Branding and the Apocalypse

POSTCRIPT: Branding and the Apocalypse


Howard Adelman

Sanjay Khanna, a Visiting Scholar at Massey College, wrote a very intellectually stimulating position paper with James McKee, a PhD student in Political Science. The paper, “A Force of Nature: Emerging Conditions of Social Protest” ( was written for the 2013 Trudeau Summer Institute. I initially responded by suggesting a reservation to my enthusiastic initial reception – that the apocalyptic message seemed in total contradiction with the academic style of the writing and the reformist benign message. Upon reflection, I think the problems is far more serious.

While the Khanna/McKee piece was written in cool academic language, its message was anything but. The authors see the future in terms of VUCA – volatile, unstable, complex and chaotic, as well as ambiguous. Externally, climate change is the prime source of volatility, but it extends to economics, politics and the character of future societies. Increasing complexity and chaos are matched on the subjective side by ambiguous responses and resultant instability in the political and economic realm. Yet, in spite of the horrendous message, the report weakly suggests that they can help people navigate through this apocalyptic vision and transition to a more resilient future for Canadians.

For example, politically the confidence in democracy is seen to be on a declining trend with a response, especially among youth, characterized by apathy and a general transition from a civil to a courser political environment. Given the increasing costs of health costs well above general increases in GDP, given the increasing rates of unemployment among youth (17% youth unemployment in Ontario according to very recently released figures) and the declining youth political participation rates and the shift to confidence in non-political processes or single issue politics, the authors predict a continuing shift to micro-targeted politics and continuing to ignore young people’s priorities thereby enhancing the democratic deficit and the risk of following more and more irrational courses of action. Less listening, more manipulation, rougher politics and greater risk for non-rational political processes leads to “the central presumption that politics will be an increasingly emotion-laden process, the shift away from policy and into the political ‘tribalism’ of a polarized electorate” …and “the transformation of political policymaking into something resembling a continuous appeal to a political ‘lifestyle’ or ‘brand’ that treats the citizen primarily as a passive consumer limited to selecting options rather than driving policy change.”

In the discussion of brands, the authors went on to argue that people in societies under stress do not behave deliberatively but become driven by immediate fears, prejudices and tribal affiliations, but they can be encouraged “to hold onto their core values of tolerance, dialogue, mutual respect, and respect for diversity.” They argue that efforts should be undertaken “among coalitions of corporate partners to meet social aims through brands, using brands as an element of trust-building within and between generations.”

Since the paper at several points brings in a discussion of contemporary branding so, to make my points in the discussion of the prognostication and formulation of a rescue plan, I will make reference to Ira Basen’s one hour long radio feature documentary on branding cleverly entitled, “A Brand New World” that was broadcast a week ago on CBC’s Sunday Morning Magazine show. ( Ira argued that we are entering an era where, “People behave like brands and brands behave like people.” What he meant by this catchy phrase was that consumers were no longer simply passive recipients of brand messages focused on the selling the name and quality of a specific product. Rather, businesses were transforming brands into associations with lifestyles in order to connect with consumers on a personal level and connect to their value biases. Business wants to become your friend and show the brand shares your vision of the world. As he said in his special, “Brand used to talk to you but now brand has to listen and has to link to what people think and feel. Brand is now controlled by the people who use it.” In the process, companies become communities as they seek new connections to brands and efforts of brands to articulate the values of the consumer to develop an active dialogue between the brand and the consumer. So instead of expecting less from businesses and government, consumers and citizens expect more.

So we get two very different pictures of the future through the perspective of trends in branding. Instead of just enhanced volatility leading to greater ambiguity as the whole economic, political, social and natural environment becomes both more complex and more chaotic, the apparent instability reveals a pattern that is varied and diverse and decentralized. The ambiguity is then whether those businesses are in control and merely manipulating consumers or whether businesses are entering into a partnership with consumers. Is Coca Cola teaching the world to sing and to save polar bears and to fight obesity simply as a ruse? But consumers are too sceptical and Coca Cola had to prove its sincerity and integrity by developing Coca Cola plastic bottles made from plants. Companies can only do well by doing good. 

Is that true of politicians? Unfortunately, not! On closer examination, the tale Khanna and McKee (KM) tell of increasingly dirty and manipulative politics that use branding to identify political parties that touch the ideology of constituents suspicious of government and gain voters by appealing to irrational fears is not inconsistent with Ira Basen’s alternative tale of business allied with an increasing savvy youthful generation to market their products by lining up with an identification with the lifestyle of youth and their predominant values that celebrate diversity, tolerance and freedom. These two tales are not inconsistent even if they appear contradictory on the surface. For KM are telling the story of how more conservative approaches in terms of both method and content will work on an increasingly aging population increasingly fearful about the size of their pensions and whether the benefits accrued will see them comfortably through their old age. Ira Basen was writing about the innovations of business trying to take advantage of the new technology as well as the very different attitudes of youth towards business, politics and youth. Taken together, both are describing the landscape of a new generational war radically different than the battle fought in the sixties.

Let me play out that battle on three fronts: 1) health services; 2) medically assisted suicide; and 3) post-secondary education. The first is the easiest. With an aging population, with advances in technology, there is simply no way to keep the costs of health care from going up at rates significantly faster than the growth of the economy. The rate of growth of the latter has shown, as KM illustrated, a propensity to increasingly lower rates of growth in developed countries. The rate of growth of health costs, in contrast, has shown an increasing propensity to higher rates of growth. Governments may answer this squeeze by the federal government downloading costs onto the provinces and by increasing the age of retirement to increase productivity, but the downloading method combined with increasing revenues from elsewhere and decreasing costs of pensions only shifts the mode of payment, not the amount. And the latter may increase revenues but not nearly sufficiently to offload costs. The baby boom generation is not going to tolerate their addiction to good health care and the values of reduced suffering and enhanced enjoyment of this life while also being told they have to work longer and further postpone the satisfactions they anticipated in their retirement years.

This takes us into the second issue – medically assisted death with dignity. This is NOT euthanasia. This is not a public body deciding upon who should live and who should die based on their medical condition. Medical assisted death with dignity places the value of choice over death in the hands of each individual. This “freedom to choose” appeals to both the baby boom generation as they age and the new generation of youth. It is an issue on which they can – and will – unite to change existing laws. It is, therefore, a wedge issue that can generate coalitions, address directly the issue of fast rising health costs and the issue of a possible generational war of conflicting values.

This is also true of the next issue – post-secondary education. This is the other area of government costs increasing at greater speed that the rise in productivity. These costs are already being carried primarily by the provinces. As those governments face the burden of carrying increased health costs downloaded by the federal government, they will desperately look for ways to save money and not continually increase the level of indebtedness of this level of government. Fortunately or unfortunately, there is an obvious place to save that money that fits in with the values of the new emerging consumer culture insistent on being in control and new developments in both the technology of delivering higher education and branding. This is the development of MOOGs, those courses delivered via the new technology directly to youth and others all over the world by the universities with the best brands in higher education. When those universities learn that a much greater investment in the preparation of the product is needed to fit in with the new media, and that the costs of doing so will be minimal relative to the overall costs of the whole product and the radically reduced costs to consumers of education, it is very easy to realize how enormous savings can be made in this area to deliver both high level education in the humanities, social sciences and sciences and realize huge savings.

What will happen to the huge investments in capital in the plethora of colleges and universities? They will be used to foster innovation and co-research projects as businesses partner up with people of all ages to rent the facilities as campuses of innovation and development of ideas replace the primary model of passive learning inherited from the past. What will happen to the old order of professors and teachers employed by these institutions? They have increasingly been replaced by adjuncts, recent under-employed PhD graduates and researchers following an independent path who will now continue in more tutorial rolls as adjuncts to the MOOGs. 

In other words, here are three areas in which interests coalesce with both the old politics of manipulation and irrational appeals (what I have called populism) and the new politics of co-partnerships through issue specific priorities coalesce. But how does that deal with the huge issues of climate change over which there is an almost unanimous consensus among environmental scientists that these changes are real, that they are relatively dramatic and that they are fuelled by human intervention in the environment, and that challenge the environmental change deniers of the older generation? They do not. In this area, the politics of brand manipulation versus the politics of business-youth partnerships are at odds. What we are witnessing is a new political alignment. Big business in the areas of the media, communications, (travel and electronic) is siding with youth and environmentalism. The old politics has shifted in an effort to appeal to consumers over control of media companies, airlines and cell phone companies and trying to brand themselves as state run consumer protectors. It may work to some degree in appealing to the older generation susceptible to this type of older style brand manipulation. But it will not work for youth.

So, ironically, we are witnessing a realignment of politics, not with business on one side and workers on the other, but with some types of businesses on one side – old fossil fuel based industries, as an example – versus communication, transportation and media businesses on the other side and a necessary realignment of political allegiances and parties.   

Lauren Zinn in Michigan sent me a note saying how she was moved by my memorial to Sam Ajzenstat, but asked, “Does the moral project of taking responsibility for one’s life necessarily lead to Zion-ism or any other -ism?  Is there no other option between naive idealism and Zionism/other nationalisms?”  I argue that there is not. If the old politics of manipulation, populism and appeals to irrational fears is to be dealt with, if the politics of defining a nation in terms of a political leader and branding a political leader in terms of a polity to substitute the Harper nation and the Ford nation or the sovereigntist PQ nation for the Canadian nation, then the only uniting social appeal is to appeal to the nation as it has been developed through the years of experience of all voters, young or old. There has to be an emotional connect. The natural connect is the nation – whether American in its melting pot vision or Canada in its multi-national development and vision, but that nationalism must be articulated with greater clarity, with more resonance with how it has actually developed and emerged and with a greater connect with citizens of all ages.

The war between the troglodytes of manipulation, of shouting less government and lower taxes in easy slogans of appeals to fears and trepidations and the new politics of partnerships and facing the environmental crisis head on, of new realities in education and health services – as well as conflicts abroad and new forms of refugee flows – are coming into place and will require a shake up in the make-up and character of the opposition parties that will make the shake up on the other side look like child’s play. For the transition of uniting populism with personalism, of uniting anti-centralized politics with fiscal conservativism, fit a slash and burn method of dealing with excessive costs but does not fit the challenges facing politicians or the people currently at the forefront of concern. Politicians using the new forms of branding will require new partnerships, new alignments, new ways of communicating and new ways of rallying coalitions that will have to rely on nationalism – not as a simplified reactionary appeal – but as a deeper understanding of the developments of the values of this nation that will throw off the knee-jerk anti-nationalism of people such as Pierre Elliot Trudeau who preceded Stephen Harper in successfully introducing cognitive populism and personalized political branding to Canada but at a tremendous cost of a disconnect with this nation as it emerged and developed.

The new democracy requires more listening and less manipulation, more partnerships and less posturing, more inter-personal civility and less crassness in either gesture or methodology, more facing real risks than allowing risks to multiply and accumulate without facing them, more genuinely emotional politics and less reliance on fear, a new appeal to what unites us to balance the new individualized politics to counteract a widely differentiated electorate that is trying to be manipulated in terms of the old polarized ‘isms’ and politics of manipulation.  In this process, business can be no substitute for politics, but politics will have to make common cause with business in celebration of this nation.