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Capitalizing on the Anti-Capitalist Movement

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  • Clore Daniel C
    News for Anarchists & Activists: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/smygo Capitalizing on the Anti-Capitalist Movement by Alicia Rebensdorf, AlterNet August 7, 2001
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 8, 2001
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      News for Anarchists & Activists:
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/smygo

      Capitalizing on the Anti-Capitalist Movement

      by Alicia Rebensdorf, AlterNet

      August 7, 2001

      An angry mob gathered around a train station, passing out
      photocopied flyers and shouting protests against an unjust
      company. Scrappy stickers were slapped on billboards,
      directing passers-by to a crudely designed website. The
      company they were railing against was a frequent target of
      grassroots activism: Nike. And the group running this
      guerilla-style anti-advertising campaign? None other than
      Nike itself.

      It's been over a decade since Nike's beloved swoosh first
      came under attack by labor activists. Organizations like
      Adbusters, Global Exchange and NikeWatch have waged high
      profile campaigns to make that curving icon associated with
      slave labor as firmly as with Michael Jordon. Activists have
      manipulated logos, performed street theater and marred
      billboards in order to "jam" the Nike brand.

      Nike's recent soccer ads in Australia, however, has
      appropriated both the techniques and the language used
      against them. The campaign involved posting billboards that
      boasted "The Most Offensive Boots We've Ever Made,"
      pseudo-marring them with stickers that read "Not Fair Mr.
      Technology," and even creating a fake grassroots protest
      group called Fans Fighting for Fairer Football (F.F.F.F).
      Although this fuzzy people-power group had "banded together
      for a single cause that they believed was fair and just,"
      they were not activists fighting for fair working
      conditions; these were "actorvists" arguing that Nike shoes
      gave their wearers an unfair advantage.

      How clever! How hip! That Nike, they sure can co-opt their
      critics with irreverent cool!

      "It took hard work to link the words 'Nike' and 'sweatshop'
      in the public mind," says Kalle Lasn, director of Adbusters.
      But now, he says, "without significantly changing its labor
      practices, Nike gets a chance to mock its critics, with the
      public laughing along."

      Though Nike may pass their latest stunt off lightly -- like
      it is, to qoute their other advertising campaign, "just
      play" (tee-hee, you're it!) -- this is no game of tag.
      Instead, it's another chapter in the age-old story of
      corporate marketers co-opting a cultural movement. But this
      is commodification with a twist -- because, essentially,
      Nike is trying to capitalize on the anti-capitalism
      movement.

      Anarchy, after all, is sooo in. Black Bloc protesters strut
      their stuff on the nightly news, with their drums,
      explosions, and black hoods framing attractive,
      twenty-something faces -- hell, it's better than MTV and
      reality television put together! And you couldn't ask for
      better demographics. Demonstrations in Seattle, Quebec and
      most recently Genoa have been a hit with the 18 to 35 year
      olds; the audience the police are shooting at is precisely
      the one corporate advertisers are shooting for.

      While extreme in its co-optation of protesting techniques,
      Nike is hardly the only company jumping on the
      anti-corporate bandwagon. Apple, IBM and the Gap have all
      played with protest-chic. Apple has imposed their "Think
      Different" slogan onto billboards of Cesar Chavez, Malcolm
      X, and -- most recently -- young, red-flag waving militants.
      The Gap has seized on the graffiti aesthetic by dressing
      their windows in fake black spray paint that reads "Freedom"
      and "We the People." They've even hung anarchist flags
      alongside their sweatshop-produced low-riding jeans.

      Meanwhile, IBM has made a more literal move to the streets.
      Their recent Linux campaign involved spraying stencils of
      Peace, Love and the Linux Penguin logo on city sidewalks.
      They have gotten flak for their graffiti -- Chicago fined
      them several thousand dollars and San Francisco officials
      decried it as vandalism -- but that can only reinforce their
      hip, anti-establishment image. It's only a matter of time
      before Old Navy begins peddling gas mask patterned
      handkerchiefs (you've got to get this look!) and the Home
      Shopping Network makes the Black Bloc's monochromatic look
      available to you, 24 hours a day, in your choice of ebony,
      sable or raven.

      An exaggeration? Perhaps, but not without precedent. The
      corporate machine has proved itself capable of folding the
      prickliest of cultures into its embrace. Punk.
      Afro-centricism. Civil Rights. Virginia Slims straddled the
      Cosmo crowd while it spouted the feminist slogan "You've
      come a long way, baby." Benetton appropriated anti-racist
      imagery to hippify its brand and the Pillsbury Dough Boy
      rapped, proving even biscuits can benefit from hip-hop's
      trendiness. Companies continuinally pan a movement,
      commodify its cool, strip its substance and use it to
      enhance their own logo.

      Nike & Co. would like to think the current protest
      movement's anti-corporate bent is but a pesky inconvenience.
      But co-opting this dissent may be bit more difficult
      because, in part, it's a reaction to the very
      commodification past political movements have fallen victim
      to. Naomi Klein, author of the anti-corporate manifesto "No
      Logo," sees this generation of activists as different.
      "Although this is what companies have always done -- they've
      sought out the edge, they've marketed it and sold it back,
      they've done it with feminism and anti-establishment agendas
      -- I think there's something fundamentally different about
      an anti-corporate movement that's reacting so strongly
      against that very impulse to co-opt."

      When Nike did run its pseudo-protest, it took no time for
      the real activists to fight back. Activists jammed the
      mock-jammed billboards with phrases like "$1.25 per day
      wages: 'Not Fair' Mr. Nike" and "100% Slave Labour." Rallies
      were held outside Nike stores and the Melbourne megastore
      had to be boarded up. Two days after the F.F.F.F. website
      was mentioned in the mainstram news, it was taken down.
      Nikesweatshop.net claimed victory by saying: "Bad layout and
      Impact font belong to the activist community again (for
      now...)"

      Could activists of generations past have claimed such a
      swift victory? The added advantage protesters have in
      today's game is that both parties know the rules. Activists
      are more media savvy and will fight just as fiercley to hold
      on to their own signature methods as they do to attack their
      enemies' tactics. They also know the power of the brand --
      the sancitity of the almighty icon -- and how to hit back
      where it hurts. While Genoa protestors might not be
      effective in overturning the World Bank and the G-8, they
      are having a real effect on many youths' perception of
      corporate conglomerates as less than cool. For all of Nike
      attempts to laugh it off, there is rising mass of people who
      think of the swoosh like animal rights activists think of
      fur: it's garnered at the expense of others.

      This, of course, makes the corporate efforts to co-opt them
      all the more desperate. Anti-brand chic may be more
      difficult to appropriate, but that does not mean Nike and
      the Gap and Apple and IBM will stop trying. Not simply
      because its cool and hip and their models look good in
      black. They will try because this movement poses a genuine
      threat to their omnipotent brand imaging. They simply can't
      afford to have their shoes, clothing and computers
      associated with the truth of cheap labor, false advertising
      and economic unjustice.

      So instead, they'll continue to try and belittle the
      movement, mock it, copy it, appropriate it and spit it out
      in a way so people cannot recognize -- or forget -- the
      underlying critique. The activists, in turn, will continue
      to adapt because the clock keeps running, even if the game
      changes form. Adbusters goes glossy, Nike goes grunge. A
      corporation appropriates, a subculture morphs and a new
      critique arises.

      The truth is, Nike was well aware that their "Offensive"
      campaign would offend. As Lasn points out, "They were
      counting on it. And now they're back in the spotlight on
      their own terms." But the protestors were already set to
      grab it back. Because they know this is more than a game of
      tag; it's a tug of war. So when it does come down to
      branding, jamming and name calling, the activists will try
      to hit the bullies with slams that stick.

      --
      Dan Clore
      mailto:clore@...

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