Book Club – ‘No Logo’

“Why should bread have all the fun, when there’s Weetabix?” Asked Weetabix’s official Twitter account. “Serving up @HeinzUK Beanz on bix for breakfast with a twist. #ItHasToBeHeinz #HaveYouHadYourWeetabix” They said, accompanied by a provocative image of baked beans slathered on top of the nation’s favourite cereal bricks. Such a tweet would have been obnoxious and desperate at the best of times, but its true significance as a cultural milestone was in its role as a locus for possibly the biggest brand pile-on since the movie Space Jam starring Michael Jordan. Everyone was getting in on the action, including Nando’s, Wigan Council and the state of Israel. Like flies to a steaming pile of shite official brand Twitter accounts jostled with one another to get their own knee-slappers in, emboldened by users who gleefully ate up and re-shared the content.

Such a paragraph would not have made sense 21 years ago. It would be quite difficult to explain to the humble citizen of 1999 the nuances not only of Twitter and social media, but also the colonisation of these spaces by fast food accounts run by savvy marketing teams well-versed in the way of memes and internet culture. This is what makes No Logo so remarkable. Released in the final month of that year as a new millennium dawned, its author Naomi Klein successfully articulated an anti-corporate sentiment that had been brewing through that decade and gathered pace upon the release of her book. Klein couldn’t possibly have even conceived of the Weetabix ‘event’ back then, but the bones of what she lays out in her book are as relevant a framework as ever for critiquing and challenging the myriad ways that brands invade our lives more than two decades on from its arrival.

No Logo was something of a sensation when it was first published. A bestseller in the UK, the book was translated into 30 languages and sold over a million copies worldwide. Radiohead briefly considered naming their album Kid A after it – such was its influence on their work – and Klein was even approached by some looking to copyright the title and release a merchandise line, the irony seemingly lost on them. Coming in at 490 pages and bound in an unassuming, slightly insidious-looking matte black cover, you might wonder how such a tome could come to be adopted so passionately by many as a field manual in the pushback against brand domination. The ideas that are skewered within are as broad and intimidating as culture appropriation, global job flight and the privatisation of public space (hardly entry-level stuff), but the secret to the book’s runaway success lies in Klein’s masterful grasp of accessible writing that doesn’t compromise on scope or precision.

And scope is really something that is required when trying to tell the story of how brands have come to dominate, and in many ways become, our lives. What Klein does is distil these disparate ideas and interconnected stories into three concrete sections: NO SPACE, NO CHOICE, and NO JOBS, before presenting her solution, NO LOGO. Klein writes with such a deliberate, unwavering cadence that carries you across time and space, interweaving damning evidence with personal anecdotes and carefully selected examples that span the globe. The real magic of her style of argument is in connecting up the dots of what we know to be true to draw a wider picture that would otherwise be dismissed. I think Klein would be quick to object to any claim that she was somehow the first to make these arguments or take a stand against these brand giants, but its undeniable that she pioneered neatly stringing together these fractured resistance campaigns and presenting it as a singular movement.

Starting with NO SPACE, she charts the advent of branding and logo creation from its humble beginnings to the present day. Brands really only began as a way of differentiating products and imbuing them with a homely feel despite being mass manufactured (See: Uncle Ben or Aunt Jemima), but Klein notes that the most powerful shift that catapulted us into Brand Land was when management execs realised that selling an image was far more effective – and profitable – than selling products. Coinciding with the phenomenon of globalisation companies shed their factories and their workforces and focused entirely on the brand.

Klein argues convincingly that this fixation on image has led to an arms race of sorts in the advertising industry to capture our ever-dwindling attention. This all started when early ad men tried to inject soul into these corporations but mutated over time into the idea of company “values” or, more broadly, ideas of “ethos”. Polaroid is no longer just a camera but a “social lubricant”, Nike no longer just sells shoes, rather they embody the very spiritual conception of sport itself. To do this, brands need to gobble up and inject themselves into as much cultural space as they possibly can. This means billboards, official partnerships and sponsoring athletes, and before long mutates into political philosophies and even content creation.

This in itself isn’t the problem, however. Klein reasons the logical conclusion of this endless expansion is in the privatisation of public space and appropriation of youth and minority cultures. Nike offers to fund inner-city sports programmes in return for total swoosh visibility on the basketball courts. Tommy Hilfiger carefully positions itself to appeal to the ‘living it large’ lifestyle of black hip-hop subcultures before then marketing that edginess back to white consumers in the suburbs. Everywhere brands battle it out to get their image burned into the brains of young, cool people who set the trends. Klein points out that there’s a revolving door between lack of government funding for things like libraries, museums, art galleries and sports facilities and corporations swooping in happy to pick up the bill for exposure. Concerningly, she points out that we begin to think that had the programme not been brought to you by Coca-Cola or Shell then it wouldn’t have been brought to you at all.

The NO CHOICE section sees Klein get a bit more into the meaty economics and cultural consequences of brand capitalisation. Suddenly those privatised cultural spaces she explores in NO SPACE become sanitary and censored as brands threaten to withdraw their support if they feel their brand image is threatened. Economies of scale mean big bully retailers like Walmart and Amazon eradicate local businesses and unobstructed mergers lead to bloated corporate behemoths that leave no space for challengers to gain a foothold. Aggressive expansion into other sectors can mean total brand synergy and horizontal integration; Klein references Richard Branson’s Virgin vision of consumers who fly across the Atlantic in his planes, listen to his music records and keep their savings in his bank. If brands manage to spin this all-encompassing web of goods and services they can finally actualise the aim of a lifestyle brand, in that people can live their lives entirely within their ecosphere.

Picture by Kris Krüg / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

As consumption becomes more about the experience and our lives are increasingly characterised by the brand interactions we have, Klein points out that the relationship we have with them is far from balanced. When people attempt to recreate or remix branded imagery, as at a New Zealand primary school where parents painted their own renditions of Pluto and Donald Duck onto the playground mural or in Aqua’s pop hit Barbie Girl, then the Disneys and Mattels step in with their lawsuits to protect their copyrighted cultural property. All of this, Klein notes, is conducive to the idea that culture is something that happens to you, a commodity to be rented out rather than something you can participate in.

Next up is NO JOBS, which centres on the catastrophic effects that have been caused by opening up global markets to trade liberalisation. Klein argues that free trade agreements have been a raw deal for all workers in both developed countries as well as in the Global South. With companies focussing on image rather than products much of the manufacturing jobs in the West that provided good, unionised jobs with decent pensions have been outsourced and shipped abroad, devastating whole communities of working class people. She speaks of how shareholders demand endless growth and fat dividends and so CEOs get parachuted in on the promise of shedding unnecessary baggage like directly employed workforces and actual brick and mortar assets – all of that is to be contracted out at a cheaper price, getting closer and closer to the idea of a brand that breaks free of any physical bounds. Quite prophetically, Klein concludes that the work that does remain in developed countries increasingly becomes freelance and temporary. This entails that individuals stripped of their collective bargaining power must compete with one another for employment, and what then follows is a requirement to brand and market yourself to survive.

Where Klein talks with considerable sympathy is where she tells the story of the people in these countries that supposedly “stole” our jobs, who are in just as much of a precarious position. Klein actually goes to visit workers in the Philippines who now work in what are known as Export Processing Zones (EPZs), places set up in developed countries to try and lure in foreign investors and contractors with lax labour and environmental protections, little to no taxes or export duties and the promise of anonymity. Global corporations play the field with their contracts, simply shifting their production elsewhere when demands for better workers’ rights get in the way of their profits, incentivising a race to the bottom by developing countries and leaving the poor, young, typically women workers in a constant state of job insecurity, fear and inescapable poverty. All of this, Klein points out, is shrouded behind the massive and impenetrable facades that these same companies meticulously construct in the West.

Picture by Tareq Salahuddin / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

I began to lose my reading momentum with the book particularly as it progressed into its final section NO LOGO, just as Klein tries to strike a more optimistic tone and outline ways in which ordinary people can push back against the tide of the brand Goliath. So much of her scathing criticisms of branding in the first three sections have not only stood the test of time but are so on the mark that they describe the infancies of some of the biggest forces shaking up our culture, economy and society today.

I look especially towards how companies like Airbnb can become the biggest hotel company in the world without owning a single property, or how in the gig economy thousands of workers don Deliveroo’s teal uniforms and deliver food on their behalf despite not being directly employed by them. These seem like perfect iterations of the shareholder dream of a company with no earthly liabilities such as assets or labour – just pure, ascendent brand.

The thrust of what Klein was trying to get at in regards to disappearing public space seems like it points directly towards the world we live in now. Much of our social life takes place online under the watchful eye of data-hungry social media companies, and on those websites posts from our friends are shoulder-to-shoulder on our feeds with targeted adverts and corporate-generated content that borrows from internet youth culture as in the Weetabix example. Klein’s vision of a freelance, gig economy generation of self-branding has never seemed more clear than it has now in the age of the influencer and carefully curated online personas that function as our own personal brands.

Picture by Neil Schofield / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

There is a lot that Klein didn’t get right, or at least didn’t see coming back in 1999. This was partially why I ran aground reading the book’s final section for a long while. It was difficult to finish when I know how the story eventually ends. Klein attempts to compile a collection of ways in which brands can be countered or at the very least held accountable, but knowing that not only have things not changed but that they have exceeded even the greatest fears of this incredibly in-depth and well-researched book left me feeling extremely dejected.

I think principally Klein’s biggest pitfalls in her book (and I hesitate to call them pitfalls as she couldn’t possibly have known at the time) are in the way she discusses the internet. I’ve written before on this blog about 90s utopianism when talking about the net, and it seems Klein also falls victim to the same trap of seeing the internet through rose-tinted glasses – as this great leveller of power rather than as an even more powerful tool for brands to project their image and suppress collective consciousness.

Her final section isn’t all bad, and actually for its time it prescribes some powerful methods for global citizens to hit back against the logos. The chief way of doing this is what Klein calls “culture jamming”, where people can sabotage an ad or altogether distort its intended message in what renegade adbusters of the time called “mass political jujitsu”. This is where the size of a brand can be used against it, with its message subverted in an effective way to undermine its power. I don’t think it would be much of a reach to draw parallels between this early form of anti-corporate activism (that Klein describes as black-clad vigilantes armed with ladders, copious amounts of paint and a hatred for billboards) and what is now second nature to Gen Z: using memes and photoshopping to take hefty pot-shots at government and corporations. I was actually reading the chapter on this topic right around the time Rishi Sunak got in hot water for pushing creatives to retrain, and I came across these perfect examples of culture jamming in action:

I’m not sure what to then make of No Logo in 2021. Do we now live in an inescapable corporate dystopia? Are the tools to combat brands really just under our noses, if only we were to realise it? What does labour solidarity mean in the twenty first century? And how on earth do you adbust something as surreal as the Weetabix shitpost? I put the book down carrying more questions than I did before. I think for anyone who considers themselves left-leaning this book is an absolutely foundational read to get to grips with the ways corporations gain and exercise their power, and the weapons we have at our disposal to bite back. Though it doesn’t mention it explicitly, I think the book can now be seen as a formative text for the concept of Late Capitalism, which is a term familiar to many that describes the current zeitgeist where KFC buys up Colonel Sanders DJ slots at festivals and Americans use Ubers instead of ambulances to get to the hospital. If only Klein had known it would get this bad.

Words by Charlie Forbes

Sources, Further Reading and Other Resources:

The Observer – ‘No Logo at 20: have we lost the battle against the total branding of our lives?’
You can buy No Logo by Naomi Klein from an independent bookseller here (Paperback, £10.22).

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