Q. Hey, What’s Your Brand? A. Hands Off My Swoosh!

Hanging in the air of the Internet somewhere is a news dispatch that will undoubtedly appear in the Dec. 12, 1999, issue of The New York Times :

“With so many school districts strapped for cash, the monetary void is increasingly being filled by corporate sponsorships. The newest program implemented in secondary and even elementary schools has been the Tattoo You Too! program. In exchange for a fixed fee (based on the number of participants), students ‘volunteer’ to receive a stylized and updated tattoo of common and famous corporate logos.

“‘It’s a win-win situation,’ said Christopher Simmons, principal of Applegate High School in Akron, Ohio. ‘With the current tattooing fad, kids get a chance to look hip while earning money for the school. It only takes four tattoos to purchase a new computer. We’ve been overwhelmed by its success.’ Those opposed to the program are outraged by this new trend. Angry parents have attacked the program after seeing their sons and daughters arrive home sporting the Nike ‘swoosh’ or a grinning Joe Camel tattoo. The lack of consent forms has bothered many.”

This is one of those takeoffs that’s so plausible, you have to check yourself before you’re sure they haven’t actually got Tattoo You Too! up and running. True, the bit at the end about outraged parents and lack of consent forms is a stretch. Why would there be outraged parents? Half the moms and pops in America walk around in logo-festooned T-shirts and warm-up jackets, looking like ambulatory billboards. From Louis Vuitton to Miller Lite, millions pay money to turn themselves into sandwich signs for corporations listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

The capture of public education by propagandists for sexual mayhem and other cultural diversities is matched and exceeded only by the penetration of the selfsame institutions of lower learning by corporations inculcating consumer consumption norms in the classrooms. From math class to the ball field, from the school cafeteria to the pamphlets passed out by the teacher, to the displays on the bulletin boards, to the movies and television programs in social studies and the soda and candy machines in the corridors, corporate logos are affixed everywhere.

Children who resist internalization of consumer norms by displays of antisocial behavior, such as going after the assistant principal with a tomahawk, can and should be drugged. The new awareness of the need to use the full psychopharmacological armamentarium to treat deviant, consumer-resistant children comes at a time when sales of Prozac have topped out and are even receding a bit. Although Eli Lilly and Company sold almost 2 billion bucks worth of the happy pills last year, it’s just not enough, so thank heaven for the little ones. “The [drug] companies are looking for expanded markets,” quoth Barbara Ryan, who studies these matters in her capacity as a managing director of BT Alex. Brown Inc. Last year, almost 600,000 children were dosed with Prozac, Paxil or Zoloft, so there are millions more wee ones there in the classrooms, ready to be made malleable 21st-century consumer pod people.

In recent years, corporations have taken to branding stadiums and other public arenas with name and logo. It is but a matter of time before cash-strapped government entities will sell the names of monuments, streets or even mountains. Calvin Klein’s Statue of Liberty, not Fifth Avenue but Benetton Way, and if the Treasury can pick up a couple of million a year in royalties, let them call the place where the President lives Honda House. You got the money, you get the name.

Yet sometimes even when you have the money, you still don’t get the name. It’s a matter of who, how and how much. Last spring, one of those muy rico couples that nobody has ever heard of got into a snit after announcing they were going to give $3 million to the Central Park Zoo. I don’t know whether they expected it to be called the Edith and Henry Everett Zoo, which is a mouthful, or what. In any event, the sign with their name on it was deemed too small for their philanthropic egos, so they demanded their money back. “We were not talking about neon lights,” The Times quoted Mrs. Everett, who must be one charming, self-effacing piece of work, as saying. “We were talking about a very modest plaque that would give acknowledgment to a very sizable gift by anybody’s standard. The Art Commission had different notions. Be that as it may, they have the final word. I don’t. It’s too bad. We wanted to do something that would give us and the kids of New York pleasure.”

Aw, come off it, lady. Rich jerks think they can sit down, write out a check for what is, given the tax considerations and the size of their hoards, a trifling sum, and get immortality in stone. Yeah, well, who was Sloan and what was Kettering? Dollars to doughnuts, not one person in a thousand is able to connect them to their careers at General Motors. Just being rich, least of all in Manhattan, is hardly a distinction. Ordinarily, it denotes little more than Ms. or Mr. Bigbucks has a hand quicker than the accountant’s eye.

If these Everett characters wanted to brand the Central Park Zoo, they should have gone about it the way the corporations do. Corporations don’t contract to have their names put on things in perpetuity. Zoos could become unpopular, so buy only what you know you need. For example, it might be the Coca-Cola Zoo for 10 years at $2 million a year with an option for five more for a sum to be negotiated.

Note also that when a corporation pays money to brand a place, a thing or a person, no suggestion of charity arises. It’s the old quid for the old quo, and please skip the horse pucky about giving the “kids” pleasure. One thing you’ve got to say about the new world order of free markets and every man your competitor/enemy, little breath is given over to striking eleemosynary poses. Charity is an irrational dissipation of capital, which, if correctly used, would result in job growth. Remember that, won’t you, when you hear the tinkle of the Salvation Army bell and spy the kettle this holiday season.

America has become Logo Nation, a branded land of malls and shopping strips and people kicking and scratching each other to get crap they don’t need and that doesn’t make them happy. One-quarter of a billion ill-tempered people snapping and snipping at one another, choking with road rage, gridlocked in ugly and baffling despair. Q. Hey, What’s Your Brand? A. Hands Off My Swoosh!