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by Julia Sneden

We Americans are an odd people. We refer to ourselves as “the melting pot,” where peoples from many cultures may take part in a society that values people for individual accomplishment, not for ancestry or class. We give lip service to ideals of equality, hard work, and respect for our fellow citizens, and yet we don’t really want to be part of that mass at all. The ideals are just fine for the other guy, but us? We each want to be Special.

We fall for anything that makes us stand out. Most of us lack the brilliant talents that put a few others in the public eye, but that fact doesn’t kill the hunger. We fill in with any number of crazy ideas that will set us apart, like winning pie-eating contests, or playing the lottery, or just accumulating things.

The latter is a strategy cleverly encouraged by manufacturers and their advertising agencies. They have convinced us that owning things will impress others and put us a cut above our peers, and we have taken that bait in one big gulp.

It’s not just a matter of owning things, either, but of owning things that are easily discerned by labels or logos prominently affixed to the product, so that everyone else knows that we can afford to buy the right stuff.

While manufacturers could easily add only a small amount to the price of a product to cover the cost of the branding logos, they don’t do that. Instead, they jack up the price considerably because the product now has snob appeal, which will ensure huge sales even as it advertises itself.

No doubt this kind of “free” advertising has been around in one form or another for a couple of thousand years at least. It isn’t really free at all, of course, because the customer pays dearly for the privilege of displaying the ad. Never has this practice been as prevalent as it became in the 20th century.

In the 1920’s and ‘30’s, we saw the beginning of the trend when Rene Lacoste, a brilliant French tennis player, began wearing a blazer embroidered with a crocodile. His nickname, in tennis circles, was “the Crocodile,” a result, some say, of his tenacity on the court. Others speak of a bet he once made that he’d win a particular match. The stakes for the bet was an alligator bag, a suitcase that he had particularly admired.

A few years later, Lacoste designed the famous “tennis whites” shirt that bore the mini-croc on the left breast. That segued into colored shirts, as well as many other sports-related items that carry the famous crocodile.

The branding was so successful that suddenly other manufacturers began putting logos on sportswear and shoes and sweaters and handbags and scarves, etc. ad nauseam. It has become difficult to find anything that doesn’t bear some sort of emblem or initials. Even the sleaziest of garments or notions bear prominent branding devices.

It would be a welcome relief if someone came out with a product that bore no cutesy logo, but was simply well-made and lasting. In these woeful economic times, who wouldn’t pass by the branded item for something that cost less and lasted longer?

Speaking of cost, how do you think sports teams can afford to pay athletes those obscenely big salaries? Here, branding has taken a quantum leap, with big companies paying huge amounts for the “honor” of having a stadium (or rink or field) named for them. The namers, of course, garner lots of on-air advertising every time a sportscaster says ... ”Here, from (fill in the blank) Field, we bring you ...”

As many observers have noted, sports venues used to be named after people of achievement, if they weren’t named for the teams that used them. Nowadays, despite the fact that most venues are built at least in part by taxpayer dollars, “naming rights” are sold for large amounts of money.

The TCF Bank, for example, will pay the University of Minnesota $35 million over 25 years to name the new Gophers football stadium (due to open this fall) — and I’ll bet that nobody asked the state’s taxpayers for approval. I don’t suppose the University will lower tuition, but at least one can hope that it will put the money to good educational use in these hard economic times.

There are embarrassing moments now and then, when sponsorship can go awry for any number of reasons. In Houston, the baseball park that was Enron Field suddenly became Astros Field, at least until a new sponsorship arose, whereupon it became Minute Maid Field. That sounds awfully dainty for a place where the players spit on the ground.

But so far, the Yankees, bless them, have stuck firmly to “Yankee Stadium” for their new ballpark. I feel like sending them a love letter.

As noted, the crashing economy brings hope that the business of ostentatious branding will take a hit, or at least sustain a dent. For my money, anyone who is willing to produce well-made, reasonably-priced products that last and don’t blatantly advertise their makers will have a customer. They may lack snob appeal, but these days that concept is positively patriotic.

©2009 Julia Sneden for



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