Alice-Azania Jarvis: Brands that are ashamed of their past

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The Independent Online

'Play my song!" barks a large, grey-quiffed man, flanked by lucky cat and two, menacing, female bodyguards. "No, not that one," he yells when they do, groaning in disgust. "The new one! I want the new stuff." And so the band – The Hoosiers, in this instance, since it's an advert for their new album – oblige, playing a pop song so extremely different from their initial offering (which, three years ago, was a resounding success) that it's hard to believe the same voice boxes produced it.

It's nothing special – inoffensive, 80s-lite, the sort of stuff the charts are packed with – but it is a contrast, and a stark one at that. Look at us now, the ad screams. We're nothing like we used to be. Weren't we awful?

Reinvention – rebranding, even – is nothing new, especially in the fad-fetishising world that is pop. Madonna is the oft-cited Queen of Reinvention. She has gone, variously, from lace-gloved ingénue to sub-Marilyn bombshell to erotic Voguer and Kabbalah loving, macrobiotic Sugar Mommy. Likewise Bob Dylan, whose Woody origins bear little resemblance to his raucously electric offerings of just a few years subsequent, or the Beatles, or Britney Spears, or the countless other chameleonic acts who have chosen to shrug off their reputation and embrace their next unpredictable incarnation. Any teenage pop star worth their Disney Club heritage will be all-too-familiar with the inevitable, post-pubescent tour de raunch needed to clear their path in the adult world. Makeovers are a mainstay.

Yet the process has rarely assumed such a – how to put it? Surreal? Implausible? Transformative? – shape as in the latest crop of campaigns. Usually, at least, it comes with a hint of bigger-and-better. Some, vague acknowledgement of successes past: an if-you-liked-her-then-you'll-love-her-now, a bit of you-ain't-seen-nothing-yet. Definitely not a hired Chinese gang leader screaming protestations at the sound of you back then, shuddering at the thought of you pre-makeover.

And it isn't just happening in record stores. Mark Rabe, Yahoo's UK managing director, could be heard on yesterday's Today programme strenuously denying the company's search engine status. That stuff's for Google, he said. We're a broadcaster. Huh? The Government, meanwhile, has a whole webpage dedicated to it. Tell us your policy ideas, it says, and we'll put them into action. All of which roughly translates to Tell Us What You Want And We'll Pretend That's What's Happening.

Where did it all begin? Was it an attempt (apparently successful) by McDonald's to instil itself in the nation's consciousness as a green-chaired purveyor of wholesome, free-range Egg McMuffins? Was it with Hug A Hoodie? Whichever it was, we seem to have reached a curious moment in the evolution of our consumer culture: a point at which what's being offered no longer matters, has no identity, its selling points shaped purely by the predicted whims of the purchaser. It's like a weird kind of Orwellian fantasy: shop for delusions, not for desires.

It isn't difficult to understand why The Hoosiers have embraced such drastic measures. Specialising (last time) in vaguely comic landfill indie, they were, in many ways, the classic Band Who Fail On The Second Album. They might still be. Whether or not their tactics will work remains to be seen. Even if they do, it is hard to imagine it as much more than a last resort. After all, where do you go from total self-denial? Defiant root-hugging? The options, surely, must be limited.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps The Hoosiers' model of flogging is the future. Perhaps everyone will follow suit, embracing brand identity less as a reflection of what the product actually is, than as what the consumer – in all his fickle, flaky glory – thinks he wants at any particular moment. Search engine one day, broadcaster the next. Indie one-hit wonder, or pleasingly 80s-pop muzak. Thought we were a rubbish band before? Ha! So did we. So did our record label. So does this uncomfortably stereotyped Chinese gang man. Now, buy our new album. It's nothing like the old one.