For the tenth anniversary of the publication of the seminal No Logo, and as UCD Students’ Union once again considers its Coca-Cola and Nestlé boycotts, Cormac Duffy examines the murky world of international branding
Ten years ago last month, the world was introduced to Naomi Klein, a young Canadian author and political activist. Her calling card was her anti-consumerist tract No Logo, a heady mixture of sociology, economics and politics. Subtitled ‘Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies’, the book was a huge success, in terms of both sales figures and impact, provoking discussion around issues such as brand proliferation and sweatshop labour.
Unfortunately, the book’s ideas fell out of favour quickly, as its opposition to using brands as status symbols seemed less admirable once having a copy of the book became a status symbol in itself. The book does not deserve to be forgotten though. Its key ideas, such as the massive influence of the big brands, the questionable ethics of the companies behind them, and how we can fight back, are still relevant today, especially in the lives of students, and should be considered as the debate about the Coca-Cola boycott in UCD Students’ Union shops continues.
Klein’s main thesis was that what truly makes a brand a brand is not the products it makes, or the symbols it puts on it: it’s the mystique it builds up around it. Klein argued that companies stopped selling products long ago, and began selling lifestyles. There is a certain truth to her statement: wearing a certain brand says something about you, and leads people to make snap judgements. Abercrombie & Fitch is D4. Ralph Lauren is preppy. We’ve heard it all before. A brand is more than a logo on our clothes, it is indicative of what its wearer is like, how they view themselves, and which clique they belong to. Of course, large amounts of us have evolved past these ideas – or, at least, we like to think we have. Sure, we may not believe that a brand defines an entire lifestyle, but how many of us stop to question the image put forward by advertisers?
John Connaughton, auditor of the UCD Socialist Workers Party society, sums it up neatly by evoking the Coca-Cola example. “You always hear about the ‘Coke Side of Life’ and it is always said that Coke is happy and Coke is good, and it is nearly impossible to combat that [despite how Coke are] exploiting the Environment in India and exploiting workers in Colombia and Ireland.” Such is the power of the brand: with enough media and advertising it can distort reality in its favour.
In a section she titled ‘No Space’, Klein charted how a brand acquires the powers to do so – by pumping its profits into self-promotion, and buying itself business advantages. In Ireland it can be seen in no better place than the live music business. Anyone who attended a music festival over the summer will tell you that whichever brand of alcohol sponsored the event held a monopoly over much of the campsite. As usual, such a monopoly is acquired by pledging profits towards the events they sponsor. Having such financial weight puts huge bargaining power in the hands of corporations – even in how they deal with governments.
This is precisely what makes Coca-Cola so formidable. Commenting on the cutting of workers’ wages and outsourcing of jobs by Coca-Cola in Ireland, Connaughton believes that “Government and State did very little to help the workers, because they would be afraid to lose a big corporation within Ireland, like Coca-Cola…. [the state] stays quiet about exploitation and oppression, because it’s afraid of losing multinationals.”
If brands continue to proliferate across campuses, will they soon be able to exercise similar power? Could they censor economics professors from decrying their practices, or silence biology professors from outlining the damaging health effects of their product? From where we stand now, such Orwellian practices may seem absurd and unlikely, but that is no reason not to keep an eye on them.
This evening (Tuesday), UCD Students’ Union will choose whether to hold a referendum on revoking its boycott on Coca-Cola products. Some opponents of the boycott say it is useless when Coca-Cola products are available for purchase elsewhere on campus. Others say that the company has cleaned its act up, and that the original grievances it based the boycott on are no longer relevant. But Coca-Cola’s practises are still controversial, especially in its treatment of labour. Connaughton sees it as a simple issue: “We do not believe saying you can buy it somewhere else is justification for selling it.” For him, and most likely for many of its supporters, “The boycott is symbolic and about principles. It’s about people realising that if they go into an SU shop and see it’s not there, they’ll go and find out why its not there and see what Coca-Cola are doing.”
In this light, the boycott does seem a noble declaration of opposition to big brand capitalism. Maybe we should continue it. As Naomi Klein would have us believe, we should do everything we can to take aim at the brand bullies, and boycotting may be right on target.