This piece is part of our debate 'The Great British Summer?'.
The Space Hijackers have had their Twitter account banned. That’s what the internet screamed. The London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games lodged a complaint with Twitter that – by declaring ourselves the Official Protesters of the London 2012 Olympic Games and turning the LOCOG logo black and red - we were “using a trademark in a way that could be confusing or misleading with regard to a brand affiliation”. If you are LOCOG, protest is dangerous again.
It was six-thirty in the morning on the 22nd of May 2012, nary a Hijacker was awake and I couldn’t log in to our Twitter so I could crack some facile joke about Olympic branding. By eight-thirty we’d found the email saying our account had been suspended due to violation of Twitter’s trademark policy.
Cue indignant free-speech klaxon and a quick email to a friend at the Index on Censorship. We decided to use the word “banned” because every artist likes being banned – even if it’s just being sent to the corner for a bit. Cue email to a friend at a right-wing broadsheet newspaper. Cue phone call to an acquaintance at a left-wing broadsheet newspaper. The usually private and secretive Space Hijackers were blowing cover about being “banned by Twitter” on their personal social media accounts. My first thought was a journalist’s one. “Thank you LOCOG. We have a story.” Cue Streisand effect.
The Streisand effect is an event that becomes more widely known because of its active suppression than if that suppression never happened. It comes from when Barbara Streisand tried to stop the publication of a photograph showing the location of her beach-side mansion. So like details of injunctions or superinjunctions, the more you try to keep something quiet the more likely it is to get out into the public domain. By complaining about us calling ourselves the Official Olympic Protesters, LOCOG somehow made us the official Olympic protesters. Thank you the internet.
One team of Hijackers set to trying to get our Twitter account reinstated. Another set about seeding stories in the press and handled media requests. Twitter - the organ so proud of its propagation of free expression during the Arab Spring - was keeling over because a Limited Company in charge of the ‘operation of sports facilities’ was whining about a bunch of anarchist artists taking the piss out of their ridiculous brand protectionism.
The basis of LOCOG’s actions is the Olympic Games Act of 2006. Section 19 to be exact. Advertising. This part of the Act was set up – ostensibly – to protect investments made by Olympic partner brands and organisations. LOCOG’s chair, Lord Coe, has argued that because the public purse is chipping in £9.3bn towards the Games and that the government is underwriting it, protecting these brands means protecting the taxpayer.
The act also allows police and ‘enforcement officers’ the right of entry to private buildings suspected of contravening legislation on Olympic advertising. So counterfeiters can’t make hooky Olympic t-shirts? That right of entry also applies in cases of “advertising of a non-commercial nature” and “announcements or notices of any kind” paying particular attention to “the distribution or provision of documents or articles, the display or projection of words, images or lights or sounds, and things done with or in relation to material which has or may have purposes or uses other than as an advertisement.”
There is another bit of legislation called the London Olympic Advertising and Trading Regulations 2011 – something devised to prevent ambush marketing. Here they make exceptions for “activity intended to demonstrate support for or opposition to the views or actions of any person or body of persons, publicise a belief, cause or campaign, or mark or commemorate an event.” So even with this added bit of legalese why are LOCOG picking on artist activists and their Twitter accounts?
Cue incredulous reports of florists being harassed by trading standards officers for deigning to sport Olympic-themed displays, greasy spoons being forced to – with a tin of paint and a brush - change their name from Olympic to Lympic, Olympic torch runners having unsanctioned national flags torn off them in their moment of glory. LOCOG are scurrying about the playground clutching their toys – partner brands, words they’ve trademarked like “London” and “2012”, and that Games logo that looks like Lisa Simpson giving a blow-job. They’re screaming “Mine! Mine! Mine!” while kicking everyone else in the shins.
We are also reminded that conviction of an offence in the branding playground can run you up a fine of £20,000 to be paid to the Olympic Delivery Authority. And, as an afterthought, that the Games are about sport and culture.
By attacking ordinary people who bought into the idea that the Olympic Games were a good thing, LOCOG are growing an anti-Olympics network. Brand exploitation swings both ways and the Olympics are an obvious platform for dissent. The real Olympic legacy is bleak and awash with the debt and disenfranchisement people will be left with thanks to the greed of corporations and the vanity of politicians.
You can draw parallels with anti-Olympic sentiment and demonstrations against the last Iraq War. There’s a lot of shouting on the outside against it – but those on the inside are resolved to carry on in the impetuous vein they started with. Back to the playground - where the rich kids mocked the poor kids and then beat them up for good measure.
Moody’s, one of the big three credit rating agencies and a litmus paper on which to measure money by, reported that the Olympics were “unlikely to provide a substantial boost to the UK economy and believe that the impact of infrastructure developments on UK GDP has probably already been felt”. Although there may be some increase in retail sales, the commercial benefits will come from “increased visibility of the brands, rather than actual sales” but given that the Games are a one-off event, they’re unlikely to have much of an impact.
Sports economists argue that the Olympic Games are known for overspend. Athens and Beijing both went enormously over-budget and it’s taken Montreal over 30 years to pay back the cost of the 1976 Games. Chicago has its sights set on Olympic Fool’s Gold for 2016.
You can’t blame the Games for Greece’s economic downfall just as you can’t blame them for Beijing’s disregard for human and civil rights – but they certainly haven’t helped.
Protest won’t stop the Games. Protest will trigger a smattering of side stories about banner drops and security gaps and questions posed of unrepentant authorities. But what protest can do is engage the part of the brain that looks at images of what’s being sold and then makes you realise it’s you.