Consumer Culture, Branding and Advertising

Chapter Introduction

Branding is a critical communicative process in our culture,  media and everyday lives.

What is branding?

Who builds brands?

How are brands embedded in culture?

How do brands claim to be meaningful and ethical?


In this chapter we:

  • Define branding as a social process.
  • Consider the relationship between brands and culture.
  • Examine the labour of branding.
  • Explore the relationships between brands, social spaces and interactive media.
  • Consider the role of branding in the ethics and practices of everyday life. 

Cases & Activities

The Merchants of Cool and Generation Like

The media critic and filmmaker Douglas Rushkoff has made two films about branding and promotional culture. The first film The Merchants of Cool (2001) examined the emergence of ‘coolhunting’ as part of brands efforts to make themselves a part of constantly evolving frameworks of meaning. The second film Generation Like (2014) examines how social media has evolved into a platform for harnessing the productive activities of fans in the publicisation, promotion and branding of products.

Both films can be watched online at the PBS website.

What is coolhunting? What are the limitations of coolhunting?

What does coolhunting tell us about the relationship between brands and culture?

How have brands adapted to social media?

Select brands that you use or are familiar with.

How are they embedded within your everyday life, cultural practices and identities?

Imagine you are a brand but you cannot make advertisements or buy advertising space on television, newspapers or magazines. How would you build and manage the brand?

What kinds of information and data would you need about consumers about their lives to manage the brand?

How would you collect and analyse information about consumers to manage the brand?

What kinds of cultural intermediaries would you need to work with to promote the brand?

How do brands make use of social and mobile media to engage us in everyday life?



Merchants of Cool.

Generation Like.

Australia’s Radio National on corporate anthropology.

The Atlantic on corporate anthropology.

This American Life on tequila branding.


Brands’ stories about their ethics and values

Apple is one of the most valuable brands in the world. It was initially built on positioning itself in relation to ‘cool outsiders’ who identified with progressive political and identity narratives. The Apple brand of the early 1980s positioned itself by drawing on the ‘mass society critique’. The famous ‘1984’ advertisement depicted a homogenous mass watching an anonymous figure speak at them. The imagery conjured up the mass society idea of a passive audience consuming content. A woman arrives and throws a sledgehammer through the screen, blowing it up. A voice over tells us ‘on January 24th Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984’’. The advertisement promised that Apple would ‘break’ the dystopian mass society depicted by Orwell in his famous novel. Apple’s brand narrative used the counter-culture mythology to position its customers as creative, independent and autonomous. While everyone else was watching TV, Apple consumers were creating the future.

Apple relied on its passionate consumers to embed the brand in their cultural narratives and identities. Apple consumers presented themselves as intelligent, savvy urban hipsters. They worked in cool creative jobs in hip cities and shared progressive cultural and political values. As much as the Apple brand was created with clever product design and advertising, it was also created by strategically managing its hip adopter-elite. Online communities and influential bloggers were part of the development of the Apple brand (see, Muniz and O’Guinn 2001). Over the past decade Apple has rapidly risen from a niche brand to a market leader. This has presented Apple challenges as it tries to manage an adopter-elite niche market segment alongside a mass consumer market. The Apple flagship stores have been an important part of this strategy. The stores are a material space that embody the brand for the mass market. Ordinary consumers can go to these stores to speak with Apple experts at the stores’ Genius Bars. These stories are important material ‘brandscapes’ (Thompson and Arsel 2004) where the brand is performed and materialised. Apple also uses stage-managed product launches to generate discussion among technology journalists, bloggers and adopters.

The Apple brand is not just made in its advertising and stores, the use of the products by consumers and cultural intermediaries, and the way those products are organised within an Apple eco-system also builds the brand. The eco-system organises consumer interaction with the product within a network wholly owned and controlled by Apple.

In recent times, Apple has also had to contend with an ‘identity crisis’ as consumers perceive a gap between the clean, innovative and ethical brand rhetoric and the production conditions in Chinese factories, and the control of innovation through its closed eco-system, application and content stores. In these instances we can see what Banet-Weiser (2012) calls the ‘ambivalent’ nature of brands. On the one hand Apple connects with things we ‘believe’ in on the other hand it embodies the contradictions of the globally networked consumer society. The brand is a device for managing a globally networked information business. A way of articulating production and consumption together in profitable ways.

Consider some of your favourite brands today. How do they both celebrate and critique the mass society?

How is today’s mass society different to the one imagined by Orwell, or the mass society of the mid twentieth century?

What are Apple’s brand values?

How does Apple ‘prove’ or ‘demonstrate’ those values?

How do their narratives develop over time?

Examine the ethics, responsibility and fair trade policies of brands that you use. You can find links to policies and other resources about ethical brands at the Media and Society website.

What claims do brands make about citizenship?

What forms of citizenship do they offer consumers?

How do brands make purchasing goods and services ‘meaningful’?

What does buying an ‘ethical’ brand communicate about you?

What impact does buying an ‘ethical’ brand have on our society?

What contributions do ethical brands make to society?

Are contemporary brands that offer us ways to convey the enivronmental, social and cultural causes that matter to us better than brands that simply offer us qualities within the product and service?



Apple 1984 advertisement.

Apple supplier responsibility policy.

Starbucks responsibility policy.

Slate on why the Barilla boycott matters to Italian LGBT people.

Zizek on Starbucks and cultural capitalism.

Portlandia’s ‘chicken scene’.

Further Readings

The readings by Banet-Weiser (2012) and Holt (2002) are useful in charting the development of brands that are embedded within culture, rely on the participation of consumers, and adopt savvy and ironic dispositions. The reading by Holt (2002) in particular charts the transition from branding as a mode of ‘cultural engineering’ to a more open-ended and participatory process that draws on cultural life. Meier (2011) explores the connections between branding and popular music. Meier offers critical arguments that consider how ‘authenticity’ functions within commercial popular culture. The readings by Banet-Weiser (2012), Chouliaraki (2010), and Lewis (2008) each examine the interrelationships between promotion and branding, culture, politics and ethics. They address themes related to ethical consumption, humanitarianism and activism within a commercial popular culture. 

Banet-Weiser, S. (2012). Authentic TM: The Politics and Ambivalence in a Brand Culture. NYU Press.

Chouliaraki, L. (2010). Post-humanitarianism Humanitarian communication beyond a politics of pity. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 13(2), 107-126.

Holt, D. B. (2002). Why do brands cause trouble? A dialectical theory of consumer culture and branding. Journal of consumer research, 29(1), 70-90.

Lewis, T. (2008). Transforming citizens? Green politics and ethical consumption on lifestyle television. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 22(2), 227-240.

Meier, L. M. (2011). Promotional Ubiquitous Musics: Recording Artists, Brands, and “Rendering Authenticity”. Popular Music and Society, 34(4), 399-415.