What the actual F is “Branded Content”?

I’ve learned some interesting things during my recent job search.

If you are a filmmaker looking for a job in the nation’s largest city, you’ll find on an average about 5 job listings a month for ‘filmmaker’ at your typical job-posting website. 3 of those will be misspelled searches for people who know how to use ‘Filemaker,’ a piece of databasing software. 1 of those options is to volunteer as a tutor for a range of arts, including filmmaking, and the last 1 of those 5 is to be a ‘manager’ that knows ‘how to talk to filmmakers.’

If you’re a painter, your job options solely involve covering walls or cars, never canvases. If you’re a sculptor, the single job open to you at this moment of searching is as a ‘digital sculptor,’ whatever that is. Unlikely that clay, wood, or metal gets involved.

This goes on and on for artists in lots of disciplines. But if you broaden the search a little, to just ‘artist’ or ‘writer,’ for example, you will discover a lot more options. None of these will be making art, though. You can be an ‘art director,’ or a ‘production artist.’ The actual job of being an artist simply doesn’t exist.

Now this probably seems unsurprising, and many folks might hear that and respond ‘of course, because being an artist isn’t a job.’ And that’s an understandable, if deeply conditioned, bias. My question is: why is that? What is the rigging in our economy that makes even pointing this out seem hopelessly naive? Why isn’t being a painter, a filmmaker, a sculptor, or anything else a job in itself?

True, it may become a job for the very few who independently translate their creative work into market success — for those who make it. This is a highly tenuous and an extraordinarily scarce reality, on the order of being struck by lightning (not odds any art school’s career services or alumni association would admit to). The bigger question is why doesn’t every company, every business, every institution have openings for artists as artists? Artists who might not be famous, artists who might not have name recognition, artists who simply make art, day in and day out? We’re all so predisposed to be dismissive of the real value of art that just asking such a question sounds childish and silly.

That’s not to say there aren’t jobs for artists. Only that those jobs are never to make art (which a big part of what artists do). In studying the job market for roles adjacent to or aligned with the skills of the artist, there is one thing that keeps bubbling up on a regular basis. It seems that we filmmakers (and painters, and illustrators, and sculptors, and everything else) have plenty of opportunities to make something called “branded content.”

Lots of folks know what this is, or pretend to. But those folks have not properly paused to turn this piece of newspeak gobbledygook around in their hand and really understand what a radioactive turd-concept it truly is.

Branded content” (editors note: in this essay, this linguistic chimera shall never merit escape from the confinement of my repulsed quotation marks) is essentially advertising. So why don’t we just call it advertising?

To be more fine about it, “branded content” is the pseudo-cultural material of the advertising ecosystem — the ads, the posters, the social media, the promotional films, the commercials, the merchandise, the clothing, the texts, the attitudes. Everything that might once have made up a part of the fabric of human culture but which is now focused on the promotion of corporate and commercial identity.

And while advertising has been around for ages, “branded content” was apparently first fused together, writhing and wretched in its vague antipoetry, only in the mid-eighties, in an article in PC Magazine of all places. There’s a lot to unpack there. First of all, when did we begin to allow ’80s editions of PC Magazine serve as the wellspring of our language?

Advertising, as we shall see, has been changing its name for generations, ostensibly trying on new sheep’s clothing on a regular basis. It’s telling that it was within the the vocabulary of the emergent digital revolution that Advertising devised to put on its latest mask. (As Orwell foretold, our new social hierarchies were codified in language, and it wasn’t even done by coerced poets.) This time, it was the prevailing metaphors of computer programmers that would inform the disguise, for the idea of culture as “content” is something that has become native to the programmer-think that now dominates our society. Creative practitioners — artists — never made ‘content’ before this.

“Content” fills containers. Containers are stored on “platforms.” Keep building platforms, and you can keep storing more containers, but it’s only worth doing if you’ve got “content” to put in there. It doesn’t matter if you need the contents of those containers — you just keep filling them with whatever you have on hand. Computers are amazing, look at all the platforms they can put up! But to what end? To store more content!

The other thing about containers is that there’s no use having them if you don’t fill them up. And so, contrary to cultural production, ‘content production’ is not vital; we make and say things simply to fill containers.

Content. Photo by Matt Briney on Unsplash

As speculation in digital technology has driven the modern economy, there are all these empty containers, more every day — and the creative impulse and energy of artists is channeled into filling them. Artists aren’t even considered useful for making art any more; it’s much more productive if we can make “content.” And the overheated engine of consumer capitalism, cranked into perpetual frenzy by the accelerant of Advertising, gives that “content” its purpose: “Branded content.” Container-filling in the name of ever-increasing sales. (And don’t even get started on how artists energies have been fed the amphetamine of ‘productivity,’ a cult to which we’ve all been initiated and which is killing us swiftly as thanks.)

To be accurate, the Container paradigm of modern (especially media) culture has been one with an evolution, for before there were platforms upon which to place our containers of content, there were channels in which to pour it. Some of us may remember when there were only three of them, plus the movie studios… And then there were 500, and ever more content needed to fill those rivers which went from flowing for 14 hours on to flowing around the clock.

Each of these steps in the accelerated demand for ‘content’ and ultimately “branded content” would seem to be economically beneficial for the creative practitioners — artists, filmmakers, and so on — who became charged with filling these channels and saturating these platforms. But just like the frustrated artists who sold their souls to Madison Avenue in the fiction of Mad Men, the artists expending their creative energies in the service of salesmanship through the 20th and into the 21st Century are captives of an industry the appetite of which only grows by the day. There’s no time to even be a Sunday painter anymore, let alone a weeknight painter who might stand a chance of developing a creative process that can turn into meaningful (non-commercial) culture. Ultimately, the demands of commerce — of the ‘brandedness’ of modern culture — ensures that those who would give us art are now unable to give us anything other than “content.”

In Present Shock, Douglas Rushkoff uses the water metaphor in describing our modern conception of time as ponds or streams. In ponds, where time moves slowly or not at all, such as within the covers of an encyclopedia or the stacks of a library, it is deep and still, and culture (literally) can grow, like plants, algae, small creatures ready to grow and emerge onto land. In Rushkoff’s streams, the water moves fast and nothing can grow in it — but it’s usually cold and refreshing and who doesn’t want to splash their toes in there for a bit?

A stock photograph to make you think about time and culture. Photo by Chloé Lam on Unsplash

It’s a valuable analogy for culture or time, but it’s also one worth interrogating. For before our present era of technologically amped-up capitalism, back when everything was a pond, and culture and commerce were perhaps distinguishable from each other, how might we have envisioned our culture? This is an open question.

Maybe besides a liquid in which we could be immersed — or which we could hold in a cup and sip from at our leisure (from the platform of our choice) — perhaps our culture was something different entirely. Something that bound us together, like a fabric, a textile, something interwoven, shareable, protective of the bodies within it. There are other metaphors once applicable to human culture, and thinking of culture in those frames gives us other ideas about what culture can be. And thinking about what culture can be, and then weaving it thread by thread, or building it up brick by brick — these are really the artists’ job.

“Branded content,” after all, is not about binding us or connecting us, it is about persuading us. And this comes back for me to some open-ended moral questions about the nature of persuasion itself. A nagging, lifelong little humbug voice that I’ve been encouraged by everyone to ignore: the idea that advertising may actually be fundamentally amoral.

I’ve described how ‘branded content’ is a computer-age neologism for advertising, actually coined to describe how advertisers were strategically approaching the emergent empty spaces of the internet. Sixty years earlier, another method of persuasion ‘re-branded’ itself, when Edward Bernays came to America after successfully shaping government and commercial propaganda campaigns in Europe. He observed that the term propaganda itself was weighted with negative associations in America, and nobody here wanted to be caught propagandizing, even if it was only to sell more hats. Americans saw propaganda as a tool of authoritarian regimes, not friendly commercial enterprise.

Propaganda on the left. Public Relations on the right.

So Bernays’ first ‘re-branding’ was for branding itself; he changed his title from propagandist to public relations expert, and PR was born.

Two or three times in a century, persuaders have had to change their sheep’s clothing. So what is it about selling things (or ideas) that must be kept hidden? Whether it’s called propaganda, PR, advertising, or ‘branded content,’ the substance of salesmanship and persuasion seems inclined to hide behind new vagaries and constant renaming.

It’s not just the act of selling that keeps changing its name — there’s also a constant reimagining of the humans to whom things are being sold (you and I). From ‘customers’ or ‘clients’ a half century ago to more frequently ‘consumers’ and ‘users’ today. The use of these terms to conceive of the people with whom we’re engaging constitutes a continuing process of dehumanization.

Do the practitioners of public persuasion feel compelled to perennially change their name (and their name for us) because there is an implicit understanding of an inhumanity in selling? Their economic existence relies on the public’s connection, engagement, and faith in the stories they tell, and yet their conception of the public is of an open maw of consumption that must never be allowed to be satisfied. The basic premise of commercial persuasion is to tell people the need something, and then to provide just less than that. There is something deeply profane about that, in the sense that ideas — as a most sacred substance of humanity — are something that should not be sold through means of manipulation and coercion, and that the deliberate nonfulfillment of a known human need is very possibly amoral.

Photo by Cris Tagupa on Unsplash

I’ve always felt assaulted by signage, billboards, taxi-cab commercial screens, any unsolicited message of persuasion that is thrust into my view. It’s impossible to unsee them; they interrupt and disregard one’s own thoughts, and never for anything more constructive than to erode my dignity and shout down my individual agency. It has certainly always felt like being advertised at and being bullied were one and the same — but to say so out loud is a heresy in the midst of the spectacle of contemporary human existence.

Selling is, among other things, an assertion of a hierarchical relationship between two parties: I have something that you do not, but if you can come up with a suitable price then we can meet in the middle, fulfilling your needs and mine. Built into the buyer/seller relationship is the possibility of balance; however in our spectacle culture where the selling never stops, and the manufacture of desire is the primary industry of the persuaders, this promise of balance is an illusion. More like a dollar bill tied to a string, kept just away from the grasp of a rube stumbling down the street.

How have we all come to inhabit a culture that is so deeply rooted in the dehumanization of one another, where the selling of a just-out-of-reach happiness is the primary engine of our economy, and those who are doing the selling are clearly in disguise. History suggests they wear the disguise out of necessity, they shape and re-shape our language and bend the paradigms of our social understanding in ways to conceal a basic, fundamental disregard for humanity or the potential wholeness of people. Perhaps it’s my current immersion in job boards and the corporatized purgatory of LinkedIn and ‘entrepreneurialism culture’ that makes it feel like a wild tilt at windmills to even consider such a line of thought. Or perhaps there’s an ocean of mass-delusion about the harm we’re all doing to one another that is so deep and wide that from the middle of it, the edges are far from view.

I believe it is the successful economic and political subjugation of artists that has allowed such a spirit of domination to take over — because it is our set of literacies, our skills, and our methods that have proven most effective in building cultures that connect humans. Economic leverage is held by a class of people who would rather employ artists to fill containers of portable ‘content’ that is primarily made to sell things, persuade people, and stoke relentless commercial engagement, and by containing artists’ connective abilities within the agendas of “branded content,” they have replaced human culture with infinite salesmanship.

Left to their own instincts, artists might weave together the material of connective culture; but under the pressures of the marketplace we’ve got little choice but to ‘build brands’ and keep the buckets of ‘content’ fresh and full at all times. What leverage do we possible have to say no? How does a class of artists, conditioned by our own education to believe in the economic irrelevance of our abilities offer a completely alternative model of what human civilization can be? Instead it’s ‘get a job.’ But for an artist to be an artist, there simply aren’t any.*

We do know there is more to life than buying and selling. There is more to do as an artist than to ‘brand’ the world and churn out ‘content’. Even if, at times in the middle of the day, it might take a minute to clear our head and heart and actually remember what those things are…

It might seem unfair to charge artists who are employed in this system with complicity in its cruelty, as party to bullying and dehumanization. But I think it’s essential that first we acknowledge the extraordinary power artists wield.

Artists are the producers of human culture itself, the wellsprings of some of the most fundamental and essential forms of human knowledge. We’re ‘A.I’ that’s been doing it for 10,000 years already. Acknowledging that potential for power, do we accept the responsibility for how that is put to work in the world? Or do we tell ourselves that the commodification of our knowledge-producing potential is really harmless?

It may seem like an impractically radical stance to take to argue that as humanity’s primary producers of cultural knowledge, artists have a responsibility not to participate in and give life to work that is essentially anti-human, and acultural. The possibility that advertising, among other industries, is a sink into which the energies, sensitivities, and productive abilities of artists are captured and sapped means that an enormous sector of modern cultural production is due for an overthrow.

Something like this is, of course, in itself a cultural process and not a political one: there can’t be a single Bastille Day where the millions of artists caught in the seductive arms of their careers in ‘branded content’ suddenly seize the means of production and begin to fulfill their potential as whole humans. But perhaps there can be more attention paid to the conflict of interest, more discussion to agitate those feelings often harbored deep in an artists’ heart that they’re doing more harm than good in leveraging their abilities to just sell stuff, to deceive, and to weave fabricated narratives about corporate identities…

Artists first must be allowed an art education that recognizes the full, overwhelming power and potential inherent in the artist. Not a power to persuade or decorate consumer propaganda, or even a power to achieve individual glory in an arts marketplace (its own kind of dominance). But a power to connect, to grow cultures, to activate social possibilities that weren’t there before.

At the same time, there is work to be done by the ‘client’ class — those who hire artists, who channel those energies into their own commercial agendas.

Can it be made clear how the time they draw away from artists’ creative practice is like the diversion of a river away from a drought-stricken valley? While inhuman and anti-human forces overwhelm our society in politics, in economics, in culture, we keep hearing about the search for ways to counterbalance it, to create ‘meaning’ in our culture, to restore something of civility or dignity.

Here’s what you can do: stop selling stuff all the time.

Stop trying to persuade everyone to buy, to believe, to follow your ‘brand.’ When you post a job for the production of still more ‘branded content,’ consider not only the culturally-destructive paradigm embedded in that term, but the economic thumb under which you’re holding artists.

If you have employed artists to fill your content containers for you, double their pay and cut their work hours in half. Set them free, enable them to fulfill their potential, which is transformative. Stop feeding the antihuman tropes of the ‘starving artist’ or the Sunday painter. It’s not just about money and economic sustenance; it’s also about liberating their capacities for thought, creation, and cultural production.

Every new economic direction is a gamble, and it’s the resilience of humanity that makes it somehow work. But we’re deeply immersed in one that’s cruel, painful, hierarchical, and frankly unsustainable. We might as well try something different.

Kill ‘branded content.’ Let’s see if the world really falls apart without it.

*Artists are not alone in possessing a deeply human skillset that is generally co-opted for the persuasion of potential consumers. All those who take an interest in the study of their fellow humans, of our behaviors and our tendencies and our flaws will find few economically viable opportunities other than to sharpen the efficacy of advertising. Anthropologists, psychologists, and social scientists have seen their study of human behavior wrapped up and re-branded as ‘user experience,’ or even more horrifyingly, “UX.” It leaves one to wonder, is there any application of the study of human behavior besides getting better at selling each other things?

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Andrew Freiband

Andrew Freiband

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Filmmaker, Teacher, Researcher, Founder and Director of the Artists Literacies Institute (artistsliteracies.org)