By Andrew Frame
Personal expression. Cars, clothes, footwear, tattooing, piercing, spandex, overuse of makeup, jewelry, gaudy jewelry, hideously gaudy jewelry...
I have a fondness for tropical shirts. Not just any garden-variety tropical shirt. Rather, richly hued shirts, the kind that require polarizing sunglasses to prevent catastrophic retinal implosion. Normally, when I see someone wearing a particularly optically stunning garment, I will compliment the wearer on his or her choice of wardrobe. They will see mine, and we’ll often share a nerdy chuckle.
My Long-Suffering Bride and I were departing a local eatery recently when a gentleman commented on my attire – a screaming short-sleeved cobalt assault with a black, red and yellow sunset. Several years and countless washings after purchase from a vendor in St Maartin, this one still arrives in the room before I do. (There’s a matching purple version, too.)
I complimented the complimenter on his own somewhat more subdued, but equally artistic black and tan coconut palm print. Then he cheerfully said something that made me stop...
Parrothead. The global tag for fans of Jimmy Buffet and the Coral Reefer Band. While I have an appreciation for their musical selections (and a greater appreciation for the Hemisphere Dancer), I am not, nor will ever be a “Parrothead.” (I bridle strongly at being labeled.)
“No,” I said politely, not sure if the gentleman was a resident of my chunk of the landmass, or a touristy traveler from Lands North. “Not a Parrothead. I wear these all the time. You should see the red one with the white hibiscus. It’ll put your eyes back on the first plane for Flint.”
He chuckled, we left, and I’ve been brooding over the whole thing since.
A while back, the neophyte me, in an effort to find some sort of identity in the world, would wear branded merchandise without a thought – especially tee shirts from whichever radio station I happened to be leasing my skills to.
In time, I saw the error of my ways, and refused to do so unless a couple of conditions were met (this includes bumper stickers, pens, buttons, and any other kind of “specialty” items).
First off, the article had to have some genuine merit. Forget radio station license plates, tee shirts and ball caps. The last branded radio station item I displayed upon my person was a thick cotton khaki long-sleeved oxford, with button collars, and high quality embroidery of the company logo, my name and (dis)respected job title. Perfect for the computer-friendly, flu-inducing sub-zero climate kept in the office environment. Structurally identical to the kind of shirt I already had hanging in my closet for Sunday morning and PR flacking, except the ones in the closet were azure, peach, white, and sunrise yellow. The station oxford was a class act, a rare gift for the working schlubs in the trenches, but because it was actually a quality garment, I wore it weekly. (Side note: I found out later that the shirt – like a high-quality marine jacket presented a few years earlier - was a local idea, put together by a departing promotions director, not Corporate. Naturally. There’s a whole idiotic this-is-Florida-not-Pittsburgh dress-code issue that went with it, but I’ll save that for later.)
Secondly, My Long-Suffering Bride and I will wear branded items if the artistic quality is good – and the brand is fake. Yes, fake. Our Key West Express coffee tee, for example. Bogus brand and “company” name, great logo of a seaplane. Fabric the thickness of plywood. The Amphibious Phranks dive shop with the frog rigged with a Jules Vernian aqualung. And our cherished, geeky, NOAA Fear “Mercenaries For Science” P-3 hurricane plane shirt.
Third, we’ll wear or use branded items regardless of artistic quality and if the brand is real – provided we know the owner/CEO of the company personally. We’ve even bought tee shirts from our favorite diner – simple one-color screen print, because we know The Boss.
We have one imprinted coffee cup from a voice-over colleague (my daughter pinched the matching wicked black tee shirt before she left to join the commune), a nice pocketknife from a mate in Australia (branded with their logo), and a couple of other items we actually use.
The bottom line is we, as individuals – and advertising space - have value and there’s no free ride. My Long-Suffering Bride, in her role as Traffic Deity, refuses to wear a company shirt unless they pay her for the ad space.
“I’m valuable real estate just like any other print medium,” she said, when having station tee shirts dropped on her desk. “You want exposure, it will cost you.”
That kind of rationalization is clearly not the norm of society, given the willingness for the masses to pay companies to give them free advertising. Any department store is layered with branded merchandise from diapers to deck shoes — especially shirts and caps, by the aisle-full.
For years I’ve wanted a plain ol’ (American) football jersey. But, every color combination I like has been laid claim to by a national team. Even the number has some significance as to the player’s position. I wear it, and suddenly I’m a “fan.”
I grew out of the want to have some sort of identity and grew into the realization I made my own and simply didn’t realize it. I wear an Aussie-style bush hat, tropical shirts, and drive a convertible so small I have to put it on, rather than get in. My Long-Suffering Bride is the same way. She has her favorite store, and none of the shirts, shorts, blouses, slacks, or dresses that she makes look terrific have anything on them to tell you where they came from. We take the dealership decal off the back of the car after purchase. Free advertising? No way. If you treat us well, we’ll tell people, don’t worry. But no gratis advertising on our boot or our backs. We neither want nor need to be shills for some company that doesn’t know we exist.
We brand ourselves by what we wear, drive, shop, movies we rent, operating systems we use, toys we buy... get the point? We don’t need to co-opt an identity by purchasing and wearing the colors of some major company. We are our own brand.
What about you? Do you have to “borrow” a brand to make yourself? Are you willing to pay to allow a company to use your body as additional free advertising? Do you wear branded merchandise because you think it makes you look cool or contemporary? Are you your own brand... or simply adorning yourself with someone else’s?
Did you know most yellow and brown insects with black stripes are often stinging insects? They also have a particular wing-buzz and confrontational nature. Colors, sounds, and attitude remembered by predators. Now, there are other insects that don’t have a stinger, but do have very similar color and sound identification and act in a confrontational manner. Their adornment is for their survival.
What is yours for?
When it comes to writing and producing are you copying someone else’s style? Do you long to have your vocal processor set up like one of the “big guys” so you can audition for movie trailer work too?
Even with all the possible permutations of life, there is still room for a little originality in the world. Major ad agencies have been on a roll these past few years wringing out old pop and rock songs for car commercials and ointment rash pitches and erectile dysfunction pills. Sure, it’s been done for decades, but lately our perception is that it’s simply skyrocketed to an absurdly new level of lack-of-originality.
Originality doesn’t necessarily mean wildly written and produced. But it does mean something that is unique to you, a brand that people can identify as coming from your pen, your editor, your voice. It is nurtured by confidence and tempered by experience.
So... are you your own brand... or simply wearing someone else’s?