Like a lot of feral sorts of my age, I was an enthusiastic reader of Naomi Klein’s ‘No Logo‘ in my younger days. We had long been suspicious that the glossy big corporations hid shadowy secrets – the boxfresh trainers stitched in sweatshops, the silencing of smaller brands that might just possibly be treading on the mega-corporations’ toes – and the insidiousness of brands becoming culture in themselves. The ‘cool kids’ weren’t cool because they were creative or did things in an original way – no, they were being marketed as such by a display of a global corporation’s logo at every turn. What you wore, what you drank, the gum you chewed, what you ate – if you subscribed to the brand principle, it all mattered. Even if you didn’t, it mattered too – buying a burger from a well-known fast food chain came to represent not just the consumption of a fairly disappointing and artery-clogging sandwich: you were buying into deforestation, cultural insensitivity and a disregard for animal welfare too. We saw people bragging about the amount they’d spent on a sweatshirt plastered with the manufacturer’s logo – spending over the odds to buy an advert, in effect – and harrumphed off to the charity shop. This did get slightly complicated when charity shops themselves filled up with branded goods, but the principle was there.
‘No Logo’ and the grunge movement of the 1990s were – and still are – my comfort zone, and as I headed out of my teens and into work, mortgages and parenthood I figured that it would be an awful lot easier to avoid paying over the odds for branded goods. On one hand, the ageing Generation X is earning money which corporations know they will want to spend, so there is no shortage of brands ready to fill the gap. If you don’t like wearing your brand on your sleeve (or on your chest for that matter), there are plenty of more discreet labels out there that will happily take your money. Supermarkets stock ‘value’ ranges with simpler packaging – partly in an effort to compete more widely on price, but it does have an appeal to the ‘no logo’ generation too: why pay over the odds for fancy packaging, after all? The Internet has made a big difference to how things are bought – a quick search for ‘ethically produced fashion’ will give many options that the high street might not. There is a more practical reason too – other people in similar situations are usually far too tired to notice what other tired, bill-paying workers are wearing in the first place. It would be easy enough to snuggle into my charity-shop cardigan and retreat from the glossy mega-corporations without retreating from the world at large, wouldn’t it?
Ah, how wrong one pastry can be. Bizarrely, the moment I realised just how pervasive big brands are happened when the mini-brioche fell off her bike. This is not an unusual occurrence – bruises and scrapes are part and parcel of childhood, after all, even if it means that the hitherto dusty first-aid kit gets more of an airing than ever and that my handbag always seems to contain antiseptic spray. On this occasion, I noticed that I had run out of plasters yet again, and dragged the mini-brioche to the supermarket to buy more. A simple errand, I thought – I won’t need anything special, a box of standard plasters will cost about a pound, perhaps just over if I get a box of children’s plasters with cartoons on them that will raise a smile after an injury. Instead we were faced with a bewildering array of plasters marketed squarely at children. A standard box of 40 plasters in assorted sizes would cost us just over a pound; 45p if we went for the ‘value range’ option (I couldn’t quite tell what the difference would be between the two). If the mini-brioche or I had been allergic to the standard version, we would have paid 10p more for a hypoallergenic version – unlikely to break the bank, even in these straitened times. But out of the rack at just the mini-brioche’s height screamed an array of cartoon characters, Disney princesses and superheroes. These plasters were priced at £3 for a pack of 16 – or 15p for each plaster as opposed to the 3p I might spend on the ordinary ones. Were these plasters especially hypoallergenic, super-sticky or imbued with special healing powers to justify the price hike? It didn’t seem so. I tried to break down the price– presumably in addition to the cost of manufacturing the plaster itself, the manufacturers pay a certain amount more for the right to use a copyrighted brand on their product, then an amount for printing the image – but it still seemed like a lot of money for a humble plaster that would probably fall off in a day or two anyway.
Armed with a compromise pack of giraffe-printed ‘value’ plasters (to the chagrin of the mini-brioche), my interest was piqued. I was used to marketing techniques bringing ‘pester power’ into the equation for breakfast cereals, biscuits, lunch boxes and the like, but not plasters, for heaven’s sake. I had a quick search around the most prosaic items I could find to see if pester power was being brought into the equation here, too – the results were less depressing than simply odd. Suffice it to say that the child who has everything can now pester their parents for a Hello Kitty First Aid Kit, Frozen or Batman duck tape, and a plethora of branded lighting, car seats, coat hangers, broom heads and storage boxes (admittedly the Batman espresso maker was quite cool, but I assumed that it wasn’t actually being marketed at 5 year olds).
So what on earth is with all this? Are we so desperate to please our offspring that we will buy specially-branded gaffer tape at inordinate expense so that our DIY efforts will be momentarily adorned with their favourite movie character? Is the Disney princess plaster a gateway drug to the Pepsi phone covers and Gucci luggage of later life? Are marketing gurus more aware of pester power now that there is pressure to remove the more traditional (and cheaper) pester flashpoints of sweets and chocolate from supermarket tills? Will the big brands do away with the unadorned ‘value’ ranges altogether?
I am not entirely sure of the answer. It’s not that I disapprove of anything that isn’t completely Utilitarian – the Mr Bump cold compress seemed pretty apt, after all – but it seems like a weird policy to give everything a ‘wow’ factor, however prosaic it is in the first place, so that people who don’t necessarily need it will buy it, and those that do will pay over the odds for it. What is even more bizarre is that we take this explanation – we need to do it to make a lot of money – entirely for granted.
Maybe I’m missing the point, and I should embrace meaningless commercial adornment wherever the opportunity may arise. I wonder how the world will react to my own new look?