For more information about Royal Holloway, please see this promotional video. To see a promotional video for the MA Consumption, Markets & Culture see here. To see a promotional video for the Royal Holloway School of Management, click here.

For more information about the Royal Holloway MA Marketing and MA Consumption, Culture & Marketing and the application process see here.

To get an understanding of the unique values that underly the MA Marketing and MA Consumption, Culture & Marketing programme please read these blog posts: Value of Scholarly Values, Importance of Reading and Morris Holbrook and Business Interest in Education.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Binge Drinking- a Very British Pleasure

The excessive fondness of the British, especially young British, for 'binge' drinking, has excited the UK media for some years now. No Christmas can pass without stories splashed of city centre mayhem, images of drunken girls tottering on six inch heels, wearing little apart from a pair of bunny ears, and vomiting into her handbag.

Most media coverage tends to condemn this behaviour in a tone of moral outrage, blaming the demon drink on all manner of social, health and psychological harms. As well it might.

Unusually, there is an upcoming media piece on the pleasures of intoxication, details here

I'll be talking about my research into young people and alcohol on Laurie Taylor's BBC Radio 4 show Thinking Allowed. With fellow studio guests Fiona Measham and Jim Mills, Laurie takes us on a trip (pun intended) through various forms of intoxication past and present. If you're feeling a little queasy by 4PM on Boxing Day, this will be the ideal listening experience.

A few more details on the content can be found here        

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Media Coverage of Research

There has been some media reporting on some of my research into background music that I did with Morris Holbrook. Click through the images to access the stories.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Photographs from Marketing and Fantasy Event

Dominique Bouchet of University of Southern Denmark

John Desmond of University of St Andrews 

James Fitchett of University of Leicester

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Marketing and Fantasy

Marketing and Fantasy 
December 6, 7:00 MX-01

"We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams"
Arthur O'Shaugnessy

In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Willy Wonka, marketing maestro, quotes O'Shaugnessy and reminds us that the ultimate dream-makers of today are the marketers who inhabit our lives with rich and hedonistic spectacles of make-believe and fantasy. Advertising typically depicts fantastical situations of adventure and conquest and encourages consumers to use these fantasies to develop their own identities. As Colin Campbell wrote in his seminal Romanticism and the Spirit of Consumerism, consumption is often a world of day-dreaming and yearning and we need to get closer to the world of Walter Mitty - that fictitious day-dreamer- to engage more directly with the spirit of consumption. 

Fantasy, of course, is a complicated phenomenon and has received much attention from psychologists  The world of the phantasmagorical is of particular importance for psychoanalytic understandings of our mental architecture as it blends together unconscious desires and fears with the conscious experience of the everyday. As Sigmund Freud argued at the close of the 19th century, it is through the interpretation of dreams that we can best encounter the underlying forces that structure our lives and experiences. More recently, Jacques Lacan emphasises the realm of the imaginative as structuring our sense of reality alongside the symbolic and the real. Therefore in this instance we see a convergence of interest between marketers and psychologists into the imaginative realm. 

Advertisers frequently rely on fantasy to sell products. 

Of course if the world of imagination partly structures the everyday and if marketing throws its industrial might towards expanding our imaginative capacity, how real is the rest of our lives? As depicted in hit movies like Fight Club and the Matrix, disentangling the real from the imaginative from the symbolic and indeed the simulacra becomes an increasingly difficult conundrum that, in turn, gives rise to its own secondary level of fantasy.

On December 6 at Royal Holloway at 7:00 in MX001, we gather to consider this issue. We are very pleased to present two prestigious keynote speakers, Dominique Bouchet from University of Southern Denmark and John Desmond from St. Andrews University to consider the topic. Their presentations shall be followed by a panel discussion which will feature James Fitchett from the University of Leicester as well as the philosopher, Kate Soper. A wine reception shall follow. This promises to be a fascinating evening of discussion. All welcome. 

Monday, 19 November 2012

In Honour of World Toilet Day, by Robin Canniford

(This post is reproduced from and was written by Robin Canniford of the University of Melbourne and follows from this article)

Bodily waste can be an embarrassing subject, but one that most of us can avoid thanks to efficient toilets and sewers. Nevertheless, this embarrassment may be holding back improvements in sanitation where they’re needed most.

Over the course of your life you might spend three years in the bathroom and a considerable proportion of that time on the toilet. Yet, here is an activity widely regarded as so distasteful that, unless you’re a parent of a potty-training child or involved in a caring profession, your conversations on the subject are likely to be short and rare.

When we in “developed” nations do talk about bodily functions, we often do so through euphemism and metaphor. Consider the commercials in which a canine protagonist is draped in lengths of toilet tissue to illustrate the twin pillars of softness and strength.

Perhaps this is only natural. After all, a more literal representation of toilet paper in use would be less appealing than the symbolic alternative offered by an ever-young Labrador.

There’s nothing exactly natural about our aversion to talking about bodily waste however. Indeed, the historical sociologist Norbert Elias found that our relationship with bodily functions has become increasingly layered with distaste since the late Middle Ages.

Robin Canniford, University of Melbourne

Elias also noted that the shame around bodily functions, and the subsequent desire for privacy in the toilet, predated the emergence of scientific and political concerns over hygiene.

I don’t deny that the discoveries of bacteriologists and the rise of hygiene as a social ideal boosted the case to construct sewers and toilets. Nonetheless, sanitary concerns of waste removal don’t explain why we design buildings and rooms to separate toilets from all other architectural purposes; draping a veil of secrecy over our bodily functions.

Neither do concerns over personal cleanliness explain our anxiety when privacy in the toilet is disrupted. Consider what makes you nervous or embarrassed in these contexts: Is the presence of someone in the next cubicle distracting? Have you ever put down a layer of toilet paper to silence things just a little?

If the answer is no, then good for you: you’re free from centuries of emotional conditioning. Make no mistake though; the phenomenon is of enough concern that products exist to cover up our, erm, noisy movements.

Toilets and the treatment of bodily waste are important psychological and cultural concerns. Slavoj Žižek goes so far as to clarify the different features displayed in German, French and Anglo-American toilet conduct before illustrating how these compare with national character and philosophy.

In line with the anthropologist Mary Douglas – who argued that excreta can symbolically defile cultural space – serviceable cubicles, toilets, drains and sewers all uphold personal experiences of social and spiritual order. They are widely considered to be markers of civilised society.

Equally, however, by separating us from one another while we make a deposit, and by effectively sucking away the offending materials, toilets reproduce our embedded thresholds of embarrassment and shame. The “civilised” citizen is conditioned to flush and forget that which is unwanted.

Herein lies a serious problem.

Beyond the borders of wealthy nations, four in every ten people have no access to a toilet or latrine, and instead they must defecate in public spaces, exposed to contaminates left by those who went before them. As a result, more children under the age of 14 die from diseases associated with poor sanitation than AIDS, malaria or tuberculosis combined.

While movements such as Sulabh and the World Toilet Organisation seek to raise money to build public toilets for people with little or no access to functional sanitation, they often find it difficult to attract public support because of a general lack of willingness to converse on the subject of bodily waste.

What can we do to redress this concern? Well, for starters, perhaps we should just stop being so embarrassed, and think more clearly about waste and its disposal.

If you consider it for a moment, squatting at the head of thousands of miles of sewerage systems before emptying the food that your body has processed is a minor miracle.

Why not bring this up in conversation with your loved ones over dinner tonight? No? Well at least spare a thought for those who don’t have the privilege of forgetting the subject.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The Last John Lewis Christmas Ad of its kind ?

Gone are the days of 30 million of us sitting down after the queens speech at Christmas to watch a jolly good show together with great auntie Edna snoring on the sofa, our choice restricted to just four or five terrestrial button options. Sky multi-room, time shift TV hard drives "never miss a minute" and computer based catch up services have put paid to this. Gone also, I imagine, the power companies headache of predicting the simultaneous kettle spikes of surging electricity demand during the first Bond movie commercial break on Boxing day, premiering to the massess a full five years after its cinematic debut. Reassuringly though, Coca Cola will still be there with another reinvention of jingle bells, bright red Coke and that Christmas feeling, seeking to carve out its category ownership of this community celebration space that seems to be a core brand value. But have we seen the last ever John Lewis masterclass in effective emotional branding with this years Christ-tingle making story of the lonely snow man ? 

At 90 seconds in length it is certainly making a statement, although of course with the declining trend for embedded simultaneous television audiences, the cost may not be quite as high as we imagine. In line with contemporary brand building approaches, the John Lewis brand, shop space, and friendly staff are entirely absent from screen and you only get to know it is indeed a JL classic in the closing credits. Story told, emotional connection firmly made, just a pair of gloves, scarf and hat to show for it ! Entirely the opposite approach is taken by Marks and Spencer's who appear to want to reverse a declining sales trend by using fast changing, high energy dancers, vignettes flicking through their target segments, to show case as much of the new range as possible. To my mind they are using a genre that is so strongly associated with GAP that it might as well be a GAP ad. Snatching at too much, too quick, unlikely to be memorable is my firm belief. Juxtapose the soft, intricate and deliberately slow story telling preferred by Craig Inglis, Marketing Director for the partnership business.

Enter stage right, Gabrielle Aplin, the young twenty something picked out of obsurity to cover a melancolic eighties version of 'The Power of Love' by sometimes contraversial Liverpudlian band Frankie Goes To Hollywood. (Which of course these days would be referred to as FGTH, naturally.)  Like a well oiled machine, the meticulously executed 21st Century communications package is designed to deliver a mighty emotional punch. The cheaply exploitable, emerging artist (often the opposite sex to the original artist for an added twist), keen on the exposure and hopeful that the successful middle market department store advertising spend will help break them into the big time, provides a convenient platform of safety in a classic hit, but hope in establishing youthful credentials with the new artists edgy cover. Nostalgic eighties music for the higher spending 30's and 40's age group deliberately chosen by stealth. Of course, from a marketing planners perspective using your brand to launch a top ten hit hopefully pays dividends as the carry over of the song can help remind and reinforce the campaign without further payment, perhaps even on channels that do not accept advertising. (BBC making the news, not just reporting it !) Just look at what happened in 2010 for Ellie Goulding and her cover of an Elton John classic, based on this it is not unreasonable for Gabrielle to hope for a BRIT award, a chart topper and to break into the USofA in 2014. Go, Gaby, Go !

Back to the ad: A series of clips show the sad and lonley snowman's journey across stunning landscapes (The Mail suggests this is a Lord of the Rings Froddo like quest, since the stunning scenery and ample snow of New Zealands south island are used as the set) to eventually achieve his quest, reunited with Mrs Snowman at home, perfect gift bestowed and happiness ensues.

Cynically, I am not quite sure what message the audience should take away from this ? Getting to and from a John Lewis, particularly the car park in Southampton, is an epic journey that will see your devotion fully tested ? Buy your loved ones warm clothes for outdoors, because the economy is so bad you will welcome the warmth ? Here I have to fess up to being a big softy on John Lewis, having purchased a 2011 CD of the cover songs used for their advertising campaigns. I even use John Lewis as a cracking case study when I teach marketing at Royal Holloway. I guess we know the message is something around 'if you struggle to find the right gift for someone you really care about, go to John Lewis and you will not be disappointed'. Touchingly sentimental, and where I should probably finish this post.

However, aside from GAP like M&S, other players like Debenhams have emulated the magic formula, used now for several seasons, and what in the past saw John Lewis as distinctive and quite different may get lost and the inhibited memorability may see this genre of ads be replaced by a 'different kind of different' that drives a stronger return on investment for the advertising spend. For the JL creatives, it will surely be a tough call to opt for a different formulation, particularly when the December retail spend plays such a vital role in the years sales performance.

Justin O'Brien, MBA Director, is proudly a teaching focussed academic in the marketing group at Royal Holloway, University of London. 

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

A Student Describes Her Dissertation - by Klara Scheurenbrand

Klara further demonstrating her commitment to having "the freedom to express yourself the way you are"

Dissertation – To rebels and free minds

It’s been a very interesting, great and funny, though challenging and complex way to the clear picture of my dissertation. It was a fight and a pleasure. It made me happy and it made me sick. As Dickens (1812) already wrote: ‘it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.’
If you wonder how to come up with a great topic, think about what most interests you. What are you doing in your free time? Maybe you are passionate about cooking, sports or art? Is there something you always wanted to know about? Are you a shopaholic? I am sure you will find a way to link it to Marketing and if not, your professors will be happy to have a chat that will push you into the right direction.
The most important thing however, is that you do your dissertation your way. Of course, there are some rules. But within these boundaries, you have the freedom to express yourself the way you are. Is there something you come across that bothers you? Say it. Do you have a creative idea for your dissertation? Do it. As long as you embed your idea in an academic context, be creative (read Stephen Brown!).

Cycling and discontinuities in Gran Canaria

 ‘The Street belongs to the car: Ethnographic insights into the practice of cycling and the lack of bicycle consumption in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.’
The starting point for my dissertation was a merger between my interest in social marketing and my curiosity about the lack of bicycle use in Gran Canaria. I lived in the Canary Islands for a couple of years and I always wondered about the little attention paid to bicycles as urban transport. In fact only 0.4% of urban transport is made by bike. Hence, in my dissertation, I examined the lack of consumption of bicycles in order to pioneer a strategy to promote the use of bicycles most effectively.
My research gap derived from three directions. Firstly, reading the cycling literature, I quickly found out that cycling is an under-researched topic that based its findings mostly on quantitative methods that support the view that infrastructure is the key to an improved and augmented use of bicycles. The counter position however, called for a more cultural qualitative research approach that would criticize the current literature for its shortcomings on consumer understanding. Secondly, there was a theoretical framework missing within consumption studies to analyse this lack of consumption. Thirdly, social marketing and community mobilization literature suggested that a close-up cultural examination of the targeted community is necessary for an effective behavioural change. Yes, it sounds complicated; and sometimes this huge wave of literature is about to sweep you off the right track on this dissertation journey. But with the great guidance of your supervisor (a big warm thank you at this point to Dr. Benedetta Cappellini), you will always keep your balance going straight.

Empyty bicycle stand

And what’s your core argument?
So basically, my dissertation challenge was to examine a non-existent form of consumption and to understand and analyse the wider cultural context in which this ‘lack of consumption as urban transport’ was taking place. Therefore my research question was not ‘why don’t they use bicycles as urban transport’ but ‘how they practice cycling in general’; trying to capture the materiality, symbolic meanings and cultural position of the bicycle within the big picture. I filtered the question ‘why not’ as an aim through my theoretical model. In contrast to other studies, that was my dissertation’s uniqueness.
The key to answering the research question effectively was firstly the methodological approach using an ethnographic research design and secondly, the concept of practice theory. Practice theory is a very recent model used in consumption studies, originating from cultural studies. Practice Theory understands consumption as embedded within practices including objects, agents and competences. Although the model enables an examination of these elements separately, they are interlinked and hence to be understood as a whole. The material culture model according to Daniel Miller makes the relationship between the three elements as transparent and explains how agents, subject and competence co-create each other (see Fig 1). Further, practices are taking place in a specific location and hence give insights into the cultural context as well as inherent ‘doings’ i.e. how people handle the object, but also people’s ‘sayings’; the symbolic meanings of the objects themselves. Therefore, ethnography was the most suitable way to capture all of these aspects especially as it is famous for its ability to examine ’habitus’, which gives hints regarding social norms and rules, traditions and rituals.
In the saddle
I loved doing ethnography for its dynamic character. Living in the environment enabled me to see everything and understand the investigated ‘world’ better. I talked to participants, I observed them, cycled with them. I observed and described everything going on around me in traffic and noticed behaviour that from different kind of perspectives became clear. At the end, all of the information gained came together and made sense.

Bicycle on the beach

 My theoretical model extended throughout the data collection process as you can see in Fig. 2. I had to understand that Agents, Objects and Competencies are culturally co-creating and are co-created by space and infrastructure, the existing car-culture and education. It was necessary to understand that only because the infrastructure is going to allow using bikes, people won’t automatically drive it. Habitants were educated that the way of moving by car is a symbol for higher social class while the bicycle is associated with lower social class. Therefore, the car is the dominant vehicle on the streets and is in conflict with the bicycle, which has to respect the unwritten hierarchy on Las Palmas’ streets. Further, the bicycle required physical effort resulting in sweating, which is socially accepted in gyms and sporty activities but not at work or in daily business. Hence, I found out that for habitants in Las Palmas the good look, including an acceptable fragrance, is very important as it stands for success and professional appearance.
My recommendation for a community mobilization strategy for Las Palmas has been to use a cultural branding strategy as devised by Holt, as the emerging practice of cycling embodies a tension within traffic, which could be resolved by a hip and fashionable bicycle brand to establish the social acceptance of the practice of cycling.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

RHUL Advertising students showcase

This blog pertains mainly to postgraduate marketing students, but for variety I’d like to highlight some achievements of the RH marketing undergraduates. As part of the assessment for the third year Advertising course on the Marketing pathway of the BSc Management programme, I ask students to pitch for an advertising campaign. We don’t teach creative skills so we can’t assess them, but students do come up with campaign ideas. They can illustrate these any way they choose, using stick men cartoons, storyboards, scripts, role play, whatever, but quite a few make movies. I'm often astounded at my students' creativity and technical ability with the most rudimentary kit, like iPhone cameras and basic editing software. Some post their work on Youtube. Some are designed to be TV spots, others virals or promo films.

For example, there have been a few gifted animators, as with this one
This one for smoothies is cutesy and this one is sentimental

Others are pretty good at editing, scripting, acting and arranging short movies, like this one for Yop and this one

This one is kinda beautiful, compiled mainly from other clips nicely put together. So is this one, for skin care cream, and both show talented film making:

This one is a cute collage of still photography while this one features an exciting chase through Egham This one also has some really nice images

I'm happy for them to do something around a commercial brand or non-profit and 'social' marketing. If you've ever wondered what Chlamydia Man looked like, wonder no more:

Some seem to have a costume budget others are talented lip-syncers and still others go for laughs

I enjoy these so I ask students who want to put them up to tag them as MN3455, the course code, so I can find them again. But there are lots up there under different tags, so they're hard to find. There are many more examples if you look around.

I have to finish with one of my all time favourites, in which Prince Charles appeared, and he demanded no fee because he is a family friend of the film maker:
Quite a guy, eh? 
These do beg the question of what it takes to make a good, short video ad. The answer to that is, it depends on the purpose. Advertising sometimes tries to sell something, but more often it's intended to build the brand, connect with a specified target group, activate the consumer, and perhaps stimulate an audience to engage with the brand in other media. Hard sell, soft sell. Some ads are made to get banned, others to go viral, still others to win creative awards. Sometimes, a campaign is created simply to match the adspend of a market rival.       

Of course, everyone’s a critic as someone once said, so if you fancy yourself as a marketing pro, make a better ad, go viral and get a million hits. If it’s so easy.  

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Careers in Finance

For the first time, the Careers Service has organised a whole week of events about career opportunities in the financial services sector.  Throughout the week there will be speakers from Citi, Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, Barclays Capital, PWC, E&Y, KMPG and many more. Speakers are a mixture of alumni and recruiters.
The key areas covered by the week are:
·         Investment Banking (Monday)
·         Corporate Law (Tuesday)
·         Insurance & Risk (Tuesday)
·         Professional Services (Wednesday)
·         Accountancy (Thursday)
·         Financial Journalism (Thursday)
·         Regulation (Friday)
Full details can be found at 
Andrew Falconer
MBA Careers Consultant
Deputy Head, Careers Service

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Socially Useless Finance?

Socially Useless Finance?

What we already know is that we have a structurally rotten system of interconnected power elites, which does little to serve the national interest. So what does finance have to do before it’s brought down from its elevated status? We’ve followed the investigations into banking and
nothing changed. Now there’s the Libor fixing scandal but that’s turned into a story of corrupt individuals. We’re living the finance induced Great Recession but for the banks it’s business as usual.
Unless we break these links and free our politics from its dependence on the largesse of finance, reform will remain a distant dream.
Most of all, the financial crisis is a crisis of politics which allows finance to work against the common good. The debate will consider what we need to do to break finance’s stranglehold.
Speakers include:
Aditya Chakrabortty: the Guardian’s economics lead writer and writes a regular Tuesday column in G2.
Alan Bradshaw: a RHUL-UCU Committee member and management lecturer.
Sukhdev Johal: a RHUL-UCU Committee member and management lecturer.

Monday 15th October, ALT 2, 7pm

Monday, 8 October 2012

Psychology & Marketing Lecture

Professor Charles Spence, University of Oxford, will highlight some of the intriguing marketing applications that are now emerging from basic research on crossmodal correspondences in the design of everything from the labels of water and beer bottles through to the music you listen to while drinking your Starbucks coffee.
Windsor Auditorium 2-3pm, 16/10/2012.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Join the Royal Marketing Society, by Margaux Nourrissat

Fancy joining an exciting, brand new on-campus society with tons of ideas and projects? If yes, then the Royal Marketing Society at Royal Holloway is for you! Created a few months ago by third year students, the society aims at promoting Marketing in many different ways. We are planning events including conferences with marketing leaders and alumni, confidence workshops and getting first hand experience managing local businesses and societies promotions, twitter contests, and many, many, more surprises! Please check out our Facebook page ( and our twitter account ( for news. Look out for us at Welcome Week. See you soon. 

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Should Advertising Be Banned for What it Doesn't Say?

This press ad, for Allinson's bread, has been the subject of a complaint from a food pressure group called the Real Bread Campaign (RBC). The RBC asked the advertising regulator, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), to ban it on the grounds that it misleadingly implied that Allinson's bread is still made using Victorian production methods. They asked me to comment to support their case, in this press release

The ASA rejected the complaint, and their reasons are here:

Today (September the 19th) the topic has begun to garner some coverage in the marketing trade press, and a quote from me is included in this Campaign magazine feature

The ASA runs a highly effective system of advertising regulation but in general they try to avoid opening the can of semiotic worms that is implicit meaning in advertising, preferring instead to focus on the literal and verbalised meanings of ads. In this case, the ASA rightly point out that Allinson, or rather their agency,  M&C Saatchi, do not explicitly claim to use Victorian production methods. However, my point is that the ad obviously seeks to arrange images and text in a highly suggestive juxtaposition, most clearly in the picture of hands kneading dough next to the words 'Allinson Today'. The ad tells no lies, but it betrays the brand's positioning strategy, which is to invoke the history and tradition of the brand. The RBC argues that Allinson in fact uses modern scientific production methods, and therefore lacks the connection it implicitly claims to have with the healthy integrity of Thomas Allinson's hand made bread.        

The ASA argue that consumers ought to know very well that this suggestive juxtapostion is mere puffery, and not to be taken seriously. And they have a point, because if we start to look critically at the symbolic or implicit meaning of advertising, where will we end up? Advertising relies on polysemy, that interpretive space between literal truth and imaginative fantasy. Marketing in general, to a great extent, exists in that space. Without the scope to invoke the consumer imagination, marketing and advertising would be dreary and prosaic things, and consumption a grey, functional business.

Yet there have been times when issues of public health were judged so pressing that the ASA has indeed ruled on implicit meaning, in cigarette and alcohol ads. Cigarette ads never explicitly claimed to make smokers indpendent, masculine, powerful and sexually attractive. they just implied it, yet they were banned. Alcohol ads in the UK were subject to a new code of practice (in 2007) because they allegedly, implicitly linked drinking with social and sexual success. Many lobby groups don't think the limits on alcohol advertising have gone far enough.

The thing is, obesity and related health issues have reached a crisis in the UK and elsewhere, and implicit (and sometimes explicit) claims made by the processed food industry about the healthiness of its food are at the centre of this problem. So is it time for processed food brands to be held accountable for the ways their positioning strategies are articulated in advertising creative strategies?

This is a shorter version of this story     

Friday, 7 September 2012

Consumption Culture Theory & the Return of History

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of Fukayaman post-politics, all that was left was for the Soviet era to return in the form of benign consumer nostalgia. In 2003 the German movie Goodbye Lenin! sparked a flood of nostalgia for the days of the DDR and jars of Spreewald Gherkins that typified a resurgence across various post-Communist states. Trabants, Spreewald Gherkins, Druzhba cheese and Sovetskoye champagne are just some of the old products and brands that seem to have been injected with nostalgic value (see Kravets and Orge 2010). Meanwhile we see the rise of Cultural Revolution restaurants that serve food, display artefacts and clothes from the communist era in China whilst equivalent establishments can be found from Budapest to St Petersburg. Within such consumer culture and marketing phenomena, communism re-appears as a benign, soft memory of bittersweet days and hence the continued presence of such brands have been interpreted by Davis & Kravets as acting as bridges to displaced meaning.

Yet the spectre of a renewed communism that haunts Europe also takes another form and the sites to see these resurgences are not limited to Berlin’s DDR museum or the Yugonostalgia theme park in Serbia but rather within the public spaces in which critical debate take place. Many of the leading critical theorists– from Badiou to Hardt to Nancy to Negri to Ranncierre to Žižek convene in conferences in Berlin and London to discuss the rehabilitation of communism. Meanwhile Alain Badiou, arguably the most prominent critical theorist of our age, leads discussion with his insistence of communism’s eternality:

The communist hypothesis remains the right hypothesis, as I have said, and I do not see any other. If this hypothesis should have to be abandoned, then it is not worth doing anything in the order of collective action. Without the perspective of communism, without this Idea, nothing in the historical and political future is of such a kind as to interest the philosopher. Each individual can pursue their private business, and we won’t mention it again.

Concurrently there is a resurgence of interest in Marxism. For example, the geographer David Harvey has been recording a series of highly popular YouTube short lectures designed to guide the exponentially burgeoning number of Capital reading groups that are to be found across the world, especially in Europe. Not surprisingly there has been a series of new Marx readers brought to the market by David Harvey, and Frederic Jameson whilst Terry Eagleton’s  popular press Why Marx Was Right even somehow became a temporary best seller on the Amazon business literature charts! 

The background to such resurgence must surely be understood with reference to contemporary events that challenge the liberal-capitalo-parliamentarian hegemony while a series of catastrophic economic eventualities tear across Europe, imposing austerity and producing obvious cases of injustice. Meanwhile across the Arab Spring revolutionary politics re-appear in a form that poses questions of commensurability with European movements, from mass occupations in Athens to the rise of the Indignados in Madrid. The Occupy Wall Street movement quickly spread and delivers us to a period in which, as Costas Douzinas puts it, the Real of History has returned and Fukayama inspired dreams of an end of ideological struggle expire

The return of the Real of History calls into question previous postmodern assumptions regarding the fragmentation of time. Within such perspectives, models that assume an arrow-like linearity of time dissipate until a fluidity becomes manifest between time and space. In such a context, nostalgia becomes a postmodern phenomenon of consumer culture whereby past and present co-exist and mutate in each other’s company. Here the benign rehabilitation of communist artefacts can be understood in a fragmented sense: as artefacts divested of their political meaning and existing alongside a series of freely floating signifiers. However the contemporary return of history disrupts this fragmentation and returns us, violently, to the Real of time and with the apparent recognition of a finitude and historical contingency of capital. As Badiou notes, the process of subjectivation that takes place in events where people recognise themselves as subjects of history reasserts connectivities of time. Such circumstances pressurise marketing’s theoretical coordinates of consumer nostalgia and may require an alteration of the form of analysis.

For the field of consumer research in general and consumer culture theory in particular this resurgence of active history is disorientating. The relationship between the field and canonical critical theory is well established with leading leftist theorists like Michel Foucault, Theodor Adorno, Pierre Bourdieu and Roland Barthes regularly cited yet these citations, in an age of where history seemed to have achieved itself, arguably shares the same theoretical coordinates of benign communist consumer nostalgia as engaging with radical theory is assumed to be a form of mixing freely floating signifiers, divested of their politics and hence not necessarily implying any form of political engagement. Now that critical theory has been re-energised and History returns, does the politicality of citation become contentious again? What are the implications of citing theory from the revolutionary left, or at least of scholars who were clearly working through issues related to revolt, during a time of potential revolt? Can scholars still insist upon a reflexive distance between their research and the politics of their conceptual tools as though the encounter is entirely neutral? And what of the return of questions of social justice and revolution to theory, seriously intended? Must consumer culture theory advocate a political position? Or even more pointedly, can consumer culture theory continue to legitimately evade the politics of its own theoretical canon? 

Friday, 31 August 2012

Where Public meets Private: the Question of Branding Universities

Universities, we are told, are now brands and strategic brand management is generally understood as the subject which trains people to manage brands. However it seems to me that there is a deeper question that needs to be asked before proceeding to the question of how to manage the university brand. It is a hermeneutical question that concerns why, at this time, does the question of branding emerge and amidst which broader issues should we understand the phenomenon? To be sure, there is a recent history of public and semi-state organisations thinking of themselves as brands and doing so as part of a wider reconfiguration of public institutions relating to corporate behaviour, privitisation and neo-liberalism. According to this line of analysis, to accept the organisation as a brand is already to have accepted the notion that we are a business, that we are service providers, that we produce experiences for our customers and that our students are those customers. Is it within this scope that we discuss our university and our work within a university, as faculty and students alike, as bounded by the logic of the brand and a logic of privitisation? Is there a connection between this discussion and the imperatives found in the government's recent Browne Report? Is re-branding something that should be resisted? Is there an argument to be made that says we should stop thinking in terms of brands and re-commit ourselves to a public conception of the university? Is such a viewpoint inherently anachronistic?

Rather than a logic of differentiation, public bodies often
 develop brands that look extremely similar to other brands.

This is all to say that there is a politics of branding or, if you prefer, a post-politics in which all forms of activity are unquestionably and unreflexively altered to match a corporate agenda. Is there an inevitability for universities to think of themselves as a brand, and does this converge with other supposed inevitabilities: that there should be individualised student tuition fees, that research should have corporate value, and so on? Meanwhile, the Vice Principle at Royal Holloway, Rosemary Deem, has been telling us through her research on the subject that there has been a global trend towards what she terms ‘leaderism’; this generally refers to the corporate strategies that universities pursue, which more often than not are fundamentally incoherent and not subject to critique. Again should we resist branding ourselves?

An excellent book that charts the history of public and semi-state organisations reconfigurating themselves as brands is The Rise of Brands by Liz Moor. Moor looks at organisations who fundamentally are not corporations, but nevertheless accept a corporate style of management as part of a neo-liberal process, a strategy of branding deployed as a technology or as a means for both management and government to facilitate this. This often entails a form of governmentality – meaning that all functions in the organisation now have to justify themselves according to a new means of disciplining, that all acts have to cohere around the principle of the organisation as a coherent brand and that this principle is already front-loaded with assumptions about working in a competitive environment, about clients and customers and so on. Hence we have city councils, hospitals, and universities re-defining themselves as brands. It is interesting to note that, rather than allowing organisations to distinguish each other from their competitors, so called ‘brands’ actually end up looking just like each other. In other words, public institutions undergoing privitisation internalise a need to demonstrate that they can achieve a certain level of 'professionalism' and 'best practice' and one technology for achieving this is to cohere the organisation around a brand identity immediately recognisable as adhering to conventional standards of sector professionalism. From a marketing perspective such a tendency towards uniform representations and homogeneous organisation offends against the subject's commitment to innovation and differentiation and therefore, arguably the process of branding that we witness departs from marketing logic, in fact is best understood as an instance of anti-marketing. And as demonstrated across various semi-state and public sectors, the logic of ‘leaderism’ often coincides with the appointment of chief-executive officer type leaders who command enormous salaries and who are concerned with maintaining these brand values, irrespective of how incoherent they may be.

More branding groupthink

Again, to my mind the critical issue is the relationship between brand logic and the sort of neo-liberal logic encapsulated in government policy and beyond. Do such forms of branding serve a neo-liberal agenda? If it does, we might ask is this something that we should oppose in defence of a more public minded ethos of the university, or should we embrace it either as a coping strategy in unfriendly times during which we should think of our own survival, or indeed should this be something that we should embrace as it arrives with all sorts of new opportunities, a golden moment for universities to assert their autonomy?

Up to now, I have been speaking about branding in negative terms. But it seems to me that there are also all sorts of positive opportunities that can be grasped from such discussions.

If we think of the brand as the values and meanings that are produced in the organisation and created with customers, that in the service sector market meanings and systems are co-produced with, rather than for, customers, then as lecturers we might ask what sort of university are we co-producing with our students? If so, can we insist on having a critical research identity when this contradicts the reality that we see produced in the class room? Namely, a dichotomy that emerges based on conflicting expectations of what purpose a university serves: a common sense grounded vocational approach to business problem-solving or a critical-analytic approach that asks why such problems arises in the first place.

A brand is a way of thinking about an overall organisation, and is therefore much greater than any logo or headed paper or set of staff webpages. If there is agreement that there should be a brand, then for me the critical questions become: what sort of organisation are we, what sort of organisation do we want to be, who gets to constitute and then address this 'we' that is being operationalised, what are the common spaces through which consensus can emerge and critical reflexivity be expressed and respected, does the requirement for a mutual identification with brand values offend against the very spirit of heterogeneity necessary for the intellectual survival of the university during hostile times, and can we represent and communicate values in a way that is distinctive, truthful, and attractive to prospective students and colleagues, and that can help us maintain a commitment towards developing intellect?

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The London 2012 Olympics: Blustering Jingoism?

80's pop star Morrissey has earned national media coverage this week for his view that the London 2012 Olympics media coverage reminds him in it's tone of the nationalistic propaganda of 1930's Nazi Germany

England, he says, is "foul with patriotism". Morrissey, also a vitriolic anti-royalist, is well-known to be a professional curmudgeon. His talent for contrariness keeps him in the public eye, and a lot of people still buy tickets to hear him recycle his old hits. Nonetheless, he is probably expressing views that are held by many others, but can gain no traction amidst the waves of Olympic self-congratulation currently swamping UK media.

On this point, Morrissey and I diverge. Born in the same year as me, the lachrymose lyricist's lilting laments have never been far from my ear. His unique brand of misery is wrist-slashingly compelling, although frankly if he'd never met ace guitarist Johnny Marr I doubt that Morrissey's moans would have reached much of an audience beyond his bedroom.

I am biased, I admit. A sports nut all my life, I love it, and the media coverage now is an armchair sport's fan's dream. In my childhood sports media coverage was truly rubbish, with the exception of the rugby internationals and Bill McLaren's great commentaries. I had a few hours on a Saturday afternoon to listen to TV announcer Frank Bough (born in my home town, Frank knew how to party) as he read out football scores from a mechanical typewriter. Yes, this was TV before Sky Sports. Then I had to wait 24 hours for print newspapers to be delivered to our house find out what had actually happened.

Today, I'm in HD, 24/7, real time, wifi, armchair sportsfan heaven. The main tone I get from the peerless media coverage of the Olympics is not so much jingoism as bemused astonishment. We all really thought we were going to mess it up. Not only is everything going rather well on the organisational side, we're actually winning some medals too. This is the most GB has had to celebrate since England won the world cup in 1966. Why not have fun with it? To be sure, the Olympics is a platform for nationalistic ideology, and some of the competitors are pretty ruthless, even cheats. But it's a vehicle for other ideologies too, not least race and gender equality, friendship and meritocracy.

The GB team is a refreshing mix of ethnicities, colours and classes. I don't buy into claims that it is 'elitist', and I'm not sure what that means. One of GB's most eminent medal winners, Bradley Wiggins, grew up in a council flat in London after his dad left when Bradley was two years old. The GB team were not cherry-picked for stardom when they were 6. That just isn't how it works. They're dedicated club athletes who put more into the sport than they take out of it. Most are not wealthy by any means. To be sure, some sports have a disproportionate representation from elite fee-charging schools, notably rowing. But the sport itself isn't exclusive. People's choices are framed by their environment. If you went to an inner city comprehensive rowing isn't the first thing on your sports & social agenda. Without doubt, the UK's investment in its school sports infrastructure needs to be much better. But cultural and class norms are more powerful than social or economic exclusivity in making sports participation uneven in the UK.

Meanwhile, I'm enoying it all in spite of Morrissey. Go TeamGB.

There's more from me on this here....      

Monday, 6 August 2012

Un-branded – the London 2012 Olympic Park experience

The main London 2012 Stratford site, a vast reclaimed tract of east London, greets the visitor with bright, energetic colours that includes vibrant recycled rubberised flooring, nearly fluorescent signage and the gaudy juxtaposition clashing colours, all strikingly fresh.  The river bank planting accentuates bright and strong use of colour, with prairie planting of yellows and blues, of bright peach red hot pokers set against striking purple blue agapanthus globes.  The bright red of the roller coaster like feature building, the imposing relief Olympic circles on the aquatics centre, its roofline inspired by the underbelly of a whale.  

Acres of bill board space was either foregone or instead covered with one of the vibrant rainbow range of colours (with bright pink a signature colour, used prominently in signage) and the 2012 Headline font, described as distinct and quickly recognisable. (Observer, 2012) This feeling of unclutteredness contributed to a strong sense of place, neither city nor country, supported by happy, smiling and fun giving uniformed volunteers. 

Even the BBC broadcasting centre in the park, which provided in-the-thick-of-it backdrops for smiling medallist interviews and sliver fox anchor feel-good interviews, was surprisingly anonymous.  Constructed, Lego like, using blue shipping containers with glazed voids and a roof terrace, highlighting strong re-cycling credentials.  Missing also were the blitz branded interview back boards, made popular by football post match interviews, perhaps forcing the unusual re-introduction of the hand held lolly pop microphone prominently sporting the BBC brand alongside the Olympic rings, all in yellow and the use of the plain yet colourful Olympic venue as the backdrop. 

It was all a bit like wandering around Moscow, just after the communist experiment had been shown to fail, subtle signage, here and there, just enough to help guide you around at the points of ambiguity, but else, nothing.  A blank canvass, nearly. 

Generic labels adorned the various merchandising stands ‘speciality coffee’ where surely Costa, Nero or the ubiquitous green mermaid would be expected ?  There were Innocent branded wheeled carts (Coca Cola owned), but the roving young people wearing back packs emblazoned with the word ‘BEER’ took to holding up a specimen bottle, often Heineken, seemingly required to overcome the lack of information that is usually and usefully conveyed by a logo, symbol or brand name.  A feeling not unlike BBC Childrens TV, sticky tape not Selotape or Scotch, glue stick not Pritstick, double sided sticky tape not Blutack.  Brand identities expunged either taped or painted over. 

Clear and evident: a conscious rejection of one of the generally useful roles brands play.  For me, it created a rather unnatural world, a TV studio or film set that deliberately removes cultural advertising references to transform the audience to a different place. 

The impact of the heavily controlled and minutely planned execution of this leading global event, which saw 10bn viewers for its opening ceremony and a third of the UK population tuned in to see Usain Bolt win the 100m dash, may well go on to help define an Olympic experience supported, but not dominated, by advertising sponsorship.  

Justin O'Brien, MBA Director and Teaching Fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London.