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Now a Registered Trade Mark...
on 21 July 2012
Seminal in its impact in 1999, No Logo has not weathered well, and there is something a little wistful about Klein's new 10th anniversary edition introduction. This is an important book for the history of modern ideas, but most of the claims it makes now appear out dated.
In No Logo, Klein makes three claims about brands. First, she claims that brands are coming to dominate our culture, pushing out the local, the individual, the artisitic and the authentic. Second, she claims that the corporations behind brands achieve their success by a combination of brand censorship, appalling human resources behaviour, and intimidating their opponents. Finally, she celebrates the rise of an anti-logo movement which was (back in 1999) poised to turn culture around so that brands would no longer be the dominant forces they were.
Klein's style of arguing is to pound the reader with enormous quantities of anecdote, generally drawn from popularly reported press stories, supported with the occasional statistic. As a journalist she knows her craft well, and never fights shy of making the maximum use of pejorative language to weave a subtle air of disreputability around her targets, even when the anecdote does not really support the attack. Ultimately, I suspect most readers will lose patience with the book long before they reach the confident final third which outlines and predicts the rage against brands -- and which more or less fizzled out as a social force in the early 2000s.
I have three problems with this book.
First, it comes across as rather poorly researched. In the new introduction Klein repeats the common Thatcher misattribution 'there's no such thing as society'. We all know the phrase, but in fact Thatcher never said it (though she may well have thought it). As a journalist, Klein should have checked her sources.* A willingness to take the stories she likes at face value and ignore the rest flows through this book. Klein amasses evidence, she never weighs it. This is a book which is fundamentally uncritical of its own ideas. It's also interesting to note that Klein's research into the business of branding was conducted -- she now admits -- through reading Advertising Age, rather than the Journal of Brand Research or any of the more serious studies. This may be the reason that she never offers a particularly plausible definition of what a brand is and does, beyond quoting a dictionary.
Second, while bemoaning all the creative tools that brand managers and advertisers use, Klein makes maximum use of the journalist's tool-box of using the power of words to override shortfalls in the argument. Of course, this was written in the 1990s, when journalists were the guardians of our collective conscience. In these post-Leveson enquiry days, readers may be altogether less willing to believe in the holy cause of journalism and its right to point the finger at corporations and politicians. I felt much of the writing in this book was quite manipulative, and this links to the unquestioning, rather self-righteous, acceptance of its own presuppositions which are part of the poor research background.
Finally, with ten years retrospect, the changes in society that Klein confidently predicts simply never happened. Yes, there was a millennial rise in anti-brand anarchy. It was subsequently overtaken by anti-capitalist anarchy, and then anti-globalisation anarchy. There will always be protest -- which is a good thing, because society needs it -- but the particular target of protest has moved on. What is strange is that Klein -- given the opportunity to reflect with a ten-years-on introduction -- does not really acknowledge this. She references William Gibson's Pattern Recognition as an example of the strength of the meme, without perhaps realising that Pattern Recognition was a novelisation of the No Logo concept.
I'm afraid that one more thing put me off this book before I read very far. In the new introduction, Klein explains at great length why she deliberately never registered NoLogo as a trademark. And yet, there on the cover, being the first thing you see next to the logo, is the ubiquitous ® sign. This is not deliberate irony: I checked, and it is now, indeed, a registered trademark. Not deliberate, but it is very much ironic.
*And so should I. Dr Julie Smith has since pointed out to me that Margaret Thatcher did indeed write this, though Klein's use of it is out of context and, as such, a misattribution. Thatcher's actual quote, in Woman's Own Magazine, 1987 Sep 23 was: "But it went too far. If children have a problem, it is society that is at fault. There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate."