No Logo by Naomi Klein
Corporate logos are everywhere. They are written in municipal statutes, such as Disney’s town of Celebration. They are written into the story problems about Big Macs and Oreos in corporate-sponsored textbooks. They are written on the moon (or will be, if Pepsi has its way). And thanks to Michael Jordan, who made the Nike swoosh one of the most popular tattoos in the world, they are written in our flesh.
So our choice is whether to be a branded human or—like Jordan—a human brand, says journalist Naomi Klein in No Logo, her funny, thoughtful account of how our lives became trademarked subsidiaries of the Fortune 500. Brands arose with the Industrial Revolution when merchants began using arbitrary labels to distinguish between mass-produced commodities, and with modern boy-bands, courtroom potboilers and Y2K blockbusters as distinct from each other as lumps of coal, branding is more consequential than ever. Corporations no longer compete on quality, which is generic, or innovation, which is quickly obsolete, or price margins. “Brands, not products” is the business strategy of the day; if products like computers and shoes are uniform and uninspiring, their brands can be made unique and transcendent, so that Apple is about thinking different, and Burger King is about breaking the rules.
Corporations have had help in their quest for brand omnipresence. Technology has given the advertising/entertainment environment ever more intimate and enthralling modes of brand display. Meanwhile, the underfunding and privatization of government has turned erstwhile public spaces like museums and school districts into avid seekers of corporate sponsorship. As logos billboard our inner psyches and public spaces, business inevitably feels like it owns them. Klein recounts many ludicrous instances of brand fascism like Mattel’s war against a tiny zine called Hey There, Barbie Girl, or the Georgia teenager, in an act that brings to mind Eric Roberts’ rage in the Coca-Cola Kid, who was suspended for wearing a Pepsi T-shirt to his school’s corporate-sponsored Coca-Cola Day.
But while ads keep the brand in sharp focus, Klein reminds us to look in the blurry margins wherein lies a much uglier reality of Third World sweatshops and First World temp jobs that manufacture and sell our branded paraphernalia. Klein does a fine job demonstrating how the cavortings of brand mascots obscure the child labor, starvation wages and cavalier layoffs that underwrite the profitability of our most cherished corporate logos.
No Logo is a uncommon and welcome blend of witty cultural criticism and hard-nosed economic analysis. Beneath her graceful prose, Klein manages to smuggle in a crypto-Marxist dialectic in which our logoed world contains the seeds of its own destruction. Brands and their corporate parents have become the focus for a resurgent protest movement bent on highlighting the discrepancy between corporate theory (Michael Jordan swooshing above the clouds) and corporate practice (Vietnamese schoolgirls chained to their sewing machines). Klein sees anti-brand activism as a unified theory of post-modern rabble-rousing, such as the recent WTO demonstrations in Seattle, which joined Third World with First, picket line with rave, stodgy union reps with punked-out life-style deviants.
“With modern boy-bands, courtroom potboilers and Y2K blockbusters as distinct from each other as lumps of coal, branding is more consequential than ever.”
Maybe not. Anti-brand protest style, like “jamming” billboards and hacking graffiti into corporate websites, seem like Butt-headed juvenilia, more derivative of ad culture than opposed to it. And admirable as the anti-sweatshop activists are, the one-by-one pursuit of corporate miscreants—no matter how tempting a target a Barbie or a Ronald McDonald maybe—is in the end a formula for tail-chasing. If you want to tame corporations, do it the old-fashioned way, with solid political organizing, heavy-handed regulations and armies of government bureaucrats with nothing better to do than harass corporate bureaucrats. In the meantime, get with the spirit of the logo, and look for the union label.