The IPKat has been perusing this month's issue of Adbusters magazine, a publication dedicated to the debunking of big brands and the demystification of advertising methods. A couple of articles from the January/February 2004 issue, reviewed below, stimulated his interest.

In “Relationships, God, and their universal language: commerce”, Eliza Strickland looks at the concept of packaging in two contexts. The first is that of “personal packaging”, making yourself a more saleable commodity. Strickland cites the advice given by Rachel Greenwald in Find a Husband After 35 Using What I Learned at Harvard Business School. She writes, by way of advice to a 39-year-old unmarried woman, increasingly forgotten in a culture that worships youth: "Packaging can be more important than the product itself," Personal marketing techniques include using focus groups for heartless feedback on your looks, creating a "personal brand" that sums up, in 10 words or less, your unique characteristics and advertising your brand through direct-mail campaigns to friends and acquaintances. Assertive women are advised to change some of their more troubling characteristics. They should become good listeners and should refrain from sex, to convince potential mates of their long-term purchase value. Strickland’s second perspective on packaging focuses on Revolve, a version of the New Testament done in teen-mag style for people who find the Bible "too big and freaky looking" to pick up. This book not only brings the Bible to young girls through fashion tips, celebrity birthdays (pray for Britney Spears on 2 December) and feature stories like "Are You Dating a Godly Guy?". She concludes: “In the old days, love may have been mysterious and God's nature unfathomable. But everything makes more sense when you speak the universal language of commerce”.

The IPKat is always suspicious of packaging when its function is to conceal, not to enhance, the qualities of the commodity packaged. A person who has to package herself as being someone she’s not is a person whose individual value has been violated. But if a commodity’s value is enhanced or made accessible by its packaging, without compromising its integrity, then the packaging should be commended for facilitating this.

In the second article to catch the IPKat’s eye Kevin Arnold writes about "The Tragedy of the Mental Commons", drawing a parallel between today's heavily branded environment and the scenario envisaged by Professor Garret Hardin in his "Tragedy of the Commons". Hardin draws attention to the finite nature of physical resources, taking as an example a common pasture. Because the pasture is open to all, each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as he can there without thought to the needs of others immediately or in the long term. This is because he reaps the immediate benefit for himself but the cost is divided amongst the other herdsmen. Eventually the common will become overgrazed and each extra animal will threaten the wellbeing of the entire herd. This is the tragedy of the commons.

Arnold argues that this applies by analogy to the mental commons. He claims that we share a "commons of the mind...a mental environment, shaped by everything from cultural cues to the physical space that surrounds us. At every level this mental commons is cluttered and commercialized. Millions of data points and marketing messages threaten to “overgraze” our attention. Our mind is their pasture". The "tragedy" and overgrazing has manifested itself in a loss of mental clarity. In the worst cases this has resulted in higher rates of depression, violence, addiction, suicide and the like. Even among the "well-adjusted" attention spans are waning. Viewers' attention is captured by product placements so they stop following the plots of films and people check their emails frequently instead of working. Even marketeers are finding that consumers do not have long enough attention spans to focus on advertisements. In short, "Your mental environment is wearing thin".

The IPKat says that, so far as trade marks and branding generally are the medium by which commercial messages are communicated to consumers, they bear the responsibility for Arnold's claims in as far as they hold water. However, there are serious problems with his argument. There are many other possible reasons for the increase in mental problems and diminishing attention spans, the perceived increase in crime and the availability of new communication technologies being just two possibilities. In fact, his whole analogy with Hardin's commons is questionable. While physical resources are unquestionably finite, Arnold has not proved that mental resources are finite, he has just asserted the fact and has asserted that there is a causal connection between the supposed reaching of people's mental capacity and many of society's ills. Finally, there's no such thing as the mental commons. While the environment in which people perceive branding, e.g. the street or public spaces, is in a sense common (although it isn’t in strictly legal terms), people's brains are not. Therefore the relationship that Hardin envisages between different users of the common land is unlikely to apply since there is only one user of any person's mind.

In conclusion, the IPKat welcomes publications that take a sharply critical or humorous look at the advertising and marketing professions, partly because they are the catalyst that enables big brands wield so much power and partly because they so often take themselves so seriously. Adbusters can also take itself a bit too seriously at times, but this issue is definitely fun -- and thought-provoking too.

How to sell yourself here, here and here
Bibles for teenagers here and here
Commons to avoid here, here and here
Commons to embrace here


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