Gear Jammers

Dumb-ass Nike just had it coming. The shoe company has this online service where you can have your name or a favorite saying stitched on the side of a pair of sneakers (Nike iD: nikeid.nike.com/). So it was just a matter of time before some wiseacre would come along and choose a word related to the shoe company's spotty international labor record -- like, say, "sweatshop."

Which, early last month, was exactly what 27 year-old grad student Jonah Peretti did.

In retrospect it's one of those obvious ideas that you kick yourself for not thinking of first. Which is why it was so great.

Peretti studies educational technologies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, so he often searches the Web for novel ways of using computers to tailor services to users' needs. He checked out Nike's site, and found it wanting.

"The Nike site bothered me because it trumpeted individual freedom, which seemed like a contradiction with Nike's labor practices," Peretti e-mails. "[The company's] aggressive advertising campaigns seem rather hypocritical when juxtaposed with their labor practices."

"Furthermore, I was not impressed technologically with the site," he continues. "Basically [it] lets you send a to-do list to sweatshop workers in far-away countries. Then the shoes are build by hand. . .Nike's advertisements presented the service as if gleaming robots make the shoes."

Indeed, it isn't gleaming shoe-bots churning out those tennies. According to the watchdog group Corporate Watch (www.corpwatch.org/trac/nike/ernst/), the sneaker giant employs more than 350,000 workers in Indonesia, China, and Vietnam -- occasionally in horrid working conditions, in factories lacking proper ventilation and water, and for wages barely over the legal minimum for those countries (Vietnamese workers are paid an average of $45 a month).

So a pair of Nikes with "sweatshop" stitched on the side would be pretty ironic, huh?

A little too ironic, as it turned out. The company, all too predictably, refused Peretti's order. In a hilarious series of e-mail exchanges (www.shey.net/niked.html), Peretti badgered Nike for a reason as to why his shoes couldn't be made. After Peretti was sent a series of form e-mails, a Nike representative finally responded that the company had the right to refuse words that "we consider inappropriate or simply do not want to place on our products." No further explanation was given. And none was needed.

Nike couldn't have garnered more flak if it plastered billboards across the United States reading "corporate third-world oppression: just do it." This exchange quickly made its way around the Internet and was featured in The Village Voice's sports column (villagevoice.com/issues/0107/jockbeat.shtml). Peretti was even featured on NBC's Today Show, facing off with a spokesperson from Nike.

Peretti's stunt reminds me of Mike "Pepsi Boy" Cameron, who gained similar notoriety in 1998 for being suspended from his school for wearing a Pepsi T-shirt on Coke Day.

What, your local school doesn't have a "Coke Day"? Well, Greenbrier High School in Evans, Ga., did. It had invited a Coca-Cola Co. regional president and a few other management types in for a day of educating students about the wonders of The Real Thing. Greenbrier was trying to win a $500 prize, offered by a local Coke bottling plant to the school that, according to an Associated Press report, came up "with the most creative method of distributing promotional discount cards to students."

It was only when the students were arranged, marching band-style, to spell out C-O-K-E for a group photo that someone noticed Cameron was sporting a Pepsi shirt. The 19-year-old student was suspended for one day, but after the resulting press deluge the suspension was stricken from his record.

In an interview with the e-zine Fade to Black (www.fadetoblack.com/interviews/mikecameron/), Cameron later said he "didn't do this as a joke or a prank, I just did it to do it." And Greenbrier principal Gloria Hamilton dismissed any satiric intent in explaining her disciplinary action to AP: "It was a student deliberately being disruptive and rude."

Disruptive though Cameron may have been, his was no mere juvenile prank -- no simple case of setting off firecrackers in the bathroom. Cameron, like Peretti, was clever to a point. Companies spend millions on marketing campaigns to have us believe their soda water or shoes or whatever are the bee's knees. And while we pretty much know what advertising is and discount it accordingly, the sheer repetition of these placements just wears us down. And eventually, on some unconscious level, we accept their claims.

What Cameron and Peretti did, consciously or not, was cleverly expose the hypocrisy perpetuated by such companies and their ad campaigns. How can Nike espouse the virtues of freedom while exploiting people in impoverished countries? And what the hell is the educational value of arranging children to spell out Coke?

This sort of thing is called "culture-jamming" -- using the tools of consumerism to undermine consumerism itself. There are a growing number of grass-roots groups intent on deconstruct the best-laid plans of corporations. The clandestine organization RTMark (www.rtmark.com) funds various culture-jamming projects, and the magazine Adbusters (www.adbusters.org) promotes events such as Buy Nothing Day designed to stir awareness.

But sometimes the best pranks are the spontaneous ones, those from individuals who, in small but meaningful acts of defiance, remind us how passivity leads to blind acceptance. To this end, Peretti and Cameron aren't mere jokesters, but modern-day folk heroes.

Email Joab Jackson at childlabor@joabj.com.

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