Apple store

Above: The Apple store in Chicago. Credit: Dweider.

Unbranded

From the mid-1960s onwards, J.G. Ballard's position remains consistent: consumer demand depends on the successful creation of myths, hype, branding, etc., and such strategies Ballard dubbed "fictions." For example, speaking in 1988, he said: "I think we’re living in a landscape of enormous fictions ... reality now is a kind of huge advertising campaign (EM: 237)." Or, in 1974: "I think we have seen the invasion of almost every aspect of our lives by fictions of one kind or another." One of the key consequences of the rise to dominance of public relations (PR), advertising, and branding is that, for Ballard, "reality is now a fiction"......

This week, reacting to the above text extract, Kingston BA Photography students brought in some absorbing work. One motif was dominant: the removal of all branding and logos from the everyday, leaving ordinary life absolutely intact but without the forest of consumer signs and symbols that dominate city life (in the developed West at least). In this Ballard-inspired landscape, objects are mostly offered in unbranded plain packaging--from McDonalds fries to Starbucks coffee. In this proposed reality the advertising billboard still exists but all fictionalization is removed leaving only a blank void and a photo of the unadorned product--adverts are still allowed, but not the photo-based contextualization that is typically essential to the process of idealizing and glamourizing.

This new reality offered-up seemed stark, dystopian, and totalitarian in comparison to our brand-abundant present. We may revile all the brands so prevalent in modern globalized consumer-led capitalism, but how desirable would a plain-packaging alternative be? On some level, in the West at least, the branded object has become crucial to the construction of the self. Wouldn't the loss of our beloved brands (through a vast programme of nationalization, say) leave us bereft, deprived, and on the brink of an existential crisis? Who would I be without Apple, Rolex, Samsung, The North Face, Diesel, Rick Owens, Cyrus, Wusthof, and Nikon? Would I even have an identity without them? Would I cease to exist if no longer insulated and reassured by my fondly adored branded objects?

(16 January 2019)