The Common Good
September-October 2000

Branded for Life

by Tom Sine | September-October 2000

21st Century global marketers are more seductive than ever before. And they want your kids.

"The battle in Seattle" stirred worldwide concern about the impact of the new global economy on our poorest neighbors and the environment. An international coalition of environmentalists, labor union leaders, citizen activists, and church leaders has come together (with the help of the Internet) to challenge the agendas of the World Trade Organization.

But many peace and justice Christians who are a part of this new coalition are still focused on the issues of the 1970s and ’80s. In the ’90s we moved into a new neighborhood, and few in the church seemed to have noticed.

When the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union imploded, virtually every nation on earth joined the free-market race to the top. Overnight we have become a part of a one-world economic order. This global boom economy raises issues regarding its impact on workers, sweatshops, and escalating environmental damage, but also a host of new issues that will require imaginative responses.

Money Central. A review of our history books reminds us of the dangers we have faced from those intent on political centralization. But we have never been a part of a global economic order before. In economic centralization, domination is the name of the game. As Michael Quinlan, chairman of the board of McDonald’s, declares, "I am open to any course that helps McDonald’s dominate every market."

Through aggressive expansion and mergers, transnational corporations are achieving domination of their global markets. Power is concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer global corporations as these behemoths mate and merge. This is likely to seriously undercut the future of representational government.

The consolidation of corporate power is of greatest concern in the domination of media and information systems. Alle Lasn, in an article titled "Communications Cartel," wrote that the flow of information worldwide is controlled by an ever-shrinking number of transnational media corporations led by seven giants: Time Warner, Disney, TCI, Bertelsmann, General Electric, Viacom, and Rupert Murdoch. "Between them," says Lasn, "these media giants have taken over the whole global mindscape."

In 1997, a landmark accord that effectively ended state control of communications and media was signed by 60 countries under the auspices of the WTO. This opened up the $600 billion global telecommunications market to all comers. MCI’s president Gerald Taylor predicted, "There’s probably going to be only four to six global gangs...as this sorts out." What will be the consequences of four to six transnational media giants dominating the telecommunications field? What is likely to be the consequences for those who want to express or access dissenting views?

Some point out that we will have full freedom of communications on the Internet. Others aren’t so sure. Jeff Mallett of Yahoo warns that because there is so much money at stake, the media giants are likely also to turn their attention to the Net. They will be seriously tempted to become the cyberspace gatekeepers, dictating the terms of access and making dissenting viewpoints harder to find. It could also undercut the new global activism that’s using the Net to give corporate giants such headaches.

a homogenized global village. How are the architects of the world economic order using media to alter the human landscape? Two pentecostal pastors from the Dominican Republic came to me after I spoke to the World Evangelical Fellowship about the growing influence of globalization. They told me they had lost their entire youth group in five years time. Coincidentally, MTV had come to their country over the same five years, along with other manifestations of American pop media.

In the last seven years, a borderless youth culture has emerged. The uniform is Levi’s. The drink is Coke. And they are all hard-wired to the same pop media. Outside the United States this phenomena is seen not only as a product of globalization, but as a new form of American colonization. The world is beginning to look like an American strip mall, complete with KFC, Pizza Hut, and the Golden Arches.

The editors of Vanity Fair wrote: "The power of America...has moved from its role as military-industrial complex to a new supremacy as the world’s entertainment-information superpower." Not surprising, MTV is one of the most effective vehicles for galvanizing the young into this global youth culture.

In Naomi Klein’s provocative new book No Logo, she cites the New World Teen Study, which found that the single most significant factor contributing to the shared taste of the middle-class teens it surveyed was TV—in particular MTV, which 85 percent of them watch every day. "The more viewers there are to absorb MTV’s vision," she says, "the more homogeneous a market its advertisers have to sell their products."

The world’s youth are targeted for a very simple reason—they are more amenable to the values of the global shopping mall than their parents’ generation. While adults often still prefer culturally specific customs, young people, according to economist Joseph Quinlan, "prefer Coke to tea, Nike to sandals, Chicken McNuggets to rice, [and] credit cards to cash."

McWorld’s marketers are not just interested in selling products to the global youth. They are intent on changing their values so they will all want to buy the same products. Whether we recognize it or not, people of faith are in a worldwide contest for the hearts and minds of the next generation.

the branding of american youth. When I was a teen-ager back in the ’50s, we listened each week to a few hours of music that our parents really hated (early rock and roll). We watched TV occasionally. We went to a movie on Friday night.

A recent report states that American youth are online 37.5 hours each week—TV, MTV, video games, and the Internet.

Think about it. What possible impact is an hour of Sunday school each week likely to have against 37.5 hours online? Are the young still deriving their sense of values, identity, and spirituality from home, church, and community, or has their formation been taken over by the marketers of McWorld?

In No Logo, Klein reveals that the global economic architects are not just trying to create more ardent consumers to keep the boom economy booming. Corporations like Nike have created a myth powerful enough to infuse meaning into raw objects—such as tennis shoes. By identifying with deeply cherished parts of a culture, corporate brands take on a transcendent quality. They have transformed themselves from marketers of products to "meaning brokers." They no longer just sell goods, but a way of life.

"A pair of $150 Air Jordans," says Klein, "are not just a shoe but a kind of talisman with which poor kids can run out of the ghetto and better their lives. Nike’s magic slippers will help them fly just like it helped Michael Jordan fly." American young aren’t just buying products, they are being branded for life.

the mighty mustard seed. In scripture we read about a God with a different agenda for creation. McWorld’s agenda begins with domination, the assertion of power, and the rapid centralization of the global economy. God’s agenda begins with the mustard seed.

The destination of McWorld’s economic engineering is a global shopping mall where our identity, our common humanity, and even our spirituality are derived from our consumerism. The destination of the mustard seed conspiracy is a vast international homecoming where the blind see, justice comes to the poor, and shalom to the nations.

In the ’70s there was a strong emphasis on lifestyle change that encouraged Christians to live a scaled-down version of the American dream. If we hope to contend with the seductions of McWorld, we need to do more than simplifying the American dream—we need to reinvent it. Fighting the global giant requires a reawakening of biblical imagination, a reminder that we are called to labor for a very different dream—one far more creative and celebrative than what McWorld has to offer.

During a brainstorming session with Christian schoolteachers in Australia, a group came up with a fresh idea to teach primary-age kids how to decode marketing messages. The students designed a totally useless but intriguing product, then developed a marketing and advertising campaign to go with it. This way they learned the subtext of all the messages directed at them.

We need communities of resistance and celebration to flesh out this vision of God’s new order in everyday life. Oakland’s Temescal Cooperative Christian Community, for example, is a group that tries to express God’s shalom vision in every aspect of their common life, including how they nurture their young. Instead of one hour of Sunday school each week, they raise their young all day long in ways that help them to decode the messages of McWorld. Their kids then give expression of the future of God by helping put on neighborhood block parties.

We have moved into a new neighborhood. We are not simply dealing with the issues of consumerism that we contended with in the ’70s and ’80s. In the 21st century, global marketers have taken an entirely new focus that is much more seductive than anything we have seen before. The people of God have the opportunity not only to respond to the challenges of globalization, but also to dream new dreams for the human future—dreams that begin with a mustard seed.

TOM SINE is an author, teacher, and international consultant in futures research for both Christian and secular organizations. His most recent book is Mustard Seed vs. McWorld (Baker Books, 1999).

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