"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

12 May 2012

Brand Cynicism and Charity Cannibalism

Put the words 'brand cynicism' into the search engine and up will pop dozens of sites that  unlike this one  use the term cynicism in its negative context. Desperate to challenge the threat to big business that consumers are becoming cynical of branding, they offer advice on imaginative ways of reconnecting with consumer loyalty: techniques such as the double irony of subverting your own product by making a joke of it to raise even more brand awareness. The ‘science’ of business is alive and well, even if its glossy edifices have become tarnished of late. 

We understand how the brand works, even if we remain seduced by it. Our desire to own the best we can, coupled with our need to be seen as someone associated with superior and distinctive products, remains powerful. But, fuelled by the necessity that most of us can no longer afford the premium that the branded product represents, we are reconnecting instead with that good old fashioned concept – value-for-money. 

If we have become more cynical about the world of commerce, we remain enslaved by the very notion of branding itself. No longer able to surround ourselves with external signs of success, we have started to employ the concept of ‘personal branding’ to promote ourselves; in the workplace, among our friends and on social networking sites. Aware that branding used to double or treble the price of a plain T-shirt of identical quality, thousands of wannabe celebritees now seek to brand and market themselves in the absurd belief that an exaggerated CV or twattering about our everyday antics on the web, will turn us overnight into a social success.  Never mind if we are not by nature narcissistic, or find self-promotion an anathema, the internet bombards us with sites from the smug, already-successful, urging us to: ‘own your name’, ‘re-write your story’, ‘emphasise your accomplishments’, ‘manage your online reputation’, ‘engage in social circles’, ‘dress for success’, ‘leverage your title’, ‘become a thought leader’ or 'update your picture to something relevant, attractive and professional'.

The branding infatuation has now spread to every aspect of our lives, including the charity sector who now want to join their commercial cousins in the branding war. What the M did for McDonald, branding will do for us  except that McDonalds do not claim anything more than to clog up our atreries at a budget price. Non-profit organisations are now adopting the tactics of big business, competing for an ever diminishing pot of grant funding and public contributions. Distracted from their core aims of protecting the interests of the marginalised and the vulnerable, charities now engage in undignified competition with their rivals to attract celebrity sponsorship, aided by slick marketing campaigns. Hiding their insincerity behind a mask of sentimentality, the new breed of earnest, evangelistic, charity luvvies, are free to throw around empty rhetoric such as 'eco-friendliness', 'equal opportunities' or 'anti-discrimination', in a superficial world where the words themselves carry political capital without any actions to support them. Charity cannibalism, as the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard describes it, includes indulging in orgies of heavily branded national fundraising events dominating our lives and TV screens  – not to mention providing masses of free publicity for media hungry show business celebrities. Other peoples’ misfortunes, both at home and abroad, reinforce our own relative security and success:

“We have long denounced the capitalistic, economic exploitation of the poverty of the 'other half of the world'. We must today denounce the moral and sentimental exploitation of that poverty---charity cannibalism being worse than oppressive violence. . . .  Their destitution and our bad conscience are, in effect, all part of the waste-products of history---the main thing is to recycle them to produce a new energy source . . .  material exploitation is only there to extract that spiritual raw material that is the misery of peoples, which serves as psychological nourishment for the rich countries and media nourishment for our daily lives. Other people's destitution becomes our adventure playground . . .  we are the consumers of the ever delightful spectacle of poverty and catastrophe, and of the moving spectacle of our own efforts to alleviate it . . .  when we run out of disasters from elsewhere or when they can no longer be traded like coffee or other commodities, the West will be forced to produce its own catastrophe for itself.”  Jean Baudrillard

Never mind the emotional or financial capital sought by the directors and executives of charitable institutions – who are also the principal beneficiaries; another French writer and philosopher, Hélène Cixous, reminds us that even when the motives of those who support fundraising are prompted by genuine charity (accounting for the majority of the well meaning who give up there time to support 'worthy causes'), their efforts often sustain poverty and dependence rather than alleviating it: "even when it seems most innocent it is still totally destructive. Pity is destructive; badly thought out love is destructive; ill-measured understanding is annihilating." 

I witnessed just this kind of destruction working as a volunteer agronomist in Zambia from 1968 to 1970. Hand in hand, multi-nationals and 'overseas aid' workers, following hot on the heels of Christian missionary workers, were also attempting to 'civilise' the developing world. One group of victims of Western charity were the thousands of babies who died from dehydration following drinking formula milk – pushed by Nestle and others  mixed with infected water. In 1982 I volunteered as a primary health nurse, this time to work with the Paya Indians in the Honduran rain forest. The Paya had been persuaded by American aid workers to abandon their subsistence farming methods and grow cash crops to purchase antibiotics they had previously managed well without. Greeting me on arrival to my new workplace were dozens of babies and young children covered in mosquito bites that had turned septic because their natural immunity to infection had been destroyed by the earnest efforts of these same aid workers, long since moved on to mess up someone else's life.

Baudrillard's prediction that when we run out of disasters from elsewhere, "the West will be forced to produce its own catastrophe", is starting to be realised following the fall of the god of free market economy and inability to sustain our own greed. Even more absurd then that charities, particularly those working in their own countries, and who claim to alleviate poverty and vulnerability, have so willingly turned to the same branding principals as big business to promote their own interestsThe origin of brand as a distinctive mark of recognition was an ugly scar on the rear end of dumb beasts; the original, positive meaning of cynicism was a strategic way of thinking to survive living in a hostile world   and, as Peter Sloterdijk reminds us, being taken for a sucker. The plea here is a reappraisal of popular terminology that seeks to confound us.

The Laugh That Laughs at the Laugh - Federman
Paradoxical footnote: 

I must confess that I am still searching out the right logo for this blog, but, caught up in my own sorry attempts at branding, and, only too aware that I too have joined the ranks of the self-published and self-promoting, I take some comfort from the words of modern cynic philosopher Raymond Federman when he tells us to "have the courage of your own narcissism".


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