Brands 'R' Us? | The Nation


Brands 'R' Us?

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It's a shame, because some of Rifkin's conclusions are right: that the commercialization of every waking moment is disgusting, that we need both biodiversity and cultural diversity, that play should not be corporatized. Luckily, you don't need to own The Age of Access to read an indictment of the corporate attempt to imprint a commercial message on everything you see, hear or own (or lease). Naomi Klein's No Logo is a far wittier, more down-to-earth look at what Rifkin calls the commodification of experience and she calls "branding."

About the Author

Jane Slaughter
Jane Slaughter is a labor journalist in Detroit.

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At a "Lean Workplace School" for union members, sponsored by the monthly
magazine Labor Notes in 1996, the discussion centered around how
to fight employers' speed-up and worker-manageme

I was chilled, reading No Logo. I have a 12-year-old who wishes she lived in a Delia's catalogue. In her downtown Detroit school, I'm told, kids get razzed if they mix their brands--you're not supposed to wear Adidas shoes with a Nike sweatshirt. But I never buy anything, my neighborhood is still almost 100 percent logo-free (well, not the gas stations) and I hadn't quite realized how much the rising generation has been subjected to "colonization not of physical space but of mental space."

Klein and Rifkin cover a lot of the same territory: corporate sponsorship of cultural events; "cool hunting" agencies paid to track down trends among black teenagers; marketing inside the schools; franchises crowding out mom-and-pops; outsourcing to sweatshops; buying an experience, not just a thing; shopping as theater; Celebration, Florida, Disney's branded town; Disney as the grandfather of it all; and Bill Gates Bill Gates Bill Gates and Nike Nike Nike. One big difference is that Klein, a 29-year-old red-diaper baby, has been there and rejected that, while over-50 Rifkin, who lectures at the Wharton School, is mostly disapproving but also gulled by management-speak about what they're up to. More important, Klein's main mission is to report on the resistance to the "brand bullies." She stresses that her book is not about predictions--unlike Rifkin's--but it reads like a prophecy of the WTO protests in Seattle.

Klein, who is a master of the razor-sharp soundbite, introduces us to the moguls of marketing, who, she says, decided in the eighties and nineties that companies should be "meaning brokers" rather than product producers. Polaroid needed to stop thinking of itself as a camera--it's really a "social lubricant." Levi's problem was that it hadn't promoted any particular lifestyle to go along with its jeans--no denim house paint. Says Starbucks' marketing VP: Coffee is the company's "opportunity for emotional leverage.... A great brand raises the bar--it adds a greater sense of purpose to the experience." The Body Shop, says founder Anita Roddick, is not about bath oil but is the conveyor of her philosophy about women and the environment. The author of a sixth-grade math book riddled her text with references to Oreos and Nike, not because she was paid to do it but because she wanted to speak to kids in their own language--brands.

Then, once the brands have turned you into a "life-sized Tommy doll"--walking billboards--once they've made themselves ubiquitous parts of the landscape and everyone's mental map, they tell you that you can't use their name in vain. They take up all the public space--those building-sized paste-on ads are only the biggest example--and then they remind you that brands are private property. The owners of Barney won't let shops rent out dinosaur costumes, if they're purple. Disney forced a group of New Zealand parents to remove their homemade version of Donald Duck from a playground mural. After making Barbie a cultural icon, Mattel sued the rock band Aqua for its hit song "Barbie Girl." Artists and activists who "jam" ads run afoul of trademark, copyright, libel and "brand disparagement" laws. Island Records and CBS Records sued artists, successfully, for sampling or remixing Casey Kasem and Michael Jackson. The message, says Klein, is that "culture is something that happens to you. You buy it at the Virgin Megastore or Toys 'R' Us.... It is not something in which you participate, or to which you have the right to respond."

Klein's chapters that describe the brand bullies and the resistance to them are the best parts of No Logo. Her information on the outsourcing of work to overseas sweatshops (though enlivened by her personal visits to Indonesia and the Philippines) and the casualization of work back home is more-oft-trod territory. Yet the latter is a necessary part of her argument. She shows how "the 'strongest' brands are the ones generating the worst jobs, whether in the export processing zones...or at the mall. The companies that advertise aggressively on MTV...are the very ones that pioneered the McJob sector and led the production exodus to cheap labor enclaves.... After pumping young people up with go-get-'em messages--the 'Just Do It' sneakers...--these companies have responded to job requests with a resounding 'Who, me?'"

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