- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 16, 2003

By Alissa Quart
Perseus, $25, 239 pages

Some books are so awful that you hesitate to review them, both for the sake of the trees and because there's too much good work that never gets the attention it deserves. After crafting several introductions to this review, each so nasty as to be embarrassing, I decided to chuck it. Then I realized that I'd slipped back into my professorial persona, and was dealing with a very bright, very talented young person who was capable of so much more. Maybe speaking to her plainly (something teachers rarely attempt nowadays, for fear of self-esteem complaints, lawsuits, and worse) might motivate.
I could be wrong. If "Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers," is intended primarily for that self-obsessed market, then it doesn't really matter what the grownups think. The royalties are elsewhere. And if Alissa Quart's goal is to profiteer off the phenomenon she purports to condemn an old stratagem then so be it. But if Ms. Quart, a thirty-something product of Brown University and the New York free-lance scene, wants to be taken seriously by the adults, and wants to do something about the glitzy, manipulative, soul-corroding ugliness she describes … she'll need to do better, and more.
She hasn't done her homework. This book is about Now, but the general phenomena she describes go back at least a century, and have been well documented by historians as diverse as Daniel Boorstin, Jackson Lears, and Stuart Ewen. Nor does she seem aware of the gent who started the popular shtick: Vance Packard. Nearly 50 years ago, "The Hidden Persuaders" established the "tsk tsk tsk outrageous but ain't it all really clever and deep down ain't we glad we got this stuff?" advertising/marketing expose format. You'll find hundreds of them on the library shelf.
Nor does Ms. Quart show much familiarity with the present literature. A few works and experts are mentioned en passant, but her book contains neither bibliography nor notes. Her approach is impressionistic, a pastiche of whatever bits and shards of evidence she has acquired, including rather too often her personal experiences way back in the '80s. She rambles and rattles, and many of the chapters seem to end when she runs out of material, or interest, or time. Deadlines also have a way of befuzzing the mind.
About whom does she rattle and ramble? Mostly an assortment of people and phenomena she's encountered. The teenagers who gleefully sell or donate their services as corporate trendspotters, consultants, and participants in "peer to peer" marketing. The teens who define themselves and all others by the brands they obsessively consume. The hypertrophic "body branding," leading to female anorexia, male bulk-ups and buffery, and cosmetic plastic surgery. The over-lavish bar/bat mitzvahs (So what else is new?) and equally gaudy quinceaneras, Hispanic "Sweet 15" parties for girls. "Logo U" what it takes to get into a "brand name university." Trashy, self-obsessed, "How I Lost It" and "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" books written by teens for teens. The whole teen movie genre, you know, like, "Clueless."
The Shopping Mall as Will and Idea.
And worst of all, the corporate predators, hooking the kids ever younger, destroying the innocence of youth (itself a concept less than three centuries old) and turning children into lifelong brand obsessives. This stuff is real. It grows ever more intensive and extreme. And it involves far more than some genuinely revolting quotations and the "Golden Marbles Awards" for kiddie commercials.
Creating lifelong consumption addicts, squeezing four-year-olds into the mold, and pushing the advertising porno envelope, are mega-billion bucks affairs. But Ms. Quart's condemnations, which she sprinkles through the book like the voice of some ancient tragic chorus, seem both shallow and pro forma. Finally, "Branded" appears less an indictment or a serious study than a catalogue, rather like Vance Packard's second bestseller, "The Status Seekers" he taught you how to do it while condemning it.
"Branded" ends oddly, with an invocation of the post-September 11 exhortation to save the country by going shopping (FDR tried a similar tack in 1933), a few snippets of adolescent rebellion, and a vague notation about "evidence that some among Generation Y have not taken the merchandising of their minds, bodies, and subjectivities lightly. They are willing to fight back."
Great, except that fighting back means still defining yourself in relation to the brands. Perhaps the best way to deal with Marketing Madness isn't resistance. It's a quality known to the Stoics as "indifference."
An issue, perhaps, to be explored in Ms. Quart's next book. Which I hope to praise as the greatest thing since sliced yogurt.
Dannon Sliced Yogurt, of course.

Philip Gold is a Seattle-based writer and author of "Advertising, Politics and American Culture: From Salesmanship to Therapy."

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