Ayden, NC –
Newly minted words seep into the verbal voids formed by previously unheard-of tasks. When new words are not at hand, we tweak old ones, and these terms gain wide circulation thanks to the jargon jones of media types. Toss around irregular warfare, or post-partisan, and people might think you know what you're talking about. And that's cred, baby.
Sometimes, though, familiar words simply sprout new meanings. Brand, for instance.
Brand associations are nothing new, of course. The British journal New Scientist recently reported that Mesopotamians used marks on stone stoppers 5,000 years ago to ascertain the quality and origins of products such as oils and wine. Since then, give or take a millennium, it has been a given of marketing that names and images provoke emotional responses and prompt us to open our purses. But brand has become a verb, and using it, well, brands the user as savvy about the ways of promotion.
The verbing of brand reveals something about our culture. Once, a brand name bestowed meaning: Buicks were white-collar, Chevrolets blue. To brand something, however, implies imposing meaning from without. It carries the whiff of trickery: We'll brand the heck out of it, and they'll never know the difference
In April, Advertising Age considered the Web-based efforts of the then-three top presidential candidates, and found only one doing a decent job. Ad Age said Barack Obama was shrewdly cultivating third-party social sites and branded microsites, whatever those might be. It went on to note: Apple and Nike are selling emotion and life experience. Barackobama.com asks visitors to believe' and make a difference,' which has the same objective. You might wonder if Obama includes the marketing of candidates like computers and running shoes among the targets of the change he advocates, or if change is merely another commodity we can believe in.
At least commentator Michael Kinsley is sufficiently dubious about the branding trend to quote-mark the word. In Time recently, he asked if Swift-boating would carry over any of its currency from 2004. Swift-boating now there's an unfortunate new word. You might remember the veterans group formed to impugn John Kerry's naval service in Vietnam, a tactic Kinsley found reprehensible. So did John McCain, for that matter. So Kinsley wondered, [I]s there hope in the fact that decency is a big part of both candidates' brands'?
Only a fool expects politicians to be as sincere as they pretend to be. But for once we have two candidates who have built their careers around bucking trends and doing what they perceive to be good. Yet both have taken up the branding iron already: You're nothing but a a celebrity. Oh yeah? Well, you're you're Karl Rove!
We've got three months to figure out if either candidate's brand is more than mere branding. Perhaps by then we'll have a new word for insincere sincerity.