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"No Logo" disses the brands you trust

By Robert David Sullivan

OCTOBER 25, 1999: 

No Logo: Solutions for a Sold Planet by Naomi Klein (Picador), 224 pages, $25.

There are a few rules that I always follow as a consumer. First, never buy the cheapest or the most expensive brand of anything. If given the option, buy from a company that puts money back into the local economy. Assume that the biggest companies have the worst labor practices and are the most destructive to the environment. And if any multinational corporation suffers any kind of bad publicity -- whether because of contaminated meat, an oil spill, or an employee without health insurance who loses a finger to a conveyor belt -- boycott all its products until a competitor does something even worse.

These rules, though tried and true, might seem novel to someone who grew up in the pro-business era of Ronald Reagan. For instance, writer Naomi Klein, who covers marketing and advertising for the Toronto Star, is young enough (28) not to remember the days when the phrase "big business" rang more sinister than "kiddie pornographers." This explains why her book No Logo often comes across as naive, especially in her emphasis on "nineties marketing and consumerism." In the first chapter, Klein pinpoints 1993 as the birth date of "the super-cool extra-premium 'attitude' brands that provide the essentials of lifestyle and monopolize ever-expanding stretches of cultural space." From this premise, she moves on to condemn brands such as Nike and Tommy Hilfiger for keeping their labor costs as low as possible, even if it means buying their inventory from sweatshops in the Philippines. To Klein, these sweatshops -- out of sight and out of mind -- represent the triumph of the marketers over the manufacturers in American business. Workers' conditions are being forgotten, Klein seems to say, because corporations are increasingly run by executives who never even see the factory floor.

Maybe, but I suspect that the Philippine sweatshops owe their existence more to America's low unemployment rate and pesky OSHA regulations. Strip away workers' rights here at home, and Nike will be more than happy to make its sneakers in Lowell or Fall River. When has the mass production of clothing ever been anything but a horrific experience for almost everyone involved? (Do the words "cotton picking" ring a bell?) We can't blame the originators of the "Just Do It" slogan, as Klein implies we should, for the continued
exploitation of cheap labor.

No Logo is an attack on the excesses of capitalism, hidden inside a less-threatening critique of the hard sell. Klein loads up her book with examples of advertisements infiltrating schools, gullible teenagers spending hundreds of dollars on single pairs of sneakers, and morons getting the Nike "swoosh" tattooed on their bodies. She describes how Microsoft classifies most of its work force as temporary employees to get out of providing health benefits, how superstores such as Toys "R" Us pressure manufacturers not to supply popular items to smaller chains (the toy chain was condemned for this practice by the US Federal Trade Commission in 1997), and how the sponsors of concerts and sporting events try to restrict the free-speech rights of audience members and performers. There's plenty here to make your blood boil, but little of it is really new. Klein would have been more convincing if she had depicted these outrages as part of capitalism's evolution, rather than as part of a conspiracy less than a decade old. (Her introduction sets the breathless tone: "This book is hinged on a simple hypothesis: that as more people discover the brand-name secrets of the giant logo web, their outrage will fuel the next big political movement, a vast wave of opposition squarely targeting transnational corporations . . . ")

Whether or not we see that "vast wave," the "branding" of America may not be irreversible. Remember some of the once-common practices that have faded with the passage of time: "company towns" where a single employer controlled not only jobs but also housing and food, television programs in which the characters interrupted the plot to hawk cigarettes (à la The Truman Show), even advertisements printed on the fans handed out at church on hot days (before air conditioning, which no one has yet been able to exploit for advertising purposes). Other ideas from the world of advertising haven't caught on as quickly as we had feared. I still don't see TVs bolted to supermarket shopping carts or checkout counters to air commercials as we shop, and the video screens installed at the Park Street T station seem to have been turned off permanently. We can probably thank good old-fashioned vandalism for some of these minor victories; Klein affirms this theory by writing about the little billboards affixed to the inside of toilet stalls at McGill University in Montreal. ("There was so much anticorporate vandalism that the ads were deemed no longer cost-effective and were yanked.")

No Logo ends with a round-up of various campaigns against the encroachment of corporations on public space, but this is a too-brief part of a rather long book. I was hoping for more of the "solutions" promised in the book's subtitle. Of course, I already think that the saying "absolute power corrupts absolutely" is as true in the business world as it is in government; readers who believe in an unregulated marketplace, however, might find some surprises in the first 200 pages of this book.

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