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See logos, hear jingles, breathe marketing

No ad-free zone left in America

It is an event as regular as the return of late-summer shoppers who slink into fitting rooms, arms full of discounted swimsuits, companions on hand for reassurance. Every few years, perhaps sensing that consumers have grown self-conscious about their relationship with brands, social commentators whip open the curtain to have some fun with what they see. Or soberly tell why it fits.

James Twitchell's "Branded Nation" examines the way "brands" have crept into cultural institutions - colleges, museums, and even churches.

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Twitchell, who has written widely and authoritatively on advertising as a cultural phenomenon, also teaches English at the University of Florida. He's that favorite teacher whose classes leave you with a cramp in your note-taking hand.

Readers fascinated by the pervasiveness of marketing in American life will revel in the way he parses out industry and academic lexicon. A story expressed in a single nucleus is a "holophrasm"; the layering of similar experiences is "syncretism" - a marketing practice long employed, he says, by religious groups. For instance, the Roman Catholic church layered All Hallow's Eve over an ancient Druid ceremony. Candy companies added their own layer later.

Today, modern culture has been so "marketized," Twitchell writes, that the venerable public sphere is no longer the brand-free zone it once was. It has, in fact, been as commodified as bottled water.

Is Harvard a brand? Absolutely, Twitchell maintains, a blue-chip player in what he calls Higher Ed., Inc. It maintains a massive endowment, ensures that its brand "story" continues to be told, and slaps away any infringement.

The Guggenheim? Sure. Twitchell describes marketing bids by museums as well-crafted bridges between Aesthetica and Vulgaria.

What about suburban Chicago's massive Willow Creek Church? Twitchell says it's "to American religion what Home Depot is to fix-it-up." A brand. Several different services aim at various levels of understanding, Twitchell writes, and its sprawling, high-tech campus resembles a community college. "From president to parishioner, this is a church in the business of coping."

Twitchell's broader take on brands: They've burrowed deep into human identity to become motivators: "the basis not just of interactions but of interior actions." His book may be the definitive text on this evolution.

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Clay Collins is editor of the Monitor's Portrait section.