The Kardashians & The #BrandofMe

If the “Brand of Me” has an origin story, part of it begins nearly a decade ago in, where else, California. Celebrity and the pursuit of fame has been a staple of Hollywood for almost a century, but the desperate hunger for bankable fame hit a turning point in 2007. A large, flamboyant, boisterous family with no apparent talent created a new type of dynasty: the Kardashians. Five daughters, two dads, a matriarch with a canny ability to exploit the intergenerational chaos – and of course the infamous “leaked” sex tape of the eldest daughter Kim, all combined to launch the ravenous narcissism of what we might call “America’s First Family of Social Media.” Indeed, the brood has permeated celebrity media in an unprecedented way. They were the first to truly capitalize on the power of social media, spreading from television to Facebook, Twitter to Instagram.

Their branding may have started as a hunger for celebrity, but it’s evolved into a lucrative, strategic profession. A few years ago, when the “Keeping up with the Kardashian” flame seemed to dim, Kris Jenner adroitly began expanding and rejuvenating the dynastic brand. New faces and issues had to be found to keep the family relevant. With a new and growing crop of young social media audiences and fans, Kris launched a brand extension, namely “brand Jenner” (the family name of her former husband). Kylie Jenner and Kendall Jenner were younger, reached a different teenaged demographic, and re-established a hold over an age group that older siblings Kim and Khloe could no longer maintain.

The Kardashian tendrils continued to spread outwards, forming roots in social areas where the brand was traditionally dismissed. Kim and Kanye found love and the Kardashian brand forced its way into the hip-hop world and more recently, the fashion world. Through Khloe’s relationship with a pro NBA player, the brand tried to sink its teeth into the basketball world.

Scroll through their Instagram feeds and you’ll spot an array of “health and beauty” products endorsed by some of the daughters.

Cashing in on personal celebrity is nothing new. Exploiting social media through a heady combination of faux personal access and product endorsement has pushed the “Brand of Me” to a whole new level. In the process, they’re leading generations of young women to believe that they too can be powerful, successful, wealthy and famous brands.

So, what are the messages they’re sending to the teens and young women who hang on their every post? That’s what this Kardashian primer is all about.

All Access All The Time! Up Close and Personal with the Kardashians

There’s a famous exchange attributed to British playwright George Bernard Shaw. It goes like this:

Shaw: Madam, would you sleep with me for 5 Million pounds?
Woman: Well I suppose I would.
Shaw: Would you sleep with me for 5 pounds?
Woman: What kind of woman do you think I am?!
Shaw: Madam, we’ve already established that, now we’re merely haggling about the price.

With apologies to Shaw, we have clearly established what the Kardashians are, and what we (and they) are haggling over is the price.

Make no mistake about it; these sisters are in the fame game for the money. In a strange way they know us (or at least some of us) as well as we know them.

We love train wrecks.  The more twisted the wreckage, the higher the octane, the better it is. It`s exhilarating and enthralling, so long as you`re at a safe distance, that is. Most people do everything they can to avoid becoming a train wreck. The Kardashians, on the other hand, thrive on it. Kim “breaking the internet” with her nude pictures was a PR win beyond expectations. Bloggers droning on about how vapid they are keeps the family name consistently high in trending web searches. That all eyes are on them is simply proof their strategy is working.

The Kardashians have taken our love of gossip and infused it with 21st century pizazz by giving us something that no tabloids or paparazzi have been able to provide: the appearance of personal intimacy.  They seem to have let us into their lives, warts and all. But why do this? Why let strangers in?  

We can’t ask $haw, but clearly the answer is the $ame. The more mud we fling their way, the more ecstatic they are, and the more they profit from 21st century metrics of followers and views, brand lift and brand sponsorships. They court controversy, exploit family tension, and promote themselves relentlessly. But this must come at a cost. Letting total strangers into your life and pretending that you are fast friends must carry an enormous emotional toll. Or so it would, if the intimacy they provide was real. But it is, at best, skillfully manufactured.

Looked at another way, the Kardashians are actors who fulfill our needs and desires. The intimacy they provide us is all an eloquently constructed charade. They know we all want to be rich, beautiful and do nothing but shop for Prada all day. They also know that since we can`t all have that, our lizard brains want to see our idols suffer the same struggles we do, because it makes them seem “just like us”. In the past we might have snickered at the gaffs of the rich and famous if they slipped up in public. The Kardashian`s have instead chosen to let us in to play pretend with them. And like all the best fairy tales, this is all one sided. They give us the dirt on themselves, and never ask us to do the same, and thank goodness for that. They pretend to gives us a glimpse into their lives and we laugh and poke fun at how vain and silly they are. They get cold hard cash and we get to pretend that being rich and famous really does make you a fool.

 But couldn't the Kardashian`s just get real jobs like the rest of us? You know, flip a burger or file some TPS reports? The answer to that is that they do have real jobs. They are actors. Like Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie, they put on a mask and work hard to make you believe that what you`re seeing is the truth, even if deep down we all know that it`s not. The Kardashian`s trade intimacy for cash, because it is their job. The exchange is simple; they show us the stardust and suffering of the celebrity lifestyle and we fund the Kardashian cash machine by buying magic tea, or some organ-crushing corset. Intimacy and access in exchange for cash…as Shaw says, “ …we are merely haggling about the price.”