December 4, 2002
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
BuzzFlash was pleased to recently interview Naomi Klein, the foremost author chronicling the adverse impacts of economic globalization. She also reports on advocacy efforts against a homogenized world of brand marketing.
In her new book, "Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Line of the Globalization Debate," Naomi Klein, a Canadian, covers ground of great importance to BuzzFlash readers, including: "Fencing in Democracy," "Criminalizing Dissent," and "Windows to Democracy." Her incisive analysis and on-scene reporting covers the globalization issue, and, in doing so, gives context to the strategies and tactics of the Bush Cartel in the United States. In one brilliant essay, "America is Not a Hamburger," she deftly proves that the Bush administration's effort to globally "brand" an image of American democracy is -- and should be -- doomed to failure. After all, democracy is not a Big Mac.
As Publisher's Weekly wrote: "Covering the period of late 1999 to 2002, Fences and Windows collects Klein's in-the-trenches journalism about sweatshops, genetically modified foods, evolving police tactics for crowd control and more. The two title images recur throughout: the fences are real, steel cages keeping protesters from interfering with summits, but they are also metaphorical, such as the "fence" of poverty that prevents the poor from receiving adequate education or health care. Klein argues that globalization has only delivered its promised benefits to the world's wealthiest citizens and that its emphasis on privatization has eroded the availability of public services around the globe."
Klein also wrote the groundbreaking No Logo, a withering analysis of global corporate branding and marketing.
Klein gave BuzzFlash readers a tip about holding the media accountable. She observed to us that credibility is the media's primary brand identity. If enough people point out that a particular television network, local news broadcast, newspaper or radio station are biased or not telling the truth, then they challenge the brand identity -- trustworthiness -- of the media outlet.
BuzzFlash adds that taking protests directly to the media, through onsite demonstrations, letter campaigns, phone calls, advertising, etc., is probably the most effective way to try and hold them accountable. So don't get mad, start documenting any biased, disingenuous or dishonest reporting. Then don't get mad, protest. (The best site for keeping track of disreputable media coverage is mediawhoresonline.com, but they are taking a break until after the first of the year. We also recommend The Daily Howler.)
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BUZZFLASH: I wanted to talk about Fences and Windows. In particular, I wanted to spend just a little bit of time exploring your chapter on "America is Not a Hamburger." You have a statement in here that branding is sort of inconsistent with the whole idea of democracy. Can you explain that a little?
NAOMI KLEIN: Well, the customer is faced with a myriad of choices. There is a greater and greater distance between the sites of production and sites of consumption, so they have these kinds of surrogate relationships with their products, which take the form of a brand or a logo that offers them consistency. They know if they buy something with Aunt Jemima on it, or Campbell's, that it's always going to be the same, and that there will be a certain baseline level of consistency and quality. That's the logic of branding.
Branding, at its core, is this obsession with consistency and comforting images. So if you're a business person, you know that if you stay at a Holiday Inn, no matter where in the world, it's always going to be pretty much the same. But I think that the idea of country branding is actually deeply undemocratic, because the idea is to apply this same logic to come up with the few character traits for an entire people and market them.
What's particularly interesting about the attempts to rebrand the U.S. is that they hired Charlotte Beers, who is one of the most famous advertising executives -- definitely the most famous woman in advertising. She's represented clients like Sears. And Colin Powell's statement on the hiring of Charlotte Beers was, "She got me to eat Uncle Ben's rice."
When they did their focus groups and research about what the American brand stands for, they heard phrases like diversity, democracy, tolerance and so on. And so it's not just branding. But these particular brand attributes are inconsistent with the idea of democracy, because how do you mass market diversity levels? It's very difficult to do that.
They polled all of these different brand managers about what was the problem with the American brand. They found that the problem was that people had all of these different conflicting feelings about the U.S. And from a brand manager's perspective, that is the worst-case scenario for branding. You want to be able to control people's perceptions and understanding of a brand. That's what marketing is about.
But if you're thinking about the reality of these feelings, it's highly rational to have many conflicting views about the U.S. In fact, we're all capable of holding conflicting views about the U.S., because the U.S. Is not monolithic.
But then, I think that there's a broader issue with the whole approach to rebranding the U.S., which really is part of the U.S. foreign policy, particularly under the Bush administration. It comes from the school of foreign policy that if people have a problem with the U.S., you should speak loudly and more slowly about what they don't understand, instead of addressing why people are angry at the U.S.
And so, as Charlotte Beers has gone abroad, particularly in the Middle East and Arab countries, and talked to people about what their problem is with the U.S., she keeps handing them marketing slogans, and telling them again and again that the U.S. stands for freedom and democracy. And they keep getting more and more frustrated that she won't talk about U.S. Foreign policy. So it is part of a broader pattern of unwillingness to think that anybody who has a problem with the U.S. just doesn't get it, or is a bigot, or a crazed fundamentalist.
BUZZFLASH: So ultimately the effort to market democracy with sloganeering and catchphrases is a self-defeating objective, because democracy represents diversity, and diversity is at odds with the whole concept of branding.
KLEIN: Well, democracy implies the ability to come up with your own judgments, whereas branding is an exercise in controlling people's judgments, and managing them, and shaping them. Obviously governments are always involved in marketing, but this is going deeper in the way one understands the entire perception of the nation's foreign policy, and really, I guess, treating people like morons around the world, insisting on responding to life-and-death policy differences with sloganeering and marketing.
One of the really interesting things that's happened since I wrote that article (chapter of Fences and Windows) is that it's become much, much worse, because Charlotte Beers' misadventures have been reported on quite extensively.
One of the problems that she's encountering is that she realizes that marketing is not enough. So she had ideas about launching an initiative in Arab countries where they would offer some kind of premium to their target market of perception: Arab men between the ages of 18 and 25. These are the people who they believe harbor the deepest anti-American sentiments and they're trying to change their sentiments. So they started by just lecturing and speaking loudly about how democratic and free and tolerant the United States was. That didn't work very well. So then they decided that they would throw in a premium, like any good marketer. And the premium was going to be scholarships to come study in the United States -- a value-added approach to marketing. You know, standard fare.
So they would not only be telling these young Arab men that America is a great place, they would be having a kind of a contest for who could come study in the U.S. And this seemed to be a good idea, except that the marketing department of the U.S. government realized that they had just plowed straight into a conflict with their actual foreign policy, which is their immigration department's security plans. They are doing everything they can to keep that exact demographic out of the United States, so they had to scrap that whole idea.
BUZZFLASH: America is not a hamburger. We are selling a democracy as if it is a product. But it reminds me of the stereotype of the American tourist who goes to Mexico and is bargaining for some souvenir, and the storekeeper doesn't understand English, so the American just speaks more loudly and more slowly, thinking that will make the Mexican understand.
KLEIN: And the real issue is you don't speak the same language. So you've got a couple of choices: You're going to learn somebody else's language, which doesn't seem to be in the cards, or you can leave.
BUZZFLASH: And you bring up the issue here that if we are selling America as a product -- or the Bush administration is, in any case -- that leaves us open to the possibility that people will become angry and disgruntled because America is engaging in false advertising. Or the Bush administration is.
KLEIN: Well, I think that that is already a source of tremendous rage at the U.S. Government Charlotte Beers actually said when she took this job that the problem with the U.S. was that we aren't managing to get our story out, which is a marketing and public relations term -- "get your story out."
This, to me, as a Canadian, is just a flabbergasting statement, because anybody who lives outside the U.S. has the perception that their whole culture is flooded with Americans telling their own stories, whether it's on CNN or the TV or whether it's Viacom or Paramount Pictures. We have no shortage of American stories on the outside of the United States. And, in fact, what I argue is that the real source of anti-Americanism is that Americans are too good at telling their own stories and disseminating their own mess -- and in marketing themselves. So much so that actually it's been successful, and we, outside the U.S., know those stories so well, in the same way that we know that McDonald's stands for family fun.
And when we actually see the U.S. Government supporting a coup in Venezuela, trying to keep a candidate out of office in Brazil, supporting military dictatorships in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, we aren't just horrified by the facts of these cases. We are also horrified by the hypocrisy of these cases because we have absorbed the marketing, because the message has been so thoroughly absorbed and disseminated globally.
BUZZFLASH: I'm sure you're aware of Joe McGinniss, who wrote The Selling of the President about the 1968 Nixon campaign. It seems he recorded the campaign when we really entered the age of promoting presidents as sort of brand products. Ronald Reagan was the ultimate triumph of that, but it probably began with Nixon, when he hired an ad agency exec basically to sell him to the public. And we've seen that more and more with the Bush administration -- not just overseas, but certainly to those of us who are progressives and Democrats and independents in the United States. We feel that there's a huge gap between his sloganeering and what the administration actually practices; that it really doesn't value democracy, although it states that it does.
KLEIN: And that could also be an opportunity for progressives, because it does create an expectation. It creates a discourse, a benchmark that you can measure against their rhetoric. It's definitely better, I think, to be in a country that is at least claiming to be democratic, because you have that opportunity to beat people over the head with their own rhetoric and promises.
BUZZFLASH: But doesn't it become increasingly hard in a society where many people have become "Stepford wives" in terms of branding. We live in such a branded society in the United States that you can sell candidates. You can sell a war, as Andrew Card, the chief of staff to President Bush, said in September, when they asked why Iraq had become so urgent now. He said, "Well, you can't sell a war in the summer. You have to wait until September to roll out the product." This is an administration -- and it's not the first one -- that looks at internal policy and foreign policy as products to be marketed to the public.
KLEIN: I also think that the war on terrorism is a brand. I mean the way the entire war has been constructed -- i.e., a war that's not a war -- it has a lot of similarities with the logic of branding, where instead of selling a product, you sell an idea that can be stretched.
I'm talking about this as a lifestyle brand. And this is what my first book is about. It's this idea that the product becomes less important than this malleable and elastic idea that can be spread to create a sort of a cocoon. By calling it a "war on terrorism" but never declaring war, you have an idea -- it's your free-floating idea of war -- that can be extended in a way that brands are extended.
So what they're doing now is they're extending the war on terrorism brand into Iraq, even though it is divorced from the original, if you will, product -- event -- that started the war. This idea of the war on terrorism is, to me, like a brand in the sense that you have certain attributes, and qualities are being identified. And you also see it being pirated in the same way that a brand is pirated, whether it's being pirated into the deal with Chechen rebels, or Sharon pirating it to increase militarization and occupation. You see the latching on to the key attributes of the brand, the key catchphrases, and applying it to completely different scenarios.
And I think that there is quite a bit of awareness in the whole construction of the idea of a war on terrorism -- more that it's not a war, but it is an idea and a mindset. It's very informed by lifestyle and marketing -- the idea of the elastic brand.
BUZZFLASH: We saw on television that the war on terrorism became branded. Each station -- CNN or network TV -- had its own title -- or slogan -- that it always put up when it was doing the story.
KLEIN: But I want to be clear that I'm talking about something quite different. I'm not talking about the marketing of a particular war, which I think isn't new -- and we certainly saw the logos and the theme songs during the Gulf War. I'm talking about a war that actually isn't a war in the classic sense at all, but is this sort of idea of a war that can be applied to any conflict.
BUZZFLASH: Let me move onto the relationship between television and branding. Television now brands news events. It branded the war on terrorism, and they did this also in a non-political situation recently with the sniper shootings. And it became wall-to-wall coverage, really a sort of entertainment. Cable news ratings spiked enormously with the sniper shootings. And "war" also helps their ratings go up.
To what point have we seen the merging of branding with television, and television that reinforces the branding efforts -- in this case, the Bush administration's foreign policy? And what role does television play in developing the society that tends to accept branded concepts as well as branded products?
KLEIN: Well, I think that there's simply a great deal of collusion going on. That was expressed very well by Rupert Murdoch right after September 11 -- just, I think, two weeks after, he had an annual general meeting of News Corp. And he had to report that the numbers were quite poor for the previous year. But he told his shareholders -- and this is on the record; it was reported -- he said that they could expect to have a much better year next year because, he said, just like the Gulf War made CNN, this war is going to be good for all of us.
So there is a clear financial interest in maintaining good relations with the White House and the Pentagon for these news networks. The war brand builds their own brand. It's kind of a co-branding exercise. That's what Murdoch was saying. It's very open. And it did make CNN. That lesson has been learned.
BUZZFLASH: To what degree does television reinforce a world, particularly led by America, that's dominated by corporate branding -- everything from sports to politics to, of course, products. After all, the primary vehicle for that branding comes through television.
KLEIN: It does. In No Logo I quote quite a lot from marketing studies about selling American brands to developing countries, particularly in Asia, where there's a very, very clear analysis about the relationship between access to MTV by young people and the receptivity to a whole basket of youth-oriented brands, like Nike. And there's a clear understanding in the branding world that MTV is far and away their most powerful branding vehicle.
And of course, MTV is a tough brand. It's the first television station that primarily built itself off its brand and saw its content, its programming, as secondary. MTV was the first station to put its own logo in the corner constantly. And now every network does the same. If you look at the big three networks, the understanding was that their real brand was not CBS or NBC -- it was their flagship programming. Whereas with MTV, the people were watching MTV, as opposed to watching Sixty Minutes on CBS. And so the idea of selling brands and access to television, it's completely intertwined.
BUZZFLASH: In this particular chapter in Fences and Windows, the one on the effort to brand America abroad, you say America's attempt to rebrand itself abroad can be a worse flop than the New Coke. How can the progressive movement battle the Bush administration's effort to brand American through sloganeering about diversity while it's attempting to stifle diversity? How does the progressive movement conduct its battle to get diversity to be accepted as the true hallmark of democracy, and not just as part of a branding identity?
KLEIN: One best hope is to practice diversity and accept the consequences of it. Because one of the things that I'm most struck by when I travel outside North America -- and I have been spending a lot of time in Latin America -- is the fact that I'm often asked why we are doing so little. Not in an angry way, but with genuine confusion. Because this genuine dissent that exists in the U.S. Is not getting out to the rest of the world. And the perception is that there is quite uniform support and that the Bush administration does represent the will of the vast majority of Americans who are only interested in protecting their own interests.
I actually think that that makes us all much less safe -- that ability to present a homogenous picture of the population in North America, and not just the U.S. So anything that we can do, I think, to amplify the dissent, not just inside our own borders, but to get the message out there -- whether that means supporting independent media that has a global reach, like the Indy Media Network, which I think is actually doing a huge amount of good. I do think it actually is quite a patriotic act, and also quite good for security, because it is the ability to see a country in these monolithic terms that actually exceeds the imagination of the genuine anti-Americanism -- to separate between the actions of the government and the will of the people.
One of the best examples of what I'm describing I saw in Johannesburg, during the world seminars for sustainable development, where there was a huge amount of Bush-bashing going on because Bush didn't show up.
BUZZFLASH: Even Colin Powell was booed, I believe.
KLEIN: Colin Powell was booed. But the interesting thing is that he was booed by Americans. And this was something that the American press really tried to suppress by saying that he was being booed for criticizing an African leader, which absolutely wasn't true. The booing started before he mentioned the African leader. But that was a way of kind of the American media minimizing it: oh, yeah, anti-Americanism, foreigners -- don't worry about it. But in South Africa, it was reported on in the way it actually happened.
BUZZFLASH: Your comments just raised one other point. There were huge demonstrations in the United States on October 26, and yet most of the press played them down, to the extent that The New York Times inexplicably got it wrong. Protests in D.C. had estimates between 100,000 and 200,000 people. There was a two-mile group of people that walked around the perimeter of the White House. And The New York Times, in its Sunday edition, ran a story saying that, in essence, hardly anyone came.
KLEIN: Yes, I saw that. And I think that the follow-up story was a really good example of media activism in practice. I'm always a little bit skeptical about the power of writing letters to the editor, but actually I think that this was a great example of the potential for media activism. In some ways, I do think that the media has to be more accountable than our own elected politicians, as ironic as that is. I think The New York Times was forced to change those numbers, even though they didn't apologize. It's clear that the letters that they got and the phone calls that they got forced them to reexamine that major cynicism and the quiet "invisibilizing" of left-wing dissent, which we see over and over again.
This is something that's happening around the world, but there are some examples of success. I was in Argentina, and there was a similar issue; people felt that their protests -- this is after the economic collapse -- weren't being covered, that their numbers were being diminished in the mainstream, corporate press. And so they just took their protests outside television stations. It was peaceful, but it was quite militant. And the television stations were forced to pay a lot more attention to the accuracy of the reports.
We're starting to see this more and more globally -- media is becoming a target of activism. And there are a lot of journalists who are very, very uncomfortable with this, because they're used to seeing themselves as the witness, and even the accomplice, to liberation struggles around the world. You know, the great pride that CNN took at being at Tianamen Square -- "the whole world is watching." And now it happens, when these guys go to cover protests, they get eggs thrown at their cameras. People go to protest outside their (media) offices because the reporters, editors are not seen as witnesses; they're seen as active suppressors and distorters of information.
BUZZFLASH: I just found it so astonishing that here's The New York Times, which conservatives, the right wing, the Bush administration -- which is probably a hyphenated expression -- calls the liberal media. But here was an event with 100,000 to 200,000 people, and the paper that calls itself the paper of record of the United States basically said it was a fiasco, and hardly anyone came because the weather was bad, when in fact, the story was exactly the opposite.
It's almost as though they missed 150,000 people. They couldn't find them in D.C. It seems to be journalistic malfeasance -- not just an oversight, but an intentional distortion of the facts.
KLEIN: I get questions like this all the time, before an event even happens. I was interviewed by USA Today, before the protests in Washington about the IMF and the World Bank, where every interview began with: Aren't you disappointed? Before the protest even happened, there was this glee and this absolute joy in preemptively burying dissent. I've been part of this growing movement against corporate globalization, and a few years before Seattle, and every time there is a protest, the mainstream media declares the movement dead.
BUZZFLASH: Even if it's growing in number.
KLEIN: Before Genoa, where there were 200,000 people, it was dead. They declared it dead immediately after Seattle. And then, of course, after September 11, it was dead. And the fact that the facts got in the way, and there were -- I think there were something like 250,000 people in Barcelona protesting in March. Then, when 70,000 people go to a conference to talk about alternatives to globalization, it's barely even reported. So I believe that there's active suppression.
And my favorite example of this is during Bush's inauguration. I knew that a lot of people were in Washington protesting because a lot of my friends were there. And so I just assumed that I would be able to turn on the news and be able to watch the protests on television. So I do this, and I'm flipping from network to network to network, and there's absolutely nothing. But there's more than nothing: There are actually moments in the coverage of the inauguration that are sort of like coverage of a sports event. The network anchors were narrating Bush walking down the street and there was constant filler and voiceover. And I can't see the protestors anywhere.
And Peter Jennings goes -- no, I think it was Dan Rather, he says: It's his day. Some people think it's their day, but it's not. It's his day, apparently.
I mean, there wasn't even acknowledgment that not only weren't they covering the protests; they were actively deciding not to depart from the script that they had in their mind of what this inauguration was going to look like. And it was this strange sort of window of acknowledgment that the cameras would not budge and show us what was actually happening.
BUZZFLASH: It's his day. It's his administration. It's his two years. But I'm still astounded. Why didn't the world object -- The New York Times, which, as you said, due to activism, actually printed an article that was fairly accurate the following week. But what do you think is going through the mind of an editor? I mean, they had to have the reporter there who saw 150,000 people. They get this report. There's this huge march -- the largest since the Vietnam War, which is as newsworthy as you get. What is the editor saying? Forget that? Just play it down and say there were a few thousand people there?
Someone at The New York Times played with the facts. It's just astonishing to me that they made an editorial decision to ignore the facts on the ground and write an interpretation that was inconsistent with what happened.
KLEIN: I've thought a lot about this. And I think I that the motivation for this oppression and belittling of activism is coming from a few different places at once. I think that the straight-ahead, corporate-ownership analysis is insufficient. And I say that because I spend most of my time in places where there is a corporate media that is not nearly as bad as this.
BUZZFLASH: You're talking about the Canadian media.
KLEIN: I'm talking about Canada. I'm talking about Europe. Most places in the world now are dominated by corporate media, and you don't have this active suppression. It's a kind of arranged anger; I think that there's an emotion to it. And more than that, I've become really interested in the fact that in a lot of the international editions that these U.S. media outlets publish or broadcast there is much more acknowledgment [of dissent, protest and advocacy]. So if you read the international editions of Time and Newsweek, you'll get much better coverage, even of protests inside the U.S., than you will in the U.S. and in their own editions.
So I don't think it's enough to just say it's corporate power, and they're serving corporate power, they're serving their advertisers -- although obviously that's part of it. I think that there's another element to all of this, which is something that I have encountered working in newsrooms and dealing with editors at some of these institutions. We all laugh at the idea that there's a liberal conspiracy in the mainstream U.S. press. I think that's too easy, because obviously, from my perspective, there is not a liberal conspiracy. However, I think that there are a lot of people who work in these institutions who think of themselves as liberal, even if it's totally divorced from their paper. So their self-perception has not necessarily changed all that much since they went to protests themselves in the '60s. The majority of editors who I deal with are exactly in that demographic.
And so in some ways, the very existence of there being a live "left" in the U.S. Is a reproach on their own conservative [lifestyle] and inaction; which is to say that they still think of themselves as activists in some way. It's just that there's nothing worthy of their activism. So if there is activism out there, and people are taking to the street, and the reporters and editors are still worried about their stock options, and are sort of paralyzed by their absorption into the establishment, then they have two choices: Either they've changed or the activism has changed, right? I mean, their values have changed; they no longer care as much as they thought they cared. So that's one option.
The other option is that all activists are morons [to many editors and reporters]. And they're choosing that one because it doesn't cause them to question their own self-perceptions. I'm not saying that that is the only reason or that it's more important than corporate ownership. But I think that the ownership issues and the personal issues combine to make a pretty lethal cocktail, which really does honestly go beyond bad coverage and reach into active rage at the existence of activism. I've seen it. And so they have to say: "Well, it's just nostalgic." And there's this idea that there was, you know, seven years when activism was acceptable and principled and effective to them. And those were the years when they [the reporters and editors] were in college and graduate school.
BUZZFLASH: And if it's going on now, it must be naïve, because otherwise they would have to support it. And they can't do that because they are more interested in supporting their affluent lifestyles.
KLEIN: And because it would affect their jobs and their standing. And they enlist all kinds of former activists from the '60s to support them in this -- assign articles by radicals from the '60s to tell them how stupid young activists are today. So they feel better.
And that's how I think that the cover-ups of protests often start before they even happen.
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