Plastic culture

The activity of branding is central to modern graphic design practice but does it represent the end of authenticity?

Cultural activity in the twenty-first century is increasingly focussing on commerce. Of course, commerce has always been central to cultural activity and supposedly authentic subcultures have always been willing to use their, often ersatz, independent poise to grab as much cash as possible. But is it now the case that our culture is so brand-littered that it is impossible to develop any kind of cultural activity that is not intrinsically for sale, right from day one? Was, for example, 'grunge' the last genuine youth subculture that wasn't devised - or at least co-opted before it was known of - by a marketing department?

And just where and how are today's youth culture rebels going to express themselves? As the academic Andrew Calcutt puts it:

Counterculture, once the exclusive property of the young, is now over-the-counter-culture, as Thomas Frank neatly observed; and the counters which have been made-over include those of the state bureaucracy as well as the corporate market. With much of youth culture colonised, there is all but nowhere to go, and wannabe rebels have to find different ways of dressing up.

Moreover, is branding the only significant form of differentiation in an era where qualitative judgements are increasingly difficult to make? It seems a reasonable argument to make. The growth in spurious designer labels alone is enough to convince me of that.

At the same time, has branding been somehow democratised? Today, not only is commodification occurring at a exponentially faster rate than ever before, but today's technology allows for the generation of home-made branding at grassroots level.

Previously, brands were conceived at the post-creation stage; they were solely a form of marketing and marketing was something which has engaged in not by artists but by management. Oftentimes branding had only the most tenuous connection with the actual product. Now the branding is the product and the contents of the box are virtually incidental. But if this branding is genuine - or, if you prefer, authentic - rather than being the creation of some executives and designers, does any of this really matter?

Today young musicians - to give but one example - seem to be developing their brands with as much vigour as they work on their music.

Brands, in the broadest sense, can come from strange places. Ernesto 'Che' Guevara was an Argentinean revolutionary who, after succeeding in the Cuban revolution of 1959, was killed in the process of exporting his 'brand' (no pun intended) of authoritarian communism to Bolivia. In dying, however, Guevara's Stalinism disappeared and he become an icon for youthful rebellion - largely as a result of a single photograph of him staring into the middle distance. That image has spent the last forty years travelling the globe and being sold back to the public. Sold back. He became a commodity, but more than that, a brand.

Unlike most brands, of course, no-one owns Guevara's visage, but it remains a powerful mark. Back in the world of capitalism, meanwhile, brands increasingly scream for our attention, even to the point where chemical companies with virtually no products to sell to the general public are now advertising on prime-time television simply to increase brand recognition.

Which is fine, I really don't care, but is there not an argument that our branding-obsessed culture is destroying new forms of culture by thrusting them into the limelight, fully packaged, when they're not quite ready? Maybe we should leave the young artists and musicians alone instead of trying to package them the minute they appear on the scene.

Sometimes, I think, there is a case for designers not getting involved, lest we design our world to death.

Your opinions are welcome.

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