Name: Naomi Klein
Occupation: activist and author, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies
Aspiration: “Our intellectual lives and our public spaces are being taken over by marketing … It’s important for any healthy culture to have public space — a place where people are treated as citizens instead of as consumers.”
It’s a brand new world — a world built around brands. Hard-charging, noise-making, culture-shaping brands are everywhere. They’re on supermarket shelves, of course, but also in business plans for dotcom startups, in the names of sports complexes, even — maybe especially — in the pages of this magazine. As Tom Peters famously wrote in his Fast Company cover story, “You’re branded, branded, branded, branded” (“The Brand Called You,” August:September 1997).
Naomi Klein doesn’t buy it.
She doesn’t buy the idea that the best way for companies to sell their products is to unleash hypercharged branding campaigns that forge emotional connections with customers. She doesn’t buy the idea that companies should keep searching for ways that their brands can infiltrate a customer’s everyday life — by sticking their logos on clothes, in concert programs, on subway-station walls, even in elementary-school classrooms. Klein does sometimes buy branded products (because, hell, how can you not? And also because she actually enjoys shopping). But she maintains a clear distinction in her own life between who she is and what she buys.
“Our intellectual lives and our public spaces are being taken over by marketing — and that has real implications for citizenship,” Klein says. “It’s important for any healthy culture to have public space — a place where people are treated as citizens instead of as consumers. We’ve completely lost that space.”
If you disagree, Klein says, just look around. We live in an age in which CBS newscasters wear Nike jackets on the air, in which Burger King and McDonald’s open kiosks in elementary-school lunchrooms, in which schools like Stanford University are endowed with a Yahoo! Founders Chair. But as brands reach (and then overreach) into every aspect of our lives, the companies behind them invite more questions, deeper scrutiny — and an inevitable backlash by consumers. “When we go to a mall, we’re on corporate turf,” Klein says. “We are going to the brands. But when the brands come to our schools or to our community centers, they’re coming into a civic sphere where other values prevail — and they get held to a much higher standard. Companies are taking the risk that people will decide to X-ray their practices.”
A 30-year-old Toronto-based activist and journalist, Klein has spent the past five years tracking the growing strategic and cultural importance of brands. Her findings and arguments, which appear in her new book, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (Picador USA, 2000), fly in the face of most conventional thinking about brands. A lot of people are paying attention. The book has landed on best-seller lists in Canada and in England, has put Klein in high demand as a speaker at college campuses and at grassroots rallies across the United States, and has made her one of the most visible champions for the antisweatshop movement.
Some of Klein’s ideas are pretty radical — but No Logo is not meant to be read as political propaganda. “Maybe I’ll find my ‘inner manifesto’ one day, but I don’t think this is it,” Klein says. Rather, at a whopping 490 pages, the book more closely resembles a highly readable doctoral dissertation, one that is peppered with both historical references and personal stories. Klein’s core argument is fairly simple: Since the mid-1980s, as more and more companies have shifted from being about products to being about ideas — Starbucks isn’t selling coffee; it’s selling community! — those companies have poured more and more resources into marketing campaigns.
To pay for those campaigns, she adds, those same companies figured out ways to cut costs elsewhere — for example, by using contract labor at home and low-wage labor in developing countries. In the United States, contract labor has given rise to so-called McJobs, which employers and workers alike pretend are temporary — even when, as is usually the case, those jobs are held by adults who are trying to support families. “The companies that have most aggressively stalked people as consumers are the same ones that, as employers, have abandoned them,” Klein says. Overseas, contract labor takes an uglier form: sweatshops. As Klein, who has visited factories in Indonesia and in the Philippines, bluntly puts it, “The branding economy has been built on the back of Third World labor.”
Indeed, the conditions of Third World sweatshops are a major focus of Klein’s attention. But her reservations about the branding economy are also social and philosophical. “I’m interested in the way that utopian aspirations of branding are affecting our culture,” she says. And now, in a rather surreal twist, Klein is being invited to talk to people at the very companies that she criticizes. Her message may not be one that they’re eager to hear, but her ideas, coupled with increasing public protests, are so compelling that many businesspeople feel they have no choice but to listen. Klein won’t talk to individual companies behind closed doors. “I don’t want to be a brand consultant,” she says. “I think my ideas are enormously unprofitable. But I do want to talk to businesspeople as citizens.”
Recently, Klein had just such an opportunity at an event that was organized by Keith Martin, 37, e-strategist in the e-business group at the Bank of Montreal. Klein and Martin met in 1996, after Klein criticized Martin’s employer in a newspaper column. Martin invited her out to lunch (“I wanted to get a better understanding of her perspective,” he says), and has followed her work ever since. In June, he asked Klein to speak at a bar in Toronto to a gathering of 65 of his friends and colleagues — among them executives from the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, KPMG, and Nike Canada. Klein joked as she took the floor: “You do know what my book is about, don’t you?”
“Most of the people in that audience did not agree with a lot of what Naomi had to say,” Martin notes. “But if you’re in a company and you want to understand the environment, the number-one thing that you want to get a hold of is why people are critical of your message. And the best way to do that is to listen to people who don’t agree with you.”
The Culture of Brands, the Branding of Culture
Once upon a time, a company that wanted to associate its brand with a certain strain of popular culture would sponsor an event, or advertise in a magazine that catered to the constituents of that culture. Now, Klein says, brands are the culture: Abercrombie & Fitch has its own magazine, Volkswagen has its own music festival, and Altoids has its own “Curiously Strong” art exhibit. “The problem with sponsored culture is that it indoctrinates everybody into the idea that you can’t do anything without the largesse of corporations,” Klein says. “You start to think that collectively as citizens you can’t even do basic things like have a music festival or a block party — or educate your kids — without some sort of sponsorship.”
Klein does not fault companies exclusively for extending the power and the reach of their marketing campaigns. The commercial desire for a place to project brands coincides with what she describes as “the starvation of the public sector.” The 1980s saw the reduction of government spending for schools and for museums, and made those institutions much too willing, even eager, to partner with private companies. Yet companies took advantage of the needs of those institutions, Klein asserts. And by reaching too far, by overwhelming the civic space with their marketing agendas, companies have not only harmed the institutions with which they’ve partnered — they have also made themselves vulnerable.
Klein calls this the “brand boomerang effect.” It’s a lesson that Nike, hit hard by student protests over how and where it manufactures its shoes, has learned the hard way. “There’s an idea that you can’t reverse the branding process, but I think [the anti-Nike protests] are an example that you can,” Klein says. “It can be not worth it for the companies.”
The growing anticorporate backlash is also fed, Klein believes, by the use of — and the abuse of — meaningful ideas and images in advertising. “Once a corporation decides that branding is about ideas as opposed to products, then there’s this obsession with finding the hot new idea and commodifying it,” Klein says. “It’s a very predatory process. The disconnect between powerful ideas and powerful imagery, and what they are attached to, leads to a huge amount of alienation. Ideas need to be treated with more respect.”
Here, too, Klein doesn’t fault only companies. She readily admits that the success of branding is about the failure of social institutions. “We are looking to brands for poetry and for spirituality, because we’re not getting those things from our communities or from each other,” she says. “When Nike says, ‘Just do it,’ that’s a message of empowerment. Why aren’t the rest of us speaking to young people in a voice of inspiration?” But, Klein warns, Nike cannot deliver on the meaning that it promises, and neither can any other company. Though advertising might suggest that Apple is selling iconoclasm, not computers — or that Benetton is selling progressive politics, not sweaters — Klein begs to differ. In fact, Apple is selling computers, and Benetton is selling sweaters.
“Marketers genuinely see themselves as revolutionaries, because they’re getting positive political ideas out there,” Klein says. “I think it’s time for them to realize that they are actually advertising products, and that those products have an impact on the real world. They are produced in real-world factories, and sometimes people are getting paid less in those factories because marketers are getting paid more. That’s a difficult message to hear, but if people really are concerned about the betterment of society, then they have to think about the broader implications of their industry.”
Indeed, acting as if companies deliver “meaning” practically invites consumer disappointment, Klein argues. When advertising promises, say, eternal happiness but delivers only a soft drink, consumers inevitably feel let down. “What I am talking about is the need for more integrity in branding,” she says. “I don’t think there is anything wrong with logos, with doing whatever is necessary to get your message out. Among some of the people who share my ideas, there’s an attitude that the act of selling is somehow dirty. But I think that if you’re actually selling what you’re claiming to sell, then it’s fine. I have a problem when there is a betrayal in the message.”
That a discussion about betrayal can even be considered relevant in the context of advertising might seem absurdly melodramatic. But Klein contends that the companies brought the conversation to an emotional level in the first place. “The flip side of relationship marketing is that it makes companies vulnerable,” Klein says. “Just as people are becoming more like brands, brands are becoming more like people. Nike is a celebrity, and that’s not just because of Michael Jordan. Nike used Michael Jordan to get there, but now it’s a celebrity in its own right. That means that when Nike gets caught using sweatshop labor, it’s celebrity news. Everybody wants to talk about it.”
The Making — And Unmaking — of a Brand Slave
Klein’s understanding of the complex ways in which consumers interact with brands is, to a large degree, because she is — and always has been — a part of the same world that she is critiquing. “I was a brand slave in high school,” she says. “I basically just wanted to hang out at the mall. I’ve always had a very conflicted relationship with consumer culture. It’s not hard for me to understand how incredibly seductive and alluring brands and pop culture are.” Klein says that she almost titled her book Distracted by Shiny Objects.
“I have a weakness for all things pop culture,” Klein admits. “I still watch way too much junk TV. My favorite show is The Daily Show, and I’m a little obsessed with The West Wing. I love action movies. I’ve got a total weakness for them. But I really don’t go to Starbucks. Someone might see me there.”
Despite what she describes as her own “shallow” streak, Klein actually comes from a long line of activists. Her grandfather, an animator at Disney, was one of the union organizers of the company’s first animators’ strike, in 1941. He was subsequently fired and blacklisted. In 1968, her parents moved to Canada, where Klein was born and raised, to protest the Vietnam War.
Klein’s mother, Bonnie, is a well-known feminist filmmaker. Yet Klein, the youngest of three children, is a self-proclaimed mall rat who, at 17, got an after-school job at an Esprit clothing store. (For the record, she still buys designer clothes. But now she removes the logos with a stitch remover.)
Klein’s political awakening occurred when she entered the University of Toronto, in 1989. As editor of the student newspaper, she became an advocate for a range of liberal causes, including antiracism and feminism. But she was frustrated by what she perceived as the limits of “single-issue politics” and of debates that centered around identity and representation, rather than around economics.
Klein dropped out of college in 1993 and became editor of This Magazine, a leftist monthly, as well as a columnist for the Toronto Star. She found herself writing frequently about advertising — both about its pervasiveness and about its co-opting of loaded symbols and slogans. But she had not yet found a real focus. “It seemed that all I was doing was complaining,” she says. Klein returned to school after two years off and had a startling realization: During her short time away, the political climate on campus had changed considerably. “A new generation of activists was focused on issues of corporate intrusion into their lives,” she says. “My friends and I had been paralyzed by the idea that corporations were more powerful than the government and had been intimidated by the idea of globalization. But this generation took globalization for granted. They didn’t like a lot of the things that were happening — they were questioning the commodification of everything and were looking for some unmarketed space — yet they were really savvy. They had an ease with media that came from starting their own Web sites and from having their own e-zines. Their attitude was, If you don’t like something, you can just change the picture; you can scan it and change it to something you like better. That seemed very significant to me. When I had been in university before, I had felt so helpless.”
Klein was further impressed by the younger activists’ sense of fun and by their talent for “culture jamming” — parodying ads in order to challenge the message that those ads purported to tell. “They had grown up so immersed in advertising that they were finding ways to flip it against itself,” she says. “There was way more of a sense of play — using the principles of marketing to do antimarketing. They were able to ‘de-fetishize’ brands when all of these companies had spent enormous amounts of money to turn very basic products, such as a pair of khakis or a latte, into fetish objects.” A student group at the University of Toronto known as the Media Collective blacked out the eyes on models displayed on every downtown billboard and turned their mouths into zippers, changing the faces into skulls. When ads were introduced into university bathrooms, members of the Media Collective formed the “Escher Appreciation Society” and then slipped photocopies of M.C. Escher prints in front of the ads. “They were basically telling people that they should take this time to enjoy art,” Klein says with a laugh.
Though Klein is still an admirer of such culture jamming, she acknowledges that it can go too far — as with “activists who think they’re changing the world by blocking traffic,” she says. Klein’s assessment of the anticorporate movement as a whole is not entirely uncritical, and she wouldn’t want it to be. “I have aligned myself with the goals of this movement,” she says. “But my activism takes the form of writing and researching and developing ideas. It’s important to me to maintain a distance from the movement so that I’m free to say what I think.”
In general, Klein defies the negative stereotype of an activist. Speaking before crowds, she is articulate and funny. When asked by an audience member at the event organized by Keith Martin what she means exactly when she accuses banks of making “obscene profits,” Klein quipped, “I don’t have a definition of obscene — I just know it when I see it.” Yet even with her formidable intellect and her edgy sense of humor, Klein is not a particularly imposing presence. She is still young-looking enough that she could pass for a college student, and after responding to questions, she often folds her arms and tilts her head to one side in a way that is downright girlish. As Anne Golden, president of the Toronto chapter of the United Way of Canada, remarked to Klein onstage while thanking her for speaking at a recent event, “You’re so charming and nonstrident!” It may sound like a vaguely sexist remark, but it’s true — Klein is unfailingly gracious and modest.
“I’m sort of a bridge between the respectable mainstream and the militant-activist world,” Klein says, noting proudly that she just might be the first writer ever to have a book favorably reviewed in both London’s Observer and in Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed. “I’d like to think the response to my book has been because I’m a really good writer, but I know it’s more than that. It’s because I don’t show up to do television panels in overalls and dreadlocks. I’m palatable.”
Not that Klein thinks everyone should be like her. “The movement needs hard-core, uncompromising radicals — the ones who won’t even talk to me because I’m such a sellout. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without those people. I’m totally reliant on their analysis and their actions, and I believe that we’re working together. But the movement also needs people like me who are willing to make compromises and to get ideas out in a more accessible way.”
Klein has indeed gotten ideas out, and she has heard back from many people who have been affected by her book. Young activists tell her that the book makes them feel stronger and bolsters their arguments against corporations with its facts and its logic. One fan that Klein met recently was an 18-year-old who said he had learned everything he knew about activism from listening to Rage Against The Machine — and who told her that he carried No Logo with him at all times. Klein has also heard from teachers who say that they use her book to help fight back when companies try to enter their classrooms. The book was the focus of a sermon at the Judson Memorial Church in New York: “Holy One, here we are in the midst of plenty,” the opening prayer began. “Here we are in the world capital of fashion. Here we are wanting to look good.” It has inspired a song by the children’s singer Raffi: “Tomorrow’s children got no logo/Tomorrow’s children are not for sale.” It even has prompted a British bookstore to launch a line of No Logo T-shirts — though, to Klein’s dismay, the shirts were made by Fruit of the Loom, whose use of sweatshops is well documented.
Klein is aware that not everyone agrees with her ideas — and that there are other people who agree with her ideas but who, rather guiltily, do not always make choices that reflect their values. “I make a distinction between citizenship and consumerism,” Klein says. “We are capable of wanting different things at the same time. As a consumer, you can shop at Wal-Mart because it’s more convenient and also feel just awful that the downtown of your city has been hurt. Or you can buy an SUV to protect your family without wanting to speed up global warming. The whole argument that we vote with our dollars is a caricature of the way that we actually interact with the world. We’re complicated people, and sometimes our individual consumer desires are to the detriment of the greater good.”
But just as people shouldn’t feel bad for going to Wal-Mart, Klein also warns against feeling too self-congratulatory for going to the Body Shop and doing nothing more. “I reject the idea that there is a whole class of people who are just too busy to be involved with their communities as citizens, instead of just as shoppers,” she says. “We have other powers besides the powers of our wallets.” Those powers include getting involved in local politics, writing letters to the editors of newspapers, participating in rallies, or simply asking questions. “At Starbucks, you can ask, ‘Why are you buying coffee from Indonesia when Indonesia is a dictatorship?’ ” Klein says. (Indonesia held a free election in 1999, thereby ending 32 years of one-man rule). “You shouldn’t do it in a rude way to make a salesperson feel uncomfortable, but every time you ask a question in the store that somebody can’t answer, it’s reported to a higher-up.”
Klein believes that real change — the kind of change that reaches from marketing in the schools to labor conditions in Third World factories — will come about through the decidedly unfashionable forces of government regulation. But before that can happen, individuals must make their opinions heard. “Right now, companies are trying to sort out the activism around these issues,” Klein says. “They’re asking themselves, ‘Is this a fringe thing, or do these people screaming in the streets represent a changing ethos in American society? Can we count on indifference, or can we not count on it?’ My hope is that this activism represents a broader feeling that we are losing control of our communities, that we do want to hold companies to a higher ethical standard, and that we are more than our economic relationships. I think that the best way for the average person who is concerned about these issues to react is to figure out a way to add to the cacophony of voices.”
Curtis Sittenfeld (firstname.lastname@example.org), a former Fast Company staff writer, is a graduate student in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. Learn more about Naomi Klein and No Logo on the Web (www.nologo.org).
Sidebar: The Brand Called Naomi?
On a recent episode of a prime-time Canadian talk show, Naomi Klein found herself receiving what was, to her, a rather dubious honor: Michael Budman, cofounder of the popular clothing company Roots, presented her with a sweatshirt that he’d had specially printed with Klein’s name and with the title of her new book, No Logo. Because of the success of the book, which rails against the increasingly aggressive ways that brands infiltrate society, Budman told Klein that she had become her own brand. “It was funny,” Klein says. “But I reject the idea.”
In fact, the existence of the Brand Called Naomi is a horrifying prospect to Klein. “If everyone is a corporation of one, the implications for the idea of citizenship fill me with total despair,” she says. Yet Klein is not unsympathetic to the thinking behind the Brand Called You. “A lot of companies have made the very profitable decision to no longer offer job security to their employees,” Klein says. “Companies aren’t invested in particular communities or even in particular countries. They have sent a clear message that they are there only as long as the conditions are good. That lack of security is making people — in different ways, in different sectors — divest their interests from those of corporations.”
And the long-term implication of that divestiture, Klein says, is that businesspeople and young anticorporate activists have more in common with each other than they might think. “Both groups are saying that they have accepted the idea that they’re not going to get security from companies, so now they’re free to do their own thing. For executives, their own thing means saying, ‘I will be my own corporation.’ For anarchist kids, their own thing means going after corporations. But it’s all part of the same divestment process.”
Still, Klein argues, that delicious irony doesn’t make the phenomenon any more palatable. “The Brand Called You is the ultimate triumph of space being privatized through branding — even that space in our own minds,” Klein says. “Being a brand teaches you to turn every part of yourself into a marketable product: You’re looking for your ‘braggables’ and for what people can do for you. But ultimately, that’s isolating. In point of fact, you’re not a company — you’re a member of society.”