Thursday, February 9, 2012

Volunteer Billboards

Naomi Klein’s 1999 book, No Logo (full title, No Space, No Choice, No Jobs, No Logo), like her later important book, Shock Doctrine, considers the impact of the corporation on society. This one studies the phenomenon that transformed the corporation from an entity that sells merchandise to a brand - and that brand has a manufactured “meaning” for the consumer beyond the utility of the object. Klein examines the implications for we who live now in a branded world. Ironically, Klein herself became, if not a brand, very well known, No Logo selling 1.2 million copies.

The title sums it up: business has taken over our space, our choice, our jobs and sold us meager compensation, a logo. Not our logo, their logo. This book makes me realize why, when I see people wearing the Nike “swoosh”, I want to ask them how much Nike is paying them to advertise their company. These are what Klein calls, volunteer billboards. Depressed at the Republican successes in the mid-term elections I sought solace. Opening a book of Gore Vidal’s essays I found this line,

“To get people to constantly vote against their own interests is manipulation of the highest order.”

Nike has convinced people that it is “cool” to wear their logo, sometimes even on their bodies. Nike employees began to get the swoosh tattooed on their thighs and tattoo parlors around the time of the book reported that the Nike logo was the most popular image in their stocks. This too is manipulation of the highest order.

Klein, like her fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan, stands as an observer of culture. Reading this book you’ll never experience Starbucks in quite the same way. The 60s questioning of authority, as symbolized by Woodstock, even though that project was a commercial venture, has been co-opted by now, as seen in the 25th anniversary Woodstock concert where merchandising and promotion had much more of a presence, aimed at an audience of younger people for whom merchandising had become absolutely normal, for whom price was basically no object if the merchandise delivered promises of cool. Klein describes the anti-materialist hippies becoming yuppies but then the charms of consumerism began, for them, to wane or perhaps they simply ran out of storage space. This began a panic in the advertising and merchandizing world, solved by targeting the next generation.

Elements of the 60s did and do survive, shopping at thrift stores, living simply but these folks, supplemented by factions in the newer generation, were under the merchant’s radar.

The merchants began to study the full age-range of the new generation, often hiring consultants, searching for what they would deem cool. Nike was the avant garde of this movement, hiring Michael Jordan and other sports heroes to hawk their wares but also, and this was new, making superstars out of some, certainly Jordan, taking him way beyond his sports context. Jordan even made a movie, Space Jam, which was more a vehicle for his endorsement products than a traditional movie. Jordan was out to become a brand himself. This brought him into conflict with Nike who were not about to be upstaged. The tax-deductible fees paid Jordan and others of course came out of the immense sweatshop savings.

Here’s an important shift, according to Klein. Nike lead the pack in transforming from a company that manufactures shoes to a company that sells a brand, a self-enhancer, farming out the actual production to others –the infamous sweat shop. Graffiti artists tagged themselves on the urban environment but once corporations got the idea they tagged themselves across the whole culture, even on the graffiti artists. Shoe companies and fashion designers like Tommy Hilfiger took to studying inner city style and testing their products there, simply dumping a box of new shoes to see what reaction they got. They had noticed that their products, originally designed for affluent white youths were being taken up in the inner city. They discovered, and capitalized on the fact that

poor black youths were fetishizing white wealth and
white youth were fetishizing black style.

They were persuaded that, as with Jazz, blues and Rock n’ roll, black culture goes mainstream. One of the convincers was the rap group Run-DMC writing a song called Adidas. Their manager approached the company suggesting they should be paid. When executives saw a concert full of fans throw their Adidas up in the air for the song, they were sold. So what originates on the street, manipulated or not, is scooped up, tweaked, sold back and now the originators are walking advertisements for Nike, Reebok and Levis. How cool is that? And further, companies hired students to promote their products, Budweiser at frat parties for example.

Marketeers, in their search for space lacking the aesthetic enhancement of advertising, noticed and were frustrated by their exclusion from schools. Their entre turned out to be budget shortfalls. They could sponsor sports teams, getting that swoosh on jerseys, gym bags, sweats, provide mandatory ad-rich and tame current affairs programs and exclusive product infiltration, especially of soft drinks and fast food.

A student in Evans, Georgia was suspended for wearing a Pepsi
T-shirt on Coke Day when everyone else was wearing Coke t-shirts.

The best of all worlds – teaching students and building brand awareness. Channel One charges twice the going rate for commercial television advertising since they guarantee a captive audience with no mute button and no skipping off to the kitchen during ads. Computers used by students track net-surfing, harvesting the elusive “cool”. School contracts with corporations usually include gag clauses that forbid negative statements directed toward the company. Thus Amnesty International might be barred from speaking on campus about corporate misdeeds abroad. Research funded by drug companies can be suppressed if unflattering, even dangerous results are revealed. Part of the branding phenomenon is the expansion-on-steroids of the idea of franchising, taking a brand, say Wal-mart or Starbucks and saturating a market, running the local guys out of business then sitting back and enjoying the profits – while of course expanding into the next town. The trump card of the chain operation is the discounts a volume buyer can demand – locals can’t possibly compete and they’re soon gone. Before long, to get in the game at all, you have to be BIG.

So Klein’s sociological analysis of trends in the western world and beyond are broken down into the four sections of her title, Space, Choice, Jobs and a section, No Logo, which sketches resistance to the dehumanization of those developments, notably the unexpectedly large demonstrations against globalization in Seattle the same year of publication . She optimistically sees the resistance growing and, though we know not where it’s going, the Occupy Wall Street movement surely confirms her prediction. Her more recent, more important book, Shock Doctrine, confirms that this is a writer we can go to for insight into what’s going on in the money-chasing, consequential world of commerce.

No comments:

Post a Comment