Wednesday 28 April 2010

No Logo: Ten Years On

Reason Mag has a very nice review of the tenth anniversary of Naomi Klein's book.
A decade on, there is no question who won that fight. From eco- to organic, fair trade to locally sourced, sweatshop safe to dolphin friendly, sales pitches that 10 years ago would have reeked of patchouli oil and set the red baiters on full alert are now thoroughly mainstream. Companies like Whole Foods (and its quarterly “5 Percent Day,” when each location donates 5 percent of its net sales to a nonprofit) or the Vermont-based Seventh Generation (a natural soap and detergent company devoted to all forms of sustainability, whose co-founder and executive chairman is known as the “inspired protagonist” of the firm) are massively successful operations.

Virtually every marketing book published in the past few years, from Martin Lindstrom’s Buyology to James Gilmore and Joseph Pine’s Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want, has stressed the primacy of authenticity as a selling point. Everyone agrees that the quest for authenticity is the contemporary advertising equivalent of the search for the Holy Grail, and being able to play the authenticity game is now a fundamental requirement of marketing, the standard against which all brand strategies are judged.

At this point you might expect Naomi Klein to raise her arms and declare victory. The days when Shell, McDonald’s, Nike, and others could bigfoot around the planet while ignoring their public responsibilities are gone, their behavior transformed, thanks to the efforts of a relatively small but highly vocal, motivated, and intelligent group of connected activists. The taming of the brand bullies is all the proof you need that corporations don’t own brands; consumers do.

Yet Klein is not happy. In a remarkably self-aware passage toward the end of No Logo, she points out that there has to be more to environmentalism than an Energy Saver sticker on your computer monitor and more to social justice than a Fair Trade logo on your coffee mug. If all politics becomes absorbed into consumer politics, she warns, you end up with the wholesale privatization of what was once the democratic responsibility of the public sphere.

That is why Klein is so unappreciative of what would appear to be a great triumph for her side. Her goal was never merely to change corporate behavior. It was to change the entire economic system. As she sees it, the newfound emphasis on selling authenticity is just further evidence of capitalism’s ability to co-opt dissent and exploit seemingly subversive niches. Reform is always the enemy of revolution, and any change that maintains the overall status quo is to be viewed with suspicion. Writing about branding was only an excuse to talk about politics, and what led Klein to re-engage with the discourse of marketing after 10 years was the emergence of Barack Obama, the first U.S. president who is also a “superbrand.”
For a nice academic treatment of the links between consumer products and expressive politics, check Cass Sunstein's highly interesting "Solidarity in Consumption".

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