Monday, August 27, 2007

"Back, you sex-obsessed drug-peddler, back I say."

From the Guardian:
Ever since school, Neil Boorman has been obsessed with the right labels - the shoes, the tops, the mobile phone... They became his identity. If he burned the lot in one grand gesture, would he be cured?

This salacious little tidbit, nestling beneath the cleverly double-meaning title, "Name Dropper", sums up the piece so much I would like you to refrain from actually clicking on the link to read it. I only included it out of completeness, and deference to the possibility that, otherwise, the Guardian legal team might hire a sniffer dog to lick my sensitive spleen.
To recap the tidbit in even more tiddly-bitty form: Neil Boorman. Label obsessed. Identified himself with label. Burned it all. Good on him?
I would like to briefly examine why so many people express antipathy, or even open disgust, at his actions, and offer my own understanding of his sad pathology. Shopping as a means to buy status, to buy self, is a horrible idea and we should all be terrified to think that it may happen. Perhaps trying to illuminate this case could help us find out more.

Let's start from the beginning - why did he do it?
"As a former editor of youth lifestyle magazines, I had caught a glimpse of the inner workings of advertising and marketing, and found some practices distasteful. Furthermore, I felt rather cheap that I had used my position to champion these brands, almost as if they were gods. So in order to cleanse this addiction and highlight some concerns surrounding advertising and consumerism, I vowed to burn all my stuff and start again, brand free."
Let's go further back, like Freud on cocaine: At junior school, I tried to make friends with the popular kids, only to be ridiculed for the lack of stripes on my trainers. In the absence of parents who smacked him with a Faberge egg for crapping on the seat of a Rolls Royce while on a marathon journey to Blackpool, while he wore family heirlooms handed down from the personal wardrobe of Sir Walter Raleigh, this will do to tame the wild beast that is Sigmund's pharmaceutically-fuelled id. Back, you sex-obsessed drug-peddler, back I say.
Here we have it: addicted to brands, champion of said brands as 'a lifestyle', now against consumerism, ridiculed as a kid for not wearing the right trainers.

Now, why is he addicted to brands?
"Being the gullible fool that I am, I believed in the promises that these brands made to me; that I would be more attractive, more successful, more happy for buying their stuff."

Finally, why burn his expensive labeled stuff?
"To the casual observer, burning £20,000 worth of expensive designer gear to cinders in a central London park might not seem like the wisest of actions. For lifestyle journalist Neil Boorman, this ritualistic, highly public destruction of his worldly possessions was a pivotal moment, one that formed the jump-off for his first book, Bonfire of the Brands. ‘I realised that not just my professional life, but my personal life as well was completely dominated by brands,’ Boorman explains. ‘I think I had some kind of weird disorder, which I call “obsession branding disorder”. I had to rip it up and start again.’"

This is a man who self-identifies as a brandaddict, progresses to be a brandpusher, and then burns the past to make himself anew as a brand new man. Sorry, couldn't resist.
Here is the news-friendly story - brand-whore helps brands take over the 'lifestyles' of the young, sees the error of his ways, and repents publicly to teach us all a lesson. Thanks, Neil!
And then writes a book. Er, great.
And then gets a career out of it. Hmm... wait a minute!

Let us try to steer a course between sober analysis and jealousy. We can't simply object to this as a case of Neil 're-branding' himself as an anti-brand crusader, using all he has learnt simultaneously against his old 'lifestyle' and for a new (and probably much improved) one, although it is tempting. It behooves us to look again at the evidence.

Let us, again, start from the beginning - why did he do it?
Well, when he said that he wanted to fit in with cool kids with labeled clothes, he was omitting part of the truth. In the Guardian article, he abandons his sister at a school disco: "I'll never forget the look of disappointment she gave me as I abandoned her in the disco for my friends. All evening, I could feel her watching me as I joined in the bullying and taunts my friends gave the unfortunate kids with 'square' clothes."
This is not just about being cool, it is about being accepted by the bullies and finding some defence from their cruel jibes. He is not just finding acceptance from the right clothes, but status as a kid who is over and above other kids, who is superior, who can laugh at them for their 'Oxfam' shoes. To me, this is a major difference from what he states elsewhere. This sin of omission is not just about minor detail, adding in the evidence reconstructs the whole reasoning for being brand obsessed.
Now, when Neil says "I believed in the promises that these brands made to me; that I would be more attractive, more successful, more happy..." I am not sure that it is really the marketing that makes him believe this. It is his own weakness, which was evident at an early age and succumbed to at an early age - he readily took on the identity of the aggressors in order to consciously side with them, and against the 'squares', including his own sister. It was not an ad that made him buy cool trainers, it was dickheads in a playground that laughed at him for not spending his parents' money on shit.

Now, why is he really addicted to brands?
"By the time I reached my 20s, the power to gain acceptance, and in turn grant acceptance to others, had begun to preoccupy my adult life. It's not unreasonable to say that my own sense of self-worth now depended on maintaining and exerting this power... one particular brand has remained a permanent fixture throughout my life: Adidas, a German sportswear company that has been the unofficial clothing brand of black American music since the early 70s."
He still wishes to maintain a bully-like position at the top of the pecking order, gaining and also granting the badge of identity to an elite club to others. That he chooses to do this through the clothing brand of ' black American music since the early 70s' just highlights the idiocy. Let's look rich and filled with status by ghetto-styling. Let us mimic people who come from a far less privileged background. Doesn't that just show how rich and clever we are? Afterwards let's drink champagne while eating fish and chips wrapped in newspaper, what?
It is also evident that he has problems in other areas: "at the age of 23, I realised that I had developed a problem with alcohol." Whether this is because of an 'addictive personality' - which I do not think exists - or because of a pervading sense of futility in his life (it certainly comes across, Neil!), he is not just 'addicted' to brands. He is, in general, unable to fill his life up with anything but over-consumption. He has not tried to buttress his status and identity with brands, he has fully accepted that brands become his whole identity because he has never tried to be anything else. Brands have not ruined him, in my reading of the scant evidence I have, he has chosen to identify wholly with a branded 'lifestyle' in order to avoid being anybody.
Harsh? Perhaps, but then again I'm just reacting to an article I read in a newspaper, it's not like I've known him for 20 years and am now selling a kiss-and-tell story to the Sun. So get off my back, will you, I have Freud caged up under my stairs and he's hungry for some psychoanalysin'.

Finally, and really finally, why burn his expensive labeled stuff?
Neil obviously felt that the brands were preying on him, getting in the way of himself expressing whatever he was authentically - that he had a disorder that the brand-makers themselves intensified.
I do not think so.
It is not the brands that are the problem. Who really gives a crap, as Neil starts to, that toothpaste is labeled as so by Colgate, or a TV as so by Grundy, or a washing machine as so by Ariston? Sure, a world without these big names plastered everywhere would be better, but that does not mean that you shouldn't brush your teeth. It is simply that Neil has to rid himself of all this stuff, as if they corrupt him.
It is obvious that the brands have not corrupted him. At every step of this sad little journey, it is Neil himself who has had a terrible desire to set himself apart from other human beings and mock them for not exhalting in consumption. It is he who identified with the bullies and adopted their way of life. I am quite sure that if the bullies had discriminated against others based on race or sexuality rather than purchases, Neil would never have become so hopelessly Adidas-obsessed.
No, Neil is not addicted to brands, he is addicted to feeling superior - and through purchasing expensive items is way he has learned to be superior. "Adidas" is not his lifestyle, quite obviously he has not emulated the existence of a 1970s black rapper living in an American slum. His lifestyle is, actually, "I wear Adidas, I spend lots of money on this, and you don't". He never believed in "the promises that these brands made to me; that I would be more attractive [etc.]" - he only believed that this was what brands were supposed to mean. He only ever believed that he was setting himself apart from other people, becoming an authority in his area and trying to find people that he could use this against.

Many people chide Neil for creating a public display of destroying this stuff. Not only does he turn his back on the past and commit to doing better, he also cannily recreates himself as a no-brand guru - a living brand for a post-brand and 'ethical consumer' society.
If he had simply given his crap into Oxfam, he would not have had the opportunity to say, "look at me! I am, in a totally new and now authentic way, better than most people!" If I am in a small way right (and I do not expect to be even that, I'm just leveling my own prejudices and experiences against a man I have never met and will almost certainly never meet), if I am in a small way right, then Neil feels quite a lot like he did before his bonfire. He feels wholly and undoubtedly better than other people, for they do not act in the way that he does. Plus, he makes dosh telling them all about it!



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