Kicking against the system
With the launch of the Black Spot sneaker, anti-globalisation activists are entering the sports-shoe business. Their mission: to beat Nike at its own game. Can they succeed without betraying their radical ideals? Iain Aitch reports
Monday 15 December 2003
The journal of choice for the anti-globalisation movement, Adbusters, has been sniping at the corporate world since way back in the Eighties. On its pages you'll find subtly defaced versions of ads for well-known brands and photographs of vandalised billboards.
But the publication has now gone one step further, moving from words and pictures to a far more direct form of confrontation. Kalle Lasn, Adbusters' founder and a man usually more at home in sandals than trainers, says his magazine's plan is to take on the global sportswear giant Nike at its own game by manufacturing a sneaker to rival one of the corporation's most popular brands.
"We thought, "What the hell, let's cut into [Nike chief executive] Phil Knight's market share," he says. "Let's launch a brand of our own, make that brand cooler than Nike and escalate the cat-and-mouse game that the activist community has been playing with Knight over the last 10 years."
Lasn seems serious, and not a little personal, about sticking it to Knight, as the first advertisement for the soon-to-be-launched Adbusters shoe makes clear. Dubbed "the Black Spot sneaker" and "the unswoosher", the advert claims that the shoe is "designed for only one thing: kicking Phil's ass". To ram the point home, the design shows something that looks a dead ringer for the Nike-owned Converse Chuck Taylor shoe.
"We realised that the smartest strategic move is to choose something we like that is already out there, that we know that we can get a factory to give us," Lasn says. "And when we heard that Nike had actually purchased Converse, we decided to come up with a replica of the Converse. All we are doing is putting our own brand on it."
The (anti-) branding in question will consist of a simple large black spot where the Nike swoosh or the Converse logo would usually be. Its use follows a series of protests against brands, encouraged by Adbusters, whereby black spots have been stickered or painted over Nike, Gap and Starbucks logos. Lasn believes that the launch of the shoe will give publicity to this campaign, as well as providing activists with an ethically-produced aid to making a run for it should they be caught in the act.
"It was inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson," Lasn says. "If you give someone the black spot, it is the kiss of death; somebody presses this little piece of paper in your palm and you realise that you are destined to die. We are black-spotting Phil Knight's logo. I think that if we are successful with our sneaker, other people will repeat the experiment against other corporations. And if we can prove that it works it will be a prototype to be used in other industries and could well be a movement that leads capitalism into that bottom-up direction."
Lasn's decision to target Converse is best understood by examining the history of this iconic brand. From James Dean through The Ramones to Kurt Cobain and the anti-globalisation protesters, the Converse basketball shoe (and boot) has long been the default footwear for rebels with or without a cause. With its simple styling, canvas uppers and low price, the shoe passed on from rockers and hippies to punks and skaters, along the way becoming the trainer you wore if you were conscientiously shunning the likes of Nike and Adidas. One thing fashion-magazine stylists and anti-fashion anarchists agreed on was that Converse sneakers were cool.
But then the brand was hoovered up by the Nike empire. Keen to cash in on Converse's retro cool and its historic association with basketball, which stretches back to the 1920s, Nike bought the brand in July for a reported $305m (£175m). Within hours of the announcement, activist message-boards and websites were vowing boycotts. But many were also asking: "What do we wear now?" Since Converse hit financial trouble in 2001, production of the shoes had been outsourced from North Carolina to Asia, although that fact seemed to have escaped most activists. There was, however, a real sense of betrayal about this deal. Not since Unilever's acquisition of Ben & Jerry's ice cream had the good guys so instantly become the bad guys.
Lasn is confident that hordes of disaffected Converse-wearers will now switch allegiance to his alternative footwear. But, in spite of pledges that production will be ethically and environmentally sound, and assurances that the profits will largely be ploughed back into activism, the idea of Adbusters getting into brand creation and shoe sales has not gone down well with some readers. The fact that the Black Spot's launch this spring will be heralded by a costly campaign of full-page ads in The New York Times as well as billboards and slots on CNN has been the final straw for some, and activist websites have seen heated debate, accusations of "selling out" and stories of cancelled magazine subscriptions.
Many argue that an ethical shoe selling for $45 is better than those produced by the major brands or the unbranded varieties from street markets. But the idea of a magazine supposedly opposed to advertising getting into bed with the admen to the tune of at least $250,000 has been a stumbling block. There is also the fact that the Black Spot "brand" has, so far, been built by campaigners taking direct action against billboards and storefronts, so putting it on a shoe is somehow diluting its power.
One activist who thinks the Black Spot sneaker may not be such a bad idea is Mick Duncan of the anti-sweatshop group No Sweat (who, coincidentally, is wearing Converses when I speak to him). "Things like that are good at raising the issue," he says. "Because if companies like Gap and Nike say, 'How can we improve standards?' and small companies like Adbusters can do that, then there is no reason why companies with millions of dollars can't do the same."
Lucy Michaels of the campaign group Corporate Watch has more mixed feelings. She is surprised that the shoe is being launched using a marketing strategy based on Adbusters' reputation among activists. "While the anti-swoosh marketing idea is genius, it's still a marketing idea to make us choose one product over another," she says. "We can choose the red shoe or the blue shoe or the fairly-traded shoe. If we really want to make the world a fairer place and end exploitation, we have to question the underlying structure by which we produce and consume."
But staff at Adbusters seem unaffected by the sceptics and the naysayers. Lasn, citing the magazine's anarchist roots, says that pleasing readers or doing what is expected of him is never what it has been about, even going so far as suggesting that if his readers don't like it, they can "go and read another book by Naomi Klein".
"We have had a bunch of people phoning us up or e-mailing and saying, 'What the hell do you think you are doing? I believed in you guys and you seem to be selling out'," Lasn says. "But even when we started more than 10 years ago, we were an organisation that didn't like the political left and were disillusioned with feminism and even environmentalism and felt that these old movements had peaked and lost their spark. This is why we launched this movement of culture jamming, and now we feel that all the Naomi Kleins and the old lefties who were analysing and talking - they are actually doing fuck all. They are just whining and talking. Here is a chance for us to come up with a brand that empowers people, that cuts into Nike's share, something more than just a pesky irritation for a guy like Phil Knight." (So far, about 2,000 orders have been received for the shoes, which amounts to $90,000 in pre-sales.)
But whether Lasn has the full support of the anti-globalisation movement or not, a question mark remains as to whether he can actually make a go of his new career as shoe salesman. To dent Nike's market share and raise enough revenue for yet more advertising, the Black Spot sneaker will need (excuse the expression) to hit the floor running. It will then need to keep running if Lasn's dreams of funding advertising campaigns with politics to the fore and the shoes as an afterthought are to come to fruition. The initial run of 10,000 pairs of shoes planned for early next year will only really pay for set-up costs. Lasn will need to sell hundreds of thousands if he is to even to start to worry Nike, and that means it will need to become something more than merely a refusenik shoe. It will need to become accepted as stylish, even fashionable.
Peter Shaw, a director of the brand consultants Corporate Edge, feels that Lasn may have something of a battle on his hands if he is to turn Black Spot into a successful brand, saying that it is one thing for people to want to wear a protest T-shirt and another for them to apply the same thinking to their feet.
"I think it is perfectly plausible for Adbusters to do that, but if you create a brand purely on the basis of an agenda it is going to have a fairly limited audience," he says. "There are large numbers of protesters against the World Trade Organisation, but in terms of purchases of footwear it is a tiny minority.
"The real issue here will be whether the shoe is any good. Whatever you say about image and style and the emotive reasons to buy a brand, if the brand really doesn't deliver in quality, then people won't buy again. That is stretched in fashion, but you still wouldn't buy an Armani suit if it was useless quality."
Lasn assures me that the Black Spot will be of the highest quality, though it will obviously require more than just that for the project to take a healthy bite out Nike's share of the sportswear market, which brought the company $10.7bn in income last year. The shoe may be designed to "kick Phil's ass", but Lasn will have to take a long hike up the sales ladder before he can even take a decent swing at his enemy's backside. And, with the razor-sharp business acumen and amount of advertising that will need, who's to say that the Black Spot billboards themselves won't become the target of activists weilding spray-paint and logo-obliterating stickers?
To pre-order the Black Spot sneaker, visit www.blackspotsneaker.org
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