“It's time, the anger is boiling over and we're sick of being taken advantage of and taken for granted! Occupy Wall Street! It is time to stop the greed and bring about real social change,” so states what sounds like a passionate tweet from a 19-year-old New York University undergrad skipping her sociology classes to camp out on Wall Street. Instead, this mini-manifesto is the product description for a preshrunk, durable, 100 percent cotton T-shirt from Café Press, which will help you “look cool without breaking the bank,” for a mere $28 (unless you want a 3XL, which will cost you three bucks more). And if a T-shirt isn't your thing, you can order “Occupy Wall Street” bags, mugs, water bottles, maternity wear, laptop skins, or performance dry T-shirts, in case you need to take a jog and express your distaste of greedy bankers, all the while hiding your sweaty armpits.
No, you, too, can Occupy Wall Street – all without leaving the comfort of your couch!
Within weeks, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) has mutated from an Adbusters culture-jamming tent-city, inspired by Egypt's Tahrir Square, to a brand monetized by a Wall Street-traded corporation, one responsible for memorializing Charlie Sheen's infamous rants on collared shirts and plastering GOP presidential hopeful Rick Perry on a boy's baseball jersey. It's not a revelation that “Occupy Wall Street” has been occupied by Wall Street so quickly: if communist revolutionary Che Guevara can launch a million unintentionally ironic T-shirts onto the backs of disaffected suburban revolutionaries, then why should this current anti-corporate movement be any less brandable?
OWS, as with all trends or social movements today, has been translated into a brand, which is the native language we speak: it is represented in a recognizable logo, pithy slogans and self-assured catchphrases and, ultimately, into a marketing package which can efficiently spread the spirit of the movement across social networks, network news, protest signs and T-shirts. Once distilled into an brand, OWS now reaches us; it speaks to us in terms we understand, as it seeks to occupy all available surfaces in our environment and, thus, our consciousness. The branding of “Occupy Wall Street” illustrates how deeply corporate modes of thought and ways of communicating occupy our lives, so thoroughly and completely that we are often unaware of it.
Ironically, the outpouring of grief over the recent death of Apple CEO Steve Jobs illuminates how deeply – even spiritually – invested we are in brands and, thus, corporations themselves. Even as protesters took to the streets to express outrage over corporate control of America, Jobs' devotees took to the streets to lament his death: they “flocked to Apple stores across the globes to leave flowers,” some even holding “candlelit vigils” using their iPhones, according to a BBC report. These events were not staged (as far as evidence suggests), but rather, were expressions of very real sadness and honor by those who felt a genuine loss – for a CEO they had never met, nor knew at all, except through his products. (And now, they can express their love through a durable, high-quality, pre-shrunk, 100 percent cotton tribute shirt – also through Café Press.)
Jobs was more than a CEO to Apple fanatics, and Apple more than a corporation, and its computer more than a product: rather, Apple is real community, even a sort of religion, to true believers. When attending an opening of a new Apple store in the UK, BBC Three's Alex Riley and Adam Boone saw what looked “more like an evangelical prayer meeting than a chance to buy a phone or a laptop.” And this is no mere hyperbole: an MRI scan of an Apple “fanatic's” brain suggested “that Apple was actually stimulating the same parts of the brain as religious imagery does in people of faith.”
Advertising guru Douglas Atkin, a self-professed Apple “cult member” and author of “The Culting of Brands: When Customers Become True Believers,” came to a similar finding in a series of focus groups in which he interviewed members of real religious cults – like the Hare Krishna – and compared their responses to Apple zealots and other brand devotees. “The evidence of my and other research,” Atkin concludes, “is that whether we like it or not, brands are being used as credible sources of community and meaning.”(1) Indeed, for a brand to be successful today, Atkin believes marketers can “learn from cults,” in order to create a community around their product – much like Apple. And thus, when Jobs died, for Apple “cult members,” it is as if their leader – their fellow community member – had passed.
For media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, author of “Life, Inc.,” the ascension of Jobs and other corporate leaders from businessman to spiritual leader speaks to how “corporatism has conquered the world”: the corporate logic has “internalized into our very being,” providing a “lens through which we view the world around us.”(2) Rushkoff believes the problem is not just that corporations control many of our affairs, but that we have taken these “corporate values as our own.” Indeed, when a child wants to express himself today, his selection of “sneaker brands says more about him than his creative-writing assignments do,” and his choice of shoe – or T-shirt – is “approached with greater care” than his story, Rushkoff explains.(3) And perhaps, more aptly, the choice of computer he writes on says more about him that what he actually writes on it.
Despite our professed hatred of corporations, we love brands, and nowhere is this corporate logic more prevalent than on Facebook, which turns users into brands of themselves. Rather than be a part of Jobs' cult of personality (he has over 1,000,000 fans on Facebook), we create a cult of our own, expressing ourselves in the same brand language as Apple; we speak in staged images, in carefully scripted slogans, in thoughtfully selected associations, seeking to create a powerful, catchy brand identity, from which we can cultivate a devoted, engaged community of friends, comrades and strangers alike – not unlike Apple, or any corporation.
And with over 130,000 “likes” on Facebook as of the time of publication, “Occupy Wall Street” has successfully used this corporate platform to launch a highly recognizable brand identity – just as Cheetos does to sell chips (with 600,000 “likes”), Apple to sell laptops and phones (with well over a million “likes”) and McDonalds to sell burgers (with over 10,000,000). And while the movement has been touted as truly anti-corporate, without a clear set of demands, without leadership, without a defined revolutionary product to sell, it still has a highly stylized brand image, one best represented by a “a very sexy” profile picture of a “ballerina posed atop the Charging Bull statute and riot police in the background,” as The Nation reports.
Adbusters, which sparked the “Occupy” movement (and sells a “Rebrand America” T-shirt to fund its nonprofit anti-advertising campaigns), appears aware of the limitations of using corporate tools to dismantle the corporations that create those tools (see also Rushkoff's excellent commentary on this subject). Senior Adbusters Editor Micah White sees danger in OWS being just another link to “like,” another brand prominently featured on our profile wall alongside Jobs and Cheetos: “What better way to cripple the revolutionary potential of a whole generation than to embed the logic of the marketplace within the very tools that would-be revolutionaries use?”
However, it is not just our tools which have been embedded with the “logic of the marketplace”; the corporate logic is branded not only in the Mac I write this essay on now; nor Facebook on which it will be shared, liked (or disliked); nor the vast infrastructure of corporate satellites and cables which permit these words to reach your screen: no, corporations occupy our culture, our identities and. most of all, our minds.
How do we revolt against ourselves?
1. Rushkoff, Douglas. “Life, Inc: How Corporatism Conquered the World and How We Can Take it Back,” New York, New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks. 2011. Pg. 119.
2. Rushkoff, page. xxii.
3. Rushkoff, page 20.