Naomi Klein’s Vain Search For the Bullies of Branding

Ilana Mercer, August 18, 2000

In happier times, Toronto’s garment district was abuzz with Trotskyite debate and the wrangling of trade union leaders, laments Naomi Klein in her book, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. Now, she says, the district’s warehouses have only one “remaining capitalist function,” and that is to showcase advertising billboards. 

From here on in, the book is devoted to the machinations of a capitalist cabal, intent on colonizing the minds of consumers by peddling larger-than-life brands over and above products; the kind of brands that expand to rob people of their “public and personal spaces,” their culture, their jobs, even their freedoms. The lineup of culprits is long: Microsoft, Nike and the various “sneaker pimps,” Intel, The Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Apple, The Body Shop, Starbucks and so on. 

A self-confessed “mall rat”—which would explain her obsession with the gimmicks of marketing to the exclusion of an understanding of market forces—Ms. Klein is a leader of the anti-globalization movement, and has been described by the Times of London as “probably the most influential person under the age of 35 in the world.” All the more surprising considering that this soundbite-rich, deeply silly monograph is more conjecture than fact; Ms. Klein draws causal relationships where none exist, and finds culpability in the absence of any proof. 

It sounds flaky, she explains, but the corporate takeover really gained momentum after a 1993 event known in marketing circles as “Marlboro Friday.” It was then, ironically, that the branding of products seemed poised for its demise: On that apparently fateful day, Phillip Morris slashed its prices in response to competition from “bargain brands.” According to Ms. Klein’s subjective interpretation of market competition, if a brand like Marlboro was “stooping to compete on the basis of real value,” the public must have called the corporate bluff and rejected the cachet of the name brand. 

Alas, the brands recovered. In their truest and most advanced incarnation, they have become “about corporate transcendence.” Products that will flourish in the future are increasingly presented as concepts rather than as commodities. For the next 446 pages, the same savvy American consumer who forced Phillip Morris to fight harder for its market share on “Marlboro Friday” suddenly turns into a helpless pawn of the marketing moguls. 

Like a solemn commissar, Ms. Klein bolsters her theme with scores of exuberant, non-incriminating interviews with ad executives and CEOs, which she portrays as sinister confessions. The endless accounts of advertising gimmicks are meant to expose the malignant franchises that devour local shops, public spaces and “host cultures.” The fluffy jargon does nothing to conceal that in reality, this is an unremarkable selection from the trillions of capitalist acts between consenting adults. 

Advertising has become this sophisticated and, as a result of the dizzying array of choice in the market, has shifted to selling lifestyles, attitudes and atmospheres. Long gone are the days when advertisers merely educated and informed the few who could afford their products. The plenty generated by mass production means producers must labour to capture consumers’ attentions. Corporations can no more be demonized for their promotional methods than lovers for preparing candle-lit dinners as preludes to seduction. 

Further, in her discrete demarcation between big and small, local and transnational business, Ms. Klein ignores the fact that consumer patronage grows a small business into a large one. To her, consumers are dim. They buy products they neither need nor want, and even when their purchases are unsatisfactory, they keep at it. If they are so incompetent, why allow them to vote? 

Ms. Klein describes the horrors of the branded neighborhoods, schools and towns—”public” areas that fall prey to the logos and brands of corporations. This happened because of tax base erosion, for which Ms. Klein blames the Reagan, Thatcher and Mulroney trinity. With big, good government in retreat, big, bad business is forced to pick up the slack. The fact that Ms. Klein’s monopoly public schooling is producing ignoramuses becomes the fault of corporate cash infusions that have allowed big business to infiltrate campuses. 

Ms. Klein extends this seamless corporate conspiracy to the co-opting of the pharmaceutical industry, the censorship of news, the upstaging of sports events and the overthrowing of local retailers by branded superstores. She descends into obscurantism when describing the apocalyptic branding of life: “Cross-promotional brand-based experiences that combine buying with elements of media entertainment and professional sports to create an integrated branded loop … using ever-expanding networks of brand extensions to spin a self-sustaining lifestyle web.” What in bloody blue blazes does this mean? 

Evidently in no small part, corporations are responsible for censorship. Klein claims that somehow private enterprise can pose a threat to free speech. What escapes the obtuse Klein is that government alone has the power to violate speech rights by using the force of the law. One indictment is of Wal-Mart for pulling sexually explicit magazines in accordance with customers’ wishes. This champion of local activism cries “censorship” when the moms and pops in a community peacefully exercise the power of the boycott. However, when government bans publications, they disappear or go underground. Procure them at your peril! When an outlet decides to heed its particular constituency by not carrying a publication, said item can be found elsewhere. Alas, the distinction is lost on Ms. Klein. 

Ms. Klein rounds up by anointing those who vandalize billboards as the leaders of the new anti-corporate resistance movement. Somehow Ms. Klein, who despises the falseness of consumerism, has failed to detect the poseur in these self-styled “culture jammers and anti-corporate campaigners.”

No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, by Naomi Klein, Knopf Canada, 1999 

 ©2000 By Ilana Mercer
  A version of this review appeared in the Financial Post
  August 18

CATEGORIES: Business, Free Markets, Socialism

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