SCARTISSUES |:-:| Return to main page

Naomi Klein |:-:| NoLogo


The book examines the negative effects that '90s marketing has had on culture, work and the consumer voice;
copyright ©1999 by Naomi Klein
Reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC

As we have seen, in the eighties you had to be relatively rich to get noticed by marketers. In the nineties, you have only to be cool. As designer Christian Lacroix remarked in Vogue, "it's terrible to say, very often the most exciting outfits are from the poorest people."

Over the past decade, young black men in American inner cities have been the market most aggressively mined by the brandmasters as a source of borrowed "meaning" and identity. This was the key to the success of Nike and Tommy Hilfiger, both of which were catapulted to brand superstardom in no small part by poor kids who incorporated Nike and Hilfiger into hiphop style at the very moment when rap was being thrust into the expanding youth-culture limelight by MTV and Vibe (the first mass-market hip-hop magazine, founded in 1992). "The hip-hop nation," write Lopiano-Misdom and De Luca in Street Trends, is "the first to embrace a designer or a major label, they make that label 'big concept' fashion. Or, in their words, they 'blow it up.'"

Designers like Stussy, Hilfiger, Polo, DKNY and Nike have refused to crack down on the pirating of their logos for T-shirts and baseball hats in the inner cities and several of them have clearly backed away from serious attempts to curb rampant shoplifting. By now the big brands know that profits from logowear do not just flow from the purchase of the garment but also from people seeing your logo on "the right people," as Pepe Jeans' Phil Spur judiciously puts it. The truth is that the "got to be cool" rhetoric of the global brands is, more often than not, an indirect way of saying "got to be black." Just as the history of cool in America is really (as many have argued) a history of African-American culture - from jazz and blues to rock and roll to rap - for many of the superbrands, cool hunting simply means blackculture hunting. Which is why the cool hunters' first stop was the basketball courts of America's poorest neighborhoods.

The latest chapter in mainstream America's gold rush to poverty began in 1986, when rappers Run-DMC breathed new life into Adidas products with their hit single "My Adidas," a homage to their favorite brand. Already, the wildly popular rap trio had hordes of fans copying their signature style of gold medallions, black-and-white Adidas tracksuits and low-cut Adidas sneakers, worn without laces. "We've been wearing them all our lives," Darryl McDaniels (a k a DMC) said of his Adidas shoes at the time. That was fine for a time, but after a while it occurred to Russell Simmons, the president of Run-DMC's label Def Jam Records, that the boys should be getting paid for the promotion they were giving to Adidas. He approached the German shoe company about kicking in some money for the act's 1987 Together Forever tour. Adidas executives were skeptical about being associated with rap music, which at that time was alternately dismissed as a passing fad or vilified as an incitement to riot. To help change their minds, Simmons took a couple of Adidas bigwigs to a Run-DMC show. Christopher Vaughn describes the event in Black Enterprise: "At a crucial moment, while the rap group was performing the song ["My Adidas"], one of the members yelled out, 'Okay, everybody in the house, rock your Adidas!' - and three thousand pairs of sneakers shot in the air. The Adidas executives couldn't reach for their checkbooks fast enough." By the time of the annual Atlanta sports-shoe Super Show that year, Adidas had unveiled its new line of Run-DMC shoes: the Super Star and the Ultra Star-"designed to be worn without laces."

Since "My Adidas," nothing in inner-city branding has been left up to chance. Major record labels like BMG now hire "street crews" of urban black youth to talk up hip-hop albums in their communities and to go out on guerrilla-style postering and sticker missions. The L.A.-based Steven Rifkind Company bills itself as a marketing firm "specializing in building word-of-mouth in urban areas and inner cities." Rifkind is CEO of the rap label Loud Records, and companies like Nike pay him hundreds of thousands of dollars to find out how to make their brands cool with trend-setting black youth.

So focused is Nike on borrowing style, attitude and imagery from black urban youth that the company has its own word for the practice: bro-ing. That's when Nike marketers and designers bring their prototypes to inner-city neighborhoods in New York, Philadelphia or Chicago and say, "Hey, bro, check out the shoes ' to gauge the reaction to new styles and to build up a buzz. In an interview with journalist Josh Feit, Nike designer Aaron Cooper described his bro-ing conversion in Harlem: "We go to the playground, and we dump the shoes out. It's unbelievable. The kids go nuts. That's when you realize the importance of Nike. Having kids tell you Nike is the number one thing in their life - number two is their girifriend." Nike has even succeeded in branding the basketball courts where it goes bro-ing through its philanthropic wing, P.L.A.Y (Participate in the Lives of Youth). P.L.A.Y sponsors inner-city sports programs in exchange for high swoosh visibility, including giant swooshes at the center of resurfaced urban basketball courts. In tonier parts of the city, that kind of thing would be called an ad and the space would come at a price, but on this side of the tracks, Nike pays nothing, and files the cost under charity.

Tommy Hilfiger, even more than Nike or Adidas, has fumed the harnessing of ghetto cool into a mass-marketing science. Hilfiger forged a formula that has since been imitated by Polo, Nautica, Munsingwear (thanks to Puff Daddy's fondness for the penguin logo) and several other clothing companies looking for a short cut to making it at the suburban mall with innercity attitude

Like a depoliticized, hyper-patriotic Benetton, Hilfiger ads are a tangle of Cape Cod multiculturalism: scrubbed black faces lounging with their windswept white brothers and sisters in that great country club in the sky, and always against the backdrop of a billowing American flag. "By respecting one another we can reach all cultures and communities," the company says. "We promote...the concept of living the American dream." But the hard facts of Tommy's interracial financial success have less to do with finding common ground between cultures than with the power and mythology embedded in America's deep racial segregation.

Tommy Hilfiger started off squarely as white-preppy wear in the tradition of Ralph Lauren and Lacoste. But the designer soon realized that his clothes also had a peculiar cachet in the inner cities, where the hip-hop philosophy of "living large" saw poor and working-class kids acquiring status in the ghetto by adopting the gear and accoutrements of prohibitively costly leisure activities, such as skiing, golfing, even boating. Perhaps to better position his brand within this urban fantasy, Hilfiger began to associate his clothes more consciously with these sports, shooting ads at yacht clubs, beaches and other nautical locales. At the same time, the clothes themselves were redesigned to appeal more directly to the hip-hop aesthetic. Cultural theorist Paul Smith describes the shift as "bolder colors, bigger and baggier styles, more hoods and cords, and more prominence for logos and the Hilfiger name." He also plied rap artists like Snoop Dogg with free clothes and, walking the tightrope between the yacht and the ghetto, launched a line of Tommy Hilfiger beepers.

Once Tommy was firmly established as a ghetto thing, the real selling could begin - not just to the comparatively small market of poor inner-city youth but to the much larger market of middle-class white and Asian kids who mimic black style in everything from lingo to sports to music. Company sales reached $847 million in 1998--up from a paltry $53 million in 1991 when Hilfiger was still, as Smith puts it, "Young Republican clothing." Like so much of cool hunting, Hilfiger's marketing journey feeds off the alienation at the heart of America's race relations: selling white youth on their fetishization of black style, and black youth on their fetishization of white wealth.

After almost a decade of the branding frenzy, cool hunting has become an internal contradiction: the hunters must rarefy youth "microcultures" by claiming that only full-time hunters have the know-how to unearth them-- or else why hire cool hunters at all? Sputnik warns its clients that if the cool trend is "visible in your neighborhood or crowding your nearest mall, the learning is over. It's too late....You need to get down with the streets, to be in the trenches every day." And yet this is demonstrably false; so-called street fashions--many of them planted by brandmasters like Nike and Hilfiger from day one - reach the ballooning industry of glossy youth-culture magazines and video stations without a heartbeat's delay. And if there is one thing virtually every young person now knows, it's that street style and youth culture are infinitely marketable commodities.

Besides, even if there was a lost indigenous tribe of cool a few years back, rest assured that it no longer exists. It turns out that the prevailing legalized forms of youth stalking are only the tip of the iceberg: the Sputnik vision for the future of hip marketing is for companies to hire armies of Sputnik spawns--young "street promoters," "Net promoters" and "street distributors" who will hype brands one-on-one on the street, in the clubs and on-line. "Use the magic of peer-to-peer distribution - it worked in the freestyle sport cultures, mainly because the promoters were their friends....Street promoting will survive as the only true means of personally 'spreading the word.'" So all arrows point to more jobs for the ballooning industry of "street snitches," certified representatives of their demographic who will happily become walking infomercials for Nike, Reebok and Levi's

By fall 1998 it had already started to happen with the Korean car manufacturer Daewoo hiring two thousand college students on two hundred campuses to talk up the cars to their friends. Similarly, Anheuser-Busch keeps troops of U.S. college frat boys and "Bud Girls" on its payroll to promote Budweiser beer at campus parties and bars. The vision is both horrifying and hilarious: a world of glorified diary trespassers and professional eavesdroppers, part of a spy-vs.-spy corporate-fueled youth culture stalking itself, whose members will videotape one another's haircuts and chat about their corporate keepers' cool new products in their grassroots newsgroups.

"If anyone here is in advertising or marketing, kill yourself... there's no fucking joke coming. You are Satan's spawn, filling the world with bile and garbage, you are fucked and you are fucking us. Kill yourselves - it's the only way to save your fucking soul."

- Bill Hicks

After reading No Logo, you may feel that Bill Hicks was understating things a little: by the end of the first chapter you'll be en route to the nearest McDonalds with a crate of Molotov cocktails.

No Logo is a book about brands, which means it's a book about popular culture - Golden Arches, the Nike "swoosh", Tommy Hilfiger jackets and Starbucks coffee. It's about the television you watch and the newspapers you read, the theme parks you visit and the films you go to see. It's about magazines and rock music, universities and the Internet. In short, it's a book about everyday reality - or, rather, what lies behind it.

The connection between brands and corporate irresponsibility has been highlighted before - Nike's links with third world exploitation are well documented - but No Logo digs much deeper. In an attempt to describe the rise of anti-corporatism and "culture jamming", Klein covers issues as diverse as labour rights, censorship and education, and how the rise of the brands has affected them. The resulting book is likely to disturb even the most hardened of cynics.

"When deep space exploitation ramps up, it will be corporations that name everything. The IBM Stellar Sphere. The Philip Morris Galaxy. Planet Starbucks."

- Fight Club

In the early chapters of the book, Klein describes the rise of the brands. Originally an importer of cheap Japanese clothing, Nike successfully reinvented itself as a "lifestyle company", selling an ideal rather than any particular physical product. As Klein reports, the most successful brands don't actually make anything - from Tommy Hilfiger to Nike, they outsource their manufacturing, and the companies themselves concentrate on the all-important brand ubiquity.

Through advertising, the companies encourage people to buy products that act as advertisements for the brand itself, turning a nation into what one executive gleefully describes as "walking billboards". Levi's repaints an entire street to promote its Silver Tab jeans, footwear companies become synonymous with sporting achievement, and beer companies co-opt music festivals to promote their products. Like the narrator in Fight Club, customers don't choose products on the basis of price or effectiveness; instead, they ask themselves "what sort of dinner set defines me as a person?"

Where No Logo surprises is when it describes the less obvious, and arguably less ethical, forms of brand promotion. According to Klein, companies such as Tommy Hilfiger use black ghettos as seedbeds for their brands, recognising the white middle-class fetish for black urban culture and employing local youths to "talk up" products to their peers. A similar technique was used by the Daewoo car company, which paid students to drive its cars and enthuse about them at every opportunity in an all too real echo of The Truman Show. If you spend any time on the Internet, you'll see entertainment companies doing the same thing on message boards and newsgroups.

Klein doesn't need to lecture you about the increasing ubiquity of sales messages - she lets the facts speak for themselves as she describes universities where Coca-Cola is "the official soft drink", schools where the mega-brands have their logos on textbooks and toilet cubicles, and university departments wholly reliant on corporate sponsorship.

"No Logo demeans the causes it purports to celebrate by offering a narrow, fashion victim's perspective on achievements that have undoubtedly helped to make the world a better place".

- Barry Delaney, creative partner at Delaney Fletcher Bozell, Management Today

Where No Logo excels is in the chapters detailing the "achievements" that the above reviewer believes "have undoubtedly helped to make the world a better place". Klein presents a powerful argument that global brands have resulted in the exploitation of third world workers, increased domestic unemployment, reduced domestic wages, and the continual erosion of workers' rights. One executive responds to calls for a "living wage" by saying, apparently without irony, "while the concept is romantically appealing, it ignores the practicalities and realities of our business environment". When two McDonalds employees successfully win the right to union recognition - almost unheard of in the fast food industry - the company simply shuts down the branch.

Klein argues that McDonalds has deliberately presented itself as a company that employs teenagers while they look for their first "real" job. Despite a workforce that is considerably older and better educated than the pimply youths of repute, this successful image-making enables the company to keep hours and wages at levels which, in any other industry, would attract howls of protest. Klein also describes the conditions inside call centres, which have been described elsewhere as "the dark, satanic mills of the technological revolution". In Britain, as in America, call centres are one of the few growth industries, traditionally located in areas of high male unemployment and employing a workforce largely comprised of part-time, female - and low-paid - workers.

One of the most disturbing parts of the book is when it focuses on the issue of censorship. As the book explains, the strategies of retailers such as Wal-Mart - essentially, bulldozing the competition out of business - means that, as one record company executive admits, "Wal-Mart is the only game in town". It's something the chain hasn't been slow to realise, and the company's pro-family stance means that it regularly practices censorship. Magazine covers have to be pre-vetted by the company; if they aren't and Wal-Mart feels the cover is "inappropriate", the publication will be de-listed - in other words, the retailer will never stock that publication again. Record companies regularly tone down releases to make them appropriate for Wal-Mart's censors, and magazines know better than to feature anything less than wholesome. It's a worrying trend as, through sheer economic muscle, Wal-Mart effectively controls what the public is allowed to read, watch or listen to.

"Media concentration is high, and increasing. Furthermore, those who occupy managerial positions in the media...belong to the same privileged elites, and might be expected to share the perceptions, aspirations, and attitudes of their associates, reflecting their own class interests as well. Journalists entering the system are unlikely to make their way unless they conform to these ideological pressures"

- Noam Chomsky

One key area highlighted by No Logo is the increasingly incestuous corporate world, where the same companies own television stations, record companies and newspapers. British readers will be familiar with the Sun newspaper's regular plugs for Sky TV and Fox Movies, all of whom share the same parent company, but the book describes how the links between companies can alter the news itself. An expose of theme parks by ABC was spiked after the reporters uncovered shocking events at Disney, ABC's owners, and Klein describes a number of similar occurrences in other news media.

This "corporate synergy" has an effect on politics, too. Klein recounts how journalists are expected to give certain politicians an easy ride if those politicians are responsible for handing out valuable broadcasting licences to a newspaper's parent company - a tradition that's also well-established in the UK.

Klein argues that corporate interference can also cost lives. The majority of American universities work in "partnership" with brands, carrying out research or helping develop new designs for training shoes. Klein asks whether such links devalue the traditional independence of universities - almost every sponsorship contract, explains Klein, includes a "gagging clause" that prevents any criticism of the corporate benefactor. The tale of the student expelled for wearing a Pepsi T-shirt to his college's Coca-Cola day is amusing, but Klein quickly follows this by describing how corporate-sponsored drug trials uncovered potentially fatal side effects in the sponsor's products. When the researchers attempted to publish their findings in scientific journals, the universities were threatened with the termination of their lucrative sponsorship contracts, and the researchers were promptly sacked.

On the face of it, sponsorship seems the ideal solution to the growing problem of funding for educational institutions, but many campaigners are worried about the growing presence of commercially funded learning materials in schools and colleges: as the Centre for Commercial-Free Schools notes, "when [the] Consumers Union collected and evaluated examples of these materials, it found that 80 percent contained biased or incomplete information, and promoted a viewpoint that favoured consumption of the sponsor's product or service or otherwise favoured the company and its economic agenda". In an article aimed at schoolchildren, activist magazine Adbusters argues that "companies profit by changing the way you think. Representatives of the drug Prozac will come to your school to 'teach' you about depression. Exxon has [an] ecology curriculum that shows how clean the environment of Alaska is".

"Let's remember November 30 and the days that followed as the launch of the Seattle Rebellion, the anti-corporate resistance that will reshape society in the next 10 years. It wasn't a skirmish or an opening salvo, but a manifesto etched in the streets by tens of thousands of people."

- Adbusters

The closing chapters of No Logo investigate the growing number of protests against globalisation, of which the Seattle Riots of late 1999 and the current anti-GM food campaigns have been the most visible. Although both events occurred after the book's completion, they help to reinforce Klein's conclusion that the rise of global brands and increasing consumer awareness is leading to a growing backlash.

One of the most visible forms of anti-corporatism is "culture jamming", espoused by groups such as Adbusters and the band Negativland. Culture jamming attempts to subvert the ubiquitous advertising messages by spoofing them or altering their meaning in Situationist-style pranks, and the Adbusters site in particular offers a "culture jammer's toolkit" together with a gallery of spoof adverts (we've used some of them to illustrate this article).

Klein rightly questions the effectiveness of these tactics. While the proponents talk of their activities with missionary zeal, the corporations are hardly changing their policies as the result of a few spoof adverts. As Klein points out, culture jamming has been co-opted by the very advertisers it aims to subvert - see the recent "image is nothing. Thirst is everything" campaign by Sprite, or MTV's continual adoption of "underground" imagery to reinforce its own brand identity. Even anti-corporatism has become a marketable commodity, as the success of major studio picture Fight Club demonstrates.

Klein is more enamoured with activists such as the defendants in the McLibel trial, who successfully raised awareness of many of McDonalds' activities, and the semi-political "reclaim the streets" movement. Rather than the outlandish hippies the media portrays them to be, Klein discovers that the people involved in the movement are attempting to make people think about the way in which every available part of civic space is saturated with advertising.

It's in this section of the book that No Logo falters. While Klein clearly believes that Reclaim The Streets is one of a number of groups that will define the politics of the future, the fact that most of the population believe the group's members are all drug-crazed anti-car crusties shows the difficulties inherent in swimming against the tide of globalisation and media concentration. The book rightly highlights the role of the Internet in helping activists to organise and disseminate information, and the outcry over genetically modified foods demonstrates the effect that a well-organised, single-issue campaign can have. By comparison, the demonstrations against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle seemed to have no clear agenda and, by degenerating into riots, made it easy for the media to dismiss any legitimate protest as the work of subversives and "terrorists". As Klein points out, Adbusters magazine is starting to resemble the very media companies it urges its readers to fight against, while she cheerfully admits the irony of massive global corporations publishing anti-corporate polemics such as No Logo, which are marketed just like any other product.

Brilliant book - scart