What can we learn from a retrospective look at Britney Spears’ time as a pop star?
What does Britney Spears have in common with a can of Pepsi?
They share the neuron that’s fired in your brain.
“A celebrity face may function as a reinforcing stimulus whereas the product is a neutral stimulus,” according to a study that analyzes celebrity product endorsement.
Translation: consumers with a positive association to a celebrity will generate warm favouring to the product they endorse, even when their stance was otherwise neutral to the product, as seen in neuromapping.
The recipe goes like this: place a celebrity next to the product in a commercial, and the product will tap into some of the happy memories you have of the celebrity, located in the cerebral cortex of the brain.
So, we see how this relationship impacts the product — Pepsi inherits the feel-good memories I have when I think of dancing to Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” when I was five years old.
But how does this connection between product and person impact my impression of Spears?
Do we start to relate Pepsi more to Spears, or is it the other way around?
I’m talking about human objectification. I’m talking about concepts like “celebrity brand” and, its echo, “finding your brand,” which flips a profit off self-objectification.
On the page, this may read like a jump to you — the idea that self-branding is an act of violent objectification. But the brain doesn’t parse between “positive” objectification, like a lucrative advertising campaign, and “negative” objectification, like vicious online threats to celebrities.
The brain cannot tell that I am only self-objectifying, as in “branding,” in order to, say, sell myself to this company I want to work for. The brain only fires neurons.
The normalization and commodification of objectifying ourselves and others works to divert our attention from who people are to how people appear. This distinction facilitates cruel online “trolling.” It turns people’s suffering into memes. It rewards snappy hatefulness.
Objectification of ourselves and others is ultimately subversive to the age-old battle for women’s equality, as it reinforces systems of violence that exclude women from medical, legal, and financial independence. Example: Spears.
Reality check: Spears’ first hit single, “Baby One More Time,” with its super suggestive lyrics and iconic baby-doll school uniform, was first released when she was just 17 years old.
From a young age, we drank Spears like lemonade on a hot summer day. Her “brand” in the early days of her career — a girl next door type who played dumb half the time and spoke in a baby voice — made it possible; encouraged it even. As she grew up, our consumption of Spears intensified, with paparazzi following her every step for our benefit. I want to watch her personal life unfold. I want to know why Britney and Justin broke up — whose fault was it? As this objectification intensified, it did so with consistent sexist bias.
Our brains are elastic. They learn from repetition, reinforcement, and other sly tricks. The dawn of neuromarketing broke open a new day in the advertising world. Its repercussions permeate public identity, culture, celebrity fate, moral shifts, personal finance, and so much more.
Spears is the intersection point of all these other consequences.
A recent documentary by The New York Times Presents, “Framing Britney Spears” chronicles the experiences that have led Spears to endure a lifelong pursuit from paparazzi, suffer various mental health episodes before an unforgiving public, and to experience a conservatorship for more than a decade, which charges her father with managing her fortune, among other things.
Looking back, we can agree that what happened to Spears was unacceptable, and many who were ousted in the recent documentary have come forward with their own reckoning with the situation. I remember watching the 2007 “Leave Britney Alone” video in high school, tickled by the outburst, and completely oblivious to the rightful urgency of the message.
But the issue of objectification persists in mainstream culture and news. Jojo Siwa, a child celebrity who self-identifies as the first person “to be licensed as a brand,” is celebrated as a feminist icon for “owning” her brand.
Siwa is 17 years old, around the age Spears was when she first released “Baby One More Time.” These are people, who are literally children, celebrated for the relatability of their brand. People are congratulated for living an experience publicly that appears authentic while they treat their real life experience as a commercial, with products seamlessly embedded into their human experience. This is called an “ownable” brand.
The major distinction between Siwa and Spears is the latter’s sexualization for profit. Spears was sexually objectified from a young age, a phenomenon many of us can now agree is wrong (don’t ask someone whether they’re “still” a virgin during a televised interview!). Siwa’s team, in contrast, have managed to create a brand that exploits Siwa’s youth and bubbly — almost childish — personality, rather than cash in on her sexuality.
This distinction is not a feminist celebration. This is not a success. Spears is a living example that even the most talented and wealthy women can still be subjected to unimaginable harms and systemic oppression that excludes them from financial, medical, and legal autonomy.
Our brains can’t distinguish between “good” and “bad” objectification. The problem isn’t that sexual objectification, such as the objectification Spears endures, is bad, it’s that objectification in itself changes how our brains perceive the world, which then impacts how we relate to one another.
Humans were made to connect because together we are stronger. But if our brain no longer distinguishes a person from a product, then that weakens our natural inclination to bind at a granular level. It weakens our capacity to communicate effectively, to form meaningful bonds, to have each other’s backs.
For decades we drank Spears the persona and Spears the person.
Her manager says she may never perform again, and honestly I understand the decision. She expressed that she’s “taking time to be a normal person,” a rightful boundary that swells me with shame, as it should.
My brain registers Spears like a can of Pepsi: the person, the persona, the product — despite her humanity. Now it’s my job to rework that understanding, to retell her story with respect and compassion as I reflect on the times I danced to her music, soaking it up.
Photo collage by Kit Mergaert