’ve read.
There is certainly plenty of fascination with control and the power to shift and shape opinion. What makes place branding especially interesting, I think, is the connection that people in regional marketing offices — many countries and larger cities now have in-house marketing teams — have to their “product”. Places inspire a pride and loyalty in people that I don’t think most products can, with iLust being one notable exception. That is to say: some people really do love the places they are promoting. And when they do, I think it changes the marketing dynamic. It’s high-budget evangelism instead of naked advertisement. Shitty little muddy rivers will always be made into glamorous beachfronts. But the ratio of bullshit to honest excitement seems considerably higher in place branding.
Either way, I’m definitely adding “tetchy” to my daily vocabulary.

What continues to interest me about Monocle is that it’s emblematic of a blink in time: a global perspective that’s plainly unsustainable. Call it the Dopplr generation, if you like, but it’s more than that: it’s the artificial construct of a model lifestyle that, if it exists, exists only for Tyler effing Bru-lay. It’s fantasy. It’s Calvino-grade hyperreality. The inherent tension between the global consumer smorgasbord (which goes back to Wallpaper*) and the ‘local, sustainable’ thing means that Monocle wobbles on its axis like a spinning top that’s ready to fall.
Place branding is the exemplar of this, because it relies upon a come-hither rhetoric and a necessary aesthetic distance. The Monoclists would roll their eyes at Nat Torkington, because he commits the error of actually living in a place subject to branding, rather than just brushing its sleek surfaces or vicariously experiencing it a lovingly-prepared magazine.
This isn’t to say that place-branding is novel: Timbuktu and Shangri-La and Samarkand are branded places. Heck, Greenland was a branded place back in the day, for different reasons. But Monocle is all about assemblages, a global Shangri-La constructed with a platinum flyer card and a bottomless expense account. It’s not so much an invisible city as an invisible world, or at least an invisible model of living.
It’s a journal of decadence, Gibbon’s late-Roman-Empire decadence. Not decadence of acquisition, the realm of the biz-class in-flight mag, but decadence of thought, decadence of vision, decadence of aspiration.

this really hits the nail on the head for me w/r/t Monocle. I, too, bought the first couple of issues, and I came away feeling the Tyler-centric worldview was essentially the worship of power and influence– political, economic, communications, cultural, aesthetic, you name it–for its own sake.
This fixation on the coercive nature of place-branding [or branding generally] derives, I suspect, from TB’s own skillset: he’s a branding consultant. Branding is his hammer, and the world is his nailpile.
One of the most amusing examples of this is Brule’s interview with Crown Prince Haakon of Norway, where, besides the studious sycophancy, Brule keeps asking these vacuous, Brand Norway-level questions, which Haakon gamely tries answering with actual facts, policies, and initiatives. They totally talk past each other, though I don’t think Brule’ realises it.

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