11 September 2006

Nike Vs Minor Threat: Is Cultural Imperialsim a Major Threat?

Just unloaded another 20 copies of Foulweather #1 at Microcosm Publishing. Slowly, my basement is being rid of zines. Thanks again for the support!

The story Adbusters did on Nike's infiltration of skateboarding is being hotly discussed in their letters pages. I'd jut like to say once again that Foulweather covered it first and this version was written by a skateboarder and not a journo. Therefore I decided to post the whole damn thing. I know not eveyone likes to read long articles online, if that is the case, buy a copy of the zine...

Even better, read them both and let me know how they compare. Here is the Adbusters' version
and here is mine:

nike Vs minor threat: is cultural imperialism a major threat?
by Pete Lewis

The commodification of youth/alternative/underground culture is nothing new. I am no expert on consumer culture or the history of the Consumer Society but it seems that this phenomenon can be largely traced back to the post war era. Chuck D would have us believe that Elvis epitomises the cashing in of a cutting edge cultural phenomenon by the way in which he took black people’s music, made it his own and sold it to the masses. Ever since Elvis, Rock n’ Roll has had to continuously re-invent itself as it is repeatedly co-opted into ‘mainstream’ culture. Each subsequent generation has, in one form or another, created a new subculture partly in reaction to the diluted pap that they inherited only to have it turned into a commodity again.
From Rock n’ Roll to Reggae to Punk to Hip Hop and even skateboarding, some entrepreneurial type has always found a way to make a few quid out of fringe subcultures or an individual’s creative genius. As Joe Strummer said there has always been a way to ‘turn rebellion into money.’
In this day and age, it seems that the time span from creation to commodification is less than it has ever been before. Companies such as Nike, seek out cutting edge subcultures and take what they want from them to present (i.e. advertise) their products as if they, the mega-corp, are ingrained in said subculture themselves. Efforts are also made to try and infiltrate said subcultures and convince the participants that the mega-brand is as much a part of the culture as the authentic participants are. Companies such as Nike are no longer selling a product, they are selling an image and they understand that they have to move as fast as youth subcultures do, to keep up with their amorphous nature. It should be no surprise that it is someone’s full time job to study youth subcultures and figure out how to infiltrate them, so the product they represent can gain a footing before the subculture concerned burns itself out or transforms into something new.
Not only are mega-brands catching up to alternative subcultures quicker than ever before, they are now trying to actively seize control over them. The youth don’t even get a chance to work out what is genuine before what was genuine has been infiltrated, diluted, commodified and co-opted. Maybe, soon mega-brands will no longer have to try and sell themselves to a marketable culture, they will actually be The Culture. Ian Svenonius, most notably the singer of The Nation of Ulysses, in his essay, Cool in the Cold War , takes things a step further. He posits that cutting edge post war subcultures, from the Beat Poets to the Abstract Expressionists to Rock music, were funded (or at least co-opted) by the powers that be in the US, to sell the concept of ‘America.’ The ultimate goal being: to globally promote American Capitalistic values through cultural imperialism. Svenonius sites the CIA funding of Jackson Pollock as a prime example. The theory was that Pollock’s painting style was apolitical, free and unstructured, instant and active, pro-individual and anti-intellectual, thus favouring capitalism over the Soviet alternative. Nowadays, there is no need for CIA intervention as multi-national mega-brands are creating a global mega consumer culture that ensures US cultural imperialism is still rife. So while the US may take hell from the rest of the world for its invasion and occupation of Iraq, everyone is largely still keen to ‘consume America.’
Cultural imperialism is nothing new. Britain became America’s 51st state when thousands of American GIs introduced Jazz and chewing gum to British youth during WWII. Yet things are no longer that innocent. Nike, MacDonald’s, Star Wars and so on ensure that a little piece of America is purchased in all corners of the globe. Even in Arab nations that are vehemently opposed to the US occupation of Iraq and the US support of Israel, people will still consume a burger at the local MacD’s while wearing Levi jeans and Converse sneaks. This cultural colonialization inevitably plays some role in winning people over to the American ‘way of life’ or the American way of freedom, i.e. freedom to consume and free enterprise at all costs. While MacDs and Levi are selling ‘America’ to the Middle East, other mega brands are fighting a perhaps, more challenging battle on the home front. For if it isn’t cool in America, how are they going to sell it elsewhere?
Culture is a continuously changing phenomenon and these global mega brands have to continually strive to remain on the cutting edge, just ahead of it, or better yet, create ‘culture’ itself.
This is no better illustrated than by Nike’s (the epitome of the global mega brand) involvement with skateboarding (a long time symbol of cutting edge youth culture.) Nike’s involvement in skateboarding is not recent. In the 1970s/80s lots of skateboarders were sporting Air Jordan’s. Of Course Nike didn’t care in those days as they were yet to understand this potential market. Then, in the 1990s lots of specific skate shoe manufactures started sprouting up and skate shoes became fashionable far beyond the esoteric culture of skateboarding and Nike wanted in. At that time, Nike were essentially booed out of the culture by skateboarders who are traditionally sceptical of outsiders trying to cash in on their scene. The most notable anti-Nike campaign was conducted by Consolidated Skateboards, a rootsy company from Santa Cruz California, who championed the traditional DIY and independent ethic of skateboarding. For a few years Nike had no choice but to back off. Then over the last five years or so the skate ‘industry’ exploded like never before.
Skate shoes are now considered the most profitable sector of the skateboarding industry. Any professional skateboarder worth his/her salt has their own pro shoe and kids go through a pair of shoes every few weeks. Nike persevered by hiring skateboarders themselves and giving them free reign over image development and which pro skaters the company should sponsor to promote this image. As a result, Nike finally forged their way into skate culture by assembling a team of very credible skateboarders who don’t just have the skate skills but are individuals with unique skate and fashion styles. Undisputedly, Nike, also makes some pretty damn good shoes to ride a skateboard in. For Nike, making exceptional quality shoes is the easy part. After all, this is not about selling quality footwear it is about selling an image.
While skateboarders remain wary of non-skateboarders trying to influence their industry and culture, Nike has finally won many skateboarders over. This was made possible by several factors aside from Nike’s internal efforts to create a sellable image. Primarily, kateboarders are less politically minded than they used to be in the 1980s; the punk rock ethic has all but vanished. While some skaters are still claiming punk, like what passes for punk these days, it is nothing more than an image and genre of mostly shit music. Thus the politics, DIY pride and fervent independent nature of skate culture are now only evident in fringe subcultures of skateboarding.
Nike is now in a position where they have fully infiltrated skateboarding. They have ads in all the mainstream magazines and even in a few of the more ‘underground’ ones. They use art and graphic design influenced by and created by skaters who know what their own kind wants to see. They have succeeded in creating a ‘hardcore’ and ‘down with the scene’ image through their ‘Nike SB (SkateBoard)’ line. They make a point of selling some of their Nike SBs solely to skate shops, as if to say their product is for skaters only and not for mass-consumption. The reality is, they are using skateboarding’s appeal and credibility to sell their product to the masses. Nike is trying to steer skateboard culture in the direction it wants; to use it as an advertising vehicle for its product.
In June of 2005 Nike created a controversial poster/flyer to advertise an East Coast skateboarding tour that ended in Washington DC . The flyer featured an image of a shaven head skateboarder sitting on some stairs, his head resting in his arms with the words ‘Major Threat’ running down the side. This image was a direct rip off of a Minor Threat record cover, only Ian MacKaye’s (lead singer of Minor Threat) combat boots were replaced with a pair of Nikes.
Skateboarders have been ripping off and altering graphics, logos and art from mainstream culture in the name of anarchic subversion since day one. Apparently, the Nike SB people (who supposedly are all skaters themselves) thought they were just continuing this tradition. Yet, it backfired. Minor Threat, Dischord records and Ian Mackaye (a long time skater and fan of skateboarding), have long been symbols of the die-hard DIY ethic of punk. Ian MacKaye, particularly in relation to his more popular band Fugazi, has been approached time and time again by major record labels to sell his music. He remains the ultimate personification of ‘indie.’
Skateboarders have always respected anti-corporate efforts such as Mackaye’s, as they also have tried to hang on to control of their own industry. More importantly, many skateboarders have been hugely influenced by the record that bears the cover that Nike attempted to ‘subvert.’ While the skateboard industry is being increasingly taken over by the likes of Nike, inevitably quelling the ardent independent nature of the culture, this does not mean that this particular Nike advertising campaign was universally tolerated.
It seems as though Nike were overly confident in their assumption that they were integrated into skate culture to the point that they could get away with such a stunt. Perhaps, a small scale skater owned company probably could have gotten away with it and people would have seen the humour and irony in the subversion of 1980s punk symbol but even in this day and age Nike are still unable to achieve the credibility of a small skater-run business. Did Nike really think they had built up enough credibility to come across as if they were a group of dirty skaters cutting and pasting their graphics in the basement?
Nike was forced to pull the ad and issue an apology to Minor Threat and Dischord Records. Not legally but because there was enough of an outcry and both the skate and punk communities that Nike realized all they had gained in recent years was now in jeopardy. By the fast response and the snivelling tone of their apology one can see how Nike is aware of the delicate nature of its role in skate culture. They know they are going to have to try and pull off ad campaigns like this in the future if they want to hold onto their appeal and credibility within skate culture but now they have to accept that the line they walk is very thin. For even the fifteen year old skateboarder who knows little of the DIY punk ethic of the 1980s understands that a mega brand such as Nike is exploiting something that ‘skateboarding’ holds sacred.
Nike is using skateboarding’s outlaw, underground, individualistic, subversive nature to promote itself. The ultimate irony is that in doing so, Nike is killing skateboarding or at least those components of the culture. As skateboarding becomes increasingly popular and more and more people try and assume the lifestyle by buying the shoes, skateboarding looses its dynamic edge. It has happened before and it will happen again. Many people don’t agree. Tony Hawk for one thinks skateboarding won’t die out like it has in the past. His vision is of mainstream acceptance and Olympic participation but look at him. Even with his unquestionably impressive skate skills he is now a joke within the skate community, largely due to his endorsement of ridiculous products such as Bagel Bites. Skateboarding will die soon and perhaps I should be thanking Nike for their assistance in this process. For, when skateboarding lurks underground, dirty, illegal and unwanted that is when the resourcefulness and creative aspects of the culture truly thrive.
Ian Svenonious concludes his essay Cool in a Cold War by saying that in order for art or music or culture to truly thrive the concept of ‘cool’ must be eradicated. “‘Cool’ inhibits expression and makes art suck.” Skateboarding has been coomodified by its ‘cool’ appeal. Skateboarding can now sell ‘America’ around the world. Images of Tony Hawk spinning 900s on ‘extreme sports’ channels that are broadcast via satellite into Iran, China and Pakistan have made it a little bit easier for the idea of ‘America’ to be accepted by cultures that have many reasons to hate it. You might think I’m exaggerating but remember Time Magazine was saying the same thing when they documented CIA funding of the Abstract Expressionists.
All this can only bring us to conclude that while Ian MacKaye’s, skateboarding’s and punk’s collective ‘Fuck You’ to the Nike ‘Major Threat’ ad campaign seems pretty insignificant, there are some potentially far reaching implications to the whole saga. By creating your own scene, supporting those who do the same and fighting the commodification of that which you hold dear to your heart, you are not only stalling the creation of a boring global monoculture, you are withholding a vehicle in which the captains of industry are trying to sell ‘America’ to the world. In turn, you are doing your bit to fight cultural imperialism and thus imperialism in general. Of course you may just want America to stomp all over the planet in a limited edition pair of Nike Dunks.