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Capitalizing on the Anti-Capitalist Movement

Corporations have become expert at co-opting even the most subversive of cultural movements. But can they capitalize on today's radical anti-capitalist protests? Nike hopes so.
 
 
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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, have 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 mainstream 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 fiercely 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' perceptions of corporate conglomerates as less than cool. For all of Nike's attempts to laugh it off, there is a 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 injustice.

So instead, they'll continue to try to 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.