Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Branding the homeless—a pathetic display of the dark side of branding

The Wall Street Journal, in “In West L.A., A Homeless Man Inspires New Brand” talks about “the newest sensation at the center of Hollywood’s fashion scene”…56-year-old, homeless, John Wesley Jermyn.

The entrepreneurs who are milking Jermyn’s name for profit have already created a MySpace page for him, which “doubles as an ad for the clothing brand and their nightclub-promotion venture, which is also named ‘The Crazy Robertson.’” According to the Journal, these twentysomethings spent “months” getting close to Jermyn to get his approval; got his buy-in on design decisions; and also had a photographer take pictures of him for publicity purposes.

(Jermyn makes just 5% of “net profit” from clothing sales.)

The brand-builders are riding a trend of “increased fascination with homelessness,” says the Journal. The paper mentions the popularity of “Bumfights,” or videotaped street fights between homeless people; as well as “Filthy Rich and Homeless,” a British TV series showing real-life millionaires acting like beggars in London. Also, the paper notes, over 17,500 videos on YouTube are tagged with the word “homeless.”

Jermyn’s sister says he is being exploited, and Joel John Roberts, chief executive of People Assisting the Homeless, has similar concerns. But the brand-builders say they look at Jermyn as a “business partner.” Said one, “He knows everything that’s going on.” Jermyn himself told the Journal that he is a “facilitator” for the brand.

This phenomenon brings up a whole host of questions and issues, as follows:

1. Is it exploitive for someone to build a brand around a homeless person, or is it insulting to the homeless person to suggest that they cannot be the subject of a brand? I say it’s exploitive, especially when the person has schizophrenia, as Jermyn does, and cannot see all sides of the issue.

2. Is it ethical for consumers to purchase brands that are created in exploitive ways? Obviously not…and yet here we are in the richest part of Hollywood exploiting the homeless. This trend toward exploitation runs absolutely counter to the modern emphasis on corporate social responsibility and “fair trade” and must be seen as a thoughtless, childlike rebellion against it.

3. What does it say about modern consumers that they find a valuable brand in utter poverty and mental illness as represented by homelessness? I suggest it’s a few things:
  • A deep impulse to find and brand whatever authentic phenomena in society are available…unfortunately, looked at from this angle, branding is some kind of sickness or disease that seems to have no cure and no end and no purpose but to swallow up all the non-brands that are out there.
  • A sick need to feel superior to other, desperate human beings.
  • A distorted view of the world, seeing it as a place where brands “normalize” people who are not in their right mind.
4. What can concerned consumers do about brands like this? Don’t buy them; speak out against them; encourage others not to buy them.

This is truly a post about the dark side of humanity. There is a limit to "cool."