„Am I shallow, cuz all my clothes designer?“ Kanye West asks, rapping in Estelle’s hit single „American Boy“. What can be seen as a pompous hip hop claim, not to be taken too seriously, was the question that started an identity crisis for Neil Boorman. One day something became clear to him that has become clear to most of us by the time we pass puberty: that we live in a day and age, completely controlled, decorated, catered by and to brands. Everything is advertising, everything is trademarked, and, at least in our western world, everything is capitalism. And then Mr. Boorman took a closer look in the mirror and realized that he was no longer a free man, but rather a vehicle for others to exploit him. He had become a victim of the brands.
Neil Boorman is a thirty-three year old journalist living in London. Before his turn as a freelance writer, he enjoyed a nice editor position coordinating marketing deals for a lifestyle magazine. He is in a long-term relationship, seemingly well-to-do and, at least on the surface, appears to be the distilled representation of the new yuppie. Not unlikable, until you find out that Boorman is so caught up in his shallow lifestyle, that if you ran into him at a party, the first thing he’d be doing is „looking at the label of your jeans, glancing at your shoes, eyeing up your mobile phone. These are the things that really tell me who you are.“ So he writes in his autobiographical account „Bonfire of the Brands“. Because soon after Boorman realized he was preoccupied with names, brands and surface beauty, he realized he needed a drastic change.
The psychological signs of a full fledged addiction include using the drug of choice to forget reality, changes in social interactions so that time is only spent with people who share one’s addiction and being preoccupied with trying to conjure up more of the drug. Boorman’s brand-mania falls right into these patterns, a worrisome conclusion that he draws right at the beginning of his de-branding experiment.
„Throughout my life, I have carved out a sense of self through a series of artificial relationships with brands, and while this has afforded me acceptance in peer groups and opportunities in my career, it is becoming apparent that it has not provided me with a sustainable form of contentment.“
The reformed alcoholic, who had to beat the battle with drink in his early twenties, finds himself once again fighting his addictive personality ten years later. The battle of the brands is on. In a fit of what can only be described as a mixture of helplessness and the need for catharsis, Boorman decides that the only way to escape his empty, trademarked life, is to start again, from a blank slate. So he dreams up the grand scheme of destroying all of his belongings in an elaborately staged bonfire. Claiming, that the need to do it in public comes from the need to excorcise his demons and make amends with society, he creates an elaborate media frenzy once he announces his plans. Six months to prepare and to wean himself of his need for names, the great bonfire, and then a new, completely brand-free lifestyle. All conveniently chronicled on a blog with the book-rights safely secured.
While moderation may not be the key to breaking an addiction, it is the key to a balanced and healthy lifestyle. In the case of Boorman vs. brands, all considerations for this principle are abandoned, and he begins a journey of complete renewal. Slowly, everything in his apartment and on his body gets added to the „to burn“ pile – from the obvious, like Adidas sneakers and Ralp Lauren polo shirts, to the more vital, such as brandname toothpaste, toiletpaper and household goods. Boorman draws no line between luxury or frivolous branded goods and essential branded items. Everything with a name, including store-brands, must go. No chain stores were to be frequented during this experiment – not even the operating system on his laptop was allowed to display its maker’s name. Is he making a point? Yes. Is it reasonable? No.
Like many reformed smokers who cringe at the sight of someone else lighting up and beginning a lecture on what saved them from nicotine, Boorman becomes an extremist in his own right. Instead of giving away his belongings to charity, he reinstates over and over that they must be destroyed. Instead of making economical decisions that include conceding and going to the store around the corner, he only visits the weekly farmer’s market. Instead of popping in to a deli and grabbing a candy bar when hungry, he starves himself and wanders around until he finds an unbranded apple. He becomes a martyr to his own project, a greater victim to brands, or the lack thereof, than even before. He doesn’t seem to realize the hypocrasy in his project – becoming much like the anorexic who is obsessed with food but doesn’t allow himself to have any.
„Saturday afternoons are hell. Without the shopping, I feel nervous, twitchy, redundant; like a lad who returns from the army to Civvy Street, only the battle I crave is to consume as much as I can see.“
While Boorman’s book and blog are amusing reads, the sheer unreasonableness of his ideas outweighs his charms as a writer. Over and over he equates brands with „evil“, which in many cases can be true, but it’s certainly not the axiom he hopes to establish. While some companies certainly position themselves in a controlling way, some companies are just that. Companies that put a name on a product they are selling in order to discern it from their competitiors. If that is the problem, then Boorman needs to write an expose on the evils of capitalism. But those seemingly don’t affect the author much, as he is more than happy to import no-name clothing from all over the world. Sure, an outfit doesn’t have to be „tagged“ head to toe, but there is something to be said for the fact that one can look at the label in one’s shirt and tell you where it was made and most likely by whom (sweatshop or not). In Boorman’s brand-haven, there are no guarantees, no paper trails. Something that seems enticing at first, but perhaps isn’t so economical or beneficial upon second glance.
But even if one were to manage to find a way to live a life completely brand-free, based on local suppliers, the sheer cost of it all would be exponential. Boorman fails to admit this fact, making it seem like the costliness of his trips to the organic market are nothing compared to how much he spent on his Louis Vuitton ties. True, but he is quite literally comparing apples with oranges. It would have been far more interesting had he invested some time in trying to expose why it is that people with a median income are completely dependent on brands. Or why things like „organic“ and „local“ have become brands in their own way.
While the motives and execution may be questionable, Boorman’s main idea surely is commendable. But the question remains: Can a single person fight an entire society? And is branding perhaps an intrinsically human trait, something that we do as part of our nature and that can never be eradicated? And just on an economic basis, aren’t there a few things we can agree on, like the fact that some luxury cars are better built than their cheap counterparts or that designer clothing is made of higher quality materials than that made in sweatshops? Are we really bad people if sometimes we make choices to indulge in a „name“ because for us it is the better option, the one we want to treat ourselves to?
Boorman’s „battle of the brands“ is drawn up like a manifesto for a revolution of living brand free. But the ideas, like so often, look good on paper yet can’t be translated into a realistic, affordable, healthy lifestyle. And in truth, this is not the battle of Boorman versus his branded goods at all. It is the battle of a man against his inner demons, against his dark desires and against the realisation that he spent a great deal of his life focusing entirely on the wrong things.
„I am not entirely sure that the advertising industry deliberately sets out to undermine the confidence of the consumer, but the by-product of this relentless drive to purchase contentment undoubtedly damages vulnerable people such as me as a result. I am not sure this damage is a fair price to pay for a thriving economy.“