A brand called you and me

A poorly educated country girl was going to be nowhere near as lucrative as what she could be made t

Whoever would have thought that a public meltdown could be so lucrative? This month the business magazine Portfolio published "The Britney Economy: a back-of-the-napkin calculation of just how much the scandal-plagued star is worth to the multitudes who make money off her". And the figures were startling.

One Los Angeles picture agency, for instance, "estimates that Britney accounts for 30 per cent of its revenue". She apparently brings in 20 per cent of business for the US paparazzi as a whole, which links directly to the fact that a Spears cover shot sends celebrity tabloid circulation soaring by 33 per cent. Overall, the "Britney industrial complex" has an estimated annual value of between $110m and $120m, less than 10 per cent of which goes to Spears herself.

Which shows that, even with her life in chaos, Spears remains the ultimate person-as-brand, a product eminently exploitable by her hangers-on (including her ex-husband, Kevin Federline, who reportedly receives $30,000 a pop simply to make a nightclub appearance).

Like Michael Jackson before her, Spears had her image developed and protected from an early age, after it was seemingly decided that what she actually was (a poorly educated country girl) was going to be nowhere near as lucrative as what she could be made to represent - that strange, contradictory concept, the "slutty virgin". Her former agent was said to control even her exact shade of nail varnish, and, as a young star, when she flipped the middle finger at a photographer, chat-show appearances were apparently booked immediately as a forum to express her contrition.

Given how Spears's natural instincts were constrained and restricted, it was no surprise when she eventually went wild. And I guess it's not surprising either that, even in a state of high anxiety, Spears still presents herself as a product - courting the paparazzi, shaving her head in full view of photographers, flashing her vagina as she gets out of cars.

The idea of person-as-brand has been popular among celebrities for decades, but it is only more recently that the idea of defining oneself as a saleable product has taken off among the general population. The notion is usually traced back to an article by Tom Peters in the business magazine Fast Company, titled "The brand called you", in which he wrote: "You're every bit as much a brand as Nike, Coke, Pepsi, or the Body Shop," and that "When you're promoting brand You, everything you do - and everything you choose not to do - communicates the value and character of the brand."

Peters's tone was avuncular, appealing, but much of the rhetoric of the industry that he prompted seems creepy at best, and nihilistic at worst. So, for instance, one of the hundreds of personal branding guides to be found online advises us to "begin by identifying the emotion you want to evoke in your audience. Then you identify the word or phrase that reflects that emotion . . . Lastly, you must consistently engage in intentional behaviour that promotes and reinforces the word or phrase you have chosen." As an approach to life, it seems singularly depressing and, of course, insincere.

But what is also true is that, the more you read about this concept, the more seductive it can become. We live in an age where editing and promoting ourselves has become completely acceptable, most obviously on the internet, where we choose avatars and pseudonyms that we think will appeal to others, post videos on You Tube, pictures on Flickr and profiles on social networking sites such as Facebook - all generally representing an idealised version of ourselves. Where once people placed value on the notion of an authentic self, we've become relaxed about the development of "tools" such as Photoshop and even cosmetic surgery, which enable us to edit and "improve" ourselves.

The line sold by personal branding gurus is alluring partly because it seems to offer a short cut to success. The US journalist Barbara Ehrenreich encountered this industry in her book Bait and Switch, for which she searched for a job in the white-collar sector, specifically public relations. During this process, she had an image makeover in which was told to introduce herself with the line "Hi, I'm Barbara, and I'm a crackerjack PR person!" and to erase all but the past ten years from her CV, simply to appear younger.

Which underlines that much of personal branding pivots on negation, fraud and repression. In fact, it's so repressive that it is clearly doomed to failure. If one of our keywords is "enthusiastic" and we find ourselves in the office with a raging cold and a clutch of deadlines, how well are we going to be able to embody that "brand value"? Not brilliantly. What happens when a colleague finds out that we've knocked ten years off our age? They are unlikely to be impressed. And once there's a chink in our image, what next? The whole shadowy enterprise falls apart, I guess.

And, unlike Britney, our personal exposure almost certainly won't bring the big bucks rolling in - for us, or for anyone else.

Kira Cochrane is women's editor of the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, God