A while back I mentioned Neil Boorman and his great bonfire of the brands, when he burned all his branded possessions and lived for a year without using any branded goods. The book about his experiences came out last year, and it went on my long list of things to read at some point. That point was last week, and I have to say I found it an engaging read.
‘Bonfire of the Brands: how I learnt to live without labels‘ is Boorman’s account of how he came to understand the role that brands played in his life, and how he broke their power over him. It centres around his symbolic gesture of freedom, when he set fire to £20,000 worth of branded goods in a London square. The book, which was originally a blog, is structured something like a diary, mixing the planning of the fire, the history of brands, autobiographical details, and sessions with Boorman’s therapist.
As a fashion and lifestyle writer and promoter, and self-confessed ‘brand addict’, Boorman is well qualified to write such a flaming attack on brands and branding. He’s understood it from the inside. I grew up in Madagascar, where you were what you were and the process of self-defining through brands was almost an alien concept. (Though not quite – any imported goods had a certain cachet in the rather isolated Madagascar of the late 80s.) I’ve stood on the outside of branding, and wondered what on earth all the fuss is about. In that sense, I found Bonfire of the Brands quite intriguing, and rather insightful.
Basically, Neil realises that as he’s grown up, he has used brands to create an identity for himself. As an adult, he ses that “brands have become a tool by which I reinforce my identity and articulate aspirations of the future me. I have grown to depend on these brands to reassure every aspect of my self esteem.”
The problem of course, is that brands are not a substitute for a real sense of self, for confidence, self-respect, or even of style for that matter. They are empty promises that offer us the illusion that we can be different, better people, that we can be fitter, sexier, more enviable than we currently are. The adverts and lifestyle magazines constantly challenge us on our status – that watch would do wonders for our social standing. The bank windows and insurance companies question our security – our future would be safer if we switched our mortgage provider. The fashion houses make us believe that we could be prettier and more desirable – we’d all be having more fun, making more friends and getting more sex if we wore better jeans.
Of course, nobody thinks quite that simplistically about branding when you ask them, but the messages of advertising are so pervasive that their transparent lies have become normal to us. We don’t challenge the outrageous insinuations of advertising, and so we end up living and consuming as if they are the truth. “The industry relies on a trick learnt by the pioneers of wartime propaganda” writes Boorman. “If you repeat a lie often enough, people eventually accept it as the truth.” Instead, we need to “expect less from the act of consumption; mobiles are there to make calls, not to impress our friends; bars of soap are there to cleanse our skin, not to turn us into movie stars.”
So, having burned his possessions and lived for a year without brands, where does Neil Boorman end up? Satisfyingly, he ends up right on message for make wealth history:
“The exercising of consumer freedom is not the choice between BMW or Mercedes. Consumer rebellion is not the boycotting of Esso in favour of BP. Sustainable consumption is not trading in the Range Rover for a Prius. It is choosing to consume only when necessary, The solution, I believe, is a lifestyle based on voluntary simplicity.”
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