"To whom much is given, much is required." My mother used to say this to me and my brothers when we were using the powers of our creative brains to bedevil each other rather than "bring out the best in one another" (another of her favorites).
I thought of this life lesson after a recent encounter with brand badness. The situation was this: I bought lipstick from a brand called “Urban Decay.” At the time, the brand name didn’t register in my consciousness. Later, however, I realized that the tube of lipstick is designed to look like a shotgun shell and sold under the line: “What’s your vice?” Suddenly, I could picture how the brand’s product positioning might have been developed: a conference room where people doodled on flip-chart paper listing things that came to mind with the phrase "urban decay;" maybe photos of graffitied concrete street scenes pasted around the room. The result of that process? Urban Decay presents its line as makeup with a wild side for “beauty with an edge.”™ It’s “feminine, dangerous, and fun.” Those who are “addicted” to the makeup can sign up to be “Beauty Junkies, because "Addiction has its perks.” The mascara is called "Perversion;" the lipsticks are shiny bullet casings.
Giving this brand the benefit of the doubt, I looked to see if portions of their proceeds are donated to help high-performing urban students with scholarships, or maybe to build community centers in blighted areas.
I found that Urban Decay supports an initiative claiming to “empower women,” So far, they have given $528,000 to different women's causes ranging from legal care in New York to education in Uganda and Kenya. So that's something,
But is it too little too late? The brand is built on making light of the issues that contribute to the hell recipients of their donations experience every day. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that no one actually experiencing urban decay is buying shotgun lipstick for $17 a tube. Or, that women who have real addictions and might be perceived as “junkies” don’t worry whether their makeup brushes are vegan. I’m guessing that all the brand riffing is for the benefit of privileged people who want to feel edgy and colorful from a well-lit, easily accessible, strip mall in a safe, newly developed part of town. Donations aside, I find the disconnect between the brand and the realities the inspired it to be callously, shamefully indifferent and disrespectful.
If I sound more vitriolic than usual, sorry. In my mind, branding is a lovely combination of strategy and creativity with a hefty dose of psychology and sociology thrown in. To use the work of branding to make light of the real problems, of violence, poverty, human weakness and suffering is an irresponsible use of the practice. Urban Decay, use your powers for good. I will not be buying any more shotgun shells,
What do you think? Am I being too hard on Urban Decay? Do brands owe the world anything other than their ability to create loyalty, make money, etc.?
Kyndra Wilson, KW Brand Translation
Culture geek. Proud Colorado native.