How brands sell capitalism

November 10, 2012

The Coke Machine: The Dirty Truth Behind the World’s Favorite Soft Drink
By Michael Blanding
Avery/Penguin, 2012
375 pages, $19.95 (pb)

The Truth About Ikea: The Secret Behind the World’s Fifth Richest Man and the Success of the Swedish Flatpack Giant
By Johan Stenebo
Gibson Square, 2011
256 pages, $22.99 (pb)

Sleeping With The Enemy: Coco Chanel, Nazi Agent
By Hal Vaughan
Chatto & Windus, 2011
279 pages, $32.95 (pb)

Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy
By Martin Lindstron
Bantam, 2012, 291 pages
$32.95 (pb)

So, what is in a product brand? The key to consumer loyalty, vast wealth for the seller and a sanitised front for a much grimier reality, as four recent books show.

Michael Blanding, in his excellent The Coke Machine, writes of the triumph of brand over reality, when, in blind taste tests, Coca-Cola does worse than Pepsi, and its bottled water does no better than tap water.

Yet Coke wins in sales thanks solely to its famous logo.

Coke’s global advertising budget of US$3 billion (A$2.88 billion) has a lot to do with its brand dominance. But also crucial to the success of the junk-drink pusher is “getting its clients young”.

In return for Coke funding schools in the US, the school is obliged to supply only Coke to its students. This establishes early brand loyalty, reinforced with similar “pouring-rights” contracts in fast-food restaurants.

A youthful, fresh, vital image is essential for Coke to cover up its unpleasant realities. These include the murder of trade unionists in Coke's factories by paramilitary death squads in Colombia, busting unions in Turkey and Guatemala, depleting and polluting water supplies in villages in India, and causing tooth decay, diabetes and obesity wherever the sugary syrup is drunk.

Coke’s history is also air-brushed, from its origins in 1886 as a shady, cocaine-laced “patent medicine” to the quiet business it did with the Nazis. It cashed the cheques from its bottlers in fascist Germany and occupied Europe, and used forced labour from concentration camps to create Fanta.

As a jingle, “We do business wherever it’s found” doesn’t have quite the same ring as “We’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony”.

Coke’s defence of profits has included political campaign contributions to ensure the defeat of legislation that would have banned soft drinks in US schools, getting its friends in government to successfully take Mexico to the World Trade Organisation to repeal that government’s soft drink tax, and the manufacturing of an artificial scientific doubt over the link between sugary soft drinks’ calories and weight gain.

The “halo effect” of “greenwashing” is also designed to mute criticism of Coke’s giant carbon footprint. But Coke’s hybrid trucks and the (miniscule) use of recycled plastic for its bottles is a hollow gesture, especially as Coke has led the soft drink industry’s fight against container deposit laws that would actually do some good in promoting recycling.

The man who ran the company for 50 years, Robert Woodruff, called Coke the “essence of capitalism”. He was, unwittingly, right ― Coke, concludes Blanding, is just one of the “corporations trained by the profit drive of capitalism to turn a blind eye to the consequences of their actions”.

Another iconic brand of capitalism, IKEA, the Swedish home furnishing giant (250 stores in 40 countries) also has its dark secrets.

The IKEA pioneer of the flatpack furniture trend, Ingvar Kamprad, was a Nazi sympathiser and member of the Swedish neo-Nazi movement during the 1940s and '50s, recounts a conscience-stricken Johan Stenebo, who walked the corridors of power with his dictatorial boss for two decades.

IKEA’s brand, touting “beautiful furniture at affordable prices”, also hides the seedy present of the company. While paying low wages to his employees, low prices to the company’s suppliers, and structuring the company’s business affairs to minimise tax, Kamprad is the fifth richest person in the world with $40 billion in private wealth. This is greater than the entire GDP of many countries.

Child labour in slave-like conditions in India producing handmade rugs has helped make some of these billions since the '60a. Other factors include cheap timber from native (rather than plantation) forests in China, and from illegal Chinese tree-felling across the Russian border in Siberia (five million trees each year).

Geese in China, too, are also victims of IKEA’s profits-first business philosophy ― the cheapest material for IKEA’s goose-down pillows and quilts is feathers plucked from live geese, which are cruelly “harvested” multiple times.

In defence of its brand, IKEA employs strategic philanthropy, from funding UNICEF in India (small amounts, “grotesque” in magnitude, compared with IKEA’s annual profits of $3 billion) to donations to environmental groups such as Greenpeace.

Stenebo personally handled the negotiations with the “pragmatic” faction of Greenpeace, tempting them with $8 million to mute their criticism of IKEA’s illegal timber ― a successful campaign at just 0.3% of annual net profit.

IKEA also employs “greenwash”. It uses solar panels and wind turbines on its stores’ roofs, while doing nothing to address its carbon emissions from inefficient manufacturing, oil-intensive plastics and the company’s philosophy of locating its stores on land that can be reached only by car because such land is cheap.

Chanel is also a brand with an odorous past. Coco Chanel, too, had her Nazi fling.

The Nazi occupation of France proved congenial to the anti-socialist and anti-Semitic Chanel, as Hal Vaughan reveals in his book on the dresser and perfumer of presidents’ wives and Hollywood movie stars, whose Chanel No. 5 sells a bottle somewhere in the world every 30 seconds.

Chanel became a “horizontal collaborator” with a new lover, a German diplomat and spy for the brutal Gestapo. She was recruited as an agent for German military intelligence.

Chanel was unmoved by the roundup of Parisian Jews from the Jewish quarter of Paris, a 15-minute walk from the Ritz hotel where she dined in luxury with high-level Nazis.

Arrested by the French Resistance after the war, Chanel was released following the intervention of her pre-war hunting-party friend, Winston Churchill.

Wealthy business-owner, noxious bigot, and fascist hopeful, Chanel is a fitting example of capitalism’s best.

Brand obsession is the focus of Martin Lindstrom in Brandwashed. A professional marketer who has had enough, Lindstrom looks at the tricks of the retail trade.

He looks at how the industry applies scientific knowledge from cognitive and developmental psychology, biology and neuroscience to “prey on our most deeply rooted fears, dreams and desires in the service of selling us their products”.

Pre-schoolers watching their 40,000 television ads a year are so “brandwashed” that food branded with “McDonald's” is perceived to taste better than identical but non-branded food.
They are also hooked early on junk food because it is deliberately laden with chemically addictive substances such as MSG, caffeine, corn syrup and sugar.

The “engineering of desire” through brands that “tell the world who you are, or would like to be perceived as being” continues through all life stages.

The need for social acceptance by teenagers is promised through the (expensive, high-end) clothing brand that everyone else is wearing, while nostalgia sells stuff to adults.

Fear of disease, planted or amplified by advertisers, plugs anti-bacterial hand gel, “anti-viral” tissues, pharmaceuticals for invented illnesses, exotic and overpriced magical berries and unregulated and unproven “natural” herbal and dietary supplements.

Sex, “our most basic and primal desire”, is a proven advertising winner, while our desire to be virtuous, ethical consumers is exploited by products which don’t deliver a green dividend.

Our desire for privacy, on the other hand, is circumvented by web cookies. In this way, our internet journeys are captured by online retailers, to be used for an individually-tailored hard sell. It is also the outcome of an enormous, and enormously sophisticated, data mining industry, which profiles consumers from information deposited via loyalty/reward cards and credit cards.

Capitalism, as each of these books shows, may portray itself as an attractive brand, but the ethical and environmental stink speaks of a quite different reality.

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