Brands 'R' Us?
Not that long ago, corporations could defuse citizen resistance with job blackmail. Yes, we poison the river, but what would you do without a paycheck? Now that the jobs are gone, no one but the stockholder has an investment in these companies' profitability. Klein believes that anticorporate activism is on the rise precisely because branding has worked so well: "Multinationals like Nike, Microsoft and Starbucks have sought to become the chief communicators of all that is good and cherished in our culture: art, sports, community, connection, equality. But the more successful this project is, the more vulnerable these companies become: When they do wrong, their crimes are not dismissed as merely the misdemeanors of another corporation trying to make a buck.... This is a connection more akin to the relationship of fan and celebrity: emotionally intense but shallow enough to turn on a dime."
So Klein documents "a largely underground system of information, protest and planning" against the brand bullies. We read about culture jamming, "the practice of parodying advertisements and hijacking billboards in order to drastically alter their messages." The idea is that people "should have the right to talk back to images they never asked to see." Joe Camel turns into Joe Chemo. Calvin Klein ads are scrawled with "Feed me." Problem is, the branders fight back, with prejammed ads like Sprite's "Image Is Nothing" campaign and Nike's "I am not a target market, I am an athlete." Nike even asked Ralph Nader to "take a light-hearted jab at us," in a script of their writing, for $25,000. (He said no.) For the angriest of the adbusters, attempts at co-optation just fuel their fires.
Youth culture meets political protest at Global Street Parties, efforts to establish noncommercial space. Sponsors tell you that concerts are "made possible by..." The "Reclaim the Streets" rave-cum-demo asserts that kids can do it themselves. Klein notes that the first was held in thirty cities on May 16, 1998, the day G-8 leaders gathered for a summit. In the United States 1995-96 was the Year of the Sweatshop, the year Kathie Lee cried on TV. As everyone knows, students have been on a tear ever since. Central American garment workers are brought to the United States to speak to their Northern age-mates on campus. For thousands and thousands of people, Nike, Disney and Wal-Mart are forever branded with the image of the sweatshop.
Klein is not starry-eyed about the possibilities of brand-based activism. She's not thrilled that we seem to need to reshape issues of injustice so that they can be brought home to us as shoppers, and she warns that campaigns should not degenerate into mere ethical shopping guides.
Like Rifkin, Klein is weakest when she overreaches. Anxious to connect her two themes, branding and sweatshops, she says that corporations began outsourcing because they needed more money for their ad campaigns. Not that simple: Profit rates began slipping in the sixties, long before branding took off, and companies are using all kinds of strategies to recover: speedups, demanding union concessions, automation, unionbusting and tax-dodging as well as full-court-press marketing and contracting out.
And since Klein's subject is youth radicalization, she barely mentions unions (except the need for them in the Third World), which potentially have more power to disrupt corporate plans than even the best spray-can wielder. Arguing the need for both parts of the coalition, Jeff Crosby, president of a General Electric local, reported on Seattle in Labor Notes:
Without the [kids'] Direct Action, which disrupted the WTO, the labor march would have received a two-minute clip on the nightly news, with something like, "A bunch of inefficient union workers from the rustbelt marched for a return of the bad old days. Fortunately the WTO delegates largely ignored these bits of road kill on the way to the new economy. Although they are hopeless Luddites, it is true that something must be done for the losers in the new world economy who are too old and hidebound to run a computer."
Then again, without the thousands of union members, it would have been easier to write off the young protesters as flakes, people who aren't worried about basic issues like having to earn a living.
Many of the readers of this magazine doubtless spent some time as young protesters themselves, in the last great wave of youth activism. We've often looked over our shoulders to see if anyone was coming behind, and for too many years they weren't. Klein helps explain where the new passion is coming from, what it grew up on, how it sees the enemy. Own her book. Ignore its brand name.