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Book Review

Exposing the realities behind the image of the capitalist brand bullies

Laila Juma

No Logo: Taking Aim at Brand Bullies by Naomi Klein. Pub: Picador, USA, and Flamingo, UK, 2001. Pp: 528. Pbk: $15.00 / UK8.99.

Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain by George Monbiot. Pub: Pan MacMillan, Basingstoke, UK, 2001. Pp: 429. Pbk:UK7.99.

By Leila Juma

Capitalism and democracy are often regarded as being natural allies. Political scientists tell us that the two are interdependent and neither can exist without the other.

If so, the widespread public mood in the west against the excesses of corporatism, capitalism and the working of democracy is bad news. These books are among the increasing number of works expressing and explaining this disillusion.

No Logo, by Canadian journalist Naomi Klein, is an examination of how corporations promote brands instead of products in order to make image more important than substance in the generation of profits. Klein explains that the importance of this is that the introduction of mass-production in the nineteenth century meant that for most people there was little difference in quality between the various products available. This became even more important when European and other Western companies faced competition from countries where production costs were lower. In both cases, the challenge to the corporations was how to generate higher profits from the same products. After the second world war, according to Klein, the significance of advertising and the potential of corporate consciousness and 'brand essence' came to be recognised. The importance of this was shown in the late 1980s, when Philip Morris bought Kraft for more than six times the business's commercial value because of the Kraft 'brand value'.

The object of big business is no longer to make and market products, whose potential profits are limited, but to deal in brands, whose possibilities are far greater. The merchandising that accompanies the release of 'blockbuster' Hollywood movies is an example, but tends (except in a few cases such as Star Wars) to be time-limited. For brands such as Nike and Coca-Cola the potential seems limitless.

The significance of brand recognition in distinguishing between different makes of detergent or baked beans is well established, and is not Klein's concern. Her concern is 'brand bullying', which involves a number of related excesses. At one level is the use of techniques of mass psychology in order to make brands into cultural accessories and tie brands to lifestyle philosophies. Another is the exploitation of the power that comes with size and market presence to intimidate and destroy competitors, usually smaller, less powerful ones such as local stores and producers. A third is the deliberate targeting of the most vulnerable and insecure people for marketing offensives. Klein also shows how major corporations are able to get away with their excesses by adroit use of the law and by financial relations with the authorities whose job it ought to be to regulate the 'brand bullies'.

Political analyses of societies place great emphasis on 'civil society' C the realm of social and community institutions that are supposed to operate outside the direct control of the state, thus giving people control over their lives, communities and societies. Unfortunately, as Klein shows, there is no equivalent realm in corporate terms; no area of life which is beyond the reach of the brand bullies. Public bodies such as hospitals, museums, schools, universities, community centres, local sports teams and social centres are all sponsored by major corporations, which then impose restrictions on their freedom of speech and action, and turn them into marketing vehicles for their brands.

Among examples that Klein quotes is Coca-Cola's exclusive vending rights at Kent State University, USA. In 1998 members of the college's Amnesty International chapter were refused financial assistance from the student council for a meeting to discuss human rights abuses in Nigeria because they could not guarantee that the speaker from the Free Nigeria Movement would not criticise Coca-Cola's involvement in human rights abuses there. Another example is Nike's sponsorship of the athletics department at the University of Kentucky, one of many such deals it has. This sponsorship agreement includes a clause to terminate the agreement if 'the University disparages the Nike brand...or takes any action inconsistent with the endorsement of Nike products.'

Klein also quotes examples at the research level. The pharmaceutical company Boots successfully prevented publication of results of research it had sponsored at the University of California (San Francisco) because it showed that one of its brand-name drugs was no better than a generic equivalent available for a fraction of the price. In a similar case in Toronto in 1998, Dr Nancy Olivieri, a world-renowned scientist, discovered that the drug she was testing could have life-threatening side-effects for some patients. The drugs company involved pulled its sponsorship of her research, and had her demoted by the University of Toronto when she went ahead and published her results without authority, in order to protect the lives of patients.

Klein's assiduously researched book pulls together so many remarkable examples of so many types of abuse by brand bullies that it is impossible to quote examples of more than a few. She particularly emphasises how corporations such as Wal-Mart and Starbucks abuse their market position to force smaller competitors, such as local stores offering community-based services and products, out of the market.

Klein also points out the targeting of impressionable young people by brand marketing, designed to pressure them to buy particular brands in order to be 'cool'. This marketing includes the sponsorship of music and cultural events, as well as of schools, universities and community centres. This is not only a Western phenomenon; it is particularly targeted at the westernised young people of non-Western countries such as Japan, India and China, a part of the reason being that they are likely to become trendsetters for the rest of their societies and so establish the brands in powerful positions to make money in those areas in the future.

George Monbiot, a British radical activist who is a columnist for the Guardian newspaper, argues inThe Captive State that corporate money in Britain has become so powerful that it 'threatens the foundations of democratic government'. His object is to show that the Labour government is so beholden to corporate money that every element of public policy in Britain is defined more by corporate interests than by people's needs and concerns. In a brilliantly written work, he exposes the role of capital in influencing government at every level, from local health boards to international relations and foreign policy.

Both these books have been widely praised by liberal commentators in the West. It seems inconceivable that anyone who reads them can fail to be convinced of the true nature of modern western democracy. And yet the amazing thing is that so many of the same commentators remain convinced that modern western democracy must be imposed on all other peoples of the world, whatever the cost may be. The inconsistency is stunning, and perhaps says more about democracy and its advocates than any number of books of this kind.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 2

Muharram 02, 14232002-03-16

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