The Victoria & Albert Museum - Brand·New

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 January 2001

Review copyright Jeff Lee 2000.
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