The Superbrands that Ate New York

May 24th, 2000
By Naomi Klein

Faced with the Million Moms in Washington and a mounting cry for tougher gun laws, the National Rifle Association has finally decided to pull out the really big guns. At its annual meeting in North Carolina last week, the organization announced its plans to open an NRA-theme restaurant and superstore right in the middle of Times Square: the NRA- Sports Blast and the NRA Grille.

They will fight mandatory trigger locks with greasy oversized hamburgers and brand-mobilia.

No longer will the awesome powers of lifestyle branding be left to the bleeding hearts over at the Rainforest Cafe, with their screeching parrots and tropical storms erupting on your potato skins. Soon, the NRA will sell tourists pieces of the gun-toting lifestyle, with shooting games to play and wild game to eat. No actual guns will be sold, just clothing and trinkets emblazoned with the NRA logo.

John Sugarmann, executive director of the U.S. Violence Policy Center, told reporters that this foray in "eater-tainment" shows that the NRA is "bizarrely out of sync" with the times.

And yet there is something undeniably in synch—something positively now—about the NRA’s announcement. It is a recognition that lifestyle branding has swallowed all other forms of communication, including politics. And nowhere more so than in New York City.

First came the scrubdown of Times Square, turning it into a blank slate for superbrands such as Disney and the Gap to install their most three-dimensional, lifestyle-aspirational, interactive displays yet. Then the giant ads started to spill out into other parts of the city: vinyl ads reaching around some of New York’s oldest and most beautiful buildings, as well as new free-standing ad edifices, such as a neon-lit monstrosity advertising Yahoo! in NoHo.

It has gotten so out of hand that, this Saturday, a group of activists will be handing out satirical tourist maps of Manhattan in Times Square. The map will be focused, according to event organizer Carrie McLaren, "entirely on advertising" and on the insidious "ad creep" swallowing the city.

And as neighbourhoods are swallowed whole, individual branded retail outlets have emerged as the new neighbourhoods of New York. With CD listening booths in Old Navy stores, DJs at Diesel, and literary essays accompanying every product at Restoration Hardware, each superstore is now its very own subculture.

On the streets, the brands are layered like old-style billboard hoarding. Steps away from the Kate Spade flagship store, for instance, street vendors are rushed by a mob of shoppers as they pull out green garbage bags of counterfeit Kate Spade handbags. Across the bridge in New Jersey, there is more brand currency being traded: sprawling brand-name outlet malls ring the city. Items that were showcased like objets d’art only weeks ago in the downtown brand Meccas are regurgitated as suburban debris, scooped out of bargain bins.

The triumph of branding has come to every major city in the world, but it is a uniquely complicated issue in New York. Part of the appeal of New York, and certainly of Times Square, is its over-the-top commercialism. Tourists make pilgrimages to the big ads and the palatial superstores that allow them to experience the full lifestyle potential of their chosen logos.

There has also long been a sense in New York that, despite the stature of the brands, they still don’t have the power to overwhelm those essential qualities that give the city its character. Sure they add to the visual noise, but what is New York without noise?

This debate erupted four years ago when K mart opened an outlet in Greenwich Village. Reading about the debate, I remember thinking that it would take more than a few chain stores and a big gaudy K to change the character of the Village. Until very recently, New York was a marketing paradox: Multinationals with their headquarters in Manhattan have succeeded in selling Everywhere USA to the rest of the world. Yet New York itself, because of its sheer density, was able to absorb a seemingly limitless amount of branding and franchising, while still remaining stubbornly and defiantly unique.

It turns out that it was only a matter of time. It may have taken a while but even New York has been dwarfed by the superbrands. Calvin Klein and Disney, even NASDAQ itself, are no longer shiny pieces of New York’s rich and complicated cultural mosaic. In the past two years, their towering billboard and superstores have passed some invisible threshold to become the overarching cultural and architectural infrastructure of the city. Everything else—art, media and politics—have shrunk to miniature size in comparison.

Which is why they are fighting back. I heard the news about the NRA’s theme restaurant in the back of a New York cab, right after a segment on Rudolph Giuliani’s decision to pull out of the Senate race. It seemed fitting that the man who made Times Square safe for Disney was now leaving New York to the ultimate franchise: Hillary Clinton. She may not be from New York, but she’s got great brand recognition.

This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail.