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Nike was the essence of sports  .Starbucks was community.   Disney was family.  .  The Body Shop was marketing environmentalism.  Nobody was actually selling what they were selling.

What is a brand versus a product?

Brands and products are enmeshed from the beginning. But you have to go back and look at what role the original logos and trademarks played for products. And it really was very much entwined with the dawn of industrialization, mechanization, mass transportation. The first sort of corporate mascots like Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben's [emerged when] people were buying products that were coming out of factories; that were coming off of trains, coming from long distances that they used to buy from a local shopkeeper, from a local farmer whom they had a relationship of trust with. You would be buying food or farm equipment. You would be looking in the eye of the person who made it, who grew it, and you would have that trust. So it was quite jarring for people to suddenly be getting products that were coming from distances and from people that they'd never met. So the original brands, the original logos, the role that they played was essentially as a surrogate relationship. So you would have this kind of "down-home," comforting, maternal or paternal figure. So the actual role it was playing was as a mark of quality, as a guarantee of quality on the product itself.

The transition that has happened since that time -- and it's come in waves; it wasn't invented in the '90s, but it sort of skyrocketed in the '90s -- was the idea that if you wanted to really be successful in a highly competitive marketplace, simply having a mark of quality on your product isn't enough to give you an edge. In a marketplace where it's so easy to produce products, where your competitors can essentially match you on the product itself, you need to have something else. You need to have an added value, and that added value is the identity, the idea behind your brand. And this is spoken of in many different ways, "the story behind the brand." I don't think we can understand this phenomenon just in terms of how easy it is to produce products. I think it also has to do with a reaction to a culture in the '80s where people were longing for some kind of deeper meaning in their lives.

Naomi Klein's book No Logo, an impassioned critique of marketing's effects on culture and citizenship, has helped fuel the anti-globalization movement. In this interview, she explains how Americans are looking to brands to provide a sense of community. "I think brands definitely are filling a very real need," she says. "The question is, are they filling it well? I believe that they tend to fill it in a fairly unsatisfying way. You can go to these brand temples like Niketown, and you can get a piece of the story, the narrative, the dream behind that brand. But when you get home, it is just a pair of sneakers, right? … They're not actually going to fulfill those needs, which serves them very well because, of course, that means that you have to go shopping again to try to fill them." This interview was conducted on Jan. 22, 2004.

So what brands started selling was a kind of pseudo-spirituality -- a sense of belonging, a community. So brands started filling a gap that citizens, not just consumers, used to get elsewhere, whether from religion, whether from a sense of belonging in their community. Brands like Starbucks came along and talked about their brand as itself being a community, the idea that Starbucks is what they like to call a "third place," which is not their idea; it's the idea of basic citizenry needing a place that is not work, that is not home, where citizens gather. And they have privatized that idea in a way, and that's really what is behind a lot of these brand meanings: a privatized concept of what used to be public.

Most of it does actually, ironically, have to do with a longing for public space. If you think about Disney, for instance -- one of the most successful brand builders of all time -- they really are selling an idea of a lost American town where there was a town square and your kids were safe to walk in the streets. And they first built that in their films, then brought it to life in their theme parks, and expanded it into cruise ships and things like that, holidays. And then they took it further, of course, with [the planned community] Celebration, Fla., where you pack up the kids and move inside the brand. I find it really interesting that Disney describes Celebration as a tribute, a celebration of public space. What's interesting about Celebration, Fla., is that there are no brands there. Once you actually achieve brand nirvana, what you want to do is you want to seal the exits. There's no competition, and you've got full synergy, full vertical integration, and there's no need for marketing.

It's one of the ironies of our branded age, that unbranded space. Public space, or pseudo-public space, is now a luxury item that is only really available to the very rich. Once you move up the class hierarchy, things get a lot more tranquil and quiet, and you sort of pay not to be marketed to. HBO is the same in a way. You pay extra not to be advertised to. Bahamas bans McDonald's. When rich people get together, they want to be protected from the brands that they got rich creating.

Did brands come to the rescue, filling a need for community or meaning in society?

I think brands definitely are filling a very real need. The question is, are they filling it well? I believe that they tend to fill it in a fairly unsatisfying way. You can go to these brand temples like Niketown, and you can get a piece of the story, the narrative, the dream behind that brand. But when you get home, it is just a pair of sneakers, right? And they might be a good pair of sneakers, but in the end, it is a laptop and a pair of running shoes. They might be great, but they're not actually going to fulfill those needs, which serves them very well because, of course, that means that you have to go shopping again to try to fill them.

This discussion is not really about pointing fingers at Nike or Starbucks and going, "How dare you sell these ideas to us?" From my perspective as a political activist who cares about these issues, I just sort of feel happy that they've done our market research for us and proven that we actually really do want more than we're getting from our culture, which would mean that we have our marching orders. There are these desires that are being expressed in ways that they're not actually being met through shopping, and it's a challenge to try to meet them in other ways.

Do brands enhance democracy?

Well, there tends to be a lot of conflation going on around the democracy issue. I think most brands have a fairly contradictory relationship to the idea of consumer choice and consumer participation. I think that there is definitely a growing awareness that there's a huge amount of power to be harnessed in involving consumers in the construction of your brand. This is the trendy thing to talk about now. At the same time, branding at its core is about consistency and control. When they're not talking about their spiritual journeys, brands are talking about protecting their trademarks and consistency across the board. This has to be enforced very, very rigorously, whether that means cracking down on a 12-year-old kid for violating your trademark on their homepage or making sure that at every outlet of Starbucks, you have your certain visual signifiers and so on. It is about consistency; that's what makes it a brand.

So it's this oddly schizophrenic situation where the marketing department is saying, "Harness this energy, this democracy," and at the same time, the trademark lawyers are saying, "Get this under control, and sue people for sharing online." So I think really democracy, citizen participation in our culture, is generally met with lawsuits by these same corporations, whether it's for trademark violation or file sharing. So the kinds of participation that are acceptable within corporate branding is very limited. But the key decisions and the key edits are made behind the scenes.

It's really complicated, because in many ways, I would say that people rightly feel that corporations are more interested in their opinions than their politicians are. So once again, you see corporations sort of fulfilling a role that probably should be fulfilled elsewhere. Generally I think people don't feel terrifically listened to at work; they don't feel terrifically listened to by their politicians. Yet these brands are constantly canvassing their most minute shades of opinion. But I don't think that's actual democracy or participation, because the stance of the consumer is not the same as the stance of a citizen. The customer is always right: "It's my money. You have to listen to me." I think if we're confusing that with democracy or actual citizen engagement, it's because we've actually lost touch with what democracy and community really does mean, because it's a much more complex give-and-take process of human beings interacting with each other and not "This is my opinion; take it; act on it," which is the consumer's stance vis-à-vis these companies.

But once again it's contradictory, because if you look at a company like Starbucks, which gained pop-culture currency in the mid-'90s because of this idea of this plethora of minute choices -- sometimes called "the tyranny of small decisions," right? You can choose a million things about your coffee, but Starbucks, at the same time, has been very resistant to any kind of scrutiny around how their employees are treated when their employees started to unionize, how their coffee is grown when there's been pressure for them to switch to fair-trade coffees. They've made small concessions along the way, but you very quickly encounter a wall of obscurity [in] contrast [to] this perception of total openness and total participation when it comes to consumer choice.

What happened on April 2, 1993?

A lot of this craze for spiritual branding, for this idea of selling ideas as opposed to products, comes from an idea that gained currency in the '90s, on a day in April 1993 that was called Marlboro Friday. This was the day that Philip Morris decided to drop the price of their cigarettes, which led to kind of a hysteria on Wall Street and within the ad world, because the idea is that if you have a truly prestige brand, and there aren't that many truly prestige brands -- Marlboro, Tide, Coke, Disney ... the iconic brands -- once you reach this status, and you reach this status by investing for decades, hundreds of years in building that image, once you've reached that status, you're no longer competing in what's called a commodity marketplace. You're no longer competing just with other people who happen to sell cigarettes. You've sort of transcended that world, and you earned it; you bought it. How did you buy it? You bought it with all the advertising spending, all the billboards bought, all the magazine ads you bought, all the television ads you bought. You bought that prestige. You bought your way out of the commodity marketplace. This is how people rationalize massive spending on advertising.

And when one of the prestige brands like Marlboro decided that they had to compete on price, this was seen as evidence not that people were quitting smoking -- which was odd, actually, in retrospect -- but that the very idea of the prestige brand was losing its cachet, and that consumers were becoming more and more price-savvy, more and more conscious of price. Let's remember this was happening during a recession, and companies like Wal-Mart were taking off at this point, and their whole selling point was, "It's cheaper." So all these companies that never thought that they had to actually worry about price, that they could be so much more expensive than their nearest competitors, suddenly thought, the brand is dead; we are now in a commodity marketplace, which from the perspective of a marketer is a very, very bad place to be.

But this wasn't true.

It turned out not to be true. It was true for some of the classic brands like Frito-Lay, Kellogg's, Philip Morris. They actually were getting beat out on price. But what people who watch these trends noticed was that there were a handful of brands that were actually soaring, even during the recession. These were the superbrands like Nike, Starbucks, The Body Shop. And what they noticed these brands had in common was that they were engaging in a sort of pseudo-spiritual marketing. And they had flatly refused to engage in any [advertising] saying, "Buy our product because it's better than our competitor," or, "It's higher quality; it's cheaper." None of that. It was The Body Shop talking about a socially conscious company. It was Nike talking about being the very embodiment of sports, and more than that, being the very embodiment of the spirit of sports, which Nike said was the spirit of transcendence itself. These brands that were telling these quasi-religious stories were somehow exempt from the "brand crash."

So then you saw this huge rush. Everybody wanted to hire brand consultants right after this, because these were the companies that were escaping the commodity marketplace. So then there was this wave of corporate epiphanies in the mid-'90s where all these companies were told, "Your problem is you don't have a big idea behind your brand," so they would hire high-priced consultants, have these kind of corporate sweat lodges and gather around the campfire and try to channel their inner-brand meaning. And they would emerge from these processes sort of flushed and saying, "Polaroid isn't a camera; it's a social lubricant," and things like that. And a lot of people got very rich.

And this really progressed to total absurdity with the dotcoms, where you had companies that essentially didn't exist except for being a logo and a doodle and an idea. Brand mania had reached such a point -- it was the combination of technology mania and branding mania that created that bubble.

Can you talk more about companies and their "epiphanies?"

Nike was the essence of sports, transcendence through sports. Starbucks was community, the idea of the "third place" that is not home and not work. Disney is family. Virgin is the sort of rebel working stiff, the rebel inside their suit. Benetton, of course, was marketing racial diversity and multiculturalism. The Body Shop was marketing environmentalism.

So nobody was actually selling what they were selling. I mean, I interviewed Anita Roddick [of The Body Shop] when I was writing No Logo, and she told me that she sees her stores only [as], as she put it, a "green box" on which to stand on and shout out on the issues that she cares about; that basically the whole thing was sort of a prop.

Not a terrible one, in her case.

Well, I think Anita Roddick is in some sense in a class of her own, and I think that that's true for Ben & Jerry's as well. I think that it's definitely a very complicated relationship that these people have with their companies. But generally what happens to these companies, where you do have a CEO that convinces themselves that the whole thing is an elaborate prop for them to make the world a better place, is that their shareholders eventually intervene, and the company either gets sold -- Ben & Jerry's -- or essentially control is taken away from the figurehead CEO -- The Body Shop.

How has marketing moved away from traditional outlets like the 30-second television ad?

If everybody is doing the same thing, we develop immunities, so it's not so much that we're demanding this escalation; it's just that we've become immune to older advertising methods, and sometimes we just become immune psychologically. Sometimes we use technology to become immune, and as soon as an ad comes on, we change the channel. So that's why the advertising as interruption falls out of favor and in favor of the full integration, for instance. Reality TV has proven to be an incredible platform for marketing seamlessly woven into the whole concept of the show. Ford Explorers are part of Fear Factor. This is not that we are asking for this as consumers; it's the opposite. We are changing the channel because we don't want the advertisements. So that's why it becomes more integrated.

This is very much related to brand, to the idea that you're selling an idea as opposed to a product. Once you decide that you're selling an idea as opposed to a product, you need to find a way to express that idea. You have your corporate epiphany, and you decide that you really stand for community or democracy or peace or love. Well, how do you express that? Well, it's hard to really express that through a running shoe or a computer. You have to somehow bring that idea to life.

And there's a few ways that you can do that. You can look out into the culture and say, "Who's actually embodying that?" Well, maybe it's a sports team; maybe it's a jazz festival; maybe it's a school. So you try to merge with that. You tag onto it through corporate sponsorship, but that's not enough, because it keeps ramping up. So the trend in branding is for the brand to become the infrastructure, not to tag onto our culture, [but] to sort of associate with the culture that it wants to be associated with -- whether it's music, theater, sports, young people. It's to actually sort of supercede it and become the actual cultural infrastructure, and then we sort of live inside the brand.

Brands tend to be competitive. This is what all of this is about. And they're not just competitive with their competitors in the marketplace. If a brand is sponsoring a rock concert or a hip-hop show, they're competitive with the bands themselves and want to make sure that they are actually the star of the show.

Tommy Hilfiger did this a few years ago where first, Tommy Hilfiger decided that their brand was rock 'n' roll. They started sponsoring as many shows as they could. Then they started making clothing for rock stars like Mick Jagger. Then it was just a really interesting evolution, because their ads started off showing actual rock stars, but then it sort of transitioned into just models holding guitars. That was [representative of] something that Nike CEO Phil Knight once said: "Our competitors in the marketplace are not just Reebok anymore." He felt that they'd blown Reebok out of the water. He said, "Our competitor is Disney; our competitor is anyone who is in this realm of the megastar," and of course that means that on some level, even though they don't want to admit it, their competitors are also Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, who are the athletes who created so much brand meaning for them, because of course those athletes all want to be their own brand.

We're seeing that more and more, where celebrities create their own logos -- like J. Lo -- or rebrand themselves -- like P. Diddy. And then you have their fans learning cues from them and internalizing the idea of the person as their own brand, using those skills whether they're auditioning for a reality TV show [with] this sort of hyperconsciousness of like, "I'm the funny one," or you see yourself not as a person but as a brand that will fit into a script; or even with Internet dating, where people are packaging themselves as brands, like Ben and Jen, right? I think that that model is being set at the sort of upper echelons of celebrity, but it's being played out in miniature, without the cameras on, or maybe with the cameras on.

Companies now seem distanced from actual processes of production.

Well, branding, this process of selling an idea as opposed to a product, is not the same as advertising. It's actually in many ways the end of advertising, because it ramps up to the point where you're actually building these fully enclosed branded [lives], fully synergized branded lives, which is a lot more expensive than just taking out an ad and saying, "Hey, guys, we've got a new product coming out."

All of these companies, without exception, that have embraced this ideology have simultaneously embraced a model for producing their products where they don't own any of their factories, where they see production as being really a kind of a menial sideline to their actual production. Their actual production is the production of image, the production of meaning, the production of intellectual property, which is extraordinarily costly and which, on a business model, tends to be incompatible with owning your own factories, having lasting relationships with your employees.

Often, if you read business text, a company like Levi's will be scolded for not having a strong enough brand. In the late '90s, I remember an article in The New York Times saying Levi's problem is not their jeans; it's that they don't have a line of house paint, because at this point, Ralph Lauren had a line of house paint, and there was this idea that the Levi's brand, which is a quintessential American brand like Marlboro, was dying because they hadn't found their soul, they hadn't found their big idea, and they were still just selling jeans. How dare they? So they were scolded and told that they had to embrace this model by Wall Street. Levi's was known in the garment industry as being a company that had among the better employment standards. They owned their own factories; they were experimenting with all kinds of different production models in the South. And all of a sudden, Levi's took this advice, and they were very, very open about this. They said, "We are investing more in our brand; we'll have more sort of experiential superstores, more sponsorships, and we are divesting from our factories in the South." And this was reported on as "Levi's moves its factories from Texas to China, from Texas to Mexico."

But that's actually not what happened at all. What happened is that Levi's closed those factories in Mexico, and, in fact, they've closed their last North American factories this year, and they never reopened them. They never became Levi's factories elsewhere. They became contracts to place with contractors who then placed them with subcontractors, and this is a commentary on the value that is placed on work and production and craftsmanship. It's very important to see both ends of the production. These sort of corporate dreamscapes that we have here in New York in many ways are being subsidized by workers in the South, who not only are being paid pennies for their work, but had absolutely no security because they're working on contract -- contractors who are working for contractors.

So what are we producing?

We're producing brands. There's a branding agency called The Brand Factory that I know of, and the discussion of brands, from the perspective of designers, from the perspective of marketers, is the language of production -- that they are producing the actual product, and that's why they are paid so handsomely for it.

How do they maintain such tight control over their brand image?

Well, they don't, which is why there's a great deal of high-level negotiations going on about intellectual property. For instance, China is at the World Trade Organization, and one of the main disputes is whether China is going to respect U.S. intellectual property, and whether they're going to adopt TRIPS, which is the Trade-Related [Aspects of] Intellectual Property [Rights] Agreement that's part of the World Trade Organization. This is because China is the outsourced factory of the United States. Stuff leaks out all the time. I believe to have this sort of far-flung production process, this many layers of contractors and subcontractors and not expect your brands to be sold on the streets of Beijing at knockdown prices, is fundamentally incompatible.

And knockdown quality.

Maybe not. In many cases it's not a different quality at all; they just kept the machines running a few more hours.

Who, if anyone, is trying to resist this global marketing of the superbrands? Are there any pockets of revolt?

Well, I think there's been more than pockets of revolt. It's interesting that some of the strongest resistance is not coming from downtown college kids who go to a WTO protest. It's coming from small towns who have a Wal-Mart being built on the outskirts and are looking at the erasing of their community and their culture. But I think that young people actually really do care if other young people suffered to make their clothes. But if you become outraged about something but don't have the ability to act on it, it sort of wears you down. If it isn't possible to go to the mall and buy something that was produced under ethical conditions, which is actually hard if not impossible, then you get used to it. It's the same as advertising: You get desensitized to that experience. I don't think it's that people don't care.

The other thing about this small-town reaction to Wal-Mart is that it shows that we're complicated. We're always told by marketers that all they're doing is giving us what we want. And if you look at people's relationship to Wal-Mart, it's actually quite complicated, because what people are saying is, "If Wal-Mart comes, I will have to shop there." You could have 80 percent of the community saying: "We don't actually want the Wal-Mart. We don't want the Wal-Mart, because if the Wal-Mart comes, we'll go. Maybe not me personally, but other people will be tempted by those prices."

But what that shows, I think, is not that we're hypocrites, but actually that there are different levels of desires. We're not simple. As a consumer, as a housewife with four kids, you may desire to get your washing detergent for a dollar cheaper, but as a citizen of your town, which you also are, you will also be saddened and have a real sense of loss when your downtown is transformed. So that's why these are real political debates, and the debates have to happen.

How has branding moved into politics?

I think it was when George Bush went to Baghdad for Thanksgiving and held up the turkey. I have a friend who says that since September 11, she's felt as if she's been living in a movie. What I realized when I saw that image was that, in fact, it's not that American politics is being influenced by Hollywood, but that it's being deeply influenced by Madison Avenue. That image with Bush holding the turkey was a quintessential advertising image. It was more than just a political photo op. He was being treated in a sense as a corporate mascot -- not as a president, but the corporate mascot of the nation. That image of holding that platter is a quintessential advertising image, almost like Aunt Jemima, the early brand images of the comforting corporate mascot.

Now we have a president who really is treated less like a politician than like a mascot, who gets dressed up for various live-action commercials, and I think that this does represent a real change. Obviously photo ops aren't new; obviously image control is not new. But this very conscious staging is quite significant, and I think it's significant as well that [it] turns out the turkey was fake. It wasn't even a real turkey. So I think that contributes to the idea that this was actually not a diplomatic mission. This was not a mission of diplomacy, but it was an advertising issue.

So Madison Avenue strategies are migrating into our government?

After the war in Afghanistan, there was a marked rise of anti-Americanism around the world. The Bush administration responded to this, particularly to the rise of anti-Americanism in the Arab world, by hiring a brand expert. They hired Charlotte Beers, one of the most established women in advertising. And she was hired to a very senior diplomatic post, and Colin Powell said at the time that he thought that she had gotten him to buy Uncle Ben's rice -- because this was one of her most famous campaigns -- so he thought that she would be able to sell the U.S. to the world.

And it was a really interesting strategy, because of course it really didn't work, and in fact Charlotte Beers quit the job, she said for health reasons. I personally think that her product was faulty, which was why she had to quit. I mean, she had a really quite impossible job, which was selling the brand image of the United States as democracy, freedom, diversity, in a part of the world where people were saying back to her: "No, our experience of the U.S. is supporting regimes that deny us freedom. We associate the U.S. with support for Israel and the occupation of Palestine; we don't want U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia." People wanted to engage on major policy questions, and the U.S. response to this was essentially the stereotype of the U.S. tourist talking to foreigners, which is when people don't understand you, just talk more loudly and slowly, right? "No, we really, really are about freedom, democracy and diversity." And the response was, "Well, then how come we keep hearing about Arab Americans being rounded up?" These reports started coming back, that reality was interfering with the rebranding project of the U.S.

Charlotte Beers quit when the Iraq war started, and I think that probably having faced this much resistance after the invasion of Afghanistan, she realized that the job was going to become essentially impossible. You actually cannot sell the idea of freedom, democracy, diversity, as if it were a brand attribute and not reality -- not at the same time as you're bombing people, you can't.

Their experience is too different.

From what you're selling, right. That's why I'm saying her product was faulty.

They aren't receptive to our branding techniques.

I don't think so. The logic was, "Hey, they already like our running shoes; they like our Hollywood movies; we'll just sell more stuff to them. Now we'll sell them ourselves." I don't think it's that that part of the world is immune to the persuasiveness of Hollywood and Madison Avenue -- not at all. It's just that there are real policy differences, massive policy differences, life-and-death policy differences, that can't be papered over with marketing. So I think it's more a reflection of a mentality that really doesn't see policy as impacting people's lives that would lead people to believe that in the face of experience, you can just sell a marketing line.

What's the significance of the government taking that kind of approach to Afghanistan and Iraq?

I think that when a government openly internalizes and embraces the techniques of Madison Avenue, the techniques of marketing and branding and Hollywood, we start to regard them with the same kind of skepticism or kind of a strange indifference with which we regard anything of artifice. Our relationship to politics is becoming very similar to our relationship to Hollywood: If the special effects are good enough, if the costumes are good enough, it doesn't have to be true; just put on a good show. That's our agreement with Hollywood: The lights go down, and we will suspend disbelief. And I believe that increasingly, the more our politicians act as if they're pitching to us all the time, the more our relationship with them changes along with it.

Like the Jessica Lynch story, which was kind of an action movie that was staged by the military. The truth did come out, which was that the original version, which portrayed the Navy SEALs as incredibly courageous and going up against dangerous foes, Jessica Lynch fighting back, being abused by her captors, all of this was a lie. They had scoped out the hospital ahead of time; Jessica Lynch was actually treated extremely well and compassionately by her caregivers; she was injured in a car accident; and she didn't fight back. This came out, and there were two Jessicas. It's not like one corrected the other. The sort of Hollywood/Madison Avenue version of events, the fake Jessica, coexisted with the real Jessica, who actually came forward and told her story. And it was like, "OK, we'll just have both."

But I think we need to confront when the political culture embraces the culture of the known artifice. We know artifice is a lie; we know Hollywood is a lie; we accept it. When that completely pervades politics, we are being told it's a lie, we're accepting it, and we're saying, "Well, if it's a good enough lie, if it's well told, then we'll move on."

There's got to be a collision, at some point, between this artifice and the truth.

I think it will [happen]. It has to break in America. In the rest of the world, it has already broken. It's why there is such a chasm between what Americans tell themselves about themselves in forums like the State of the Union address and the way they're perceived outside your borders. All of the media attempts, as well as the marketing attempts, to sell the U.S. to the Arab world are being treated as political propaganda by people who actually have a great deal of experience with state propaganda. They know it when they see it. I mean, it didn't help that they used the same [channel] as Saddam's channel, right? For people who are so aware of symbol and image, I'm constantly amazed by how inept some of the signifiers are -- for instance, Paul Bremer [administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq] moving into Saddam's old palace. Surely Charlotte Beers should have told him not to do that.

What are some of the listening tools being used to track consumer behavior and choices?

One of the great ironies of the Internet is that on the one hand it is this tool of incredible individual empowerment. At the same time, we are under the microscope in a way we never have been. Our ability to be tracked online is completely -- short of the CIA just following you around all the time and tapping your phones, this is mass surveillance of a population. I do think that we are aware of it and giving in to it, which I think has quite frightening implications. We are getting used to very, very serious violations of our privacy online. We're used to the idea that all of our purchases are being tracked very closely, our links are being tracked very closely. So if we accept that in this realm, it's OK to be under surveillance all the time and to have all these patterns tracked and coded, then I think it becomes a lot easier to accept being tracked offline, which, of course, is happening, too.

People become numb, and say, "So what?"

I think that much of what we're talking about is not some kind of revelation. I think people are aware of the conditions under which their products are produced; they are aware that they are under more and more surveillance by marketers, and so on. The "so what?" that you sometimes hear is a kind of a "make me care" response. And I think that the consumer stance -- which is that "It's my money, and I paid for it; serve me" -- the stance of the consumer as opposed to the stance of an engaged citizen is so pervasive that we actually believe that caring about injustice, caring about the effects our actions have on the world around us, is not our own personal responsibility, but it's someone else's responsibility to actually make you care. There are people who make us care -- like, Oprah makes us care -- and we buy caring as another product.

I don't believe that anyone can actually make another person care. I think that you can be made to feel feelings of empathy temporarily, and you can have a caring experience that will be fleeting. But caring about the world around you and the impact that you have on others is a very, very fundamental part of being human. No one can do it for you. No one can make you care.

What do you say to the American who feels overwhelmed by all this?

One other thing I wanted to say is that I do think that we care more than we're given credit for. And I always think it's quite amazing that after September 11, there was this amazing outpouring of caring. And the response from the government of the U.S., from Bush, was, "Go shopping." And it wasn't just once or twice. Essentially the entire government response after September 11 in terms of what individuals could do to make a difference was to shop. There was a big campaign in Canada; we got in on this, and we had "Canada Loves New York" weekends, where we would just come here and shop. And the idea that ... the greatest way to express solidarity with people is through consumption, when people were responding in ways that were much, much more significant and human, and [were] helping each other in a time of need, and [then they were] told by the government: "No, do something really isolated; just shop. Save your country; support people that way."

How do we wake up? Can we break this cycle of artifice?

I don't think there's a way out of this until we actually -- not to get too New Age here -- but I think we really need to ask ourselves what we're honestly shopping for when we're shopping. Sometimes you're really just shopping because you need something, but shopping is now the primary leisure activity, the primary family activity, and a lot of it is extraordinarily un-fun and unsatisfying. And I think that it is important to ask yourselves what you're actually shopping for. If you are shopping for community, if you are shopping for democracy, you actually are not going to get it at the mall. And you will only be cured of this particular malaise if you find ways to fulfill those desires elsewhere. That's certainly the only way I kicked my shopping habit.

 

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posted nov. 9, 2004

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