Reprinted from C-Arts Magazine (December 2009).
A brand used to be a symbol burned onto a cow’s butt. [When] a ranch had a long-standing reputation of raising healthy cows, the brand was its symbol of quality. But once the “-ing” was added to the word “brand,” and agencies started to ply the black art of “branding,” a brand was no longer the symbol of quality and reputation earned over time. Instead it was something that was just made up by ad agency creatives applying ingenuity to the disingenuous.”
— Augustine Fou
When people who are paid to opine wake up to a new industry dynamic, they often overreact. As pundits on the periphery of the branding industry belatedly noticed consumers exchanging information directly via Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, the field began to echo with shouts of “Branding is dead!”
I don’t buy that argument. Would you, if I could name an $80 billion market that gets customers to pay between one and ten thousand times the price of an identical competing product, with nothing to differentiate the two except for 100% pure clean branding?
No, it’s not art, though I’ll come back to art later. It’s bottled water.
Consumers say they choose bottled water because it tastes better, or is healthier, than tap water. Are they right? Or has the message just been perfectly internalized?
The world’s biggest market for bottled water is the US (followed by Mexico, China, and Brazil), where the two best-selling brands, Aquafina and Dasani, are simply bottled tap water. Yes, you read that right. As U.S. News & World Report explained, “Pepsi’s Aquafina is municipal water from spots like Wichita, Kansas. Coke’s Dasani is taken from the taps of Queens, New York, Jacksonville, Florida, and elsewhere.” Everest comes from Texas taps, Yosemite from the Los Angeles suburbs, and Alaska Premium Glacier Drinking Water: Pure Glacier Water from the Last Unpolluted Frontier is drawn from Public Water System #111241 in Juneau. In all, about 40% of bottled water is simply bottled tap.
Forget oil. The profit margins in water boggle the mind. Last June, the Merced Sun-Star reported how the Safeway supermarket chain turns Merced (California) city water into money: “They pay $1,000 a month for more than a million gallons of water. The retail cost for that much purified bottled water at Safeway is just under $3 million.”
In terms of substantive difference, what consumers are actually paying a premium for is an increase in bacteria as the water sits, toxins like the hormone-disruptor bisphenol A that leach out from the plastic, and the right to not be regulated and tested the way tap water is by the laws of most nations. In 2002, New York City’s tap-water was tested 560,000 times. Bottled water is tested only for research studies or when it crosses borders.
When the Kansas Department of Health and Environment checked 80 samples—with pictures of pristine mountain glaciers underneath names like More Precious Than Gold, Ice Mountain, Desert Quench, Pure American, Utopia and Crystal Springs—they found that all 80 had detectable levels of chlorine breakdown products (including trihalomethanes, linked to cancer and miscarriages), 78 had some nitrate (which can cause methemoglobinemia, or blue-baby syndrome), 12 had nitrite, 53 had chloroform, 33 contained bromodichloro-methane, 25 had arsenic, 15 tested positive for lead, and 46 contained phthalate, another carcinogen and hormone disrupter.
I’ll spare you the environmental harm of all those bottles covered in pictures of purity in nature, of shipping 170 billion liters around the world every year, and wrap up water by saying that in blind taste tests from New York City to Helsinki, tap water has consistently beaten out bottled water. But when you ask people which is healthier, which is tastier, the answer is inevitably bottled. Marketers have turned water into a classic example of what economists call a “Giffen good”—a product with a backward-bending demand curve: within a certain range, the higher the price, the higher the demand. More Precious Than Gold indeed!
Like art, bottled water borders on fashion, on lifestyle perceptions, and so the margins become astronomical. But the mechanism that drives the price is in every aspect of our lives.
This August, the titans of the world’s food industry launched Smart Choices, a big green checkmark that goes on the front of packaged foods that have passed an industry health standard, providing busy mothers with a unified system by which to pick healthy foods for their children. It has already approved “foods” like Kellogg’s Froot Loops: 41% sugar, no fruit, eight grams of trans-fats per box, a full rainbow of artificial colors, and less than 1 oz of fiber per serving.
Mud would be healthier. At least that might give you some magnesium, maybe a little calcium. And there’s branding for that, too, in the form of myth and tradition—in a recent study by the University of Nigeria, 800 out of 1,071 pregnant women at a prenatal clinic engaged in pica (eating things like mud and soft stones). Depending on your culture, you can take your pick of health food: Froot Loops, with its obesity and diabetes, or mud; with its kidney and liver damage.
You might say that fashion, Froot Loops, and the formulae of tradition are all forms of ignorance, and ignorance is exactly what the new social media are slowly defeating. Okay, then, let’s stick with food—because this all started with cows, after all—but move to a highly motivated demographic that lives by its nutrition knowledge: bodybuilders. Bodybuilders have known for a long time that after a workout you need to rehydrate, resynthesize blood and liver glycogen, and protect and synthesize muscle protein. Every company in the field has come up with some sort of post-workout drink to achieve these goals.
One of the best is Surge Recovery by Biotest. Biotest is a branch of T-Nation, which started off in 2003 as Testosterone Magazine, a magazine created specifically as a rejection of the shameless pimping ofsupplements by then-established muscle and fitness magazines. And Surge Recovery really is great, until you compare it to the oldest bodybuilding workout drink, chocolate milk—which performs just as well as the most expensive sports drinks in terms of rehydration and glycogen resenthesis, and outperforms all of them in protecting and synthesizing muscle protein (i.e., growing bigger muscles).
T-Nation is a serious magazine with a demographic that is obsessed with information—but if you do a search for “chocolate milk” in its internal search engine, you get zero hits. Zero. By comparison, “Surge” got 6,160 hits, and the most obscure amino acid I could think of, phenylalanine, had 14. In other words, chocolate milk is censored from T-Nation’s forums.
Whether the (mis)branding is by corporations, governments, media or NGOs, I have a stream of examples that could fill this whole magazine. The American Heart Association has their own version of Smart Choices, called Heart Check, but companies simply pay a fee to get their product endorsed. Men’s Fitness recently ran a feature story on “How to build big arms,” using tennis star Andy Roddick for the cover. When Andy’s own arms turned out to be too skinny, they simply photoshopped his head on somebody else’s body. And so on.
Consumers have no idea. And so the information they share only spreads the branding. A 140-character Tweet is perfect for an advertising slogan, not so perfect for a research paper. The brand becomes the shared reality.
And this is all food, nutrition, the stuff we put into our bodies, highly regulated compared to other products, with real information available a click away on sites like PubMed: how many parts per million of arsenic there are in the water, or the rate of glycogen resynthesis, are measurable facts, hard data—they are to quality what major battles are to history. Bits of solid ground on which to stand, with clear winners and losers.
But unlike, say, political history, art history has no such ground. Its battles are circular—money and fame, which are determined by the only quantifiable proxy measures of quality that art has, money and fame. There are no parts per million in art. There are no points of groundedness.
In order to figure out who is a fraud in art, you need to know who is not. And that requires some understanding of what is good art. Price, fame and brand are feed-forward loops nudged, at best, by critics packaging information into the framework of an article thesis under a looming deadline, working for art versions of T-Nation—magazines and curators and museums that start off with noble missions and slowly get corrupted by their own institutional structure. As the philosopher Ivan Illych famously wrote, every institution ends up working against the goals for which it was created.
There is quality in art, but it is not inter-subjective. I can’t tell you to stand here and be firm. Finding your ground in a postmodern bog becomes an almost Heideggerian quest for authenticity, a hermeneutic circle that each viewer travels on his own. Heidegger wrote what I consider the greatest tome of western philosophy trying to answer this question, then declared it a failure, gave up, and said if you want to understand authenticity go read Rilke’s poetry. He was labelled a “mystic” for it, about as vituperative an epithet as exists in philosophy.
Issue #10 of C-Arts featured an interview with Damien Hirst, where he told me that what he looks for from his own work is the ability to get a “Wow!” out of the audience. There are two ways to get a “Wow!”: quality, in one of its manifestations, or a record-breaking price. Perhaps by creating such crazy prices, Damien’s goal was to purify art. By moving the wow-price line out to $100 million, inaccessible, he’s allowed people to focus back on quality. To step away—as he’s now trying to do himself—from the systemic momentums of success and size: the pressure to repeat what works, to turn into production factories, into a “team,” a living system that starts to make its own decisions and turns against its own reason for existing as it pimps your work.
That’s the problem with art. In terms of anything measurable, it’s all branding. And that unquantifiable thing, quality, is too delicate to be collected in database like PubMed. I can tell you that Roy Lichtenstein’s comic strips seem to me like the visual art equivalent of bottled water, or that Murakami’s work would be more appropriate on a box of Froot Loops than in MOCA or that Malmsteen can play like a virtuoso but he has no feeling, that Eric Clapton tried to play every Muddy Waters song and hit the notes Muddy probably wanted to hit but has no style or substance, or that Jim Morrison is highly overrated as a poet/visionary. I can say that I have no idea how Tommy Hilfiger even became considered a brand name rather than Wall-Mart remainder-bin clothing, or that I think 95% of the art shown in Chelsea is crap. But I can’t prove my argument the way I can prove that the natural whey-casein combination in milk is superior to any commercial protein mix.
Confuscius had a prescription for repairing a corrupt empire. The first step, in echoes of Ivan Illych, was called the Rectification of Names. As institutions shift their agendas over time, their names no longer match their real function. The Ministry of Defence becomes aggressive, the Ministry of Education stifles thinking, the Ministry of Art promotes mindless repetition, and so on. By renaming them according to their real functions—Ministry of War, Ministry of Stupidity, Ministry of Derivative Drivel—an emperor gets a clearer picture of the state of his empire. Sometimes I try to imagine what our world would look like if names were rectified. If the brands on the asses of cows still told the truth.