non sequitur


A Speculative-Fiction Marketing Story

I suspect that I'm on the leading edge of a trend -- a social movement, if you will. I don't have a name for it, but it occurred to me when I did a story recently about Clear Channel's program to sell ad space on airport bathroom mirrors.

The idea also came to me when I began to notice that I had begun walking around with my eyes on the cracks in the sidewalk because I didn't want to see another advertisement. Of course, I live in New York, where advertising and branding is pretty unavoidable. Still, I was driving in New Jersey this weekend and experienced the same thing: eyes on the road in front of me as I drove along a gauntlet of strip malls flanked by gigantic billboards and come-hither signage and ads for familiar brands.

My brother-in-law wanted to stop at a Dunkin' Donuts -- and there, too, I had a hard time not seeing cross-branding messages, every single menu item bearing some kind of tagline. I took a stroll over to the ice cream freezer and there, too, every flavor of ice cream was its own brand sometimes cross-branded with other brands, like Reese's.



So I have an idea -- not that this would ever happen, but as an elaboration of a growing discontent with branding in general: a fanatical religious sect arises where people actually blind themselves so they don't have to look at ads.

I'm not sure how original this idea is, and since I haven't read all of William Gibson's dystrophic novels, I wouldn't be surprised if he's already used it (if anyone foresaw what the Internet could become, it was Gibson). If he has, then the story would have to have the opposite: even more branding -- branding of personal spaces that hitherto have been relatively sacrosanct, for instance. Wait -- we've already seen this starting in schools with companies like Channel 1, and via brands offering ailing school systems cash in exchange for advertising real estate on corridor walls, access for vending machines, etc. "Students, settle down, settle down. Now today's class on isoceles triangles is sponsored by (teacher fumbles for a big bag of Doritos) uh...'a crispy snap in every bite'...(bites Dorito)"

Also, people in the story would actually themselves be branded. They wouldn't just be wearing T-shirts with brands on them -- they would be tattooed with, say, health insurance company logos because there arises such a state of crises in the U.S. that health insurance companies start offering to pay for medical procedures if the people getting them are willing to be branded -- literally -- with messages like "My Large Colon Is Now A Bicycle Inner Tube! Thanks, Cigna!"

Of course, knowing where Gibson has gone with books like Mona Lisa Overdrive (see, branding is even showing up here!) he would probably go even further: in his world people's very thoughts would be branded. Companies would pay you to have a microsoft (he coined the term, by the way. In his books it's not the company we know, but the software card people insert into their heads to download -- say, fluency in a language they don't know) inserted that would frame each of your thoughts with advertising. "Man, that bartender's an idiot. 'Say, Phil, why not take out your rage at Freely's Putt Putt Golf on Rt. 34.'"

Now, if I were the great speculative fiction writer Alfred Bester, whom few people remember now, but whose novel "The Stars My Destination" is considered by most to be the among the top five science fiction books ever written (more branding), I'd write a book where health insurance companies branch off into the business of running work places that are incredibly dangerous, involving work nobody in their right mind would ever want to do...unless they had no choice. Bester would make such places off-world mining operations somewhere in the Pleiades. But the mines would be run by health insurance companies. That's because scientists would have developed treatments -- but not cures -- for things like cancer. The miners -- who would all volunteer for the work because they have a fatal condition that could be rendered chronic, if treated -- are paid in medication instead of cash.

The worlds in such stories could be driven socially by something one might call "The New Feudalism," which is a state of affairs Eric Schlosser suggests already exists in his book Fast Food Nation. The New Feudalism will reverse the notion that the consumer "owns" the brand -- which is a disingenuous, highly spurious and probably morally suspect proposal to begin with -- and instead will constitute a social order out of what is probably implicit anyway: brands will own consumers, and collude with each other to decide who owns which consumers and at what price.

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