Marketing 'gurus' (ie. 'arseholes') are always banging on aboutthe importance of 'the brand'. Of course, what they really mean is 'the way thick people will buy any old shit if it's got an easily recognisable symbol on it.'
That said - and it causes us physical pain to admit this - they're probably right. Nike make good trainers, but who'd have thought they'd be able to use the Nike 'swoosh' to sell masses of unremarkable chavwear? Or crappy jewellery (admittedly probably not licensed)? Or that the morons of the world would want to get the 'swoosh' razored into their hair?
Other brands have enjoyed equally unlikely success - a good example is Caterpillar, the purveyor of industrial plan machinery that successfully diversified into clothes, shoes,radios and other items. The latest success story in the world of random branding success is Playboy, or more correctly, the
Playboy magazine was the brainchild of Hugh Hefner, who actually managed to make millions out of a bizarro 1950s fantasy about the lifestyle of the playboy bachelor, which seemed to consist mainly of cocktail parties and smoking a pipe while surrounded by women who looked a bit like a young Margaret Thatcher. Although Heff managed to live up to some of his own sexual imaginings, it's hard to look back without considering it all rather quaint.
50 years later, Playboy is still out of step with reality, but for different reasons. Playboy is porn, but of the ultra- sanitised, heavily airbrushed variety. If your sexual imagination goes no further than big-breasted, all-American bimbos, then Playboy is for you. The magazine seems to have been left behind by the explosion in hardcore porn, which is about fucking and nothing else. Amid the near-identical Miss USA look-alikes in this month's issue are slightly incongruous articles like:
'Three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas L. Friedman, a New York Times columnist and best-selling author, chats candidly about the war in Iraq, the future of the Middle East and why two countries that are involved in Dell's supply chain will never wage war with each other.'
But the Playboy rabbit has found a new lease of life, with his little ears, bow tie and dead, shark-like eye finding their way onto pencil cases, stationery, watches, bed linen and mobile phone covers. The odd thing is that some of the biggest consumers of the Playboy brand are teenage girls in 2005.
And this is a source of some controversy. In an article in this week's Guardian, the pressure group Object suggests the Playboy brand normalises pornography, with the consequence that:
'It helps to ensure an endless supply of young, naked "babes" and reinforces the misperception that young women depicted solely as sexual commodities is a glamorous and natural career option for young women.'
The author of the article, Rachel Bell, picks up the theme. Citing the examples of Jordan, Jodie Marsh and Abi Titmuss, she asks: 'Little girls now see becoming a glamour girl as a viable career option. Is porn star next?'
This is a bit of a leap of logic. True, the Playboy brand is about pornography, and certainly its TV channels and videos offer more hardcore output than the magazine, but to claim that it normalises pornography in the minds of teenage girls is rather tenuous. There are several slightly simpler explanations for the appeal of the Playboy rabbit:
1. To many teenage girls the Playboy rabbit is just that, a cute ickle wabbit;
2. More probably, they know Playboy is essentially a brand based on pornography, which adds to its appeal, because it's a bit rude;
3. Rap artists have adopted the Playboy brand.
And while the success of Jordan et al shows that celebrityglamour models can indeed make a lot of money, it's a rather separate argument. To suggest that Playboy logos somehow cause young girls to want to be glamour models is the exactly the sort of overstated case that has undermined feminist arguments in the past. Andrea Dworkin, anyone?
There are several interesting aspects to the success of the Playboy brand (not least the power of a logo from 1953 to shift pencil cases in 2005), but whether it normalises pornography isn't one of them.