In the final episode of One Foot in the Grave, Victor Meldrew (RIP) flew into a rage because his local supermarket had been taken over by a television crew filming a Christmas commercial, even though they were in the middle of summer. The fake snow had worked its way into his nether regions, but the hint was that it was the unseasonal appearance of “Christmas spirit” that had really got his goat.
It was good comedy, but the modern British Christmas is nothing to laugh about. This festival has moved from joyous pagan ritual to Christian celebration and on through light-hearted social carnival to where we are now – a hideous farce where consumers get fat and consumer businesses attempt to get fatter.
“Christmas has been commercialised” is hardly news, but surely things are now going too far? Just a few years ago no columnist would have thought to mention the C-word this early in the month of December, but by the time you read this we will already have suffered six weeks of breathless Chrimbo commercials, soulless taped jingle bells music in shops and piles of packaging decked with holly and snow. The festive season currently starts around 10 October according to retailers, a time of year you used to associate with Indian summers, or at least stoic attempts to eat outside despite impending drizzle. Each Autumn for decades The Times letters’ page has recorded the first sightings of birds that have flown to our shores; now it’s registering the first appearance of department store Santas.
We have not only allowed brand owners and retailers to hijack our most precious and meaningful social event, we’re actually paying them to do it. Quite where responsibility lies in all this is of course a complex matter – more the stuff of a book than a column. Which brings us to No Logo, an excellent tome (published by Flamingo, £14.99) by Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein. I have a strong aversion to wet liberal cultural critics telling us off for liking brands; Klein’s book is nothing of the sort. Over 450 or so pages she explores the way in which the world’s most compelling new brands have been created, how they have affected the way we live, think and consume, and – in the most powerful chapters of all – the consequences they are having on the people who make the physical products, the earth’s resources and our mental health.
Klein reports from unregulated factories in export zones across Asia, where everything from Nike sneakers to Gap jumpers are being made. She compares the labour conditions there with the aspirational feelings such brands evoke in us over here. For example, having dissected the extent to which Nike has branded our physical and mental environment, she takes us to one of its factories – a corner of the earth so mean and ugly as to be unswooshable.
There are hundreds of books published each year on marketing, brands and communications – if you only read one, read this. While many are simply how-to’s for brand managers or veiled ads for agencies, No Logo goes beneath the surface and looks at the life of brands we know. Reading it now is like peering into the shadow side of our modern Christmas.
Of course, everyone in the west treads their own fine line between buying-into and resisting consumer culture, but defining that line is becoming harder. This is an urgent issue for those of us who work in marketing and communications, not just from a personal point of view as a citizen, but from a professional point of view as experts who are paid to help businesses understand and communicate with people. It is an even more urgent matter for those in education, for how can young people learn to decipher and evaluate the messages being thrown at them by sophisticated marketers unless they are helped by equally sophisticated cultural mentors? We spend a lot of time talking about the need for the design industry to get involved in design education, but perhaps there is an ever greater need for designers to get involved in secondary education.
For me, the Christmas message this year is that British consumers – particularly young people – need some assistance in working out how the increasingly complex and seductive brand landscape is affecting them and their choices.
If you are interested in hearing a range of alternative views about our branded world and the business of marketing, check out Adbusters magazine (£3.95 from designery newsagents) and its related website at www.culturejammers.org.