Friday, September 28, 2012

No Logo

No Logo: the Case Against the Brand Bullies 
© 1999, 2009; Naomi Klein
544 pages

The political and financial turmoil of the past few years have seen a rising tide of anger targeted against the political power of wealthy corporations. Little wonder: since the crisis erupted in 2007, millions have lost their jobs, yet the corporate officers of these failing businesses continue to award themselves extravagant bonuses, in some cases with taxpayers' money.  And there is no help to be found in the government;  anti-corporate protesters in New York and elsewhere have been set on by police, and the Supreme Court has declared corporations to be "people", whose freedom of speech in the form of campaign donations should not be limited in the least. (And those actual people who express their own freedom of speech by impeding corporate actions? If their protests are judged to have caused $10,000 in losses, they are deemed domestic terrorists and join the 10% of Americans already in prison.) No Brand  is a sharp criticism of corporations, but one from a different era. First published in 1999, she scrutinizes brand corporations first for their business model, which emphasizes style rather than substance, before examining their invasion of public space and notorious legacy of abusive labor practices.

As a child, I scoffed at my classmates’ obsession with the Nike brand. My derision was born not of any preternatural consumer consciousness; my parents simply were not the kind to pay for overpriced t-shirts. For that is what they were; a Nike t-shirt is not made of magic cotton that repels water, heals wounds, or bestows upon its wearer +2 Armor. The same is true of its synthetic products, aimed toward actual athletes: while they may wick sweat and keep users comfortable, they do it no better than those manufactured by Champion or generic brands. Nike has never advertised its gear on the basis of superiority, like washing detergent. And yet early this spring, when shopping for athletic clothes, I went to Amazon and simply typed in “Nike”. I was interested in all manner of sports apparel, and Nike…was sports.

Therein lies the basis of Klein’s criticism.  Brand companies aren’t about quality, they’re about Ideas, and consumers are not paying money for superior merchandise but are instead buying into an image of themselves, of something they want to be. It’s a formula that has given religions and political ideologies success for thousands of years, and today it is the approach of almost every major corporation. But because their products don’t advertise themselves the way quality products might, these brand corporations have to push their product aggressively, and in the section “NO SPACE”, Klein details how brands are using not just conventional media, but putting up advertisements in schools. While parents might merely resent a company taking advantage of a financially struggling school system to hawk its shoes,  this branded invasion is literally dangerous when school cafeterias become hosts to McDonalds annexes and Coca-Cola gains exclusive distribution rights. Children become a captive audience to advertising; their values are those introduced not by parents or concerned teachers, but marketing execs who are grooming the next generation of consumers.

 Because the companies chiefly concern themselves with pushing their Image, and give little attention to the manufacturing side of things, rampant labor abuses escape their notice completely. The abuses are familiar to anyone conversant with the term sweat shop:  long hours, marginal pay, no rights, and no tolerance for anyone who resists the abuse. Even in countries which have something resembling human rights laws, they are often moot where corporations are concerned. In the Philippines, for instance, there exist economic development zones, little islands of virtually zero regulation where the only rules governing corporations are those they impose upon themselves. Shockingly, with their only motivation being profit margins, exploitation is rife.

But in the United States and Europe, citizens’ groups are working to give these companies another motivation. In “NO LOGO”, Klein covers the growth of activism against these companies, showing how boycotts and government actions have forced Nike and other companies to take responsibility for the labor costs involved in their products. This activism isn’t limited to aging hippies or idealistic college students, either: certain groups have met success in stirring up anger in decaying urban areas, among young black men who dream of making a success of themselves by wearing Nike shoes.

 No Logo is as mature a critique of brand corporations as one might ask for – sharply pointed, but not a screed. She builds her arguments up slowly and steadily, allowing the facts to present the case instead of passion.  The result is disturbing and damning, yet encouraging. Definitely a work to remember. (For those who have read the original, Klein updates it with a section that declares President Obama to be the first superbrand president...with the problems therein.)

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