an angry mob gathers at a trainstation, passing out photocopied flyers and shouting protests against an unjust company.Scrappy stickers are slapped onto billboards, directing passers-by to a crudely designed Web site. The company they're railing against is a frequent target of grassroots activism -- Nike. And the group running this guerrilla-style anti-advertising campaign? None other than Nike itself.
It's been more than a decade since Nike's beloved Swoosh first came under attack by labour activists. Organizations like Adbusters, Global Exchange and NikeWatch have waged high-profile campaigns to associate that curving icon with slave labour as firmly as with Michael Jordan. Activists have manipulated logos, performed street theatre and marred billboards in order to "jam" the Nike brand.
Nike's recent soccer ads in Australia, however, appropriated both the techniques and the language used against them. The campaign involved billboards boasting "The Most Offensive Boots We've Ever Made," and stickers pseudo-marring the posters that read, "Not Fair Mr. Technology." A fake grassroots protest group called Fans Fighting for Fairer Football (FFFF) was even created. 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, but, rather, "actorvists" arguing that Nike shoes give their wearers an unfair advantage.
How clever! How hip! That Nike, it sure can co-opt its 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, "without significantly changing its labour practices, Nike gets a chance to mock its critics, with the public laughing along."
Though Nike may pass this latest stunt off lightly -- as if it's, to quote its 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 cultural movements. But this is commodification with a twist. Essentially, Nike is trying to capitalize on the anti-capitalism movement.
Anarchy, after all, is sooo in. Black Bloc protestors strut their stuff on the nightly news, their drums, explosions and black hoods framing attractive 20-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 18-to-35-year-olds; the audience the police are shooting at is precisely the one corporate advertisers are shooting for.
While it's extreme in its co-optation of protest 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 its "Think Different" slogan onto billboards of Cesar Chavez, Malcolm X and -- most recently -- young, red-flag-waving militants. The Gap has seized the graffiti aesthetic by dressing its windows in fake black spray-painted slogans reading, "Freedom" and "We the People." It has even hung anarchist flags alongside its sweatshop-produced low-riding jeans.
Meanwhile, IBM has made a more literal move to the streets. Its recent Linux campaign involved spraying stencils of "Peace," "Love" and the Linux penguin logo on city sidewalks. It's even gotten flak from authorities for its graffiti -- Chicago fined IBM several thousand dollars, and San Francisco officials decried the campaign as vandalism -- but that can only reinforce the company's 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-centrism. Civil rights.
Virginia Slims wooed the Cosmo crowd while spouting 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 that even biscuits can benefit from hiphop's trendiness. Companies continually pan a movement, strip away its substance, commodify its cool 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 and that activists should just lighten up.
Nike Canada spokesperson Michelle Noble tells NOW that the Australian ads ran at the beginning of the Aussie football season.
"It's all meant to be very tongue-in-cheek. People can see that (FFFF) is not a real group. It's meant to be what's called "street advertising.' It's not meant to make fun of anyone except for the group itself, which is Fans Fighting for Fairer Football."
Still, when Nike ran its pseudo-protest, it took no time for real activists to fight back. They jammed the mock-jammed billboards with phrases like "$1.25 per day wages: "Not Fair' Mr. Nike" and "100 percent Slave Labour." Rallies were held outside Nike stores, and the Melbourne mega-store had to be boarded up. Two days after the FFFF Web site was mentioned in the mainstream news, it was taken down. Nikesweatshop.net claimed victory, 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 protestors 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 onto their own signature methods as they do to attack their enemies' tactics. They also know the power of the brand -- the sanctity of the almighty icon -- and how to hit back where it hurts. While Genoa protestors might not overturn the World Bank or 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 the way animal rights activists think of fur: it's offered at the expense of others.
This, of course, makes corporate efforts to co-opt protest all the more desperate. Anti-brand chic may be more difficult to appropriate, but that does not mean Nike, the Gap, Apple and IBM will stop trying. Not just because it's 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 about cheap labour, false advertising and economic injustice.
Reprinted from Alternet, with additional reporting by Kim Edwards