— By Alexander Sinn, Tribune community columnist
SINN: Winter Olympics: a showcase of brand over substance
Feb 25, 2014
The commercial break has become its own stirring spectacle. Corporations, from technology to automotive to fast food, have taken advantage of the average spectator in dramatic form this year, drawing parallels between themselves and the world’s superior pool of athletes.
Branding is not a new phenomenon. Its pervasiveness in media has held the public hostage for over half of a century. But alarmingly, the corporate world’s ploy to render itself the pulse of the planet has been viewed by a listless public that is hardly aware of its implications.
As much as corporations have recently toted the spirit of competition, this façade is laced with irony. Our meek stature against the looming shadow of giants like Nike, Microsoft and McDonald’s has been one of submissiveness under the hex of smartly deployed advertising dollars.
But wipe that glimmer from the corner of your eye, turn off the tube and take a moment to reimagine a world of quality content without the sheen of iconicity. What would that world look like?
In her 1999 international bestseller titled “No Logo,” Naomi Klein made a strong case against the “hollowing out” of corporations and their selling of brands rather than products. She explained how companies reinvest massive amounts of revenue not into creating better products for their loyal consumers, but instead on selling ideas, pushing their brands across all borders on the tide of globalization.
And here it remains in the 21st century, superficially superimposed upon cultural events like the Super Bowl and the Olympics.
While exploiting the modern world with brilliant imagery, corporations commit and ignore human rights violations in the poor communities of Third World countries where they operate, reinvesting savings into the brand.
Nike is perhaps the most identifiable culprit on this front. Nike does business with Daewoo International, a goliath forced-labor cotton processor in Uzbekistan. Nike Corp. has defended Daewoo’s practices in recent years in the wake of Daewoo employees being beaten and killed by Uzbek law enforcement.
That is one reality — distant, vague and unrecognizable. Then there is ours.
With their recent Olympics campaign, Nike has released the slogan “Find your greatness” — pushing their vision that “greatness is for all,” as dubbed in an epic commercial depicting athletes around the world competing on sandlot-level stages, from backyards to inner-city ball courts. It deploys an ethos that celebrates ethnicity and champions Nike as a human rights advocate. It piggybacks on the image Nike has consistently reimagined since its nascence, encompassed in a little swoosh sewn into ankle socks, tennis shoes and the walls that wrap around sports arenas.
Nike is just one cog. Like all the others, it is playing the game.
Old Spice body spray is not a fragrance, it is world peace. A bite into a McDonald’s chicken nugget is a bite into victory. Coca-Cola is the drink of patriotism and cultural pride. You are a champion, and the corporate world wants you to know it. Citi Bank does not want you to feel that “Olympic athletes are just like the rest of us,” it wants you to feel that City Bank is just like the rest of us.
By bonding their logos with the images of world champions, the Olympic brand itself is lathered in contraptions that are merely persuasive fantasy.
Is this acceptable?
In “No Logo,” Klein captured the small pockets of protest that arose in 1990s Seattle, a very real movement that exists to this day, but is losing its battle. The book is considered by many to be a “movement bible,” but in the rise and subsidence of Occupy Wall Street, it seems that such kinds of social movement cannot topple what the corporations can afford — everything they want.
Klein said in an interview about her book, “You cannot separate economics from social and environmental context.” The corporations know this, and so they have owned these elements, stamping them and clambering upon them to their own greatness.
The Olympics is a showcase of what is going on all the time. Industry has pulled a veil over the planet as thin as freshly fallen snow, but the people are not hitting the slopes on this wide-ranging issue.
In the shadows, companies like Nike go against everything they supposedly stand for. They try to convey a sense of justice to the world, but the question is: When will we do the same?