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<nettime> Sasha Costanza-Chock: coyBOTt Software-Analyzing Branding, Boycott and Cultural Sponsorship

From: "Sasha Costanza-Chock" <>

The following is background for a software project called coyBOTt; a dynamic
graphic representation of the relationship between brand rank and boycotts

Project URL:

Background and Context for the Application of coyBOTt Software to Systematic
Analysis of Branding, Boycott, and Cultural Sponsorship

By Sasha Costanza-Chock

In the summer of 2002, we were commissioned by msdm to use the coyBOTt
software to develop a statistical analysis of the relationships between
brand rank, boycott activity, and corporate sponsorship. This came on the
heels of a preliminary study we conducted that found the rank of global
brands, as measured by leading branding agency Interbrand (supplier of the
yearly 'global top 100 brands' list to Business Week), to be a significant
statistical predictor of boycott activity. Simply put, our earlier work
found that the more valuable the brand name, the more boycott activity we
should expect (Costanza-Chock, unpublished 2002). This conclusion supports
our general observation of the rise of 'brand jujitsu,' or attempts by
activists to target labour, human rights, and environmental violations by
leveraging the brand power created by transnational corporations (TNCs) with
gigantic amounts of marketing capital.

Examination of the top global brands reveals both that they are prime
targets of boycott activity and also that they spend large amounts of money
on the sponsorship of cultural production. Sports, music, film, theater,
dance, graphic, multimedia, and other arts at all levels from major cultural
institutions (stadiums, museums, theaters, galleries, publications) to
'local' sites of cultural production (little leagues, neighborhood art
projects, small arts spaces, individual artists) all receive corporate
sponsorship. This is by no means new, and there is of course a long
tradition of scholarship that describes the rise, proliferation, and growing
power of the culture industries. For now we will simply emphasize that,
increasingly, corporate sponsorship extends to every arena of cultural
production and systematically incorporates even cultural forms and practices
previously imagined as 'resistant' to the logic of capital. We will return
to this shift in detail below, but move now to what was intended to be the
main research question of this report.

Our primary hypothesis was that boycott activity against top brands would be
a significant predictor of cultural sponsorship by the brand parent
corporation. We had thought that this predictor would be visible due to
corporate attempts to resist 'softening,' erosion, or decay enacted against
the shiny surface of the brand by activist practices of boycott, negative
publicity, detournement, 'adbusting,' or brand jujitsu. To rephrase: we
expected to find that the more a brand comes under attack by boycott, the
more its parent corporation would invest in sponsorship of cultural

Methodology and difficulties
We began by adapting methodology used in our earlier study of the
relationship between brand rank and boycott activity. Brand rank was taken
from; boycott activity was measured using the Google
search engine (for more methodological details of these measurements consult Sponsorship measures
proved more problematic, since no comprehensive database of TNC cultural
sponsorship was publicly available. Some data about top sponsors by region
or by city is available, and consultants serving both the art and business
worlds advertise comprehensive databases containing sponsorship figures for
all global brand parents, but access to this data is not free and was beyond
our means for the purposes of the current study.

As expected, the coyBOTt software proved useful for gathering data on
boycott activity. CoyBOTt not only automated the operation of the google
search engine (cutting the data gathering time on measures of boycott
activity against all top 100 global brands from hours to seconds) but also
replaced a static measure of boycott activity gathered painstakingly by hand
with a dynamic database that can be constantly refreshed, providing
real-time measures of current and past boycott activity. Unfortunately, at
the time of writing, data-gathering for measures of corporate cultural
sponsorship remains in the developmental stage and is not yet automated in
real time or even systematically operationalised.

The difficulty of developing a working data map for cultural sponsorship is
due to the deep complexity of interlocking flows of sponsorship capital
between parent corporations, brand subsidiaries, and sibling corporate,
nonprofit, and foundation entities. It has therefore not yet been possible
to realise the statistical analysis initially commissioned by msdm. Instead,
we have attempted here to lay the theoretical groundwork that will be used
to interpret the data gathered by coyBOTt once it becomes fully operational.
To that end, we focus on the context of investigation, unpack relevant key
terms 'information society' and 'brand activism' through historical and
theoretical analysis, incorporate statistical findings about the
relationship between brand rank and boycott activity, and suggest a
trajectory for further research into the proposed relationship between
boycott activity and corporate sponsorship of cultural production.

The term 'information society' was developed as early as the late 60s and
intended to highlight the shift in the dominant mode of production within
the core nations of the world system, away from materials extraction and
production of goods and towards services and manipulation of information.
However, we are critical of this North-centered discourse of the
'information society' or 'knowledge economy': while it might be useful in
focusing on certain broad currents, it has historically been employed in
order to sanitise, obscure, and make invisible the very real continued state
of industrial (factory and sweatshop) production under abusive conditions
throughout the 2/3 of the world - the South, but including poor and
incarcerated workers throughout the North (Schiller, 1999).

In other words, the rhetoric of 'the information society' serves to mask a
global restructuring of labour where workers in 1/3 of the world are
increasingly involved in information work while those in 2/3 of the world
are engaged in the extraction of raw materials, production of goods, and
disassembly/disposal of waste products. Even within the field of
'information work', there is extreme stratification between 'high-end'
professionalised infoworkers and those who labour in data sweatshops.
Data-entry and call services are outsourced either overseas to tax-free
Export Processing Zones in South Asia or the Caribbean ('Digiports'), where
mostly young women, barred from collective bargaining, work long shifts for
wages lower than garment workers and suffer health problems including back
injury, carpal tunnel, eye and skin problems, and foetal deformation due to
monitor emissions (Sussman and Lent, 1998; Wilson, 1998; Skinner, 1998).

Elites in developing countries have actively encouraged the creation of this
data processing sector in hopes that it will attract jobs, capital, and
technology transfer over the long run. However, some have suggested that
this sector will simply mirror the trajectory of the long-established
garment sweatshops (which often operate literally next door in the same
Export Processing Zones): penny wages, poor conditions, little to no skill
or technology transfer, followed by further instability as poor nations end
up competing with each other to offer larger and larger incentives in a
'race to the bottom' (Ross, 1997). More recently, data entry has both become
more automated and also outsourced to privately owned prisons, making the
national hopes of Southern elites for long-term economic growth based on
attracting data processing even more dubious (Costanza-Chock, in progress).

This same 'information society' rhetoric is also used in general to
normalise or naturalise neoliberal ideology and erase even the thought of
possible alternatives to the current project of corporate globalisation,
which extends the freedom of capital flows while creating ever-tighter
blocks on the flows of human beings (Mosco, 1996; Sassen, 1998). In the art
world, neoliberal restructuring and deregulation increasingly means erasure
of public art funding and its partial replacement by corporate sponsorship.
This also translates to the increasing adoption of corporate management
strategies by art institutions as well as new depths of openness to
corporate 'partnerships'. Again, this has all been naturalised and is
consistently portrayed as the only way forward.

Still, these developments have not taken place in a frictionless field. The
same technosocial conditions that enable the expansion of free market
fundamentalism also enable the amplification and extension of transnational
activist networks (Keck and Sikkink, 1998). Saskia Sassen notes the
emergence of countergeographies of globalisation, or networked activists and
cultural workers rooted locally and linked globally: 'As is the case with
global corporate firms, these countergeographies can be constituted at
multiple scales. Digital networks can be used by political activists for
global or non-local transactions and they can be used for strengthening
local communications and transactions inside a city. Recovering how the new
digital technology can serve to support local initiatives and alliances
across a city's neighborhoods is extremely important in an age where the
notion of the local is often seen as losing ground to global dynamics and
actors. (See e.g. Lovink and Riemens 2001)' (Sassen, 2002). One strategy
increasingly employed by networked activists at linked local / global levels
is brand activism.

Various social movement scholars have pointed out that, in a media-saturated
environment, savvy activists in recent years have turned to media-oriented,
noncommodity 'leverage boycotts' where targets are high-brand-recognition
TNCs. Such corporations become the targets of boycotts when they engage in
practices that activists find objectionable, but they are not necessarily
targeted because they are the 'worst offenders'. Rather, activists subvert
the power of the brand in order to draw greater media attention to their
cause (Klein, 2000).

The term boycott has been used to describe a wide range of actions. In
London before the turn of the century, boycott was used widely in the
repertoire of tactics employed by labour activists who pushed for improved
conditions in the Shoreditch sweatshops that produced and packaged matches,
clothes, furniture, beer, and sugar. One of the first boycotts in London to
receive widespread media attention was that against the Bryant and May match
factory, where workers slaved away '...16 hours a day, with out lunch or tea
breaks, making matches in appalling conditions for only two shillings. The
matches, which sold at 1d for 12 boxes, were made from yellow phosphorus, a
poisonous substance which often brought about necrosis or 'phossy jaw' in
the match-makers. Phossy jaw was a disease which ate into the bone of the
jaw causing severe pain and eventually death' (Salvation Army, 2002).

Organised by concerned bourgeois samaritans like Clementina Black (whose
Consumer Union was a twin forerunner of today's No Sweat clothing and other
fair trade enterprises), HH Champion and Herbert Burrows of the Social
Democratic Federation, and activist/agitator Annie Besant, this boycott was
the loudest salvo in the growing battle against sweatshops that led directly
to the famous Match Girls Strike (Willis, 1998). For the purposes of this
paper we don't have time to investigate the gender and cross-class dynamics
of this wave of activism; suffice it to say that this early series of
boycotts, strikes, and media interventions has since been written by labour
historians as the turning point towards the rise of new unionism in the UK
and the eventual creation of the Labour Party.

In the US context, 'boycott' includes turn of the century attempts by New
York City women to reduce beef prices; 1930s Catholic National League of
Decency attempts to force the movie industry to stop producing pictures that
'corrupt public morals and promot[e] a sex mania in our land' (Friedman,
1999); and the Montgomery Bus Boycott that lasted over a year and forced
Civil Rights onto the US national agenda (Robinson, 1997; Barnett: 1993).
Transnationally, 'boycott' applies to demands from the 1970s through the
1990s that Nestle adhere to World Health Organization conventions on the
marketing of infant formula in developing nations (Keck and Sikkink, 1998);
1980s pressure on corporations, banks, and academic institutions to divest
from apartheid South Africa (Smith, 1990); and the current wave of
campaigns, modeled after the successful mobilisation against the South
African regime, for divestment from arms manufacturers and other companies
that support human rights abuses by Israel in the Occupied Palestinian
Territories (see,, just to name a
few. In the more recent cases, the internet has made it easier for groups
with few resources to launch local, national, and transnational calls for
boycott. Online boycotts focus on a wide range of advocacy issues, from
those just mentioned to campaigns for human rights (against PepsiCo, Shell),
and environmental protection (Texaco, BP), animal liberation (Adidas,

Monroe Friedman (1999) has developed a taxonomy of boycotts in which, among
other categories, he differentiates 'surrogate' boycotts from 'nonsurrogate'
boycotts. Surrogate boycotts involve targeting a company that is not
directly responsible for the policy or behavior activists wish to change,
but is theoretically in a position to put pressure on the responsible party.
In the USA, for example, Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority launched a major
boycott in the early 80s, aimed at shifting television content towards
'family-value' material (i.e., away from sex, violence, and especially gay
content). The strategy of this campaign was to announce a yearlong coding
effort by the Coalition for Better Television (funded by Falwell's
televangelist spoils) in which all network broadcasts would be rated
according to a 'family values' scale that was not released to the public. At
the end of the year, companies that ran ads on the network that scored
lowest would become targets of a boycott by the 80,000 pastors and 4.5
million families of the Moral Majority(Friedman, 1999). This boycott is
classified by Friedman as 'surrogate' since the targets - companies that
advertise on the 'worst' network - have only indirect control over the
network policy.

Nonsurrogate boycotts, on the other hand, involve directly targeting the
company responsible for the policy, event, or stance that activists wish to
change. An example would be the 'Don't Buy Where You Can't Work' campaigns
during the Great Depression, in which an estimated 75,000 jobs were secured
for U.S. urban Blacks through targeted boycott/picket actions outside
businesses in Black neighborhoods that had refused to hire black people
(Hunter, 1977). Our quick review of the history of boycotts over the last
century suggests other potentially useful ways to divide boycotts into
categories for analysis. Many earlier boycotts were directed at specific
market outcomes, namely lowered commodity prices. Later, the boycott was
increasingly used as an aid to attempts by organized labour to gain better
working conditions, hours, wages, or benefits, often in conjunction with
other tactics such as strikes, slowdowns, and the like (Tarrow, 1998).
Beginning with the international boycott of Nestle launched in 1977 by the
Infant Formula Action Coalition (INFACT), multinational corporations became
the targets of boycott activity, with well-recognised brands increasingly
coming under fire as carefully chosen stand-in representatives for
industry-wide practices (Smith: 1990).

For example, Nike became emblematic of antisweatshop campaigns across the
globe, although most other major trainer manufacturers not only also employ
sweatshop labour but in fact often subcontract production to the very same
export processing shops used by Nike (Klein, 2000). As we mentioned above,
the target selection in these campaigns is based on what Saul Alinsky called
'political jujitsu': by piggybacking on the massive recognition generated by
corporate investment in the power of the brand, activists find they can
attract attention with spectacular brand-subversion tactics. Boycotts aimed
at lowering commodity prices seem to have vanished, to be replaced by
boycotts aimed mostly at gathering media attention for a widespread problem,
where the boycott target may or may not actually be the worst perpetrator of
the practice under attack.

Part of the power of such industry 'leverage' boycotts comes through a kind
of domino effect, where companies across an entire industry may rapidly fall
into line with new policies adopted by the industry leader in response to
boycott pressure. This was the case, for example, with the campaign for
dolphin-safe tuna fishing launched in 1988. Activists targeted Heinz
Starkist because it was the largest actor in the market, and when that
company capitulated to pressure by announcing the adoption of dolphin-safe
fishing practices, all major competitors followed suit within one day
(Friedman, 1999). This domino effect also rippled through certain sectors of
the clothing and cosmetics retail markets as a result of PETA's successful
campaign against animal testing at Benetton (Friedman, 1999).

Current developments
Meanwhile, in the shift to the so-called 'information economy' that we
described above, Northern-based transnational corporations (TNCs) have
overwhelmingly oriented resources towards the managerial information work of
brand strategy, outsourcing production and data-entry to poor communities of
color in the 2/3 world and hiding it all behind the clean shiny surface of
the brand. We suggest that in response there is a historical trend,
accelerated in recent years, away from commodity-price, 'nonsurrogate'
boycotts towards media-oriented, noncommodity 'leverage' boycotts where
targets are high-brand recognition multinational corporations. TNCs become
targets of boycotts when they engage in practices that activists find
objectionable, but they are not necessarily targeted because they are the
'worst offenders'. Rather, activists subvert the power of the brand in order
to draw greater media attention to their cause. Familiarity with activist
campaigns against top brands (see, historical analysis
(Klein, 2000), and preliminary statistical analysis of the relationship
between brand rank and boycott activity (Costanza-Chock, 2001) all support
this idea.

Such anticorporate activist tactics do not develop in a vacuum, but rather
in a dialectic relationship with the strategies of the TNCs that they
target. When attempts to leverage brand power involve highly mediated
strategies aimed at 'softening', dirtying, sullying, or reinterpreting the
meaning of brands, or in other words aim at disrupting the smooth surface of
the brand to reveal the practices, conditions, human and environmental
effects of resource extraction or production processes, TNCs respond.
Alongside litigation, the most powerful tool in the TNC arsenal of tactics
used to protect against 'brand rupture' has been corporate sponsorship of
cultural production.

This is not to suggest at all that corporate sponsorship of culture is a new
development. Around the same time as the Match Girls Strike, William Morris
critiqued what he saw as the growing alignment of artistic practice (and
charitable organisations) with the interests of capital (Morris, 1884). The
theorists of the Frankfurt school applied Marxist analysis to develop their
scathing critiques of the culture industries, describing the production of
media and entertainment, particularly Hollywood film, as an industrial
process akin to the manufacture of cars in its extreme division of labour
and realignment towards the profit imperative. During the 70s and 80s,
Herbert Schiller and others traced the extension of this trend and
questioned the impact of transnational corporate cultural production on
democracy, education, the law, and public sites of expression (Schiller,
1989). More recently, Chin-Tao Wu has documented the shrinkage of state arts
support in the UK (Arts Council England) and USA (National Endowment for the
Arts) beginning in the Reagan/Thatcher years, the resultant further
encroachment of corporate capital into the cultural sphere, and the current
phase of 'globalisation' of the US/UK-led corporate art paradigm - now in a
phase of aggressive export to the countries of the South (Wu, 2002).

The depth and intensity of corporate colonisation of the sphere of cultural
production has increased in the wake of the fall of the bipolar system, the
US assumption of the position of monopole superpower, and the increasingly
hegemonic assertion of free market fundamentalism as global organising
principle (at least among the vast majority of policy-making elites). What's
more, the growth of corporate sponsorship of cultural production is not only
enabled but becomes 'necessary' since public arts funding has been
progressively dismantled. State 'sponsorship' is increasingly under attack,
as policymakers aligned with TNC capital erode the very notion of the public
good or the commons at all levels, privatising everything from health care,
housing, and cultural production to prisons, schools, airwaves (the
electromagnetic spectrum), and genetic code. This process is most advanced
in the United States but has expanded throughout the globe - increasingly
including the global South, where local elites who dominate the centres of
the peripheries are linked to the elites who rule the centres at the core.
In an ironic twist, these are often the same elites who in the past used
state sponsorship of cultural production to build up nationalist projects in
the wake of liberation struggles and decolonisation.

In this context, while corporate sponsorship of cultural production
certainly serves as advertising and branding strategy even in the absence of
brand-targeted anticorporate activism, it also explicitly serves to suture
and smooth branded surfaces that have come under attack. Hence, sponsorship
industry trade literature in the UK emphasizes that oil company BP invests
millions in cultural production in an attempt to counter the negative images
of the oil industry spread by environmental and human rights activists;
banks invest in local cultural production in attempts to counter the image
of 'flighty capital' unconnected to the local; and beer and alcohol
companies invest in cultural production in attempts to highlight their
concerns over 'responsible drinking' (

Estimates of the amount of corporate capital being poured into cultural
sponsorship, at the level of either global or national analysis, are
difficult to develop. Where databases tracking such sponsorship exist, they
are generally proprietary, created and maintained by 'sponsorship
consultants' and available for large fees to major art organisations and to
potential corporate sponsors. Still, even a cursory glance at, for example,
the UK sponsorship scene reveals multimillion dollar deals in the spheres of
sports, music, festivals, and museums, as well as 'local' cultural
production and sponsorship of 'cutting edge' process-based or participatory
artistic practices. Some of the top UK corporate cultural sponsorship deals
of the past year include: $19 million from Barclay's for the Royal National
Theatre and Exhibitions at the British Museum, National Gallery and Tate
Britain; $4 million from for the BBC UK Top 40 singles and
album charts; $2.2 million from Vidal Sassoon for London Fashion Week; $1
million from British Telecom for the Collection 2000 at the Tate Modern
(LeisureScan, 2002). Our hypothesis that sponsorship activity is at least in
part 'damage control' is borne out by the fact that these companies were all
targets of extensive activist campaigns over the past year, on charges
ranging from support for authoritarian regimes that abuse human rights, to
destruction of local cultural production in poor countries, to violation of
animal rights.

Furthermore, such sponsorship deals, which we are reading as at least in
part damage-management, do not emerge haphazard but flow along organized
network lines through websites, trade press, fairs and trade shows
( Dedicated consultant groups like BDS,
Educational Communication, Karen Earl, and MVI also exist to mediate between
corporate sponsorship arms and cultural organisations. However, it is not
our task here to map or further describe the growth of corporate cultural
sponsorship as an emerging information service sector in its own right.
Rather, we turn from a glance at the broad contours of the sponsorship scene
to suggestions for the next phase of research that will be enabled by the
coyBOTt: systematic examination of the relationship between boycott activity
and cultural sponsorship.

We have discussed the rise of the so-called 'information society', traced
the transformation from commodity boycott to brand jujitsu, and touched on
the growing corporate colonisation of the cultural sphere. Our preliminary
research has provided strong statistical evidence describing the
relationship between brand value and boycott activity, and trade press and
anecdotal observation supports our claim that cultural sponsorship is at
least in part a response to boycott. With the aid of the coyBOTt tool we
hope to turn our attention to the more complex interactions between the
three variables.

How will we proceed methodologically? Our first step towards sustained
analysis of these relationships will be to build on the database already
assembled by coyBOTt that tracks global brand rank and brand boycott
activity. A new data category has been created, 'cultural sponsorship', and
we are currently developing the software's capability to search for dollar
amounts, for each global brand, according to systematic criterion. Once
sponsorship amounts have been estimated for each brand, we will run
correlations and linear regression on the relationship with boycott
activity. Of course, correlation will not provide us with causality, a key
question here: is it the case that large amounts of cultural sponsorship
trigger increased boycott activity, or vice versa, or (most likely in our
view) do the two exist in a dialectical relationship? Although we expect
looped causality, as we collect more data over a longer period of time we
might also be able to employ time series analysis, a statistical tool that
would allow us to better understand the causal relationship between these
three factors.

Thinking more broadly, it will also be critical in the next stage of
development to extend coyBOTt's capabilities to include analysis of
regional, national, and local brands, not only global. Measures of
brand-targeted activism should be broadened beyond current methodology of
internet-posted, English-language calls to boycott. The key will be to find
ways to examine the relationships between the multiple spatial levels that
organize branding, cultural sponsorship, and activist activity. In this way,
we will develop coyBOTt into a tool that can help us ground global analysis
at the level of the local, in line with the call for countergeographic


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