“Carthago delenda est”. The Roman Cato the Elder is said to have pronounced this phrase in every one of his speeches. It means, in translation, that Rome’s rival, Carthage, must be destroyed. Replace “Carthage” by “nature”, and you have the implicit mantra of modernization.
For the economy that underpins this civilisation, as the current theory goes, it is “grow or die”, unlike natural systems such as the parts of a healthy human body that reach a certain size then stabilize. This means that the economy in its fight for survival is on track to smother Earth ecosystems.
But what is being destroyed has little reality for us because much of our mind space is occupied by the world devised by the branding industry.
Whether we are aware of it or not, our collective intelligence is subject to the art of branding professionals working for transnational corporations. This translates natural needs like drinking into 1.9 billion Cokes sold a day, and creates a ceaseless stream of new socio-cultural needs like smart phones and computers. Branding evokes images of a certain type of utopia and a sense of entitlement to it.
This lifestyle looks very much like the way of life as packaged in American films that are beamed across the world. Several planet Earths would be required for us all to take up this lifestyle today, and many more if as predicted the population grows in sync with the global economy. Yet the model continues to inspire as it is replicated and amplified in China, the Gulf States or Singapore for example.
Historically, strategies to promote mass consumption were developed in Western countries at the end of the 19th century. Excess production had resulted from the use of new technologies harnessing concentrated forms of energy. The growth machine had been set into motion. That is where advertising and the more sophisticated branding techniques came into play to help absorb overproduction.
The need to push consumption is, surprisingly, still as great as it was in the early days of mass industrialism when consumerism had not yet become mainstream, and branding is big business today. It employs over a million people and reaps in half a billion US dollars a year in worldwide revenue.
It doesn’t hesitate to take on board different trends, even anti-growth ones—if they promote growth. For instance “Collectively”, a global digital platform was launched to boost TNC brands through the promotion of “sustainable lifestyles”. Thanks to this type of campaign Unilever expects to double revenues, defying the laws of physics, as it says it will at the same time halve its environmental impact.
This strategy is not new. Propaganda published in 1928 by Edward Bernays, one of the founders of the public relations industry, exposes how products can be associated with ethical principles to increase sales.
But couldn’t these methods be used to spread paradigms that are outside the world of consumerism?
Already today, the branding toolkit is serving to broadcast the values of non-profit organizations such as WWF or Oxfam. Branding is also being used by cities, regions, and countries to promote their own agendas. Utility companies that supply tap water, treat wastewater, or provide electricity use branding to make the public aware of the services they provide.
How much greater should awareness of the Earth as the underlying support system be. One attempt to enhance Earth awareness came in the film series, “Nature is Speaking”, where viewers are reminded of the power and essentiality of nature, the ocean, rainforest and soil through the voices of Hollywood film stars.
Just as advertising and branding have instigated a collective desire for the consumer goods society, could they in turn inflect desire towards a new society with a variety of global cultures adapted to the reality of local ecosystems on a changing Earth?
Baudrillard, Jean, La Société de consommation, 1970.
Elks, Jennifer, Unilever, Coke, M&S, BT Launch Digital Platform to Engage Millenials on Our Power to Create Change, ‘Collectively‘, October 6, 2014.
Future Learn, The Secret Power of Brands, 2015, https://www.futurelearn.com/…/the-secret-power-of-brands/
Voight, Joan, Adweek, For Unilever’s CMO, Global Growth and Social Responsibility Are Now Inseparable Goals, CPG empire has learned doing good is good business, March 23, 2015. www.adweek.com/contributor/joan–voight