After perusing an article in the Economist recently, but not reading it, a humorously left-wing friend of mine took off on one of his typical "Naomi Klein is God" rants. This led me to do a little mini-investigation into the world of the anti-brand folk (a particularly oddball subset of the already oddball anti-globalization folk). In sum, these people accuse large "multinationals" (cue shrieking violins) of using brands to deprive consumers of choice, of variety. They paint a picture of these companies as brainwashers, bullies, crushers of mom 'n' pop operations. Although I could easily rant on about hippies in general, I'll concentrate on the brand issue in this little article.
Anti-Nike folks (to pick a random example) point in horror at the $150-plus price tags of products that cost a few bucks to manufacture. They claim that this massive profit margin has somehow been extorted out of the consumer by the magical brainwashing capabilities of advertising. The suburb kid who is forced to buy them is a victim, robbed of his hard-earned money by the Men In Suits who smoke fine cigars while he sweats away at McDonalds to pay for them.
The question to pose now is - Who forced the transaction? The answer is, as anyone who's taken any economics would tell you, no one. It's a basic principle of free-market economies that people only buy what they want to buy at the price they are willing to pay. If some 17-year Kanata-ite is willing to work the equivalent of 20 hours for a pair of fashionable shoes, he's not a victim. He's an idiot. And in a free society, we have
a) The right to be idiots
b) The right to make money off idiots
If the anti-branders have such an antipathy toward brands, they have an easy choice to make: If you don't like a brand, for whatever reason, be it cost, labour practices, whatever, Don't Buy It. They then complain "But that doesn't do anything, because not enough people are willing to do that", and dig themselves into an inescapable hole. They've just admitted that they don't represent the majority. The terrifying fact that they don't want to admit is that there are kids out there who pay 60$ for Gap sweatshirts, and like it. Their enemy isn't the businessman on Bay St, it's the teenager on Elm St.
As for the "evils" of advertising, nothing could be further from the truth. If a bus panel ad makes for more affordable public transit, bring it on. They claim that ads 'make you buy stuff you don't want to buy' (spot the contradiction). I see tons of ads every day. What new clothing items have I bought in the past year? 2 pair of unbranded work pants at Mark's Work Wearhouse, some cheap socks and an Asics T-shirt (cost: 12$) because it was cool. By the antibranders' logic, I should have a closet full of Gap khakis right now.
Basically, there is no sound argument against brands. They provide a stamp that represents the qualities of the product (be they positive or negative), and as long as people are willing to pay for them, they're worth it - by definition, not by some "obscure theory", as anti-globalists say to dismiss economics. You may not understand the guy who pays 20 bucks for a pound of Starbucks coffee, but you don't have to. The important thing is that he does, and he's the one forking out the cash.