Your Ugly Christmas Sweater Is Branding’s Latest Weapon
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmerch, with branded festive knits everywhere you go.
In addition to the expected (Disney, Adidas), the curious (Heinz, Planters) and the dorkily retro (Atari, Microsoft Minesweeper) are the more outlandish offerings — like Colt’s “classic” holiday sweatshirt (snowmen, handguns and “don’t tread on me” snakes) and Hulu’s festive homage to “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
As Santa must surely be asking, what in the world is going on?
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The Christmas jumper came of age in 2001, when moviegoers to “Bridget Jones’s Diary” experienced Colin Firth in a Rudolph sweater:
“The original sweater went through many designs because it had to be just right. The character of Mr. Darcy is a constipated English prig when we first meet him so we needed something totally ridiculous to pierce that pomposity.”
Not Just for Christmas
The inexorable rise of “ugly” festive merch rests on the jesting irony of high-low self-deprecation: being cool enough to pull off the patently lame. But it’s getting harder to tell who, exactly, is the butt of the joke when every brand aspires to be fashion-forward for 15 minutes.
To select just a quartet of recent examples: Netflix opened an online store selling corporate and show-related apparel; the dating app Bumble launched a branded range of “make the first move merch”; Mercedes with Proenza Schouler dropped a capsule collection “inspired by travel, the open road, and the iconic Mercedes-Benz logo”; and Lego teamed up with Target for a “limited-edition lifestyle collection” that includes “brick-inspired” sweatshirts, puffer jackets and fanny packs.
You Want Fashion With That?
The brands most attracted to ironic apparel are those flogging fast-food and ultra-processed snacks.
In recent months, Pizza Hut launched a limited edition “tastewear collection” as part of its focus on multi-generational “newstalgia”; Goldfish celebrated the launch of its limited-edition “Jalapeño Popper” crackers with “the ultimate ’90s snacking pants”; SunnyD opened its first online “swag shop” selling hoodies, socks and scrunchies; and Sonic began “celebrating the meaningful connections made with guests at their local drive-ins” with a range of state-specific tees.
“perfect for rockin’ at your bachelorette party (even virtually!) or as you walk down the aisle to your true love!”
The relationship between “fast food” and “fast fashion” is especially intriguing, since both models of consumption exploit an insatiable loop of mouthwatering anticipation, fleeting enjoyment, rapid regret and renewed hunger.
The Chinese fast-fashion supernova Shein adds some 6,000 new items every day to its online inventory of 600,000 products. Each item has an average price of around $10 and a toe-dipping test run of just 20-100 pieces. According to the BBC, only 6% of Shein’s inventory remains in stock for more than 90 days — creating an ever-present sleeve-tug of affordable scarcity which, augmented by an array of online “dark pattern” sales manipulations, encourages the purchase (and social-media parading) of “Shein hauls” of gear. Some 4.4 million Instagram posts are tagged #shein; one “Shein haul” YouTube video has 11.2 million views.
Set aside the unconscionable human and environmental costs of such gluttony and waste and consider the apparent emotional toll: According to a 2017 Greenpeace report (“After the Binge, the Hangover”), “around half of German, Taiwanese, Hong Kong and Chinese respondents admit that their [clothes] shopping cheer wears off within less than a day.” This survey dovetails with two other 2017 polls: The first found that 75% of 18-34 year-olds in New Zealand felt “guilty” after eating fast food; the second reported that the purchases Britons most regretted were clothing, footwear and takeaway food.
Clearly it’s time to update the dieter’s guilty aphorism (“A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips”) with an eco-minded addendum: “A moment on the hips, a lifetime in the landfill.”
Those tempted to smirk at such junk-food fripperies might first remove the tote from their own eye — for the soi-disant “intelligentsia” seems equally seduced by merch madness.
A few months ago, the New York Times followed up on its 2019 story (“What to Do With All Those Tote Bags / It’s O.K., we all have a problem with them”) with an analysis of “The Cotton Tote Crisis.” Citing a 2018 Danish study which showed an organic cotton tote must be used 20,000 times to offset the environmental impact of its production, the article concluded:
“In the end, the simplest solution may be the most obvious. “Not every product needs a bag,” said Ms. [Rachel] Comey.”
Interestingly, though, neither piece noted the Gray Lady’s current haul of a dozen totes (many in cotton) which range in price from $18 to $95 …
… nor her wide array of cotton baby bibs, onesies, tee shirts and caps:
The Times was equally exercised by the pre-launch promotional merch for Sally Rooney’s third novel, “Beautiful World, Where Are You,” which set the literati a-Twitter. “Is the Sally Rooney bucket hat the latest literary status symbol?” demanded the New Statesman, to which GQ sagely nodded: “We Need to Talk About the Sally Rooney Bucket Hat.”
Being bestowed a bucket hat became as vital as bagging a galley — “Beautiful Merch, Where Are You?” wailed the Times — and was certainly more ’grammable:
The appeal of streetwear to mass-market brands owes much to the example set by indie restaurants and bands, which have long used apparel to reward fan loyalty and boost bottom lines.
Yet there is a fundamental distinction between seeking self-expression via chain merch and via indie tees — and it’s the distinction between self-deprecation (“in on the joke”) and self-aggrandization (“in the know”).
Yet it’s a distinction mass-market brands don’t always comprehend. What, for example, was McDonald’s China communicating when last September it launched an “official delivery box” for 1,917 yuan ($300)?
The ability of “knowing-wink”-merch to communicate you’re “with the band” or “part of the crew” helps explains why high-fashion labels create deliberately déclassé “working gear” — inverting the traditional brand value of “aspiration” which saw, for example, “chavs” flocking to Burberry in the early 2000s and now, it seems, to Canada Goose.
“I truly believe balenciaga has been taken over by gang of socialists whose sole purpose is to mock the stupidly wealthy, getting them to spend thousands on poverty cosplay outfits. I mean this is literally working class appropriation isn’t it?”
Poverty cosplay was also evident when Balenciaga collaborated with The Simpsons to produce a 10-minute mini-episode in which Springfield’s finest are flown to Paris to strut the catwalk in clothes they couldn’t possibly afford:
Unbranded lies the head that wears the crown
Into this jumble of branded and brazen schmutter lands the TV show “Succession,” which satirizes high-net worth with just enough sparkle to elide the divide between visceral loathing and grudging envy.
Amidst the show’s tsunami of media adoration exists a tidal pool fixated on how its über-rich characters dress. As almost every journalistic outlet has gushed, “Succession” nails the “stealth wealth” Zeitgeist of inconspicuous consumption — a wardrobe that mixes bespoke suits for business with soft, muted layers for play.
The outlier item in this fashion parade is the baseball cap, deployed as a paparazzi shield (by Logan) and a peacocking provocation (by Kendall). According to the fashion analyst Lyst, sales of such caps have soared by 45% since the show’s third-season. But the caps of “Succession” are not any old dad caps; they are logoless luxury caps from Loro Piana and Brunello Cucinelli — which cost anything from a few hundred dollars to well over a thousand.
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Clothes Maketh the Brand
It’s not hard to see why brands are drawn to merch: press, participation and amour-propre.
Launching an apparel line has proven a surefire way to glean at least a sliver of media. The campaign can be as simple as Oscar Mayer’s cheesy collection of “Street Meat” clothing or as elaborate as the fictional university created by Reese’s (“Almost as exciting as going off to college”), which has a range of branded sports gear and the bizarre legal footnote “our lawyers want you to know Reese’s University is not a real University.”
In this way, corporate apparel is just the latest iteration of “opinion poll PR,” where surveys are commissioned to shoehorn brands into the news:
This in turn means that “limited editions” can be almost comically limited. In October, for instance, Burger King fanfared a “fall collection” of designer silk shirts designed to camouflage the “inevitable spillages” arising from its new range of “Gourmet Kings” luxury burgers.
Assuming sufficient items are actually manufactured, branded merch encourages consumers to act as bipedal billboards — not simply schlepping corporate slogans, toting their totes and donning their caps, but paying to play and posting the results to social.
User-generated content is not just cheap, but compelling, authentic and potentially viral — especially when it’s lo-fi and ironic. And when there’s no such thing as ironic publicity, irony marketing rules.
Finally, having taken so much time and trouble to craft a brand’s look and feel, companies have good reason to exploit it with every conceivable execution. If a publishing imprint doesn’t have a tote bag, does it even exist?
Hygge Camp Indulgence
If the supply of branded apparel is thus driven by press, participation and amour-propre, demand is surely stimulated by indulgent hygge camp.
Although not all branded merch is exactly cheap, much of it falls into the category of “affordable indulgence” — superfluous purchases that gratify, amuse and comfort without breaking the bank. In this way, modern corporate apparel adds a novel Gen X/Z data point to the “Lipstick Index” — Leonard Lauder’s suggestion, during the early 2000s recession, that small-ticket beauty items were a countercyclical indicator in times of economic distress.
Even if it costs just £7.99, buying a festive jumper from the cheapest supermarket in the U.K. implies not just a sense of humor but modicum of financial comfort (where are the snuggly food-bank sweaters?), and it reflects a growing sentiment that all but the super-rich now belong unabashedly to the bargain-hunting “Lidle class.”
The power of affordable indulgences to console as well as amuse suggests that branded apparel — especially the lounge-core leisurewear of sweaters, slides and PJs — intersects with the concept of hygge, defined by the OED as:
“a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being; contentment from simple pleasures, such as warmth, food, friends, etc.”
As Google Trends illustrates, hygge exploded into mass culture in December 2016 — and has been a Christmas presence ever since:
And what could be more quintessentially hygge than a $139 “super toasty bundle” (adult onesie, blanket and socks) from the 100-year old snack brand Cheez-It?
The final prism through which to assess branded apparel is that of “camp” — as explored by Susan Sontag in her 1964 essay “Notes on Camp,” and (partially) defined thus:
“… a vision of the world in terms of style — but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not.”
Although many of Sontag’s ’60s references have dated (Zuleika Dobson, Scopitone films) her wider analysis remains pertinent to this debate, not least her observation:
“Camp is the answer to the problem: how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture.”
Setting aside whether commercial intent can ever be truly camp (“camp rests on innocence”) the consumer reaction can certainly be — a lesson learned decades ago by brands like Werther’s Original, Ferrero Rocher and Grey Poupon. Indeed, for Sontag, camp is not only essentially “urban” and “possible only in affluent societies,” it “makes no distinction between the unique object and the mass-produced object” — all of which suit global branding down to the ground.
Moreover, as if anticipating the popularity of hygge, Sontag argued:
“Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as “a camp,” they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.”
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Splendidly, Sontag’s “ultimate statement” on camp serves also as the final word on pretty much every shred of mass-produced merch discussed above:
“It’s good because it’s awful.”
Ugly Christmas sweater anyone?
More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
- Did You Buy Your Dog a Christmas Present? Join the Club: Andrea Felsted
- From Gucci to De Rucci, Innovation Via Imitation: David Fickling
- The Perfect Christmas Gift? Cash: Teresa Ghilarducci
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Ben Schott is Bloomberg Opinion's advertising and brands columnist. He created the Schott’s Original Miscellany and Schott’s Almanac series, and writes for newspapers and magazines around the world.
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