Branded Beings

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On the slab of formica tabletop where my Macbook rests, there is a landscape of logos. Counting the stickers plastered across my dented Swiss-made water bottle, silver coffee canister, planner covered in multi-colored scribbled schedules, and the virtual world of my computer screen, the total reaches 38. 39. I forgot to count the cut-out of our college’s mascot positioned on the back of my wooden chair.

There’s no escape. Throughout my day, I will consume hundreds of carefully placed logos–passing students obscured by the familiar glow of white apples with one bite removed, covered bulletin boards in  countless corners, and across the flatscreen TVs nestled near the ceilings of our student union. My dorm room is an entire repertoire of logos–a list of brand names that make up my material identity. “This one is Anne Taylor, but I got it for $5 at a great consignment shop in Milwaukee,” I’ll say one day in the future–the subtext reading; “I recognize the association of this brand name with high quality, but I am also a lover of thrift and trying to be a more sustainable consumer”

Reading this scenario, (and probably even with the note about the intended subtext,) author Nicole Klein would likely call “bullshit.” She’d tell me that I’m still buying in.

In the latter half the Canadian author’s  2002 American consumption critique titled No Logo, the imprisonment of our branded lives is underlined.  Raising questions about agency in a country where we don’t think enough about where our stuff comes from, Klein calls her “blinded consumer” readers to action–showcasing international examples ranging from traffic-blocking “take back the street” initiatives to the image of a thirteen-year old Bronx boy positioned in front of a Fox News camera confidently claiming; “Nike, we made you. We can break you” (374).

Urging us to take ownership of our public space, Klein exposes injustice after injustice. She reminds us that as bystanders and placeholders in the checkout line, we are all corrupt. Reading her work, I wondered how we might create change not merely with overt protest (as Klein suggests,) but through conscientious parenting, community building, and education. How might we save future generations from exploiting themselves?

Imagine a scenario in which parent and child sit down together and discuss the connections a pair of ubiquitous Nike sneakers has to Indonesian factories where men and women make $1.25/day–moving from the “bad” of sweatshop links  to the “good” of the superbrand company working to reduce material use and toxin exposure in an increasingly “green” society (Keady, Wheeland).  Throughout chapters focused on life in our “New Branded World,” “Corporate Censorship,” and what happens when fed-up youth take to the streets in protest of their logo-driven lives, Klein reminds us that we are what we buy. Beyond our own closets, the label laden drawers and bodies of our children make a disturbing statement about our nation. Emphasizing the masochistic messaging and undeniable shame behind seemingly serene Sunday family shopping sprees, Klein writes of the “blood money” and horror laced into Nike’s superhero brand in the 1990s. She quotes Portland School Board Trustee Joseph Tam, a man who accepted $500,000 for school athletic gear from Nike with cautious consideration. As a parent, a minority, and a leader, Tam spelled out his hesitation; “I asked myself…Nike contributed this money so my children can have a better education, but at whose expense? At the expense of children who work for six cents an hour? … As an immigrant and as an Asian I have to face this moral and ethical dilemma” (Klein 368).  Clothing his children and students in Nike gear, Tam provided one set of kids with a brighter future and another with a stolen childhood.  This is only one scenario encompassing the terrifying scope of daily parenting. Analysis of a child-sized Nike sneaker takes an everyday artifact and unpacks it from several angles.

On one of the opening pages of Nicole Klein’s text, there is an image of a toddler outfitted in a black hoodie. Below his snuggly shoulder and mop of blonde curly hair, two words are stitched. The logo looks typical–block letters and just the right size to draw attention. However, it doesn’t read Baby Gap or Old Navy or Bum Equipment. Instead, the toddler’s swag is stitched with the words “no logo.” In her efforts to curb the disturbing implications of corporate power and control, Klein acknowledges that her thesis has become a brand name of its own. In a society of individuals longing to fit in, does the only way to reclaim consumer culture involve branding ourselves unbranded? Can we live without seeking some sort of visible credit for our personae, values and beliefs? Are we capable of raising an entirely labelless generation of youth, or will we simply shift the human need to categorize to another sector?

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