Towards the end of the last century one of my friends incessantly predicted apocalypse. As miners' strikes followed sterling crises, poll tax riots followed Vietnam riots followed Suez riots, and three-day weeks mingled with CND marches, he confidently predicted the end of civilisation as we knew it. It could, he believed, only be a few more days before the underclasses finally revolted. Blood, he never tired of prophesying, would be gushing through the gutters. The revolution was nigh.
He was not a Marxist, or even a revolutionary. He was just one of those Cassandra-like people who always sees the glass as half empty rather than half full - or rather, 99 per cent empty and very nearly drained. Naomi Klein, author of No Logo , is his kind of woman. She too believes insurrection is just around the corner. But because she is a North American pop-culture journalist, living in the most affluent and vibrant economy history has known, she is less concerned with wars and nuclear fission than with advertising and imagery - things my friend would have deemed too trivial to fret about.
Her bête noire is the global brand. Logos are icons of evil. Nike (the target of her strongest opprobrium), Disney, Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, Barbie Doll and a handful of others are epitomes of greed. They unscrupulously leech the poor in the West, who buy their overpriced goods, and the poor in the East, whom they employ in sweatshops. Waxing fat in the gross margins between the two, they pay homage neither to national governments nor to common human ethics. The only people they benefit are well-heeled top executives and even better-heeled shareholders. But happily, Klein prophesies, the seeds of their own demise are endemic in their very success.
The first part of her thesis is far from new. Companies build brands to differentiate their own products from competitors'. Consumers are then unwilling to buy the competition. This gives their brands quasi-monopoly power. Having established a brand monopoly, the brand owner can increase prices and make excessive profits. The public, bewitched by the brand, is helpless. By no means everyone agrees with this analysis, but it is widely accepted by leftwing thinkers.
Klein's next step is more innovative. Having established the power of their brands, she argues, corporations have realised they can get sub-contractors to produce the goods for them, branded with their logo. Strong brands and logos acquire a life of their own. This process, called outsourcing, has become increasingly fashionable. It allows the brand owner to avoid carrying the overhead costs of manufacturing and directly employing its own production workers, and best of all keeps a battery of suppliers competing for their custom. In a global market, the brand owner can purchase his products from third world sweatshops, which have few qualms about paying niggardly salaries and even fewer about ignoring any labour laws. The brand owners acquire their goods dirt cheap, and nimbly sidestep all the legislation passed in western countries during the past two centuries to protect the rights - and more important the incomes - of workers. This they achieve without, on the face of it, soiling their own hands.
But the power of global brands is built on the ability of customers to recognise their logos easily. This same recognisability - and here is Klein's neatest twist - makes it equally easy for those who abhor their behaviour to reject them. And the internet makes it possible to disseminate information about their heinous employment practices to consumers throughout the world. Anyone with half a conscience and a modem can discover which brand owners become rich and bloated by taking advantage of the world's poor and hungry and thereafter spurn them.
It is here, I fear, that Klein departs from reality. She sees evidence that all around the world people are starting to bite back at brands. She cites rambunctious meetings and protest rallies. She lists custard-pie throwings ("We respond to your lies with custard pies!") and traffic snarl-ups and even people who - this may devastate you - defiantly cut their designer labels off. She believes this has become a potent world movement, which will force the villainous brands to mend their ways.
It is undeniably difficult to spot the green shoots of revolution when they first appear. The Bourbons failed to spot the guillotine up the boulevard. The Romanovs doubtless felt sure they would live through the storming of their Winter Palace. So maybe the kids who feel furious about Nike and Co. are, similarly, giving birth to an uprising that will one day shake up the world. But I doubt it.
First, the brands and logos Klein decries constitute but a tiny fraction of the world's great brands, and an even smaller fraction of global consumer expenditure. Second, despite the Cassandras, the western world - and especially the United States - is getting more affluent all the time, and likes it. Third, the few people involved in her rebellion do not justify even an asterisk in opinion polls. Fourth, Klein truly fails to understand what branding is about - brands must provide quality as well as glamour; those that fail to, themselves fail.
"When I started this book," writes Klein, "I honestly didn't know whether I was covering marginal atomised scenes of resistance or the birth of a potentially broad-based movement. But as time went on, what I clearly saw was a movement forming before my eyes." No way, Ms Klein. What you saw was,indeed, a scattering of marginal atomised scenes of resistance. The real power games are played elsewhere.
Winston Fletcher is communications director, FCB Europe, and chairman, the Royal Institution.
Author - Naomi Klein
ISBN - 0 00 255919 6
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £14.99
Pages - 490