David Beckham: A new Coca-Cola or just plain David Beckham?
with Jeff Lee
You are what you eat. Or are you? Aren't
you many things beside? Are you who you think you are? Are you
gullible? These questions flap around in your head at the V&A's
new exhibition like fish on a trawler's deck.
Starting with its origins in the late 19th
century, Brand·New examines
brands and their consumers. Making an exhibition of brands might
be seen as an attempt to attract an audience beyond the usual
gallery-goers. In fact, in this way Brand New might be seen as a way for the V&A brand
itself to compete with the new Tate Modern brand in the Museums
market. Perhaps, but it's becoming the naff observation of the
moment regarding all major British exhibitions. So let's just
bear in mind that competition is the way of the world. And this
is an appropriate starting point too.
Everyone wants to earn a buck just like
the brands that charge their bucks. Few of us would baulk at
being as rich and famous as our good friend and choirmaster Coca-Cola.
Yes, do you remember how they wanted the world to sing in perfect
harmony, like a family transcending its differences? Maybe Andy
Warhol shared their optimism when he said something about Coke
being democratic by still being a Coke whether you're you or
Elizabeth Taylor. More money can't buy you a better Coke: 'A
Coke is a Coke is a Coke', so his argument went. Of course, he
neatly avoided mentioning that Elizabeth Taylor can afford an
awful lot more Cokes than most folk, and if Coca-Cola corporation
ever put socialist principles into their formula, then it is
to make more money, make no mistake about it.
But now Warhol and Taylor are brand-names.
The V&A show says that 'The brand is the star', but isn't
it the other way round? The first room is a sea of brands on
placards competing for your eye. Some interestingly open up the
idea of individuals now being brands - radio maverick Chris Evans
and the British Queen Mother for example.
David Ogilvy, co-founder of the Ogilvy
& Mather advertising agency, claimed in his book Ogilvy
On Advertising, that endorsements from stars are the least
reliable way to sell anything. His experience was that the star
gets remembered, not the product. Perhaps it's this lesson being
highlighted in the second room of the show where Paul Newman's
'Newman's Own' sauces and Gary Lineker's 'Salt 'n' Lineker' Crisps
are alongside other examples of one-person industries. More still
spring to mind, like Oprah Winfrey, Delia Smith, and arguably,
Richard Branson; maybe even Bill Gates. Damien Hirst made a headline
earlier this year by saying 'An artist? I'm a brand name.' Most
poignant are the Adidas posters where logos are based on footballers.
The 'Overmars Express' is a train while 'Beckham Deliveries'
are promised on a van. Is David Beckham really a logo, like Coca-Cola?
Probably. The next room is divided into
aspects of brand identity like authenticity, status, and notably
loyalty, where a child's bedroom is half made-over with the Japanese
Hello Kitty brand, and the other half with the Manchester United
home strip. David Beckham and team-mates seem to wear the same
livery as a Coca-Cola can. Creepy. But the corporate world is
yawningly easy to knock. Do corporates seize power or do consumers
volunteer it? After all, aren't the likes of Diesel, Bennetton
and fcuk appealing to their consumers' own determination in believing
they're more discerning than others? And do they, meaning we
the consumers, believe we are more discerning? Well...
The third room shows people interviewed
about their brand choices. I choose the word 'choice' gingerly.
'I think people are pressurised into buying the right labels
but I'm not really influenced myself' seems a commonplace
mantra. 'I know people who pay out much more than I do' goes
another. Interviewees explain how brands fit around their personalities
or vice-versa depending on your perception of them. This is the
humourous if disquieting high-point to the exhibition. Look out
for the cabbie who owns a Rolls Royce. He deserves a medal for
his disarming honesty.
The final room is about subverting brands.
The anti-corporate campaigns and piracy wink knowingly and cleverly,
but also disingeniusly, as they grate against the previous rooms
like they're in a different show. Maybe they ought to be in the
future? But otherwise, Brand New
is an highly inventive take on identity.
Brand·New is at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London,
SW7 2RL - 020 7942 2000 until 14th
Jeff Lee 2000.