Thursday, January 28, 2010

The assault on choice.

This year, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Naomi Klein’s cannonball into the shallow end of capitalism’s swimming pool, I decided to reread No Logo. A decade later, it still amazes me.

It’s deceptively unsurprising that I wouldn’t be a fan of a book that opposes the existence of brands. But the reason might surprise you a little. You see, I share her outrage at some of the conduct corporations have perpetrated in the name of profit, since the Industrial Revolution, frankly. My problem is not the observation of those things or the imperative to make them right. My problem is that No Logo – its central conceit, even – was simply dishonest.

When you read it critically, as I estimate about 10% of the people who own a copy actually did, you quickly realize that Klein’s masterpiece is not an incitement to war against marketing, or even against corporations. It’s an incitement to class struggle. The dishonestly lies in its packaging, which would be hilariously ironic if it were not so chillingly calculated. And I don’t just mean the physical book, which itself is a marketing triumph, given its Bruce Mau-designed logo, shrewdly manipulated agitprop images and blizzard of journalistic-looking citations and references. I mean the rhetorical package. Klein wants us to be outraged about the world’s unfair distribution of wealth and abuse of power – and we should be - but she knows that only the converted will listen to that polemic. So, instead, she gives it a name everybody can identify with: brands. Brilliantly, she hijacks the labels on the stuff we wear and drive and eat and makes them stand for something awful, while conveniently giving us someone else to blame so that we don’t disengage. So that we can be swept along by her impassioned but spindly argument, propped up by out of context data, ludicrous assumptions about the evil genius of marketing, and inflamed political rhetoric that would make a military dictator blush. In a piece for Canadian Business, Klein’s friend Andrew Potter – meaning it as a compliment – called her ‘The Marketer of the Decade”. Without buying into the rest of his fan letter, I wholeheartedly agree.

Fortunately, though the book was a commercial success, its manifesto was not. Well, that’s probably not completely fair. It certainly scared a few corporations straight during its bestselling time in the limelight. That’s a good thing. But in as much as it seemed to want to make brands a thing of the past, it was a pretty comprehensive failure. The last decade has seen anything but the waning of their health.

And that, I would argue, is a very good thing. The fact is – yes, fact. I really don’t see how this is debatable – brands democratize marketplaces. As long as there are brands, there is choice, and choice keeps power in the hands of consumers. And as long as there are brands, there is at least some corporate accountability, because shame needs a name in order for the fear of it to be motivating. As is very much true of the state of democracy itself, the fact of its malpractice and abuses doesn’t alter the fact that it’s the best idea we’ve had so far, and very much worth saving. I may hate a running shoe company for its business practices, but that does not mean that I want my sneakers supplied by the Ministry of Footwear. Windows is bad enough.

So it was in this state of dudgeon that I came upon the Huffington Post piece on the 12 Least Ethical Companies in the World this morning, and felt just the tiniest bit vindicated. Because eight of them are corporations that don’t compete as consumer brands at all. Another, Philip Morris, doesn’t sell anything with that name on it, and another, Chevron, could barely be considered to ‘compete’ for our business, and another is a broadcaster founded by the Prime Minister of Italy. In fact, the only true branded marketer on the list was Ryanair, and the accountability bar in that industry is already damnably low. In other words, there seems to be at least a correlation between a corporation’s ethical behavior and the likelihood of a commercially meaningful public shaming. Were the reverse true, Ms. Klein would call that a smoking gun; not being a professional journalist, I’ll stop at correlation, and call it a sign of hope.

Anyway, happy anniversary, Naomi. There’s no doubt you’ve set an example for me to strive for. It’s just that the example is as “The Marketer of the Decade.” Which really is ironic.

If you ever decide to use your powers for good, give me a call.


Ben Wise said...

Good post. Nice to see a critical review of that book. Too many people read it and blindly accept that brands are evil.

BrandCowboy said...

Or didn't read it. Honestly, I know some very reasonable people who took a sympathetic position on that book based on its reviews, but who would have been aghast at the breathlessly hotheaded language and theses between the covers.

No good can come of convincing people they're powerless within the system. They're not. Our best hope is an engaged consumer, just as it is an engaged citizen.