No Logo: 10th Anniversary Edition, by Naomi Klein, Picador, 544 pages, $16
Reading old works of journalism is like looking at old photographs, serving as a useful reminder that politics has its own fads and fashions that years later seem as incomprehensible as muttonchops or leisure suits. For the politically engaged, it can be embarrassing to be reminded of the forgotten fears that once loomed so large, the abandoned fights that at the time seemed so stridently important.
Recently, the 10-year anniversary edition of Naomi Klein’s No Logo appeared in bookstores, complete with a new introduction by Klein herself. Originally released in early 2000, No Logo was an impeccably timed report on a growing youth movement that was rising up in response to the new-world-order agenda of liberalized trade, corporate outsourcing, and political deregulation that became known as “globalization.”
Klein’s writing caught the wave of anti-globalization protests that swept across the planet a decade ago, beginning with the massive and violent demonstrations against the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in November 1999. Almost immediately, wherever world leaders gathered—international economic conferences, G8 summits, trade negotiations—they would be met with street protests and a parallel meeting of the planet’s angry marginalia, including counterculturalists, environmentalists, socialists, labor organizations, and human rights activists. No Logo was quickly adopted as the movement’s bible and, along with Nalgene water bottles and khaki cargo pants, became an essential part of the general-issue battle kit for campus lefties.
What are we to make of No Logo a decade on? It remains a passionate and ambitious snapshot of the newly globalized youth and consumer culture at the end of the 20th century. It is also an often infuriating work of agitprop that marries old Marxist prejudices about the market economy to a paranoid and conspiratorial account of the business of advertising.
If that was all there was to the book, it would be enough to dismiss it as a period piece, the journalistic equivalent to a box of old Polaroids. Sweatshops, the McLibel trial, Brent Spar…weren’t those the days? But that would be a mistake, since it would miss the way in which, in its quest to undermine the branded economy and expose the capitalist propaganda that motivates all advertising, No Logo inadvertently served as the most influential marketing manual of the decade.
The organizing conceit of No Logo is the notion that the American economy has stopped making things and is now focused on managing brands. Where once a corporation might have employed domestic workers to make its jeans or sneakers or computers, now companies such as Tommy Hilfiger or Nike or Dell simply market their brand images while outsourcing the manufacturing to low-cost factories overseas. The power this gives to corporations is enormous, and we find ourselves at the whim of these brand bullies.
Why “bullies”? Klein’s case against brands comes at them from two angles. The first is the way that brands—and commercial advertising in general—have come to dominate our mental environment. Brands, she says, have co-opted popular culture and colonized our sense of self. Forget about your education or your job, your church or your family; what matters to your social status and personal identity in North America today is the brands you consume.
The second aspect has to do with the erosion of public space and the political sphere. The financial power they get from their brands has given corporations a great deal of political leverage, Klein argues, which they use to bend national governments to their will, forcing them to drop trade barriers, lower taxes, deregulate markets, and eliminate environmental protections.
Take these two arguments together, and we are left with a world where corporations, not governments, rule, and where consumerism has almost entirely displaced citizenship. We are modern-day serfs, nearly helpless in the face of the power of these feudal brand lords.
Nearly helpless, but not entirely. The corporation’s greatest strength is also its biggest weakness, and much of No Logo is devoted to documenting the ways small groups of committed activists retaliated by turning the power of the brand back on itself. But 10 years later, the rule of the brand is more entrenched than ever, largely thanks to lessons learned from a close reading of No Logo.
The book devotes a great deal of attention to the various strategies of anti-brand activism that were coming into play at the time. Joining the old-school consumer boycott were newfangled techniques such as guerrilla marketing, culture jamming (ad parodies, basically), and Reclaim the Streets initiatives aimed at reversing the “commodification and criminalization of street culture.”
However edgy or subversive these strategies once might have seemed, every single one is now a standard part of the tool kit of every advertising agency and brand manager. You think culture jamming is subversive? Kenneth Cole has been jamming its own advertising for years, embroidering its campaigns with slogans and quotations addressing topics such as AIDS, homelessness, gun control, and same-sex marriage. Guerrilla marketing might once have been a cool way of getting attention for your alternative band or performance-art installation, but today, thanks to the viral capabilities of Twitter and YouTube, the technique is used to sell everything from fried chicken to the latest Hollywood blockbuster.
And what of the Reclaim the Streets party that Klein held up as emblematic of all that was good and true about the movement? It’s still going strong, and it now involves such activities as pillow fights on Bay Street in Toronto, epic games of kick the can in Brooklyn, and mobile dance parties on London’s public transit. It has been rebranded the Urban Playground Movement, and its incredible popularity has attracted the attention of corporate sponsors such as Red Bull and T-Mobile, which are dying to associate themselves with such a hip scene.
Klein certainly recognizes how much things have changed during the last decade. She even opens her new introduction with two telling examples. The first is Absolut Vodka, which in 2009 launched a bottle with no label or logo, to “manifest the idea, that no matter what’s on the outside, it’s the inside that really matters.” Then there’s Starbucks, which has tried recently to return to its coffeehouse roots by opening a handful of unbranded stores. As Klein wryly observes, “The techniques of branding have both thrived and adapted since I published No Logo.”