For all that it is a boon to personkind, and notwithstanding that it keeps us employed in varying degrees of gainfulness, marketing has a lot to answer for. Take branding. We have come a long way since that unknown Mid-West cattle rancher first plunged a red hot logo into the searing hide of a surprised bovine and inadvertently paved the way for Victoria Beckham.
The benefits of branding are too well known to recite here, but with a page to fill, I’ll run through them anyway. A brand inspires affection, loyalty, a promise of quality and an assurance of reliability. It also confers an exclusive right to its use and, most important, is a valuable asset with an intrinsic worth of its own.
Given those attractions, it was with an awful inevitability that branding caught the attention of celebrities. After all, both have much in common: in particular, the more garish the outward packaging, the less there is inside. For the most part, however, celebrities have been content to lend their names to branded products as a means of supplementing their unreliable income. This led to Mariella Frostrup’s First Law of Promotion, which says the more precarious the status of the celebrity, the more you will hear of her (or him) on voiceovers.
But then came a quantum leap. Not content with making a few bob on the side plugging anything from floor cleaner to financial products, a few pioneering celebrities came to believe that they were themselves brands. They began to believe that in their personages resided all those qualities that make HP Sauce so enduringly popular – familiarity, dependability, distinctive packaging, and a list of ingredients that includes molasses and vinegar.
From there it was a short step to protecting the brand by law. Which brings us to Victoria Beckham’s objection to Peterborough United registering “Posh” and “The Posh” as trademarks, despite the fact that the club’s fans have been using the name since 1923. She contends that she has the worldwide rights to “Posh” because the name has been synonymous with her since her days with the Spice Girls. A final decision on who owns the name may not be made until the Patents Office rules next year.
Such humourless, self-serving vanity would be surprising were it not for the fact of celebrity itself, which is well known to addle the brain and create a state of mind in which the only known perspective is the self. How else could one explain the absurdity of imagining a football club passing itself off as a failed solo singer, or vice versa?
The risible Mrs Beckham is not alone in her posturing. Bill Wyman, the former Rolling Stone, instructed his lawyers to demand that an obscure American journalist of the same name should call himself something else. “I must ask that you cease and desist from authorising or permitting any such use of our client’s name,” thundered Howard Siegal, attorney for Bill Wyman the First. The case is complicated by the fact that Bill Wyman the First is in truth Bill Wyman the Second, since he changed his name by deed poll from William George Perks in 1964, whereas Bill Wyman, the journalist, was born with the name three years earlier.
The impertinence of asking, nay, demanding, that a man should change his given name because it happens to coincide with the adopted name of a superannuated rock musician would be breathtaking were it not, once again, for the disease we know as celebrity and the collective scurrility we know as lawyers.
Had the former William George Perks wanted to protect his name in perpetuity he should have picked something more distinctive than Bill Wyman. The possibilities were limitless: he might, for instance, have chosen Amos Finch, Cuthbert Dibble, Hildebrande Artemis, or Orson Carte. He might have borrowed from the world of commerce: Brillo Pad or Hovis Brown. Either would have suited a Rolling Stone, and I’ll bet that neither brand would have pursued him through the courts. There is a Yorkshire beer called John Smith’s. Were the owners so minded, teams of lawyers could be employed around the clock from here to eternity, demanding that the legion of John Smiths worldwide should cease and desist from passing themselves off as breweries.
We should not, however, get too worked up about this. In some ways, celebrities are right to see themselves as brands rather than people. There is, after all, something about Liz Hurley, Grant Bovey, and Tara Palmer Wossname that is not quite human, not altogether convincing. That is because the beast of celebrity, so highly prized and eagerly sought, is no sooner snared than it turns on its captors and eats them alive, leaving nothing behind save self-delusion.
To see this at its most extreme, one has only to look at Michael Jackson, who has, bit by bit, turned himself into some kind of artificial construct. The word charade comes to mind, but poor Michael couldn’t play that game, since at times it involves tapping the nose and his would surely fall off. Litigation, however, is improbable. Although ther
e must be hundreds, if not thousands, of other Michael Jacksons, none, it is fair to say, can boast facial features that are regularly shuffled and re-dealt. For once, the word inimitable has true meaning.