The corporate hijacking of Occupy Wall Street campaign

October 18, 2011

By Kathleen Brooks. The opinions expressed are her own.

As New Yorkers hurried to work on Wall Street on Friday morning they were greeted by police bracing themselves to cope with a wave of protestors apparently threatening to storm the New York Stock Exchange. By lunchtime the storming had failed to occur, 14 protestors had been arrested and hungry workers were free to go out and get a sandwich.

In recent days the Occupy Wall Street campaign is looking more like a damp squib than a counter-capitalism movement. The protests may be born out of a genuine frustration with bank bailouts funded by the tax payer, but no sooner had the first placard been written then corporate big-wigs sensed the opportunity it presented and rushed in to join the fray.

According to reports, a condom maker is in on the act creating a brand of protection specifically for the protest; obviously some think there is the risk that Occupy might turn into a mini Woodstock. Added to this, the directors of the board of ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s released a statement saying they were supporting the protest.

But this corporate alignment doesn’t seem to have had the desired effect. Instead of drumming up support for the protestors it has made them something of a laughing stock. Papers, blogs and TV reports are running competitions for the best flavour ice-cream Ben & Jerry’s could create to honour the protests (ocu-pie is gaining some traction). But all of this is distracting from promoting the protestors’ aims and message.

The problem is that corporate support is doomed from the start primarily because it is self-serving for the companies involved. Banker-bashing has become incredibly popular in recent years. Saying that you work in finance and earn squillions of dollars is outright unacceptable. It labels you as old school, probably male, out of touch with reality and a fervent believer that climate change is a conspiracy of the left – in other words the opposite of cool. Cool sells, so by aligning yourself with the protestors you can boost your bottom line.

It doesn’t take long for advertisers and other corporate machines to claim counter-culture for themselves. Look at Woodstock and the 1968 protests. Images of these events pervade so much of modern advertising. Free love sells jeans, fizzy drinks and beer these days.  Thousands of films have been made about the summer of love that have earned billions of dollars for Hollywood’s largest studios.

This has the grubby hands of marketing spin doctors and brand managers all over it. Even if a company like Ben & Jerry’s does agree with the stance of the protestors it is still owned by a huge, global conglomerate that is a public company and ultimately exists to provide returns and profits for its shareholders. Thus it is part of the financial system the protestors are rallying against.

The protestors should be concerned; once the movement is in the grip of advertisers it doesn’t become cool anymore. If the message is being used to make profits or generate consumption then what really is the message? This was featured in the film The Social Network when Sean Parker dismisses the idea of “earning money” from TheFacebook (as it was called back then) because “ads aren’t cool.”

Although related protests are scheduled around the world, this campaign has failed before it has begun. Occupying Wall Street was never going to work. The financial system is too intertwined in our lives, and too global for it to be brought down in a popular storm. Corporations identifying with the movement just highlight the central role of capitalism in our lives, which only serves to weaken the protestors’ message even more.

Image — An Occupy Wall Street campaign demonstrator stands in Zuccotti Park, near Wall Street in New York October 17, 2011. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

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