I went to the Commonwealth Club yesterday to hear linguist Geoffrey Nunberg talk about his new book, Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show. The subject was ostensibly political speech--in particular, the way in which conservatives have appropriated certain words such as "freedom," "values," and "elite" while turning "liberal" into an epithet of scorn. But the word I kept hearing was "branding."
Nunberg pointed out that in the 1950s and 1960s, Americans took much of their everyday vocabulary from the social sciences; phrases such as "status symbol" and "organization man" (and "inferiority complex" and "juvenile delinquent") became common parlance. But beginning in the 1970s, Nunberg said, "marketers became the new cartographers of the American landscape." As a result, we no longer think of "branding" as something cowboys inflict on bovines (in the 1960s, there even was a TV series called Branded; the hero was constantly trying to escape his "brand"). And we sprinkle our conversation with words like "upscale" and "demographics." Gradually but inexorably, we've stopped being citizens--it happened right around the time civics stopped being part of the public school curriculum--and started being consumers. Of everything from health care to education to television shows to, yep, politics.
Branding is a powerful means of articulating a message. But it also can create artificial polarities in which MyBrand dukes it out with YourBrand: "Cool" Macs vs. "stodgy" PCs, the "new Alero" vs. "your father's Oldsmobile" (yeah, that one really worked!), this year's skinny jeans vs. last year's tragically outmoded flares. All too often, it's a distinction without a difference.
And that's Nunberg's point about political branding: it forces us into identity groups defined by brand names and articles of consumption. Volvo, Brie, and Chardonnay have been attached to "liberals" for so long that it's easy to overlook that Republicans outbuy and outconsume all three products. (Brie is a convenient symbol for conservatives to associate with liberals, said Nunberg, because it's pale, soft, runny, and French.) As sociologist Alan Wolfe has written, Americans--Democrats, Republicans, Greens, libertarians--have more in common than you'd assume from listening to AM talk radio. Nunberg pointed out that while "Brand Nashville" may connote country-western music, in fact the number-one radio station in Actual Nashville plays adult-contemporary music. That means Billy Joel, not Bubba.
Funny thing, though: We're beginning to see a branding backlash, both in the political arena (witness the dismal drop-off in voter turnout) and in the marketplace. Product marketers are scrambling to adapt to the world of "brand hijack," in which consumers rather than companies define the brand experience. And blogging is redefining the political experience. It's all very well to reclaim language, as Nunberg and others urge. But if we don't listen carefully, we'll be using that language to tell a meaningless story.