A FEW MONTHS AGO, whistleblower Christopher Wylie gave a speech at the annual summit BoF Voices.1 He discussed how his former employer Cambridge Analytica used Facebook users’ preferences for fashion brands to profile them according to key personality traits and later target them with political messaging. According to his matrix, fans of American denim brands such as Wrangler and Lee scored low on openness and excitement-seeking and were therefore more likely to respond to pro-Trump content, while aficionados of labels such as Abercrombie and Fitch and Kenzo displayed characteristics that were likely to make them more liberal-leaning. ‘Fashion is powerful,’ he stated and went on to note, in a Benjaminian2 stance, that totalitarian regimes are usually associated with recognisable and strong aesthetics: ‘You can easily imagine what a Maoist looks like. You can imagine what a Nazi looks like. You can imagine what an ISIS fighter looks like.’
Like myself, Wylie did a PhD in sociology of fashion. It’s not obvious from his speeches: his approach is at odds with that of many fashion theorists. We warn students against treating fashion as a language where every signifier points to an intelligible signified and where affinities for brands or styles can stand for personality traits. Our general consensus is that aesthetic products have become unmoored from their original meanings. I have heard homophobic views from people who looked like they came straight out of the 1980s New York club scene; a growing coterie of young neo-Nazis is sporting a hipster look, traditionally associated with liberal values, consisting of skinny jeans, Converse trainers, tote bags and beards;3 someone dressed like a Punk may well be a Thatcherite: this is how we explain postmodernism in the classroom.
Cambridge Analytica’s model is based on the opposite premise: that fashion has solid, unequivocal meanings that can be used to profile and target you with political messaging according to your clothing choices; that it is a rational universe where ‘Wrangler ergo Trump’ correlations can be drawn. But can it really hold ground today? Of course, one might argue, the proof of the pudding is in the eating: just look what happened with the US election. But then is there really a way of knowing if Wylie and his cohorts played a significant role in it? Couldn’t it be that Cambridge Analytica was merely playing its clients, just like it was playing electorates?
Much like Newton’s laws, Wylie’s matrix can only fully work in an imaginary situation. In physics, it is a setup immune to external forces where a body is always either at rest or moving at a constant speed in a straight line. Such a predicament, however, is a mathematical abstraction that is impossible in the real world where various factors, such as the centrifugal force of the Earth’s rotation, air resistance and friction, come into play. In cultural terms, an equivalent of physics’ inertial frame of reference would be a hermetically sealed social situation; a static monocultural setup where narratives are coherent and linear, meanings are fixed, and brands (and, for that matter, politicians) stand for clearly defined values.
In reality, of course, such situations do not exist, and brand narratives are constantly re-interpreted and subverted. Let’s imagine, for argument’s sake, that ‘straight white men from Alabama’ whom Wylie invoked in his speech do indeed exist in a pure and adulterated state and see Wrangler as equivalent to conservative values and of putting America first. Conversely, someone from America’s supposed counterpole, Russia, will likely associate Wrangler and the like with liberal and progressive values. In a 1970s poem, still widely cited today, that humorously depicts St Petersburg’s hippy scene, one of the characters swears ‘by the holy firm Lee’4 which is framed as the symbol of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. A Russian Lee fan, then, is unlikely to score low on excitement-seeking, unlike his or her American counterpart. So, an Alabamian and a Russian will read Lee and Wrangler in polar opposite ways.
The problem is, pure and uncontaminated identities are exceedingly rare in the global late capitalist world, other than in the imaginaries of nationalist ideologues. Alabamians marry Russians; their children speak with a British accent because of Peppa Pig.5 Kenzo fans wear Wrangler. Anyone with a hybrid identity (not 100% straight, not 100% white, not 100% Alabamian) is likely to hold multiple, potentially conflicting, views on a lot of things, often at the same time. We are implicated in systems of exchange with so many touchpoints that our horizons of understanding are permanently shifting. In this cultural indeterminacy, a brand can be both conservative and liberal, as its meanings will be read and enacted from multiple subject positions at once, even by the very same person. As the writer James Meek, with whom I had an email exchange discussing the Cambridge Analytica case, wrote to me, ‘conservative patriotism and free love and white fear of marginalisation have all united in Trump, under the American flag, in Lee and Wrangler.’
It would be tempting to conclude that brands have no meaning at all, but this is not a point of view that I am here to defend. Brands do have meanings, but they are always in flux and are most certainly not shaped by any one group of people. Instead, they are rearticulated every time a brand is worn, pictured or mentioned. ‘The brand progresses or emerges in a series of loops, an ongoing process of (product) differentiation and (brand) integration,’ posits Celia Lury.6 An earlier Vestoj article unpacked how brands such as New Balance and Adidas were appropriated by alt-right movements,7 showing a brilliant, if terrifying, example of how such new readings constantly emerge.
This ambiguous world of ever-shifting brand meanings might be resilient to the likes of Cambridge Analytica and its profiling, but it is certainly more difficult to navigate. When aesthetics do not have solid and fixed links to ideas, Wylie’s maxim ‘you can easily imagine what a Nazi, or an ISIS fighter, looks like’ no longer applies. And then, to paraphrase an ad that warns passengers of plain-clothed inspectors on London public transport, ‘spotting one is “easy”: they look just like you.’8
However, one thing that Wylie was saying is indeed worthy of further analysis. He suggested that every consumer is also a voter, and implied it is the responsibility of the brand to communicate certain messages that might sway their vote. This was possibly the most important takeaway of his speech, but also one that rarely got cited or reflected upon.
Two years ago, tens of thousands of people within Moscow-based opposition assembled at a rally opposing government corruption. It ended with an unprecedented number of arrests – the highest at any rally in post-Soviet history, according to BBC Russia;9 many of them were violent. On that day, my old Muscovite friend Sasha Boyarskaya, a creative consultant for Nike and an Instagram influencer with tens of thousands of followers, posted two photographs of herself. In one, she was wearing a gas mask.10 In the other one, the gas mask was hanging off her neck, and she had a flag in her hands. ‘I hope we all have a good day today,’ she said in the caption.11 This was complete with a hashtag that I read, while scrolling down fast, as the Russian word for ‘revolution.’
Sasha used to be an avid and vocal supporter of the protest movement at its inception in 2011, but in the latter years I hadn’t seen her post much on the matter. I was moved by her renewed interest in the protests and by her bravery: she had given birth only a few months earlier, and it was obvious that participating in rallies in early 2017 was anything but a safe affair. She could easily end up detained, beaten, and parted with her very small son.
I scrolled back to take a closer look at her photo and then realised that the hashtag I had hurriedly read as ‘#revolution’ said, in fact, ‘#revolutionair,’ as in Nike Air Max. Her post was a reference to Nike Air Max Day, a running event sponsored by the sportswear conglomerate and happening on the very same day as the rallies. Sasha is a very skilled social media strategist. She knew exactly what she was doing.
‘I am stunned,’ I confessed to my husband when recounting the episode to him that evening, as I watched the arrest poll grow. ‘How cynical – taking a political narrative that will land real people who uphold it in jail and using it to flog trainers.’
‘Yes, but don’t you think for some people brand narratives are an entry point to political ones?’ he replied.
He had a point. In The Culture of New Capitalism, sociologist Richard Sennett asks ‘do people shop for politicians the way they shop for clothes?’ and invites readers to ‘consider the citizen as a consumer of politics, faced with pressures to buy.’12 This was published in 2006, the same year as cultural anthropologist Adam Arvidsson’s text Brands: Meaning and Value in Media Culture, where he argues that brands are ‘spun into the social fabric as a ubiquitous medium for the construction of a common social world,’ creating a ‘complex web of meanings and intensities’ that invites certain actions and attitudes: ‘Brands do not so much stand for products, as much as they provide a part of the context in which products are used […] with a particular brand I can act, feel, and be in a particular way.’13 In other words, brands shape a certain ‘structure of feeling’, as per Marxist theorist Raymond Williams’ definition.14 This ‘framework’ then informs our decisions that go well beyond consumption in its traditional sense. There is no reason not to imagine that such decisions may include our votes and other political acts. In the years that have passed since the publication of those texts, such ‘webs of meaning and intensities’ created by brands have enmeshed us even more closely than before, as our relationships with brands have got more intimate due to new media and to ever evolving marketing strategies aimed at turning brands into friends.
Before she even got employed by Nike, Sasha had a Nike swoosh tattoed on the left-hand side of her chest, right where it would be if she was wearing a T-shirt. Her body has thus become a Nike garment; she literally has the brand under her skin. She isn’t the only one – brand tattoos are a phenomenon that has been studied academically.15 This illustrates the extremely intimate relationships with consumer brands characteristic of late capitalism. For a lot of us, these relationships are more solid than those with political parties. Brand narratives are often more digestible, more shareable, more memefiable and more relatable than those of political campaigns, and they may well have more say in shaping political attitudes.
I have discussed campaigns such as Diesel’s ‘Make Love, Not Walls’16 and, more recently Gilette’s ‘Toxic Masculinity’17 ads in cultural studies seminars at Chelsea College of Arts and London College of Fashion. My students usually correctly identify them as tapping into political narratives that have a certain ‘cool’ cachet due to being popular with young and progressive groups of people, and most are disappointed to see them ‘riding the hype’ and using these narratives for profit. But then the discussion usually takes a slightly different turn: yes, someone says, we can safely assume that some anti-Trump consumers who have not yet bought into Diesel may become interested in the brand after having seen this ad; but what about people who haven’t yet decided which way to vote but are already fans of Diesel? In a culture oversaturated with brand narratives, ‘we end up living in a well nigh all-encompassing brand-space,’ Arvidsson argues.18 It is easy to form brand allegiances before political ones, and, in that case, there is a chance one’s brand allegiances will inform political preferences. Even though campaigning for Democrats was not Diesel’s intention – its intention is to flog as many jeans as possible – it might be the outcome of its messaging.
Sasha is a skilled social media strategist, and her comment ‘I hope we all have a good day’ under the second image, paired with ‘do more than just run 5k today #justdoitsunday’ was, on second thought, probably deliberately ambivalent (or at least I’d like to think so). She knew very well that a lot of her friends would get arrested that day and was weaving their stories, however subtly and probably imperceptibly to many, into her message; giving protest imagery a touch of Nike. It’s a sad state of affairs, one might say, if political ideas are more persuasive if they come from a consumer brand; but isn’t this how late capitalism works: not only is everything branded, but brands are an access point to anything, helping consumers to make sense of the world well beyond themselves. This is what Wylie was talking about: brands have the power – and, given their economic resources, the platform – to send certain messages that may remain unheard if they are coming from elsewhere; to make them part of the vernacular. Of course, brands can capitalise on political messages to build relationships with their audiences, but the reverse is also true: they can similarly capitalise on their already existing relationships with audiences to get political messages across.
Not that their marketing executives will necessarily want to do it, as Wylie seemed to be hoping – why would they? – but, as the earlier section suggests, there is a possibility of it happening even despite their intentions, as brand meanings and messages are never fixed, never straightforward, and never in the hands of the brand’s team alone.
Jana Melkumova-Reynolds is a scholar, writer and consultant based in London. She lectures at London College of Fashion and Chelsea College of Art, and is currently a ESRC-funded PhD candidate at King’s College London.
This poem, by the singer and songwriter Boris Grebenschikov, is available (in Russian) here http://www.guelman.ru/artists/mg/kniga-prozy/view_print/ ↩
Celia Lury, Brands:The Logos of the global economy. London: Routledge, 2004 ↩
For a brilliant discussion of invisibility as a new strategy of extreme ideologies such as the alt-right, see the article mentioned in the previous footnote. ↩
Richard Sennett, The Culture of new capitalism. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006 ↩
Adam Arvidsson, Brands:Meaning and value in media culture. London and New York: Routledge, 2006 ↩
See, for instance, http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100538488 ↩
A. Orendt and P. Gagné, ‘Corporate Logo Tattoos and the Commodification of the Body,’ Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 38 (4), pp. 493-517, 2009 ↩
Adam Arvidsson, Brands: Meaning and value in media culture. London and New York: Routledge, 2006 ↩