Whipping Cream on Rotten Cake
Attack on brands is just a rehash of old anti-business rhetoric

One mid-1990s morning, freelance writer Naomi Klein walked out of her loft apartment in the Toronto fashion district to find anti-corporate slogans defacing billboards throughout the area.

While the Toronto police would probably have characterised the vandalism as the work of mere punks, Klein saw a deeper connotation.

In her book No Logo: taking aim at the brand bullies, the author links the vandalism, with the trial of two Greenpeace activists who libelled McDonalds Corp., and the ire aroused after the Nigerian government executed an anti-Royal Dutch Petroleum/ Shell protester.

She sees these events as a pattern of activity directed against corporations with recognisable brand names such as Nike and Microsoft - an evolving vast left wing conspiracy if you will.

Klein, profiled in Saturday's Gazette, argues that "as more people discover the brand-name secrets of the global logo web, their outrage will fuel the next big political movement, a vast wave of opposition squarely targeting transnational corporations, particularly those with name-brand recognition."

The book is important, both because of the amount of media attention it has received, and also since if its thesis is true, many businesses will have to rethink their marketing and operational practices.

Through 446 long pages, No Logo recycles every charge levelled by labour and environmental groups at major corporations during the past three decades. Transnational businesses, with recognisable brand names, are pilloried for everything from Nike's condoning poor working conditions in its sub-contractors' plants, to Wal-Mart's refusal to carry products that would threaten its image as a family retail destination.

The author also reviews the last decade or so, to chronicle seemingly every pie thrown at a corporate tycoon, every billboard defaced, and every rock tossed at a McDonald's restaurant. Her conclusion: the two streams of events are linked. They are a part of a growing revolt against the increasing power of branded corporations.

Klein, a skilled rhetorician and uncompromising ideologue, opens with a thorough deconstruction of the power of brands in contemporary society. A keen observer of both youth and pop culture, she raises some interesting points.

Among them, are the increasing lack of unbranded public space, the importance of personal branding and the use of advertising in universities.

But, after a good start, the attack loses focus and veers off into a diatribe, no longer against popular brands, many of which Klein seems to actually like, but against her real target: big business in general.

Corporations are pilloried for everything from not paying unskilled workers high enough salaries, to assaulting freedom of speech through the restrictive application of copyright laws, to corrupting our youth through their sponsorships of educational institutions.

Klein's reactionary politics come mostly from the 70s. Some are based on the liberalism of the 1970s, the rest from Karl Marx's 1870s. She argues that we live in an increasingly stratified society characterised by growing income disparities. Solutions are rarely recommended but it is implied that they lie in "citizen centred alternatives." Read: more government.

By framing the argument as one directed against brands, as opposed to what it is -- a mere rehash of all the same old big government and big union ideas that are increasingly outliving their usefulness - there is an appearance of newness. It's something like fresh whipping cream on rotten cake.

But the taste wears off fast. Like most ideological arguments, facts that may contradict the main thesis, are manipulated, overlooked or ignored. For example Nike is pilloried since 50,000 workers at the Yue Yen factory in China would have to work for 19 years to earn what the company spends on advertising in one.

It's an interesting point. But looked at another way, given the importance of its brand, if Nike stopped advertising, the company would eventually slide into bankruptcy and those 50,000 workers would be out in the street.

In another segment, corporate taxes are said to have been dramatically lowered under Ronald Reagan's administration, when in fact, they increased 44.7 per cent to $93.5 billion between 1980 and 1990.

Most of the so-called anti-brand protests documented in No Logo can be traced back to the usual anti-corporate types: Greenpeace, environmental and union activists, as well as Vancouver-based Adbusters magazine and its followers.

Activism against bad corporate practices has always existed in one form or another and has often generated positive effects. Unfortunately No Logo gives no statistics to show whether bad corporate practices, or the protests against them, are increasing or decreasing.

In fact, no research was done into the fiercest kind of anti-brand activism of all: the kind where consumers actually stop buying the products that manufacturers produce.

But No Logo has several things going for it that are making the book a success. First, the mainstream media is getting increasingly tired of talking about the inevitability of globalisation.

The media beast, which feeds on controversy, is starved for almost any opposing argument. By focusing its attack on big brand names such as Microsoft, Nike and McDonalds, the book makes a catchy lead to any news story.

So whether they like it or not, marketing and public relations officials are going to be hearing a lot more about No Logo, and the issues it raises.

Diekmeyer can be reached at peter@peterdiekemeyer.com.

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