Capitalizing on the Anti-Capitalist Movement
- News for Anarchists & Activists:
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
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
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
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
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.
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