Blackspots and the Ironies of Consumer Culture Participation

Earth-friendly, anti-sweatshop, cruelty-free and pro-grassroots, Blackspots are the only rough-and-ready shoes designed to give toxic megacorporations what they truly need most: a swift kick in the brand.”

But even Adbusters, that perpetually hysterical, vehemently anticapitalist, unequivocally anti-corporate publisher of $8 magazines, couldn’t escape when the sneaker company it formed in the “antipreneural” spirit appeared on the radar screen of what one might suppose to be the enemy: a cutting-edge fashion consulting firm.

Since then, the company’s “antibrand” Blackspot shoes and its two exhaustively socially responsible models have been ridiculed in business-friendly Forbes and meditated upon by the New York Times Magazine, while doubtless appearing on a great many more radar screens in the process.

Depending on whom you believe, Blackspots could use the help. (Forbes calls its 20,000 total sales “dismal,” while the Times declares them “a pretty good showing, considering the underlying challenge: those most sympathetic to the mission might also be those most hostile to the idea of a brand as an antidote to the ills of consumer culture.”)

While the Forbes story smugly concludes that Adbusters’ nemeses like Nike aren’t quaking in their Zoom Kobes yet, it misses the significance of the very development it set out to report. Outlaw Consulting, the vigilante fashion consultant on whose 12 hottest urban brands list the Blackspot sneaker appeared, reports to Phil Knight’s famously sinister behemoth, along with other big guns like Nordstrom and eBay. Its Web site offers a prophecy that Blackspot ridiculers might want to take in for a second: “Trendsetters are a telescope to the mainstream’s future mind set.”

Currently the company offers two different shoes: A $65 Chuck Taylorish hemp sneaker and a $95 hemp/veggie-leather boot, both designed by John Fluevog, and both made in a worker-friendly, partially unionized shop in an old shoemaking region of Portugal. They’re sold for a profit, which the company says it plans to use for both provocative television advertisements on CNN and MTV, and for the creation of anti-corporate firms in other industries.

Naturally, Adbusters bills its toe-deep plunge into the fashion market as a revolutionary act: “This is your chance to unswoosh Nike’s tired old swoosh! A new kind of cool!”

In this standoff, both the bourgeois and its executioners have it wrong. If the Blackspot shoes ever reach a level of popularity that inclines Knight’s sweatshop managers to pay mind (more than they apparently already do), that success will have been achieved through essentially the same mechanisms of brand creation employed by the most despised corporation.

Instead of a logo, the Blackspot shoes (ironically) display a plain white circle, a symbolic erasure of the corporate sign. (The Unswooshers, as the boot-type models are called, also feature a red dot on the toe “for kicking Knight’s ass.”)

But blank as it may be, a white circle is still a brand logo, and a marketing strategy built on a symbol and a message (whatever it be) is, functionally speaking, about as revolutionary as a Coca-Cola T-shirt.

Brands, after all, are just easily consumable ideologies. Their symbolic logos are marketed next to values, identities and philosophies designed to appeal to very specific consumer demographics. The products they market are often completely unrelated to one another, so the brand (and its logo) associates them with an ideology that consumers have been trained (by ads, etc.) to recognize. But there’s nothing inherently sinister about brands — in fact they’re incredibly useful, which is why everyone, including nonprofit groups and universities, try to develop them.

So Blackspot is a brand similar to any other, but with an ideology based on principles of social justice and responsibility rather than profit-making and domination. One aspect of the effort is truly progressive. By participating in the global fashion market, Adbusters acknowledges a reality that lefty radicals have long seemed scared to face: The only way to exert influence in the system of global capitalism is to change its course from the inside, to harness the magnificent ability of free markets to effect massive change and get them to change things for the better. If Blackspot’s success makes it severely uncool to be unfamiliar with the working conditions of the person who made your shoes, if it instilled social responsibility as a cornerstone of postmodern hipness, that would be changing things for the better.

Yet Adbusters and Blackspot seem too busy constructing an absolutely “anti-corporate” ideology of cool to realize that they’re also constructing a corporation and a brand — one with mindfucking advertisements as provocative and powerful as those of Coke or McDonalds (see epigraph). Adbusters apparently hasn’t realized that its main struggle should not be against branding as a marketing strategy, but rather the uncritical consumption of any brand ideology by the consumer.

This is the challenge identified by the Times with the remark that “those most sympathetic to the mission might also be those most hostile to the idea of a brand as an antidote to the ills of consumer culture,” except the magazine got it backwards. The biggest trouble for the company will be ensuring that it doesn’t become just another fashionably rebellious label bought without thought when the less-than-revolutionary masses get turned on.

Figuring out how to be a successful consumer product without shrinking into meaninglessness like Che Guevara T-shirts and Chuck Taylors is a revolution for which Blackspot currently lacks sufficient self-awareness. It’s great to tout the health and happiness of one’s workers, but when those life values get translated into a manipulative sales pitch — fight the man — how are the company’s methods any more progressive than Coke’s “Real” campaign or McDonalds’ “I’m Lovin’ It”?

A truly revolutionary brand — and such a thing is possible — would empower the consumer to always question the perpetually absolutist ideologies sold along with brands, and also produce its goods in a socially responsible manner. Kicking “toxic megacorporations in the brand,” while at the same time selling a competing one, may fashionize nicely made goods, but it’s an ideology that can’t stand up against the vast sponge of consumer desire when, inevitably, it gets sucked in.