Keep Two Thoughts

Personal essays

Branding - Essay from Newsletter 174

What is it that these brand names describe


I have two strong Barbie memories.

I know, that probably isn’t something you expected me to say.

The first is that my sister had a Barbie and my mother made the doll dozens of outfits on her sewing machine. I can’t imagine the time and work involved but I’m sure it saved a lot of money.

The second is when the talking Barbie said, “Math class is tough. Want to go shopping?”

Barbie had been the symbol of a strong, independent woman who owned her own dream house and could be successful in almost any career. Check out this Wikipedia page listing the more than 200 careers that Barbie has had.

Maybe I was extra sensitive as a college Math professor, but women did not need a role model who made it ok to find math too challenging and retreat to the mall.

In the eighties and nineties there were a lot of arguments about whether calling the head of a committee a chairman made it less likely that a woman would fill that role.

It was policeman, fireman, postman, and so on.

I argued that it we were being distracted and that the fight should be to get more women into these positions and not worry about what we called them.

I was wrong.


Kim and I used to watch the Food network a fair amount. There were a lot of great cooking shows.

Emeril would say, “I don’t know about you, but my rice doesn’t come seasoned” before he sprinkled a mix of salt and spices on top with his signature expression, “Bam.”

There were programs that showed us what to look for when shopping for vegetables, how to cut and prep the food before heading to the stove, how to cook the food, and how to plate the finished meal.

There was the final scene with the host tasting the food - often with the guest and some wine - either in a kitchen or an eating area much nicer than what we had.

We’d often finish our dinner and watch Sarah Moulton’s weeknight show. She worked at Gourmet magazine and had worked for Julia Child, but she presented like an ordinary person. She made you feel that if she could do it, so could you.

Most of us didn’t. We watched hours and hours of chefs and cooks showing us how to cook dishes without ever trying them ourselves.

And now the Food Network is still the Food Network and yet it isn’t.

I don’t have cable tv anymore, but the network is now part of Max. The shows all seem to be either competitions or tourism types of shows. Either someone is putting a mystery ingredient in front of some contestants or we’re walking into a restaurant somewhere to sample their famous something or other.

I suppose it’s still Food TV but it’s changed out from under us.

All my exes

Of course, the Food Network wasn’t the only one. A&E used to actually be Arts and Entertainment, MTV used to be music, and HBO used to be our home box office. In the days before streaming or even before we tended to record television and watch it when it was convenient, HBO offered us non-stop movies without ads that were repeated enough that we could likely find time to watch what we wanted.

When HBO recently became Max, brand experts lamented the loss of a great brand. It’s true that HBO was a popular and well-respected brand. I like it a lot more than I like Max - but I’m still just looking for things to watch inside of an app on my AppleTV. The rebrand feels wasteful but it hasn’t changed my relationship with the experience.

HBO was never part of my everyday speech. I didn’t HBO something the way people say they “googled” something instead of “searched on the web” even if they aren’t using Google to do so.

Google, the company, became Alphabet - but they kept the name Google for the product and people still google something even if they use Duck Duck Go to do so.

Facebook, the company, became Meta - but they kept the name Facebook for the product and Instagram and WhatsApp. The URLs are the same as they ever were and we haven’t changed the way we talk about them.

When Threads was launched, it was presented as something tied to Instagram and not a new product from Meta.

And now Twitter has become X.

The same people who object to trans people being called by the pronouns they prefer are asking that we overnight stop calling tweets “tweets” and now call them “x’s.”

The same people who complain about Critical Race Theory and want it removed from schools where it was never taught, want to teach that slavery in America wasn’t as bad as slavery in other places and besides look at all the useful skills the slaves acquired.

If “WTAF” is in your dictionary, that phrase should be included as an example.

It’s bad enough that this should be taught, but it has been proposed as part of a curriculum on African-American history. That’s the brand for this content.

In an essay in Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall notes that Florida’s African-American history curriculum is not as overtly problematic as that one example would suggest.

But Josh, writes something that is important to remember, the curriculum is filled with many problems that are more a case of “emphasis and omission than outright fabrication.”

It’s harder to count and object to problems like this.

When we try to enumerate the problems, they individually seem small and not so important.

We shrug and decide that Math is tough and we watch television or go shopping.

Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 174. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe

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