Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Junk Food For the Soul

Nike. Hermes. Pepsi. Versace. Starbucks. Mercedes. Armani.

You know these names, and so do millions of people worldwide. They are examples of “brands”, trademarks used by manufacturers and designers to distinguish their goods. Today, brand names are a multi-billion dollar economic juggernaut that drives the global economy.

Brands may be great for business, but they’re bad for the soul. Brands used to be about quality and style, and a good brand meant a reliable high quality product. (And a brand that lost its reputation was mocked – I remember when a certain car company was ridiculed by the phrase Fix Or Repair Daily). But contemporary brands are more about image than about quality; the logo on the front of a polo shirt is a substitute for personal identity.

It’s usually wise to avoid judging a book by its cover (or as the Mishnah puts it, judge a wine by the bottle). But with brands, we are encouraged to believe that changing our cover will change our personality. Ad taglines imply that the brand’s image will become our own. If we drink Pepsi, we will “think young”, and if we buy an Apple computer we will “think different”. Nike sneakers announce that you are a proactive person who will “just do it”, and true love requires a diamond, because “a diamond is forever”. As Susan Fournier, a professor at Harvard Business School put it: "People look at brands as carriers of symbolic language and forget that a brand's first purpose is to close the sale."

Brands are junk food for the soul. The search for identity is a powerful spiritual force that encourages people to live meaningful lives. Even when man has all of his other needs met, he still needs to create a spiritual identity. As the prophet Amos says: “Behold, the days come, says the Lord, that I will send a famine in the land. Not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but a hunger to hear the words of God.”. A store bought brand identity substitutes ersatz meaning in place of spiritual depth.

The glamour and glitz of brands make them far more attractive than old fashioned spirituality. People contort themselves in order to own the Porsche or buy the Rolex. Among young upper middle class couples, there is what I call a “baby vs. BMW dilemma”. Should they have another child and live more modestly, or should they curtail their family in order to lease “the ultimate driving machine”?. In a materialistic, brand intoxicated culture, too many people choose BMW’s instead of babies. (Maybe babies just need to improve their brand image!)

Like junk food, brands are a tasty little pleasure when enjoyed in moderation. But like junk food, brands can replace a healthy spiritual identity with fashionable but hollow designer vanity.

And too many people have sold their souls for a logo.


Anonymous said...

Have you been reading Naomi Klein's "No Logo"?

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

do you think that identity "labels" can have the same effect?

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz said...

no - i didn't read no logo - i'm not critiquing this from a socialist point of view - i don't have a problem with material goods we enjoy - i have a problem with making material goods the basis of our identity. if i was going to promote a "healthy" brand - it would be "brand judaism"!!

Anonymous said...

Isn't Kashruth going into the Branding business as well? When there is a Hecksher on bottled water and laundry detergent I start questioning the validity of Kosher as it pertains to following biblical rules governing food.
There are many people including non-Jews that seek out these Heckshers as an assurance of quality http://www.bckosher.org/whygokosher.pdf
Most of the kosher business relies on "processed edible food-like substances" like potato ships and candy. The Vaad of Montreal scorns strawberries, raspberries, broccoli, and lettuce (unless of course it is washed mechanically, wrapped in plastic and bears an MK). Perhaps I am cynical but it would seem that there is a conflict of interest when the ruling body that governs what is kosher and what is not would approve snacking on a box of pringles (that they derive royalties from) instead of some garden fresh strawberries (that they can't derive $$ from).
While I do keep kosher, and follow labeling on processed goods, I am disturbed by the rulings by the Vaad on some fruits and vegetables. To me it seems like an extortionary practice.

Anonymous said...

More on Kosher
Modern kosher certification is more in line with marketing, and branding like "eco-logo"
is for environmental certification. It is also like the airline loyalty programs,
in the sense that you have competing kosher certification bodies trying to compete with each other in order to have manufacturers align themselves with a particular Heckher, each one promising a certain market loyalty to the product that bears its brand.
When you start having things like cheese, vegetables, fruit, milk and water that can be branded as kosher it means that it must be branded otherwise it is not kosher. All of a sudden buying "Kosher" branded products is more like buying an Armani, or Nike rather then a suit or a pair of runners.