Neil Gaiman recently wrote about his uncertainty regarding a proposal to write a short story which would feature some kind of product placement. He has worked with corporations before on creative projects, he already enjoys the proposed product, and to boot, he has mentioned this product before in a previous work. Yet he writes, “Now I’m trying to figure out why that would have felt like crossing a line in the way that the Nokia phone (which, if I were writing it today, would be an iPhone) in the first chapter of American Gods does not. And what that line is. And why it troubles me.”
I agree that there is a distinction between including a product in one’s art and being paid, and including a product in one’s art and being paid by the product maker. But I’m not writing this post to dissect and judge Mr. Gaiman’s decisions. If it isn’t obvious already, I have little patience for moralizing, particularly that of the armchair variety. I’m writing because Mr. Gaiman’s questioning made me think more about the role of brands and the stories we tell ourselves.
Stories are essentially lies we tell each other because they contain very important truths. Truths about what it means to be human, to exist. And the most compelling stories contain truths that invite us to expand our imaginations. To push beyond our boundaries. To feel more, to know more, to be more.
Brand stories purport to do the same thing. They are engineered with terrifying accuracy to make people more than who they are without the brand. Consume the product and you consume the brand; consume the brand and you assimilate its transcendent qualities. It’s the late capitalist version of eating a god.
The thing about brand stories however, is that unlike other kinds of stories, they contain one common truth that trumps all other truths they might contain. And the ultimate truth of a brand story, of all brand stories, is the collapsing of reality, even the experience of reality, into commodities, things. In this way, the telling of a brand story is always an act of reduction, an exercise in alienation from reality.
There is another important point to consider. The most powerful brand stories, the ones with the most longevity and influence, do not derive their strength from containing a multitude of truths. The most powerful brand stories are those that are so successful in couching their ultimate reductive truth behind layers of weaker truths, that you are compelled to become an active participant in the act of commodifying reality; you in fact, desire this.
Which now brings us to Mr. Gaiman’s proposal. What of stories that are not brand stories, but are influenced by (or “engage with”) brands in some way? The lies writers tell us must contain truths after all, and the truth is, in many places in the world, we live in a brand sponsored reality. We live in times where brands are dominating our landscapes and brand stories are colonizing our minds. We may associate branding with marketing and commerce, but its truth has long since seeped into other areas of our lives. Not-for-profit organizations are branded. Political campaigns are branded. Public services are branded. We even talk about branding ourselves. So who among us can say that brand stories have not in some way shaped our imaginations, our dreams, our desires, our very identities? What does it mean when more and more of the stories that we tell to explore the complexity of human experience are influenced by one reductive, alienating truth?
Maybe the reason why Mr. Gaiman is so troubled is not because there is something potentially untrue and compromising in being paid by a product maker to place its product in his next short story. Maybe he is troubled because for this day and age, as we grant more space and more power to brand stories, his product placement story could very well be one of the truest things he’ll ever write.