BY LINDSAY ROWAN
"The revolution will not go better with Coke. The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath. The revolution will put you in the driver's seat. The revolution will not be televised" — Gil Scott Heron.
In the United States, the average person is bombarded with approximately 1 million sales pitches a year. In response, corporations like Nike, Calvin Klein and Benetton have sought new and creative ways to pitch their products in order to be noticed and gain a higher market share. Enter the strategy of marketing "rebellion".
Careful market research by corporations has revealed the existence of an audience that is receptive to anti-authoritarian ideas. By manipulating revolutionary rhetoric and "counter-culture" icons — like Lenin, Che Guevara and Malcolm X — corporations attempt to exploit activist culture to promote their brands, recast the purchase of mass-produced products as an act of "radical" self-expression and imbue companies with an "alternative" mystique in order to secure higher profits.
By associating their brand with rebellion, corporations hope to become more appealing to young people. Companies like Nike and Gap hire "change agents" — calling themselves "urban anthropologists" — who are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to discover how to make corporate brands "cool".
Benetton and Calvin Klein depend heavily on this strategy, using ad campaigns to associate their products with risque art and progressive politics. Nike, notorious for its sweatshops in Third World countries, describes itself to US teenagers as a bearer of "revolution", and at one time produced a "feminist sneaker". The Diesel Jeans web site revolves entirely around a protest motif, while trivialising the idea of direct action and protest. Fashion models parade around bearing placards that read "Free the goldfish".
Che Guevara is the most widely used poster boy for rebellion and revolution misappropriated by corporations. Nike has created a beret bearing the famous swoosh, "Revolution Soda" has Che's famous face on the bottle, accompanied by the slogan "Join the Revolution". An upscale London cigar lounge uses Che as a mascot. The appropriation and co-option of revolutionary or counter-culture figures is everywhere.
In 1993, Gap launched its "Who wore khakis?" ad campaign, featuring images like Jack Kerouac and James Dean. Similarly, beat poet William Burroughs featured in a Nike ad, Apple computers appropriated Gandhi for their "think different" campaign and a Pepsi ad campaign in Brazil invited customers to "Join the Pepsi Revolution".
"Liberation marketing" exploits the widespread alienation capitalism creates, acknowledging that there is indeed something wrong with life in a consumer-driven society, but using this alienation to create a profit.
Viewed through the lens of this sort of advertising, the problems of capitalism and consumerism are those of a "soulless" society. Conformity and the dullness of daily life are given primary exposure as the main problems with life under capitalism, rather than wage exploitation, war or poverty. Liberation marketing urges us all to "think outside the square" to change the consumer society, rather than struggle to put an end to it.
Rather than mass demonstrations, liberation marketing implies that we can resist consumer society by buying products that enhance your individuality, identify you as a rebel or fulfil your desire to be on the "fringe". In essence, you rebel by celebrating different consumer products.
Alienation has proved to be a successful investment for the big corporations. Capitalism has discovered the potential of marketing a "safe" revolution. According the "change agents", rebellion is hip. Starting a revolution is encouraged, but only if it doesn't really change anything and is not associated with genuine social activism.
This kind of "revolution" is a carefully constructed rebellious pose, "resistance" that is sanctioned by corporations, driven by profit and capital, a "rebellion" directed by corporations and their corporate media "trendsetters".
The recent wave of "punk" fashion is an excellent example of this. Safety pins printed on shirts, fake ripped T-shirts with "anarchy" or "forever punk" in print that resembles hand-written scrawl text in order to reproduce the desired authenticity and "home-made" style that characterised the 1970s punk movement.
Seasons and trends dictate new waves of "rebel consumerism", for example in the Spring 1998 Prada collection, which was "inspired" by the struggles of the labour movement, borrowing heavily from military/worker-style clothing. A report from a Milan fashion writer called it "a sort of Maoist/Soviet worker chic full of witty period references". This collection was displayed to Milan's richest and most exclusive set.
Mao and Lenin also made an appearance on the Spring 1999 handbag from Red or Dead, while designer Anna Sui was so moved by the Tibetan people's freedom struggle that she designed and produced an entire line of bikini tops and surfer shorts inspired by the Chinese occupation.
This "culture-vulturing" strips revolutionary struggles and social justice campaigns of their original meaning and significance, in order to sell a product wholly unconnected with social progress and activism.
But this also reflects that social justice campaigns, in particular the anti-globalisation movement, have grown influential enough in recent years to warrant the attention of capitalists.
Sony released a Play Station 2 game entitled "State of Emergency", which puts the player in the midst of an anti-globalisation protest outside a fictitious American Trade Organisation. The aim of the game is to ransack shopping malls and attack riot police with Molotov cocktails. It features dread-locked "anarchists" throwing rocks at police and scenes of chaos. The response of activists to this game was far from positive, however, primarily because the game was advertised as a great way of releasing your frustration towards corporate culture, rather than actively demonstrating this frustration in a productive and meaningful way.
In the late '90s, sexual and racial diversity became the new stars of advertising and pop culture. Gap began filling its ads with painfully thin, child-like models of racially mixed origins, while women in Nike ads told viewers "I think babe is a four-letter word", and "I believe high heels are a conspiracy against women". Nike's exploitation of Third World women workers in sweatshops makes its attempts to appear supportive of feminist ideals absurdly ironic.
This coincided with the wave of so-called "sexy" feminism — what Esquire magazine called "lesbian chic" — and the "girl power" craze, including T-shirts with words like "babe", "hottie" and "sexy". Calvin Klein ads told us that gender is a construct.
In cynically manipulating people's desire for a better, more just world, corporations demean and distort the ideals of the global justice movement. By creating faux-rebellion, corporations seek to stymie genuine revolution, the kind where exploitation ends.
The commercial appropriation of progressive and radical political sentiments has generated a backlash among activists and left groups. Commercial campaigns like Nike's anti-racist and feminist-theme ads have only enraged women and human rights groups. As more people discover the big secrets of these big brands, their outrage will fuel the global justice movement and help the fight for a better world, a socialist world.
[Lindsay Rowan is a member of the socialist youth organisation Resistance. Visit <http://www.resistance.org.au>.]
From Green Left Weekly, March 5, 2003.
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