No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies

Naomi Klein

HarperCollins 2000
A book review by Danny Yee © 2001
In No Logo Naomi Klein offers a lively account of some of the major trends in business and culture in recent years — the rise of branding, its role in the growth of corporate power, changes in labor markets and the nature of work, and the resulting backlash. While she offers nothing that's really new or original, she brings together and synthesizes a broad range of material; the result is an overview that has helped to raise awareness of important issues.

Branding and advertising are hardly new phenomena, but Klein traces the origins of modern branding campaigns to the mid-80s, stressing the role played by clothing companies such as the Gap, Hilfiger, and Nike (she admits to having been a label-obsessed "mall-rat" as a teenager). She describes the appropriation of youth and "indie" culture (the "hunting of cool"), the intrusion of advertising (Channel One, Coke and Pepsi) into schools and universities, and "identity marketing" (the targeting of minorities, feminists, and progressive agendas). This is an entertaining account, but sometimes Klein gets caught up in the details of individual cases, and in her own rhetoric, coming up with statements such as "It wasn't until January 1999, however — when Hilfiger launched the ad campaign for the Stones' No Security Tour — that full brand-culture integration was achieved."

The rise of branding is tied up with the broader growth in and consolidation of corporate power. Klein surveys the expansion of superbrands and franchises (with Walmart and Starbucks as examples). She looks at the process of mergers and synergies, focusing on superstores, branded villages, and other controlled spaces (with Disney as a key example). And she considers corporate censorship: control of the media and distribution channels, the way aggressive protection of trademarks blurs into harassment of critics, and the willingness of multinationals to appease repressive states.

Part three, "No Jobs", shifts focus to look at changes in labor relations and working conditions. The Cavite Export Processing Zone in the Philippines is an example of a labor force kept under tight control, in "sweatshop" conditions. Meanwhile United States has seen massive casualization of the workforce, from lowly "McJobs" at McDonalds to temps at Microsoft. And corporations are no longer "good neighbours" creating jobs for communities; instead they create wealth for shareholders.

Klein finishes with a look at the "backlash" produced by these changes, covering adbusting and culture jamming, the Reclaim the Streets movement, anti-corporate activism, brand-based campaigns (with case studies of Shell, Nike, and McDonalds), and "local foreign policy" (in government, university, and school purchasing policies). This touches on how corporations have responded and Klein also offers a chapter on the limitations of brand-based campaigns — targeting Shell and Nike gives Chevron and Adidas a free run, while unbranded companies can only be reached through controversial secondary boycotts. A conclusion considers broad issues of consumerism versus citizenship and the fight for the global commons.

No Logo contains some fascinating material, but it is rather narrowly focused on what a marxist would call the "ideological superstructure". Klein says that she has "always been drawn to the shiny surfaces of pop culture" and, despite a few gestures at more, it's not clear that she really gets below those surfaces. She spends too much time making the same point repeatedly using different examples, rather than placing the phenomena she is describing within their broader historical, economic, and political contexts.

Her account of corporate mergers, for example, only mentions in passing the decline in anti-trust action by the United States Federal Trade Commission. When dealing with intellectual property — the legal basis for much of what she discusses — she never really distinguishes trademarks and patents and copyright, with no exploration of the differences in the capital of (say) Nike, Monsanto, and Microsoft. (And the free software movement was surely worth a mention as part of the "backlash", though Klein seems to have noticed that, with her own web site now making a point of running free software.) And at one point she writes:

"Political solutions - accountable to people and enforceable by their elected representatives - deserve another shot before we throw in the towel and settle for corporate codes, independent monitors and the privatization of our collective rights as citizens."
But she has little to say about political solutions or political processes — nothing, for example, about the significance of campaign finance reform and trade treaties in the United States, or about the politics of labor laws and corruption in the Philippines.

Sometimes, too, Klein seems mesmerized by the very corporate behemoths she is describing, lingering a little unnecessarily on the details of their dominance. She suggests at one point that some ideas can't be co-opted by corporate marketing because they aren't expressed primarily through "style and attitude". One has to wonder if No Logo itself qualifies here, if it isn't more useful to marketing and advertising executives than to activists — but Klein would be the first to admit that she is brandishing a double-edged weapon.

July 2001

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%T No Logo
%S Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies
%A Klein, Naomi
%I HarperCollins
%D 2000
%O paperback, index
%G ISBN 0002559196
%P xxi,490pp