Read 16/04/2016 – 01/07/2016
I started this book because Naomi Klein was due to give a talk in Dublin as part of the Dublin Literature Festival. So I quickly snapped up this book so I’d have some knowledge about her going in to the talk. It transpired her talk was based on her much more recent book on climate change! Despite this I’m glad I read this book.
The first part of the book describes how brands have changed drastically throughout our history and specifically within the last century. Previously during the beginning of the 20th century we considered the main hub of a brand as their centre of manufacturing or their factory. So previously when we’d think of a company like NIKE we would considered their main factory where they made their runners as their headquarter or main establishment. So in a sense we became familiar with the reasoning that corporations made products and this is what we associated them with. This all changed over time, suddenly corporations became more preoccupied with creating brands, as oppossed to focusing on products. This has seen companies outsource their production and if you walked into a sucessful corporations headquarters today, you would be hard pressed to see any sign of manufacturing occurring at all. In this age of branding, advertising has exploded. In fact Klein states that the growth of global spending now outpaces the growth of the global economy by one-third. And while companies make as much as 400% markup on these products, almost always the workers both at home and abroad see none of this profit.
The second part describes how brands and their advertising have taken over our public and private spheres. This is nothing overly new to the reader. If you think of a typical day, from every moment from when we are having our breakfast to bed time we are constantly being bombarded by various branding and advertising. However, what I personally wasn’t aware of was that corporations were even infiltrating primary and secondary schools. In return for funding, schools advertise products and even play adverts during class time over the intercom. Corporations also pay some popular kids in the school to wear their products in order to influence other kids to buy them!
There is a whole section on how the corporations treat their employees. It shows how factories in the far east pay their labourers a pathetic wage for producing their products. In fact they pay them so little that the products they make typically sell for more than a year or two of their salary! On top of this, they work their staff over time constantly and the workers have no rights and no opportunity to form unions. What is terrifying as well is that even if one country complains about the treatment of their citizens in these factories, the corporation can just move on to another country who are desperately waiting in line. On top of this, in a scary race to the bottom, these poor countries offer these corporations tax incentives to move their manufacturing to their country. Even in their own home countries, corporations have found a way to save money on their employees. Instead of offering secure jobs with health insurance benefits, they give employees short annual contracts with no rights, which means they can hire and fire employees without paying any benefits and on meagre salaries. They can also afford to hire employees on internships and pay them nothing in the name of giving them “experience”.
One warning I must give the reader is that the book suffers from being a product of its time. Back when Naomi Klein released this book, people weren’t overly aware of the sweatshops that these mulnitnationals were running. Lots of people weren’t knowledgable of some of the shady activities these companies were willing to resort to. However today, most people are aware of sweatshops from multiple documentaries and exposes. This means that reading the book today removes some of the shock readers may have felt when the book was first released. However that is just one section of the book, the rest of the book features fascinating insights and details of corporations that I wasn’t aware of years later.
For me the most interesting and most infuriating subplot to this book was that not a whole lot seems to have changed. Yes we became aware of Nike’s and various other companies running sweatshops, but has this stopped? The answer is no. What we have done in response to the news of corporate offenses is to merely tune out, or change the channel metaphorically. Yes, there can be boycotts of certain companies for a period, but then a new product comes out and we are drawn back in like the moth to the light. These corporations continue to digress on human rights, environmental laws etc. because we as consumers continue to allow them by filling their pockets with the money to continue. Another sad truth is that once one company is exposed for their wrongdoing, we switch to a rival company’s product that was more than likely produced by the same person, in the same factory.
I urge readers of this blog to give this book a shot. It is a fascinating book that gives you the history of how branding became so big and how it came to take over our lives. It then shows the evil side of branding. On top of the outdated factor I would warn the reader that this book took me a while longer to read than anticipated. It isn’t necessary difficult in language or heavy on data, but it can be hard to read large portions at a time. This isn’t a criticism of Klein as a writer, if anything it shows how dedicated she was to finding real statistics and information to inform the reader. For those willing to stick with the book you will never find yourself beginning to doubt every time you reach for a product to buy, and this is a testament to Naomi.