Life beyond the logo
Stuart Radcliffe goes along with Naomi Klein’s analysis of the economic power of the brand, but asks how people can effectively resist the psychological warfare conducted in the high streets of the world.
Naomi Klein's book* is fast becoming the gospel of the agitated "Generation X, Y and Z". It reiterates what has been said thousands of times before – capitalism is not fair.
At first this internationally-acclaimed journalist/activist nostalgically treats you to her own love affair with the branded world. Married to that story is her realisation that life-fulfilling moments could not be purchased in the shopping mall.
The book then charts the world's own unfulfilled love affair with the same seductive beacons of lifestyle, such as Nike, McDonalds, Shell et al – the superbrands and conglomerates that arguably now rule the world.
Her argument about "the demise of public space" starts with a real sucker punch. Introducing the concept of the brand, Klein describes a moment in 1993 known as "Marlboro Friday", when the business world thought the brand was finished. For years, Marlboro had bucked all economic trends without a dent in its image. Inexplicably, Marlboro was suddenly forced to start cutting prices to beat the competition.
The knock-on effects led to advertising budgets being reduced and promotional costs increased. Other companies followed suit and the brand was presumed dead. But the belief that consumers had finally sussed the empty promises of the ads that were so prolific in the 1980s and opted for price was soon quashed. Ad agencies financed by the big spending corporations set about revolutionising the ambivalence that was beginning to spread amongst market leaders. Not surprisingly, companies like Nike, Apple, the Body Shop, Calvin Klein, Disney, Levi's and Starbucks who came out of this running because branding was becoming a larger and larger part of their business. These success stories said to the world that the act of making a product was deemed a very low priority.
The book details many reasons why the corporations (in the US in particular) have been allowed into our lives beyond the point of sale. Taking over from public spending on cultural sponsorship of urban, artistic, educational and commercial space seems key. Basketball courts in New York ghettos are paid for by Nike; but for that one-off expenditure, they get to emblazon their logo on the court forever. Pizza Hut or McDonalds provide food in schools and colleges, with agreements that do not allow the school catering facilities to make foodstuffs in competition. Pretty soon, you have not got school catering facilities worth providing.
Prime retail locations in major cities like New York or London are being increasingly taken at a trading loss per unit. The price they pay offers association with the prestige outlets, which only serves to strengthen their own brand image. It is tactics like these that have allowed ad campaigns to move off the billboard and into our lives without interruption.
Knowing that a product is only a product, and not the promise of life-affirming experiences, is not enough – do you really choose to buy anything? Klein shows how Wal-Mart trailblazed across America with everything under one roof that you need and at low, low prices. They created clusters of cut price shopping. This kills off the local suppliers, but what the heck, it's cheap. It did not take long for Americans to realise that something was wrong with this development in commerce, but their protests went unheard and the growth of the brand continued.
The invasion and looming presence is the more obvious by-product. Underneath the jobs for locals, bright and breezy, wow everything's under one roof for next to nothing, was the sinister element of corporate censorship. Starbuck's strategy was much more stealth-like, but identical. They clustered areas of towns and cities, and operated at a loss to keep a stranglehold on local business, unsettling and ending local trade too. When these are the only outlets for miles, where does the mid-Westerner go for real choice?
Hand in hand with big business comes the employment potential. Anyone willing to work in any conglomerate at a service level will no doubt say "what jobs?" The temp, contract worker and part-time staff all get a fair crack of the whip. The type of work on offer is a go-between for the newly-graduated or the summer job for the student or young parent not able to commit to full time. There is no room in this for people unable to fit the prescribed demographic. Companies like Starbucks have a computerised system of rotating the shifts. It is a world where no one works longer than a three-hour shift and unionising the workforce is forbidden – much easier to abuse a bunch of individuals than negotiate with a body of them. These are the lucky ones. Klein's examination of the production side of the superbrand is unforgiving in its detail. While manufacturing and factories themselves became a unwanted capital item to the conglomerates, the produce still needs making. Emerging nations eager to please the globalised economy set up 'free trade zones'. Areas of land are set aside for big companies to forget about the workforce that puts the finishing touches on their brand.
Essentially, this is a young, female workforce, driven away from poverty-stricken rural areas, but more importantly from their family, forced to endure physical and sexual abuse in some instances, mandatory pregnancy tests, unpaid overtime and very long days. The theory that perpetuates this practice of production is that the Nike or Reebok wages create wealth and free the nation up to build their own economy. What is consistently ignored is that there is no evidence of this happening. The minute the demands of the nation/state, or the workforce become too great the companies threaten to take their operation elsewhere. It is not a threat to the Nikes and Reeboks because the manufacturing is someone else's going concern – they just want trainers for $4, they can sell for $180.
News of this reveals a rare look into branded America. Impoverished production conditions make Nike, Disney and Wal-Mart into powerful metaphors for a brutal way of doing business. Knowing this much does not seemed to have done much to tarnish the brands.
Individuals and pressure groups have started to make themselves visible. The inescapable truth of discontent shown at the World Trade Organisation is only going to increase. That is a culmination of nearly half a decade's agitation. Drawing on the tactics of the situationists and mirroring the invasion of the brands some people started to fight back. Klein calls this "culture jamming" (originally a phrase used by San Francisco band Negativland in 1984) – the practice of parodying advertisements and hijacking billboards.
These tales of resistance produce local heroes not intent on apathetically allowing the cigarette or alcohol advertisement into their ghetto. These matured into an art form and an industry of their own. "Adbusters" is probably the biggest known name. Their acceptable rise to the surface was met negatively by the hardcore elements of resistance to the brands – how can you subvert what is accepted. Ad agencies never slow to spot a trend started using this ironic approach to brands with their campaign. Look at Sprite’s "Obey your thirst" campaign where the protagonist says he knows the drink will not make him successful, attract women, run faster etc. It will only quench his thirst.
The corporation wins again, because capitalism will not be beaten: it just changes. The protests outside the WTO, Reclaim the Streets and other direct action that has dominated news headlines in recent years are analysed, but with a steady unease. Yes, they show that some people have had enough of what is on offer and what is being done to others to get it to us. No, it is not a unified thought that will halt progress in the branded world.
The governments in first, second and third world countries are all complicit in the process. They support unrestricted trade agreements that push globalisation further forward, because at the moment there is no viable alternative that they can see to keep the world turning. Klein tells what happened to states in America that wanted to act against corporations that trade with Burma. The WTO soon began to whine about fair play and made sure that local intervention was not possible. Again, governments supported the corporations, proving if it needed proving, that capitalism will not behave, no matter how much you embarrass it.
Overall, this book reports on the sorry state of the world today. But it feels disheartening that there is no other viable alternative suggested beyond embarrassing corporations and mass rioting. New global politics are needed to take on the greedy global economy. They say we have to think locally and act globally. Maybe that is the key – face to face dealings alongside like-minded virtual networks, for the good of the world, not the profit of it. The ultimate brand, life!