Date: Fri, 25 Apr 1997 06:16:03 +0200
From: Mark Dery


Mark Dery

"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 identity.

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 image."

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.