Mark Dery (by way of Pit Schultz <>) on Fri, 25 Apr 1997 15:29:34 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> ZKP4: Trendspotting


     "Tattooed Ears Cause New Teen Craze," a story that aired on
NPR's "All Things Considered" on a recent April 1st, caught my ear. 
As a zero-tolerance critic of the growing encroachment of corporate
influence on our everyday lives, I wasn't at all surprised by Noah
Adams's report on Laser Splash, a breakthrough technology that used
lasers to etch logos on teenage earlobes in exchange for a 10
percent lifetime discount on a company's products.  "Alphanumeric
bits" embedded in the paint enabled retailers to scan the tattoos
at checkout counters.  According to Adams, several corporations,
Nike among them, had already scrambled aboard the trend du jour.  
     The company's glib young female CEO defended brand-name
branding as a ritual of resistance ("a way to...take the idea of
being bought and...throw it in their face") while maintaining, in
the same breath, that logo tattoos were "interactive consumerism"--
-"a way of celebrating" the fact that, in an age of designer
lifestyles, we're all "walking billboards," anyway.  She sounded
all the right notes, harmonizing boomer delusions of youthful
rebellion in the Minoxidil years with Generation X's cherished
vision of itself as immune to the not-so-subliminal seductions of
consumer culture, inoculated by terminal cynicism.
     Listening to the NPR segment, I took grim satisfaction in the
confirmation of my worst suspicions about commodity culture.  Here,
in the sale of the slacker body as advertising space, was the
ultimate justification for anti-consumerist screeds.  It was almost
too perfect.
     In fact, it _was_ too perfect: "Tattooed Ears" was an April
Fool's gag, played by NPR on its listeners---among them myself, a
supposedly wary cultural critic who has even written about media
hoaxes, embarrassingly enough.  But mortification turned to
vindication only a month later, when _The New York Times Magazine_
carried an item about EKINs (spell it backwards), the banzai,
mostly twentysomething male Nike employees who tattoo the company's
boomerang-shaped logo (known as the "swoosh") on their calves or
upper thighs.  The concept of corporate vassals so gung-ho they
literally tattoo their fiefdom's coat of arms on their bodies makes
the fictional CEO's assertion that logo tattoos represent a gonzo
"embrace" of the fact that "the corporation owns our souls" sound
a little less laughable, all of a sudden.  There's a creepy-funny
resemblance, here, to the commodity future of William Gibson's
_Neuromancer_, where Japanese corporate serfs are tattooed with
their company logos, and to present-day Japan, where a salaryman
introduces himself by saying, "I am Toyota Company's Mr. So-And-
So," since an employee's corporate affiliation is his core
     Meanwhile, Nike, the world's largest footwear manufacturer and
a self-styled "guerrilla marketer," is busy tattooing the body
politic.  My utterly unscientific study of the New York
streetscape, based entirely on the evidence before my eyes, is that
the swooshing of America is well underway: Baseball caps,
sweatshirts, and other apparel bearing the Nike emblem, cryptic and
conspiratorial as the mysterious post-horn symbol in _The Crying of
Lot 49_, seems to be everywhere.  The improbably named Duke Stump,
an EKIN quoted in _The New York Times Magazine_ blurb, may have
been only half-facetious when he cracked, "It's a cult.  But it's
a great cult."  
     There's a marked tendency, in American culture, to define
oneself in terms of brand-name affiliation.  In an increasingly
virtual reality, where the introspective psyche of McLuhan's
"Typographic Man" has given way to what postmodernists call the
"decentered self," spun off its axis by information overload,
idiosyncratic purchasing patterns are emerging as a means of
reinforcing the shaky boundaries of the self: I shop, therefore I
am.  Here at the end of the century, where gender roles, a
government's obligations to its citizens, and other once features
of the cultural landscape seem to be in flux, undermining our sense
of who we are in relation to society, nothing reifies like the
niche marketer's gaze.  

     More immediately, in a culture where the semiotics of
nonconformity are almost instantly appropriated by the corporate
mainstream, the under-25 demographic that accounts for more than
half of Nike's sales and more than 75 percent of the basketball-
shoe market collages a fierce individuality out of shared pop
references, one-minute microfads, kitschy or whimsical products. 
The impromptu ruminations of a young black man interviewed in one
of the "Mindtrends"tm marketing videos produced by the New York-
based trendspotting firm, Sputnik, are enlightening.  "If Reebok
made a line that was, like, a California line, catering more to the
lifestyle in California, and then had something different for
someone in Texas, that would be a little bit better, you know?," he
says.  "Because then you're not just falling into the crowd; you
can actually set yourself apart."  The bar-code consciousness of
mass culture is parried by a "nonconformity" fashioned, ironically,
from the conspicuous consumption of brands that have earned the
elusive youth-culture approbation that is every marketer's Holy
Grail, "cool."                
     To be sure, there's no denying the guerrilla semiotics at work
in kids' refunctioning of mass-produced goods; rave culture's
embrace of pacifiers, cartoon lunchboxes, and other kiddie gear as
tokens of psychedelic infantilism is playfully perverse. 
Nonetheless, despite slacker pundit-turned-marketing consultant
Douglas Rushkoff's sweet dreams of the Powers That Be brought to
their knees by "activist memes" such as _Beavis and Butt-Head_,
it's a no-brainer that multinational corporations aren't losing any
sleep over the hilariously '90s notions of subversion through
channel-surfing and consumption as rebellion.  As the advertising
critic Leslie Savan points out in _The Sponsored Life: Ads, TV, and
American Culture_, "Advertisers learned long ago that individuality
sells, like sex or patriotism...[Commercials tell] the television-
imbibing millions that they are secret rebels, freedom-loving
individuals who refuse to be squished by society's constraints. 
Corporate America is always advising us that if we just buy in we
can feel like irrepressibly hip outsiders.  As the jingle goes, 'I
like the Sprite in you.'"  
     The fiendish brilliance of American consumer culture is its
ability to shrink-wrap our defiant gestures and sell them back to
us as off-the-rack rebellion---a dynamic exemplified by Nike's
notorious use of the thirtysomething button-pusher "Revolution," by
the Beatles, to announce "a revolution in fitness."  Embodied by
CEO Phil Knight, a wild 'n' crazy billionaire in jeans and
mirrorshades who just can't drive 55 and who professes to loathe
advertising, the company's public image bristles with attitude, all
never-say-die bravado and no-bullshit street credibility.  A
virtuoso improvisor on the consumption-as-rebellion theme, Nike
slam-dunks its message that rebel cool can be had for the price of
a pair of Air Jordans in commercials like the controversial "Search
and Destroy" spot that aired during the '96 Olympics, featuring
athletes as punk-rock warriors and a bloody mouthpiece sailing
across the Nike logo.  _Forbes 400_ approvingly notes that "by
focusing its sponsorships on individual athletes" such as Charles
Barkley, who notoriously declared in a Nike ad that he wasn't a
role model, "Nike, despite its size, maintains its cool, outsider
     Ironically (though hardly surprisingly), the corporate conduct
behind the company's born-to-be-wild image is pure status quo: Nike
has taken hits for its all-too-typical practice of relocating its
manufacturing in the Third World and employing non-unionized
workers at less than subsistence wages.  In 1991, the owners of an
Indonesian factory that manufactured Nike shoes refused to pay even
the minimum wage of $1.25 a day and called in the military to crush
the ensuing strike.  In a recent _New York Times_ story, Knight,
whose holdings have been estimated at more than $5 billion, mouthed
the laissez-faire canard that it would ruin the country's economy
"if wages were allowed to get too high."  According to the UAW
newspaper _Solidarity_, Cicih Sukaesih, an Indonesian worker who
was fired for striking, was stunned when she saw a Nike ad that
exhorted, "Go ahead, demand a raise.  You have everything to gain
and nothing to lose."  Notes Sukaesih, "They would never say that
on their ads in Indonesia.  When we worked in the factory, we
thought 'Just do it!' meant 'Work harder and don't question
authority.'"  Far from the American legions who want to Be Like
Mike, the battle cry of trademarked iconoclasm sounds like an
authoritarian admonition to grin and bear the corporate yoke.  No
pain, no gain. 
     Far from the sweatshop floor, among the 77 percent of American
teenage boys whom a "brand power survey" said would rather be
wearing Nikes than any other shoes, the swoosh still stands for an
"antiauthoritarian streak," an "athlete-against-the-establishment
ethic," according to Donald Katz, author of _Just Do It: The Nike
Spirit in the Corporate World_.  In a revealing irony, the company
synonymous with the maverick miler who runs to a different drummer
has the highest levels of "acceptance of company policy ever
recorded by the national firm that conducted the study," says Katz. 
The employees who work on the Nike World Campus, a company town
shielded from the outside world by a Disneyland-ish berm that
encircles its 74-acre grounds, display a cultish devotion to the
paternalistic corporation that bequeathed them a man-made lake,
miles of jogging trails, the state-of-the-art Bo Jackson Fitness
Center, a Joe Paterno Day Care Center for Nike tykes, and best of
all, the chance to be part of what one EKIN breathlessly called
"some amazing force."  And no one is more devoted than the EKINs,
the technical experts out in the field whom Duke Stump describes as
"the eyes and ears of the company."  It is these tattooed road
warriors who spring to mind while absorbing Katz's assertion that
"the corporate 'we' is used in place of 'I' with regularity inside
Nike, even as the corporate 'we' is lost at most other companies."
     Though few, if any, illustrated youth have chosen to embellish
themselves with corporate logos (to the best of my knowledge),
there's an obvious, ironic parallel between Nike's tattooed
executives and twentysomething "modern primitives": both have
transformed themselves into "walking billboards," their "Just Do
It" individuality a pastiche of symbols pilfered from the cultural
memory bank.  Moreover, _consumer tribalism_ in youth culture---the
use of brand-names as tribal totems, from Timberland to Stussy to
No Fear to whatever this week's flavor is---echoes EKIN use of the
swoosh as an emblem of clan pride.
     We may be standing on the threshold of the future imagined by
William Gibson in the video documentary _Cyberpunk_, "a world where
all of the consumers under a certain age will probably tend to
identify more with their consumer status or with the products they
consume than with any sort of antiquated notion of nationality." 
In the Nike commercial where James Carville champions Nike baseball
star Ken Griffey Jr. for President, or the one where Dennis Hopper
does a postmodern turn on George C. Scott's Patton by delivering an
over-the-top ode to football with an enormous swoosh in place of
Patton's American flag, we glimpse a tongue-in-cheek vision of a
corporate-brand future brought to you by transnational capitalism. 
     It will arrive, if it does, on the morning after the death of
the nation-state so breathlessly anticipated by the laissez-faire
futurists and self-styled "cyber-elite" who soapbox in _Wired_. 
Premonitions of it can already be discerned in the creeping
corporate monoculture that the social theorist Benjamin R. Barber
calls "McWorld," a Family of Man created not by the electronic
interconnectedness McLuhan extolled but by MTV, Macintosh, and
McDonald's.  As it approaches, McLuhan's "retribalized" world of
"electronic interdependence" looks less like a Global Village than
it does Planet Reebok or NikeTown.  In _Jihad Vs. McWorld: How the
Planet is Both Falling Apart and Coming Together and What This
Means for Democracy_, Barber argues that multinational capitalism
is hell-bent on stamping "obsolete" to what Gibson would call the
"antiquated notion" of the nation-state, which Barber maintains
"has been democracy's most promising host."  
     In fact, "the huge leap from corporation to nation-state" has
already been taken, according to the January, 1997 _Wired_.  In a
comic-relief version of Barber's nightmare, Cuervo Tequila recently
purchased an eight-acre island in the West Indies and declared it
the Republic of Cuervo Gold.  Tongue firmly in cheek, the company
has petitioned the U.N. to recognize its real-life Margaritaville
as a legitimate island nation---unsuccessfully, so far.  
     Obviously, the creation of a corporate-sponsored Fantasy
Island where the ruling party's platform is "frozen or on the
rocks" is a publicity stunt worthy of Barnum.  But the secessionist
stirrings among those who've bought a piece of what Evan McKenzie
calls "Privatopia"---the gated, guarded enclaves a 1995 _New York
Times_ proclaimed "the fastest-growing residential communities in
the nation"---are no laughing matter.  Fed up with paying taxes to
local governments as well as the developer-controlled homeowners'
associations that are their own, private governments, residents
have begun to dream darkly about seceding from the towns beyond
their walls.  Figuratively, of course, they already have, as
McKenzie points out, abandoning the cross-class, multiethnic "flux
and ferment" of the city, with its "spontaneity and diversity and
its unpredictable rewards and hazards," for the Privatopia of
common-interest housing developments, "where master-planning,
homogeneous populations, and private governments offer the affluent
a chance to escape from urban reality."  In _Snow Crash_, Neal
Stephenson imagines a mordantly funny near future in which the
bunker-mentality middle-class has incarcerated itself in
Burbclaves, each "a city-state with its own constitution, a border,
laws, cops, everything."             
     It's a worrying vision, though a science-fictional one, for
now.  That thought was cold comfort during a recent flight, when my
eye landed on an ad for temporary "logo tattoos" in the in-flight
magazine.  In the photo, a smiling young woman bared her back to
reveal a riot of "Easy On, Easy Off" tattoos for Volvo, Gannett,
Thrifty, Toshiba, and the like.  Distracted by a familiar image
hovering in my peripheral vision, I glanced up.  A few seats away
sat an athletic-looking young woman, her windbreaker proudly
emblazoned with the American flag.  On the patch of blue where the
stars usually go was a white swoosh.

                              - 30 -

(c) 1997, Mark Dery, all rights reserved

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