In brands we trust


Dear Dissonance

Have you noticed that one’s brand has replaced oneself?

Recently the Wall Street Journal ran a funny article by a man annoyed by all the runners with 26.2 and 13.1 bumper stickers he sees in his Midwestern town. As he asked, “What’s with this infatuation with running and the near-mandatory ritual of preening about it?”

But it’s not just running. It’s everything. It’s as if it’s not enough just to believe certain things anymore or like doing certain things or going certain places, you have to brand yourself with them to validate your identity – frequently with a three-letter oval sticker attached to your car.

Your Patient is no better. She won’t put stickers on her car – she finds them exhibitionist, ironically, but she had to have an Italian stroller of a certain make. Ostensibly it was because it could haul loads of stuff and was great for traveling through the airport. But it was really because it was cool – and expensive, and was a walking advertisement of her good taste. If she could afford that kind of stroller then what kind of car did she drive or handbag did she carry, right?

Our Father loves it when humans find their identity in things. It generally means a lifetime spent lusting after cars and clothes and houses – and spouses –they can’t attain, a good in and of itself, but it also means they see their lives as a constant competition that they almost always lose to someone richer or thinner or more beautiful. And even when they can afford the best brands, satisfaction is fleeting as they will need the latest model, whether it’s a pair of jeans or a husband — to reflect their best self.

Throughout history people have cared about making the right impression. But this culture is particularly favorable to our way of thinking. Brands are not new, for example, but a Ralph Lauren polo logo the size of a grapefruit is. And wealthy women donning totes with massive Tory Burch or Michael Kors hardware is also new for a country where until relatively recently broadcasting wealth or achievement was tacky, particularly so in formerly puritan New England.  The culture has so evolved it’s almost impossible now for people to see virtue in another person until they have passed the brand test for their particular tribe.

Another favorable aspect of the culture is the rise of do-good brands like Toms, which donates a pair of shoes for every one bought. It and other companies like it allow people to think they are philanthropists for wearing trendy footwear or other gear. Since giving as a percentage of income has held steady for decades, wearing the ubiquitous rubber bracelets representing myriad causes or donning certain shoes is not making people give more. But it is a fashion statement that broadcasts you “care” — whatever that means since it rarely involves any self-sacrifice.

Our Father doesn’t like helping people in any fashion, but if doing so leads more people away from the Enemy, so be it. Besides, since branding is not about becoming a better person, but advertising you are the right sort of person, it should be encouraged. Growing up used to mean shedding that sort of herd mentality but now it is a staple of adulthood – and not just tolerated but venerated by cultural leaders, which makes our job easier.

When our patients can no longer tell the difference between popularity and merit, they become more susceptible to the groupthink that comes from being inundated by seeing only certain images over and over again.

Your affectionate aunt,


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