This is an edited version of an article i wrote about Naomi Klein’s brilliant No Logo, which came out in 2000. I have to say that for all the controversy and debate it generated it is still one of my favourite and most challenging books of recent years. Pretty radical, definitely lefty, and certainly compelling! I think that 7 years on, the book is as relevant now as it ever was (if not more so). You can check out her more recent publications and journalism on her NoLogo website.
Nottingham University caused a storm at the start of December 2000 by accepting nearly £4 million from British American Tobacco (BAT) to set up a School of Business Ethics. As Alex Thomson reported on Channel 4 News, ‘It couldn’t be more ironic. One of the largest tobacco manufacturers in the world providing cash for a centre for corporate social responsibility.’ (C4 News, 5 Dec 2000) Corporate sponsorship has been a feature of modern university life for a while, so BAT’s move would previously have been confined to a few column inches on the business pages. But now, multinational giants have been under intense scrutiny. Where before new products and inventions hit the headlines, their manufacturer’s ethics are now just as likely to be big news. And it’s not just the tobacco companies who are in the firing line.
Canadian journalist Naomi Klein set out to analyse the antagonism to global capitalism that sparked off the riots in Seattle, London & Prague in recent months and NO LOGO is the fascinating, gripping and disturbing result. What she found was a growing voice of discontent from the very peoplethat many of the big corporations (like Nike, MTV, Tommy Hilfiger and Gap) are seeking to entice through their brands. The protesters are quite simply not the ‘usual suspects’ of eco-warriors and Socialist Worker vendors. So what has brought all of this on?
The corporations are no longer seeking to sell products – instead they want us to buy their lifestyles. So Nike has not just sold trainers. Their aim has been for the Nike ‘swoosh’ to represent first:
…the idea of sports, then the idea of transcendence through sports; then it wanted to be about self-empowerment, women’s rights, racial equality. It wanted its stores to be temples, its ads a religion, its customers a nation, its workers a tribe. (No Logo, p379)
This reached a logical, if totally bizarre, conclusion at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, when Nike created the Kenya’s first Olympic skiing team. Kenyan runners are renowned for their athleticism and so Nike wanted to demonstrate that ‘sports shouldn’t have boundaries’. (No Logo, p53) They spent $250,000 creating a Kenyan Skiing federation, training two runners in cross-country skiing in Norway (because Kenya has no snow, let alone training facilities!) and giving them custom-designed uniforms (marked by a ‘swoosh’ of course). Needless to say, one didn’t qualify and the other came last. But that was not the point. This is the world of the branding:
… by equating the company with athletes and athleticism at such a primal level, Nike ceased merely to cloth the game and started to play it. And once Nike was in the game with its athletes, it could have fanatical sports fans instead of customers.
Not that Nike are alone or unique in this. Walt Disney has been playing this game for years – the Mouse is the grand-daddy of branding. While the world’s press focussed on the shenanigans in Tallahassee, Florida in the aftermath of America’s 2000 Election, citizens of a town called Celebration, Florida were quietly living their lives (no doubt having avoided the dreaded dimpled chad on their ballot papers). But it is a town with a difference. Celebration was meticulously planned, authentically built and completely owned by Disney. It mimicked the wholesome Midwest communities of American folklore – with picket fences, a Disney-appointed homeowners’ association and even a phoney water tower. As Naomi Klein points out, ‘for families who live there year-round, Disney has achieved the ultimate goal of lifestyle branding: for the brand to become life itself.’ (No Logo, p155) The genuine virtual ‘Truman Show’ world has arrived!
That is just the start – it seems no exaggeration to say that brands are surreptitiously taking over our lives. This take-over of public space by private corporations who are accountable only to shareholders has been alarming. But it was only when the true costs of such brand expansion began to emerge that people across the world started protesting. In our global village, many of the high street’s wealthiest brands are built on the murky and oppressive foundations of sweatshops and wage-slavery in the 2/3rds world. For example, it’s shocking to discover that:
Disney CEO Michael Eisner earns $9,783 an hour while a Haitian worker [manufacturing Disney clothes] earns 28c an hour; it would take a Haitian worker 16.8 years to earn Eisner’s hourly income; the $181million in stock options Eisner exercised in 1996 is enough to take care of his 19,000 Haitian workers and their families for 14 years. (No Logo, p352)
So now, protesters are as likely to picket the HQ of a big global corporation (if not more so) as they are an embassy of an oppressive regime.
When you discover that of the top 100 economies in the world, only 49 are countries, while 51 are actually corporations forces us to ask uncomfortable questions. Could it be that George Orwell’s vision of Big Brother is gradually being realised not politically, but economically? Since capitalism ‘won’ the Cold War in 1989, this has perhaps been inevitable. So people are protesting in whatever ways they can and Klein records a number of the many subversive and creative examples of this (such as Adbusters’ brand subversion – the site is well worth a look).
But we shouldn’t be surprised. Human beings have always played the power game using whatever means available, regardless of the suffering it causes. Surely the domination and oppression by brand culture is just a 21st Century manifestation of something that has a branded logo all its own – a serpent coiled round a piece of fruit with two bites taken out of it?
Brands lull into a false sense of security with their promises of free and easy lifestyles, where the watchword is ‘Just Do It’. Could it not be that they have domesticated Big Brother? And could it not be that we have actually known his name for years? Could it not be that Big Brother more resembles a mouse with big black ears, who answers to the name of ‘Mickey’?
This article originally appeared in UCCF’s Monitor magazine, Spring 2001