Instead of wealth and status, logos are now meant to convey good character. It’s the ultimate advertising con.

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Photo by Jingxi Lau on Unsplash.

The crisis of the modern world, from port backlogs and shipping delays to millions suffering under the yoke of forced labor to environmental disasters to the Chinese Communist Party’s recent missile test can be traced back to one single word, its fundamental mistranslation and misapplication.

There are other badly-translated words that have flummoxed the modern English-speaking world before and continue to do so. The original Ancient Greek word for “sin” meant to “miss the mark”, for instance, and the original Sanskrit word for “meditation” was “bhavana”, which didn’t have anything to do with thinking- or not thinking- at all.

Bhavana meant “cultivation of the land”, which for many students of meditation is a far more helpful concept than the idea of clearing the mind.

But one mischaracterized, lost and broken word stands alone: Logos.

In ancient times, “logos” meant “love of God.” In today’s modern, more secular society, it would make sense if that meaning had been expanded to include, “love of something greater than oneself,”- be that community, humanity, the collective unconscious, some understanding of God, brotherly love, or other.

But “logos” doesn’t mean anything like that to our modern ears, does it?

If anything, “logos” by today’s understanding of the King’s English, means “love of money.”

Conspicuous consumerism- that ad gimmick for which we can thank all our favorite name-brands, their product placements and ad campaigns, celebrity spokespeople and trillion-dollar ad budgets- might have been the ultimate undoing of humanity.

We’ve always used goods to and ornamentation to establish ourselves to others throughout history; jewelry and other ostentatious displays of wealth weren’t exactly unknown before the modern age.

Which is why capitalizing on that well-worn human tendency was such a genius marketing strategy.

Humans are social creatures. We want others, even total strangers, to think well of us, even like us. By carrying this bag, wearing this suit, driving this car, displaying this watch, presenting this carefully-curated social media presence, we hope to convey to others that we belong, that we are worthy of respect, love and admiration.

Of course, most of us are lucky enough to see through this facade sooner rather than later, which is why so much of the marketing saturating the airwaves is aimed at the ‘tween scene.

Wanting to control how other people think about us is pointless vanity, of course, not to mention that other thing which causes most people to give it up in due course: Impossible.

But until that magical day, conspicuous consumerism, our love of logos, persists like a perpetual hangover; always reeling from that last purchase high, always jonesing for the next. Even after the veil is lifted, almost no one is totally immune to the lure of advertisers.

Keeping up with the Joneses never goes out of style.

Which is why the latest corporate advertising gambit is truly genius, combining as it does everything companies have learned about their customers’ weaknesses over the past five decades nonstop market research.

Humans crave love and recognition. We want to be accepted by our community, be a part of the “in” group.

Letting others know we belong isn’t easy, of course. Which is why conspicuous consumerism was such a big hit with humanity- it was such a handy shortcut. Rather than having to prove our worthiness through painstaking effort, by demonstrating with our actions and associations, we just had to wear this necklace. Or shirt. Or jacket. Or drive this car.

If I’m carrying a Louis Vuitton logo bag, and you’re carrying a Louis Vuitton logo bag, by this logic, we can both assume we occupy a similar socioeconomic station and are therefore a “safe” associate. And by their logos, we shall know them.

Astute readers might note a gaping hole in that logic: A logo doesn’t mean anything.

Anyone can buy a logo. Some knock-offs are indistinguishable from the real thing- and made in the sweatshop next door in any case. Right down the line of designers in the fashion industry- one of the worst environmental and human rights offenders on the planet- it’s copies of copies of copies.

Even if the logo is real, it still doesn’t mean anything. Someone might have spent their last dollar on that Louis Vuitton; it might not have a penny inside. A million things could be true about two people carrying the same handbag. A logo can’t provide safety, security, proof of station or anything else. It won’t bring you love, happiness, fulfillment or inner peace.

A logo doesn’t mean anything except that corporations have somehow convinced us otherwise.

They have used trillion-dollar ad budgets, research laboratories, chemical additives, think tanks, focus groups, beta testing, micro-targeting and the kitchen sink to influence people to buy their products. They have used sex, our own insecurities, the lack of sleep suffered by new parents, social pressure, and worst of all so far (for humanity and the planet) conspicuous consumerism.

Conspicuous consumerism was falling out of fashion. Etsy was busily selling wealthy Swope Park moms handmade bespoke purse straps to make their $20,000 Birkin bags look more socially acceptable. Millennials killed the (blood) diamond industry. A Louis Vuitton bag was only cool if it was “liberated” during the protests of 2020.

Now, however, advertisers and corporations have reinvented conspicuous consumerism. We are again to proudly display their logos and ad slogans as faithfully as professional golfers sponsored by a single sportswear company. Only now these Nike, NorthFace, and Apple logos aren’t meant to convey wealth or status; they are meant to convey that we are good people who care about making a difference in the world.

You have to hand it to them, this latest advertising gambit is pure gold.

Logos are the new black, the modern day golden calf, the ultimate rabbit’s foot by which we are to identify ourselves, one True Believer to another.

That these corporations have managed to pull this con on nation of secularists who don’t think they have religion is perhaps the biggest twist of all.

Meanwhile we live surrounded by logos which make us feel safe, self-satisfied, secure, cosseted by a benevolent universe which just provided another fancy new Mac Book and next generation wireless headphones. In Apple we trust. Amazon will deliver. One family, under Facebook, with mass-produced goods and 5G services for all. May Unilever and Nike bless us, every one.

The deities of this particular parthenon- Bezos, Zuckerberg, Dorsey; Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook- are all well-loved by their many acolytes. Well, they would be. They’re smart enough to own quite a few influential newspapers, haven’t you heard? They invested more in the outcome of the last U.S. presidential election than the U.S. government.

With that kind of clout, who wouldn’t be popular?

And with the kinds of advertising budgets multi-national corporations have, unhampered by onerous oversight, no accountability to anyone but their shareholders and public relations managers, there is no need for these companies to actually be virtuous.

Make a feel-good commercial, launch a social justice awareness lip-service campaign, talk up “carbon offset credits” like it isn’t a total cop out, drum up a little controversy over something ultimately meaningless, maybe even a bit silly- like changing a fictional character’s famous motto from “the American way” to…something else, who cares; do nothing whatever about actual real-world problems driven by standard corporate operating procedures.

Doing something about deforestation, loss of wildlife habitat worldwide, ocean pollution, single-use plastics, fossil fuels, forced labor, unfair trade practices, and the exploitation of emerging nations would be hard- and expensive for these companies. Making commercials is easy.

Talk is cheap.

Offering fake absolution via logo is better than cheap; it’s profitable.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)