It was the bestseller that brilliantly critiqued the political power of the ‘superbrands’ and shot Naomi Klein to fame. Two decades on, we ask her, how does it stand up in our world of tech giants and personal brands?
Some political books capture the zeitgeist with such precision that they seem to blur the lines between the page and the real world and become part of the urgent, rapidly unfolding changes they are describing. On 30 November 1999, mere days before the publication of Naomi Klein’s debut, No Logo, the epochal “Battle of Seattle” began. Tens of thousands turned out to protest against the World Trade Organisation, and the global corporate interests it represented, and were met with tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and stun grenades. Seattle’s mayor declared a state of emergency, and a massive “no protest zone”, as the violence continued, while the chief of police resigned.
Reading No Logo back then in my first year at university was hugely formative; the book, mixing eye-opening reportage with sharp-tongued analysis of consumer capitalism, was a bible for understanding the world my generation was growing up in and the motor behind a new kind of grassroots politics. The battle lines were clear, as ordinary citizens around the world stood in opposition to corporate greed, sweatshops, union-busting, “McJobs”, privatisation and environmental destruction: and the avatar for them all, the increasingly unavoidable logos of western “superbrands”.
No Logo was published on the cusp not just of a new millennium, but a new phase of globalisation, in which household names such as McDonald’s, Nike, Shell, Starbucks, Disney, Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Microsoft could trample over workers’ rights, local laws and civic opposition in pursuit of ever bigger profits, as western outsourcing crashed against the shores of the developing world, leaving behind human misery and environmental ruin as the tide rolled out.
The book charted the dramatic rise in the west of youth-oriented, cool-hungry consumer capitalism, in which companies sold an idealised lifestyle, not the physical product on the shelf. With the factories and production lines moved out of sight, and out of mind, the superbrands could focus their North American and European operations on ever more elaborate and intrusive marketing schemes and protecting their brand through censorship and legal action. In one infamous case, Disney sued a small-town creche for painting an unauthorised mural of their characters. Privatisation, Naomi Klein observed in No Logo, “slithers into every crevice of public life”.
Caustically funny and polemical in places, Klein’s book won plaudits for her dogged research and reportage, from the candid and stomach-turning declarations of the brand gurus and snake-oil sellers to first-hand reporting from the sweatshops in the developing world’s semi-lawless “export processing zones”.
It became a new truism, for those of us schooled in No Logo’s worldview, that corporations were becoming more powerful than governments. Where previous generations had focused on the oppressive strictures of militarism, racism, nuclear power or patriarchy, the superbrands now became synonymous with all that was wrong with the world. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, they roamed across the globe unhindered and their marketing-first mentality took over party politics too: New Labour, reflected a piece in ad-land bible Campaign marking the tenth anniversary of the 1997 general election, was “perhaps the most brand-savvy political project in British history”.
No Logo had a global impact far beyond anything Naomi Klein – only 29 at the time and unknown outside her native Canada – had expected. It became a bestseller in the UK (among numerous other countries) and was translated into more than 30 languages, with more than a million copies in print worldwide. The instant success propelled her to fame and Klein’s subsequent books The Shock Doctrine, No Is Not Enough and This Changes Everythingwere all bestsellers (her newest, On Fire, making the case for a green New Deal, arrives in September). No Logo inspired numerous musicians and artists: Radiohead were so swayed by the book that they toured Europe in a tent to avoid corporate-sponsored venues and considered naming their 2000 album No Logo, before finally alighting on Kid A. The book did so well, in fact, that Klein’s publisher tried to persuade her that they should copyright the title and logo; others, seemingly oblivious to the irony, even proposed a No Logo clothing line. Incredulous, Klein declined.
A backlash from the corporate world inevitably followed: most famously, the Economist published a cover feature riffing on Klein’s book jacket design, with the splash “Pro Logo: Why brands are good for you”. But the protests continued, as in Seattle usually organised around gatherings of the WTO, the World Bank, the IMF or the G8. In the press, these were often described as “anti-globalisation”, though the activists preferred “the global justice movement” – they weren’t against internationalism, they argued, they just wanted it done very differently.
“No Logo hit at this moment when a global movement was exploding and taking mainstream commentators entirely by surprise,” says Klein on the phone from the west coast of Canada. “It felt a bit like a dam breaking – every month, there was another massive demonstration, across the world, not just in the global north.” She had real trouble finding a US publisher for the book, she recalls. They would tell her how much they loved the manuscript, but that there would be no interest in it: “The perception among media and cultural gatekeepers in the late 90s was that young people were completely apolitical.”
What strikes me, rereading the book now, is not that Klein was wrong in her diagnosis, but that the changes she was documenting are so much worse than we could have ever predicted – from PepsiCo exploring the idea of broadcasting its logos into space to KFC buying festival DJ slots for Colonel Sanders. We have reached an audio-visual climax of total brand dominance, as if Piccadilly Circus or Times Square were simply laboratories for how our world would look in the 21st century.
So what happened to the focused anti-corporate anger Klein describes in the book? In an age of synergistic “brand personalities” with “strong voices”, integrated social media strategies, trend forecasters and micro-influencers, have we given in to the total branding of every aspect of our lives and culture?
The critical moment for the global justice movement, when it was perhaps still to reach its full potential, arrived with the 9/11 attacks in the US less than two years later and the wholesale change in the political conversation that quickly ensued. The west was swept up by George W Bush’s “you’re with us or against us” rhetoric, the “war on terror”, the rise of surveillance and the neoconservative adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. The urgency of the anti-war movement absorbed western energies.
As well as shifting activists’ focus away from the sportswear and fast food brands, the Bush-era crackdown drove a wedge between the more radical anti-capitalist activists on the one hand and the bigger NGOs and trade unions. “When governments started equating the global justice movement with terrorists, a lot of them got spooked,” Klein says. “What had been so exciting about these coalitions was they were so diverse: you had scruffy anarchists, big shiny mainstream NGOs and auto workers’ unions all alongside one another, doing really hard and sometimes fractious work to find common ground, but they did it. In South America, India and elsewhere, these movements continued, but the north left them behind.”
While our minds were elsewhere, the superbrands ramped up their cannibalisation of every aspect of our cultural lives. Earlier this year, KFC bought a five-minute DJ slot for Colonel Sanders – or a man in a cartoonish Colonel Sanders outfit – at major American dance music festival Ultra. Logos hover everywhere we look, like spots in our peripheral vision. It is strikingly rare, in 2019, to encounter an unbranded, unsponsored cultural experience. Every festival, programme, public-awareness campaign and event has a series of “partners”, a cluster of familiar icons at the bottom of the poster. Every charity is led by its marketing team. Every TV programme is “brought to you by…” – a name other than its production company.
This reaches even more flagrant extremes as the companies that were initially paying for product placement in films and TV programmes become original content-creators. Where once we might have seen Jerry Seinfeld ostentatiously drinking Pepsi and wearing Nike trainers in an episode of his sitcom, we now have Pepsi Max TV and Nike TV channels on YouTube, producing their own content: not just adverts, but short documentaries, featurettes, competitions and interviews, with viewcounts often in the millions.
Corporate brands swamp our digital lives, resulting in the uncanny spectacle of their social media accounts bantering with one another on Twitter, sassily posting pop culture gifs and responding to breaking news events “in voice”. Many of them have also developed their pre-existing corporate social responsibility programmes into a performance of “wokeness”, to both generate headlines and head off some of our boredom and scepticism. Whether it’s Dove soap challenging body fascism in the beauty industry or Gillette attempting to tackle toxic masculinity in the name of selling razors, our woke pounds are there for the taking.
On another level to its rivals in this regard is Nike, most recently harnessing a portentous mixture of feminist (“breaking every single glass ceiling”) and self-help rhetoric via Megan Rapinoe and the US women’s football team. When the company made headlines last autumn with its Dream Crazy advert that featured NFL star Colin Kaepernick, controversial for kneeling during the national anthem in protest at police racism and brutality, the reports underneath told their own story. First, the advert was widely reported as appearing in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Just Do It campaign, a landmark purely because it was three decades since a previous ad campaign. Second, Nike CEO, Mark Parker, responded to the controversy by telling Marketing Week he was proud of the ad: it was a success because it drove “record engagement”. Not sales – brand engagement. “We’re motivated to inspire our consumers to connect and engage,” Parker continued. Not buy trainers.
Inevitably, some were unhappy that Kaepernick allowed his bold political protest to be co-opted by Nike. For Klein, that’s unfair. “It’s obviously complex, but I think the athletes deserve a lot of credit for pushing back against their usual gagging,” she says, comparing Kaepernick to Robbie Fowler’s 1997 “support the dockers” T-shirt (a gesture of solidarity with striking Liverpool dockers that earned him a fine) and Megan Rapinoe wearing a Nike football shirt with civil rights activist Audre Lorde’s name on the back. “From Nike’s point of view, these ventures are not ‘brave’, this is what they have always done – this is literally their brand. But it’s also not as simple as a corporate co-option, because in response to being told ‘shut up and play’, what these athletes have shown is that it’s really powerful when they don’t.
“Kaepernick is an incredible activist and what he’s done is historic – and he’s also given away a huge amount of money to grassroots groups. That doesn’t let Nike off the hook, but I think just condemning Kaepernick for taking their money is ridiculous.”
“When musicians and athletes don’t accept the idea that because they have corporate sponsors, they have to keep quiet, it can take us to some interesting places,” Klein avers.
There are two things driving the brands’ ongoing territorial expansion. The first is that consumer capitalism is boring and so constantly requires innovative, ever more ridiculous stunts to hold our increasingly fragmented attention. That’s why “experiential marketing” (PR stunts, in old money) is the ad-land buzzphrase. Senior marketeer Hilary Bradley told Campaignmagazine last autumn that millennials in particular needed “memorable experiences” to help them “emotionally connect” to a product.
The second is that consumer capitalism is insatiable – it is the same reason businesses are pushing for cities to function around the clock, to fit in more shopping and advertising time, trying to effectively “colonise the night”, an idea the American art critic Jonathan Crary explored in his 2013 book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. In April, the news broke that PepsiCo was working with a Russian “space startup” to look into projecting its logos into the night skies via a series of satellites. Like all empires, consumer capitalism always requires new territory to conquer.
And we are often unwilling subjects. Consumers, marketing executive David Lubars told Klein in No Logo, in a moment of perfect candour, “are like roaches – you spray them and spray them and they get immune after a while.” Since 1999, the spray has become considerably more potent and it’s getting everywhere. Not just trainers, razors and soft drinks, but places, spaces, charities, local councils, human beings: all of them need a brand identity, because all of them are pitching themselves in the global marketplace. As the public sphere becomes ever more emaciated by cuts, corporations step in.
Brands are literally filling in holes in the road with their logos: in Louisville, Kentucky, KFC filled in a plague of potholes, stamping them with a stencil that read “Re-freshed by KFC”. They paid what is small change in advertising terms – $3,000 – to fix 350 potholes in the city, or buy 350 adverts. “Cities are struggling all over America and you do what you can,” Louisville’s mayor, Jerry Abramson, told NPR. “We’re fortunate to have such an outstanding corporate citizen in this community.
Occupying physical space beyond a billboard has always been appealing; when Adidas signed its “tier one” £40m London 2012 Olympic partnership deal, it cannily struck an agreement to plant inner-city sporting “AdiZones”(outdoor gyms), and thus its logos, in public spaces across the country, for up to 20 years. It was a nod to the idea of trickle-down athleticism made by the Games, leaving what are essentially semi-permanent, 3D billboards in public spaces, in return for a minuscule investment – and some free publicity to boot.
This was just the latest iteration of a 1990s scene Klein describes in No Logo – Nike marketeers visiting inner-city basketball courts in mostly black neighbourhoods in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, branding the courts with the company’s logo, and giving out trainers to the most stylish alpha males, in a pre-digital version of “influencer” culture.
One vital trend that was just emerging when No Logo was published and is now a near-universal experience – for those entering the job market, at least – is that of self-branding: commodifying and selling yourself, carefully “curating” your “socials” and general online presence, in response to the frenetic demands of the gig economy (the number of self-employed young adults in the UK has almost doubled since 2001). “It was really only celebrities who could actually be their own brand, in 1999,” Klein says. “The idea that a high-school student could have a ‘personal brand’ would have seemed absurd.
“The biggest change since No Logo came out is that neoliberalism has created so much precarity that the commodification of the self is now seen as the only route to any kind of economic security. Plus social media has given us the tools to market ourselves non-stop.” This worries Klein because it hinders solidarity: “Brands don’t cooperate very well – they’re built to be selfish and proprietary.”
In her position as the Gloria Steinem chair at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Klein has been teaching a course to undergraduates called The Corporate Self, tracing the journey from the birth of branding, and her own No Logo, up to Shoshana Zuboff’s acclaimed book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, published in the UK in January. Zuboff may do for big tech what Klein did for the superbrands 20 years ago. They watch and critique the Colin Kaepernick ads, Klein says, comparing them to the Michael Jordan equivalents from the 1980s and 90s.
“It’s been fun to talk to them about surveillance capitalism, because they’ve grown up with it – they’ve grown up in it – and to follow the emerging ways people are confronting the tech giants.” She recently brought in as speakers some of the organisers of 2018’s Google walkout protest, in which thousands of the corporation’s employees walked out of work in protest at the handling of sexual harassment and gender inequality.
It is functionally harder to live life away from 2019’s insatiable tech super-corporations, and some of the superbrands Klein covered in 1999 seem almost quaint in their aspirations to be part of our lives. It is certainly much easier not to buy a fizzy drink or eat at McDonald’s than it is to function day to day without helping generate profits for one or all of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple or Microsoft. Proud of yourself for not buying books or gifts from Amazon? Fair enough, but it is also the largest cloud service provider, with a 32% market share; your favourite activist website is probably using Amazon Web Services.
“We’re more globally connected than ever before,” Klein says, “and also less connected to who makes our clothes, who grows our food, and I think part of that is down to information overload. And in terms of what social media is doing to our ability to stay focused, to not see the world in terms of these matrices of our own marketability and consumability, whether it’s views or likes or retweets…” She sighs. “Well, I think this may be the death of us. It’s not that people don’t care, it’s that they care for five seconds. That acceleration of emotion, and attention – it’s a pretty big shift in 20 years.
“I think the next big battles will be over the information commons: the entire business model of these tech giants is an extractive model, based on people’s unpaid labour. It’s been the most incredible bait-and-switch, to simultaneously say, ‘Don’t be evil’ and persuade us to live our lives in public and online and share everything.”
There is, however, one small part of our relationship with brands that the internet and social media have perhaps democratised – the ability to control the memes of production. “In No Logo, in the ‘adbusting’ chapter, I was writing about a few daring guys with ladders, defacing billboards,” she laughs, “and now you have millions of people able to do parody ads and share them with everyone, instantaneously.”
While the images of black-clad protesters on the streets of Seattle in 1999 may have marked a rupture of sorts, the rapid decline of the global justice movement it heralded is not something to be entirely mourned by activists, Klein says, because another kind of progress has been made. “It’s easy to lose sight of just how hegemonic neoliberalism really was, in the late 1990s. There is an ascendant democratic socialist left in the west now and it’s liberalism that is in crisis.” The global justice movement was, she says, a movement of “nos” and not a lot of “yeses”. “It’s taken a while to get the political and intellectual confidence to not only say ‘no’ to the ravages of neoliberal austerity, but to propose bold and imaginative structural transformation.
“The real sea change between then and now is that that critique of corporate power is utterly mainstream. If you look at the US presidential candidates, not just Elizabeth Warren’s or Bernie Sanders’s campaigns but even some of the more mainstream candidates – everybody has to talk about breaking up big tech and standing up to the fossil fuel companies.”
Maybe it’s partly that our relationships with the companies behind the logos have changed dramatically since 1999 too. Another example of a new trend recorded in No Logo that’s become commonplace is the gig economy, or precarious work. People have no reciprocal relationship, no give and take, with their big-name corporate employers. In the Fordist era of production-line factory jobs after the war, many workers may have had miserably mundane nine-to-fives but at least those came with stability, pensions and as jobs for life. The gig economy is shattering any lingering sense of trust in or fidelity to corporations. “Wide-scale public rage at oligarchic power is very mainstream now,” Klein says.
And that surely can’t be good for the brand.
Perhaps it is a function of age, but recalling the world No Logo described when I was 18 – a world before 9/11 and the “war on terror”, before the global financial crisis and before the gig economy and big tech set the terms of your employment and social life respectively – does feel like harking back to a more innocent time. It would be easy for me to get an Uber to a WeWork office, order some Deliveroo and finish this article on Google Docs, while I stream Spotify, taking a break to browse Facebook and Instagram on my Android phone, finesse my personal brand on Twitter and wonder where the No Logo revolution all went wrong.
But it was never as simple as merely boycotting brands you vaguely disapproved of; the thrust of the book, and the global justice movement in general, was not about making more tasteful shopping decisions, but understanding how corporations shape our lives and culture and using that knowledge to try to, at least, stop them from running riot. The stakes are higher now than they were in the 1990s and this time, thanks to books such as No Logo, we can’t say that we didn’t know.