'Manufacturing discontent': The effects of branding, PR & marketing on mental health

A recent study points to problems with mental illness in the PR sector, but is the industry itself partly to blame?

Are burnout, stress and anxiety symptoms of cultural malaise, asks Jakob Lusensky? (©Kopie)
Are burnout, stress and anxiety symptoms of cultural malaise, asks Jakob Lusensky? (©Kopie)
The other day I read in PR Week that mental illness in PR is treated as a performance problem. 

The article refers to a recently published study that finds that one in three people working in the PR industry have suffered mental ill health. 

I count myself among this third.

In my former career, I was a branding director working for global brands such as Coca-Cola and AXE (Lynx). We helped companies define their brand personalities through music, sound, and storytelling.

Our job was to transform often lifeless products (deodorants being one example) into mesmerising brands.

We did this primarily by associating brands with consumers’ (often unconscious) emotional needs and desires.

My own mental health problems began when I realised that I was no longer just creating brands, but had started to turn into one myself.

Living under constant stress spinning stories I had long since stopped believing in – this under the constant and very anxious pressure to perform – my own health started to deteriorate. My personal brand started cracking.

Leaving the PR and marketing industry, I ended up on the couch at a psychoanalyst’s office in Zürich. The treatment involved working through the illusions I had long held onto about who I was.

Who was I without my career and performance? Not much.

What was it beyond my personal history, childhood experiences, and genetic disposition that had made me sick?

I embarked upon a research project I called "brand psychology" in order to better understand brands’ emotional influence on individuals; their effect on our mental health.

One of my findings was that the role of a brand is no longer merely to differentiate one product from the next, but to help individuals define who we are.

Our patterns of consumption – specifically what brands we purchase – are an integral part of how we construct our identities. (Are you a Mac or a PC?)

Successful brands no longer rely on logotypes but on archetypes to successfully spin the stories that inspire us to personalise their magical products, products to which our sense of self-worth – indeed our sense of self, period – have become increasingly dependent.

Fast forward a few years.

I have shifted positions in the psychoanalytic room, from the couch to the analyst chair.

In my practice as a psychoanalyst, I have met with hundreds of clients who suffer from not living up to the impossible ideals of contemporary 'branded' life.

The symptoms that people enter therapy for – burnout, stress, or anxiety – are often (if not always) natural, individual responses to a cultural malaise. They are a healthy, often physical, reaction to a culture hell-bent on manufacturing discontent.

From this perspective, psychological symptoms can be understood as a deeper part of our interiority, a call from within for us to consider a change of values and lifestyle.

A call to one and all to de-brand ourselves from the cultural layers of our personality, in search of who we actually are.

Jakob Lusensky is a Jungian psychoanalyst, a counselor at Stillpoint Spaces, and the author of Brandpsycho: Four Essays on De:branding

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