"The Girlfriend Experience" - A Skillful But Terrible Personal Brand Playbook
I've been watching Steven Soderberg's The Girlfriend Experience. It is a show soaked in sex. But really it's about branding's stock-in-trade - how well some people trade money for fantasy, how they anticipate and fulfill those deep dark desires inside our heads.
Christine, the main character in GFE, is more than a commodity, she is a brand. They don't want to pay just any female partner - they want to pay her. A thousand dollars an hour, to be exact.
As a person-brand, Christine's value lies in her consistent ability to accomplish at least five critical things at once:
- She zones in on a target market, men who want companionship as well as sex.
- She takes the time to know her audience well, and to fulfill their most common fantasies - the physically attractive, upscale girlfriend who is smart but also deferential.
- She is deeply customer-centric - available instantly, will say and do anything to please.
- She creates additional desire with every interaction.
- At the same time, she creates boundaries around the transaction, and when it's over, it's over.
Christine knows that others look down on what she does, but like a true brand she has adapted her value system to accommodate her profession. As she says to another character in the show, who condescendingly calls her a whore, "I fuck them but at least I don't fuck them over like you do. They know exactly what they're paying for - and i give it to them."
Also like a true person-brand gone to the extreme, Christine only sees herself as real when she is looking in the mirror. So much so in fact, that she videotapes herself performing sexual acts, and we see her watching herself on the screen, over and over again. In the moment the experience does not feel real. But as a third party watching herself perform, she is mesmerized by the viewing.
We know that great company brands do all of the things Christine does. They consistently give us a personified fantasy in consistent, specific, valuable ways. They offer a moral view of the world, one that implicitly justifies every interaction with the customer. And most importantly, they recreate the semblance of an authentic self, reassembled, packaged and "productized" in a way that only makes sense hwen you buy it.
It is obvious on watching the show that Christine is deeply troubled. But it is just as obvious that her psychological complex parallels the way that branding has developed over the past thirty years or so. Far beyond Arlie Hochschild's concept of "emotional labor," Christine personifies the idea of a human being paid exorbitant sums for the most invasive of duties - to actually be a complete human substitute, wholly available, on every level, for cash, on demand.
We can look at the way Christine carries herself and learn how to refine our brand model. But even as we do this, it is impossible to ignore the fundamental questions that lie beneath:
How far are we willing to go to have a successful brand?
What is the impact on all of us, if some of us refuse to draw a boundary between what we do at work and how we live our lives as people?
If we are all just for sale now, all of us, on every level - what is it about us that is real anymore?
And finally, if we have all been reduced to "something consumable," ought we consider some sort of personal commitment and social action, to keep certain parts of ourselves off-limits?
All opinions my own. The Girlfriend Experience photo via Starz.com.