Monday, July 21, 2014

Précis on Excerpts From Naomi Klein’s No Logo

What drew me to Klein’s writing was, originally, the requirement that we read it for this course. Joking aside, I enjoyed reading “Taking on the Brand Bullies” and “Patriarchy Gets Funky” from Naomi Klein’s No Logo not only because of their simplicity (for they are MUCH more straightforward and easy to understand than the other readings we have had, as you can already tell from the chapter titles), but also their relative lack of argumentative bias. While she does make an argument, the wealth of objective and subjective information she uses (through statistical data as well as interviews with key leaders in the brand industry) adds a measure of scientificity (ooh I do already love that word) to her argument, which I feel the others have lacked.

As the two chapters we read contain two very different, but interconnected, arguments and narratives, we will deal with them separately. First, we will discuss “Taking on the Brand Bullies”. In this section, Klein analyzes the history of the brand, and how “in ways both insidious and overt, this corporate obsession with brand identity is waging a war on public and individual space”. After she presents the thesis of her piece, Klein then goes on to define some important terms. She says that while advertising and brands are often confused with one another, they have different meanings. The advertisement is only one tool used by the corporation to create its brand, which Klein defines as the “core meaning of the modern corporation”. A brand defines the corporation as if it were a person, with a personality and an influence on the culture and life of individuals which goes further than the products which they produce. In essence, corporations become something they are not, they become fetishized and anthropomorphised. However, before Klein engages in her argument proper, she explains the history of the brand.

From the 1850s on, the mass-marketing campaign has been an integral part of our world. Coming out of the necessity to promote newly invented goods into peoples’ lives, the advertising industry at first demonstrated how a certain product would make ones life better. As the age of mechanical reproducibility developed, this idea changed. Now, hundreds of companies can make generally the same product. To counter this, large corporations have had to shift away from catering to the rational, life-promoting thoughts of consumers and, instead, companies create identities that surround the products and indeed the atmosphere of the company itself which appeal to individuals’ baser, emotional instincts. Large, established companies’ products are given value with a falsely imbued historicity; the brand provides the thought that purchasing a product which is the same as the one next to it somehow brings the consumer closer to the values of the company brand. With this also comes less of an emphasis on the actual production of the product, and more on the development of an ethereal “soul” of a corporation, even further alienating workers (who are now usually halfway around the world) on a production line from the end product.

Like many of our authors, Klein’s work both adheres to and departs from the traditional Marxian paradigm. On the one hand, Klein argues against the commodity price form, in which companies mark up products not based on the actual usefulness or cost of creating the product, but instead on the supposed lifestyle which a product or group of products bestows upon the customer. At the same time, Klein moves away from the notion that production, or occupation, defines an individual. Instead, she looks to the same idea which Guy Debord employs in his Society of the Spectacle; Debord and Klein say that what one has makes that individual, and, most importantly the appearance (read, brand) of the commodities which the individual consumes. While Marx claimed that putting a price on a product drained it of its historicity, the opposite is now true, where products are imbued with a telling of the history of that product, often devoid of the mention of any price until the moment of purchase.

The second part of our reading was “Patriarchy Gets Funky”. This section focuses on how the brand industry described above embraced liberal youth movements in order to market to that growing sector of the market. It was described best by music writer Arm Powers, who said of the Girl Power movement that “what’s springing up is not a revolution but a mall”. Klein concludes that while, in some ways, this leveraging of diversity made concrete steps forward, it is usually a fake, imagined kind of diversity which only goes so far as to make sure that the corporation makes a brand image which generates profit using “carnival-esque imagery”. In the end, Klein concludes that this tactic only serves to perpetuate the harmful capitalism which breeds the negative media images that youths were fighting against in the first place. Just as Oscar Wilde found in The Soul of Man Under Socialism that “the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it”, Klein discovers that the fight against capitalism ended up saving it.

While I wasn’t alive to experience the 90s, which is the era Klein examines, I know that advertising today does not have the qualities she describes. While some companies do indeed use a few marketing stunts or campaigns to show that company's devotion to gay rights or some other relevant social movement, most methods of promoting a company brand seem rather conservative. I still see unfair representation of minorities (or no minority representation at all) and sexualized images of women plastered everywhere. So even if there was this watershed of supposed company brand awareness in the 1990s, it has since been discarded as companies realize that they don’t necessarily need to engage with the younger generation.


Clinton Barnes said...

I too found myself very interested in Klein's writing. "Patriarchy Gets Funky" was of particular interest to me, not only because I found her view on identity politics to be insightful, but also because of what I interpreted as a paradoxical argument she makes at the end of the essay.

Klein includes Theodore Levitt's definition of a Global Corporation at the very end of her essay, with no explicit explanation afterwards. The definition, that "The global corporation operates with resolute constancy — at low relative cost — as if the entire world (or major regions of it) were a single entity; it sells the same things in the same way everywhere. ... Ancient differences in national tastes or modes of doing business disappear," which comes just after Klein discusses the success of brand-centered corporations such as Nike and Starbucks, creates the implicit paradoxical argument that the use of diversity as a marketing tool will eventually render diversity irrelevant, as corporate globalization originating from the exploitation of diversity will cause "ancient differences" to "disappear."

At least that is how I interpreted it. I can also see it as an attack on global corporations who market diversity, only to ignore it by not “Adjust[ing] its products and practices to each” different country in the global marketplace as Levitt’s “multinational corporation” would, but I do not think Klein’s argument is a cynical one.

Aaron Baum said...

Good point. Thank you for pointing out that section as I had decided to leave it out.

In regards to your last statement, that Klein is not cynical with her arguments, I somewhat agree. For her argument about corporations adopting fake diversity, I agree that she is not necessarily cynical. Rather, she is weighing the concrete benefits of the new mass diversity against the reality that corporations are only espousing these ideals in order to obtain profit.

However, for the short last section, I do believe that she is cynical about the newly globalized corporation. I don't see the sort of internal struggle she experienced with the previous issue played out in this one; she only sees the globalized homogeneity as a negative force, not a positive one.

Eric Gentry said...

How is Brand Awareness not alive and strong today? Our society is full of brands and logos that exploit and demean all in the name of profitability. The youth and young adults are corporations main targets, those with the most susceptibility and willingness to part with their money. We all buy for the brands no matter how much one may try and deny. Brands are what demands your faithfulness, on your clothes, shoes, gaming system, etc. Brands are what rule our TV's, the internet, sports, society, humanity!

Aaron Baum said...

I believe you're referencing the last part of my post? I think there may have been a misunderstanding. My point was that, while Klein said that advertising was espousing (either earnestly or merely for profit) the ideals of youth movements in the 90s, I don't really see that today. Of course I still believe that brand culture is still alive today, but I think it is more conserative than Klein says. Now, I know some companies do use those tactics to win over the youngins, but most of what I see are fairly traditional values.

Eric Gentry said...

What are traditional values? America's tradition was founded on Colonialism. The youth are blatantly targeted everyday, with the sole purpose to be swindled into consumerism by the guise of 'tradition.' The iPhone comes out, and a commercial captures a long line of 'youngin' eagerly waiting. Jordan's, Nike, Teen Mobile; all exploiting the youth with celebrities being brand marketed, or kids pestering their parents for the latest deal. I totally believe that Klein was cynical in her description of corporate greed. If you are marketing your brand of product with a logo, a face, a picture, one can no longer be fooled by the myth of tradition. Corporations want you to buy their product, thus making them rich. Marketing cares not about your happiness, they want to fool you with the illusion of happiness. Marketing wants to grasp your innermost feelings, your core values, and exploit them. They want their product to seem to be the best ever, and aggressively market to first and foremost children and young adults. Brand culture plays at the strings of whatever heart is near, adjust to the demographics; there is no american tradition.

Aaron Baum said...

When I said traditional, in my mind I was thinking "traditional gender roles/stereotypes". This went along with my use of the word conservative. In terms of an "American tradition", yes I could be referring to an American tradition where we had a nation founded on slavery and the subjugation of women, and SOME of those issues are still played out in the media today.

Yes, we have made strides, but I maintain that the majority of ads do not reside in the sort of liberal utopia (again, for profit or not) which Klein argues they do, or did in the 90s.

Anyway, what I think you are arguing against here is my last sentence, where I said "companies realize that they don’t necessarily need to engage with the younger generation". And I admit I was wrong, I will revise that statement.

Rather, companies understand now that not enough people care enough about those issues for it to be worth it to espouse them. Case study and opinion here is pointless, so I will now proceed to present some evidence.

After some quick Google Scholar-ing, I found this piece. It basically says that women in ads SPECIFICALLY TARGETED TOWARDS YOUTH (which is what you were talking about) are oversexualized, and more so than men are.

Furthermore, this study found that women were portrayed in UK print ads for their physical attractiveness 77.42% of the time. Career-oriented women were portrayed 1.72% of the time, and women as a voice of authority 2.95% of the time. Also interesting in this piece is that it finds an increase in the "decorative" status of women from a study in 1990 by Mitchell and Taylor. This may corroborate what I was saying in my precis, the even if the 90s had those values, they are no longer around today.

Erick Berrios said...

I found your conclusion interesting. Although the 90's, according to Klein, does sound a bit over the top in terms of marketing. I do feel as if advertisement is still very much strong and alive. And I'd even argue that they are even less conservative today when it comes to branding and promoting.

In my opinion, the reason why the 2000's and the 10's feel less extreme in regards to brand exposure than the 90's in Klein's article is just that marketers have become better at their jobs. With the rise of the internet we can see that Ad companies are finding new and interesting ways to get us to buy the "newest and latest." And not only are the tactics innovative, they are also undetectable to us.

The internet has given us new ways to communicate. Whether by Facebook, YouTube, Amazon, etc. These new mediums have allowed for millions of people to express their feelings and ideas. Ad companies use this to their advantage. With people able to communicate so deeply, dynamically , and quickly, a few posts in a message form about a new product can gains thousands of viewers. All these viewers now potential customers. On YouTube, a video review can gain millions of views. Companies are now, more than ever, required to create a brand identity, their very survival depends on it. And don't believe all these tactics that they use are more "conservative", to the contrast I believe they are more invasive and undetectable. It is not hard to find "sheep" (followers of a brand who will buy a new product because of the brand regardless of the product.) or fanboys/girls on the internet.

Companies want to go viral, and believe me when I say they are experts at it.

Neil Griffey said...

I also believe it's a realistic assertion that corporations adopt fake or dishonest diversity to appeal to either minority markets or popular culture. In a darwinian sense, in order for a business to survive over time it too must adapt and evolve to its environment. So, as 90's counterculture youth movements came into the mainstream, businesses had no choice but to adapt and sell people's desired images back to them.

I think it's important to see the youth movements of the 90's you and Klein have referenced not in a vacuum but in their cultural and historical context. I'd argue the seeds of 90's youth movements were sewn in the eighties. Following the recession in the early eighties and the election of Regan most of eighties pop culture was dominated by unapologetic celebration of homogenous and intellectually vacuous consumer culture evident through glitzy superficial pop music and glitter covered branded clothing. So using grunge music as an example, I'd assert the 90s youth movements were in fact a reactionary rejection of eighties consumer culture.

Overall I'd agree companies today aren't focussed especially on selling diversity to people. However I think it's pretty clear following 2008 the status quo have become distrustful of large corporations again, which explains both why the nineties aesthetic has come back into fashion as well as why companies have again adapted their products to consumer taste. Using clothing as an example, I remember clothes before 2008 being bedazzled monstrosities with brand names and logos large enough they turned the consumer into a walking billboard and celebration of consumer culture. Following 2008, peoples trust of corporations, consumer culture and the "1%" shrank and thus so too have the logos and rhinestones suggesting product manufacturers and advertisers understand modern public sentiment and apprehension towards ostentatiousness.

Aaron Baum said...

Neil and Erick, both very insightful comments.

I agree that there are many companies that do engage in these pubic displays of diversity. Just one example, I remember Google publishing a YouTube video during the world cup featuring gay and lesbian athletes and talking about how everyone should have the right to play sports. There are so many other examples. And few companies are outright discriminatory (see, Chick-Fil-a and how they got attacked for their homophobic stance).

However, I do believe that many companies are subversively or subconsciously reproducing stereotypes. The reason for this, again as I said, is that they have realized that much of the market simply doesn't care. In fact, after the whole chick-fil-a fiasco, the company's sales went up by 12% . I think living in this area, and especially in Berkeley, makes us believe the nation is more liberal than it really is. America is still a somewhat conservative place. Companies realize this, and craft their brand after well worn traditions and stereotypes.

Furthermore, even if they are liberal, I don't believe that this is in any way productive as Klein would suppose. Most companies, even if they craft a liberal, people friendly, philanthropic brand, conduct harmful business practices which don't quite fall in line with their brand. By appealing to the populace with diversifying branding, they only gain profit to further entrench their mostly harmful business.

Yiming Huang said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Yiming Huang said...

At the first place I was pretty confused about the whole structure of the passage about branding, as Klein described the whole branding process from its birth, rise, fall, and rise again. But after finishing the whole passage, I suddenly found this method practical and efficent. The process Klein used to descrie branding is similar to a lot of methodology and ideology used in some ancient philosophers including Socrates. By building up an overall sense of something, and then make it collapse completely, then rebuild a new sense right on the "salted earth" makes people engrave the sense of this thing in their minds.

However, I am still perplexed about some paradoxes(or maybe not) mentioned about advertising and find some arguments inadequate. For instance, advertising indeed is a efficent way of promoting either a brand or a company itself, but what about the quality of the advertisements? Apple made some extremely consise advertisements about iPhone and it succeeded, but what about those awful advertisements hang up around interstates like some ads about sodas and real-estate? I personally think that Naomi should make some arguments on this.(All right maybe it was some time issuse... Ugh)

Besides all these, another thing that makes me slightly confused is in the second passage. When Klein talks about advertisements about homosexual, gender and race issues, I think the whole topic is driving away from its main thread. The use of explosive thinking here is not that efficent in this kind of passages.

Other arguments about brandings including the fake diversity among the same type of industry and the core meanings of modern corporations are okay anyway...

Sydney said...

Re: the thread about the diversity as a tactic to appeal to "the youth"/people with progressive politics, I wonder how these kinds of efforts work to police behaviors and establish norms at the same time that they profess to work toward liberation.

For example, pretty much all advertising having to do with queer stuff is focused on marriage equality and centers rich, white gay and lesbian people--through their ubiquity in the media (and the way companies brand themselves as gay-friendly or whatever) issues like marriage equality become THE queer issues, which circumscribes the possibilities for thinking otherwise about a more oppositional queer politics. This works to delimit the "good" queers from the "bad" ones--those who can not, or choose not to, approximate white, middle class, heteronormative ideals. I feel like this easily is turning into a rant about heteronormativity, so I apologize! But I do think it's interesting to look at the ways in which corporate sponsored "progressive" moments are used to regulate the possible ways of being in the world.