Special: Interview: Naomi Klien: ‘Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies’

Branding is taking up more and more of our public space. Logos are on billboards, televisions and computers. Even our bodies have become the backdrop for corporate advertising. Naomi Klein sees a backlash brewing to all this branding and she’s written about it in her new book, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies.

Branding is taking up more and more of our public space. Logos are on billboards, televisions and computers. Even our bodies have become the backdrop for corporate advertising. Naomi Klein sees a backlash brewing to all this branding and she’s written about it in her new book, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies.

The Interview

This is the week that the Youth News Network starts beaming its program into Canadian classrooms. It’s a television program that will be aimed at kids, but one that will have advertisements in it. What’s wrong with that?

Naomi Klein: Well, a big part of what’s wrong is that the schools that sign the deals don’t have any choice but to air the programs. Even if the individual teachers decide they don’t feel the program has an educational value, they have to air it.

You see this as one of the last spaces in our society, in our culture, that’s not branded, that doesn’t have a billboard waiting to be covered up by the next logo.

I think as soon as the schools are branded, and in many ways it’s already happening… So many schools already have exclusive deals with Pepsi and fast-food joints in the cafeteria and textbooks with brand product placement in them. In a sense it contributes to this idea there’s no space left.

That’s a powerful idea. I think, particularly, for young people. It contributes to this feeling of global claustrophobia, to a feeling that there’s no escape. I see that as leading to a growing militancy. We saw glimpses of that in Seattle where there was direct hand-to-hand combat with these corporate brands and bricks flying through windows. I think it has to do with this feeling of there being no choice, no space left. Schools are in a sense the last bastion. Once that’s gone, there’ll be no space left.

The corporations know what they’re getting. They know they’re getting advertising time with a captive audience. They know what they’re doing when they brand our culture, whereas we’re not aware of the fact that these corporations have a lot of influence in our life.

You talk about Nike in this book. Nike is a shoe company that is determined to unseat pro sports, the Olympic and even star athletes, to become the very definition of sports itself. Did they succeed in doing that? Is Nike bigger than the Olympics? Is Nike bigger than sports and amateur sports?

Well, in many ways it is. What Nike has been so successful at is turning its brand into a celebrity, into a pop culture icon. It has very little to do with the product itself. It exists almost in the same stratosphere as the athletes that sponsor its product, as the teams, and it has to do with this idea of branding which someone like the CEO of Nike decided in the mid-80s, he said, “we don’t want to be a shoe company anymore. We want to be a sports company. We want to get in the game.”

That sounds like marketing babble. In fact, it means, in a sense, rather than sort of hitching a ride on sports and our traditional understanding of marketing and sponsorship, he’s actually in competition with sports. They’re in the same game now.

But there also is a synergy here between many, many people that make products. You know, Nike leads to Michael Jordan, which leads to the movie Slam Dunk, which leads to Warner Brothers. And any number of tie-in products from fast-food organizations and that kind of thing. But really what you’re looking at when you talked about claustrophobia earlier, you’re looking at a culture that is supplanting whatever culture we used to have and is also making it very difficult to escape.

A lot of us are cynical about professional sports. When it’s applied to music it becomes more troubling, and when it’s applied to schools, I think it’s most distressing. I believe that same process we see with Nike unseating pro sports we’re seeing in the schools. It’s not just about getting your ad in schools. It’s actually more and more about sort of turning brands into the subject of education.

Nike has even developed, a course curriculum called Air Two — I forget. They build a shoe in class, and they learn about recycling and all of this.

But it’s actually a commercial.


I want to talk about the people that are doing something. You mention the WTO protest. That shows there are people saying, “Wait a minute, now, in a global world we want a say. We know we’re being shut out.” Adbusters, culture-jammers, who you profile in the book, can they stand up to a huge global or multinational corporation and make them back down?

Well, I think that change is already happening. It’s happening in less direct ways. Nike is still, obviously, in business, still a popular company. But its stock prices have suffered, its sales have suffered. More importantly it’s actively changed some of its policies to respond to the criticism of its labour practices.

How do you bring the global economy down to the level of the neighbourhood you live in? How does this affect the way you deal with Starbucks? Do you say we don’t shop at Starbucks because–

Particularly when I talk to young people, there is this mounting frustration. If you tell students something negative about Nike, then they’re, like, “okay, well, I’ll go buy Adidas.” The truth is it’s impossible to really change the world by our consumption habits. I actually think it’s really an ineffective way to change the world.

You have to act globally. You don’t act locally, then?

You can do both. The more important thing — it’s become a cliche. We’ve all heard the statistics that corporations are becoming as powerful as governments. What’s happening now that is so crucial is we’re saying, okay, if you are as powerful as governments, then we’ll treat you the way we treat our governments. We’re going to demand accountability, we’re going to demand transparency. It’s not so much about whether we’re buying your products, but whether your policies are going to be subject to the will of the citizens.

Now, it would be easy to say — I can imagine a corporation saying, we don’t care. But you have somebody from the John Hancock company in your book saying it can take 100 years to build up a good brand and 30 days to knock it down. That’s powerful.

Very powerful. In many ways branding is the Achilles’ heel of the corporate world. The more these companies shift to being all about brand meaning and brand image, the more vulnerable they are to attacks on the image.

This interview took place January 19, 2000 in Toronto, Canada, with Brent Brasbury host of Midday.

Author: Brent Brasbury

News Service: infoculture.com

URL: http://www.infoculture.cbc.ca/archives/bookswr/bookswr_01182000_naomikleininterview.phtml

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