As the World Cup opening date looms and the fever mounts, South Africans are being subjected to heavy propaganda to jolly them into becoming patriotic supporters of the event, demonstrating their pride in the nation. Mostly this seems to be interpreted as buying something – a t shirt, sweatshirt, cap, scarf, flag…. This would be good for South African trade I would have thought, and for an embattled local textile industry, but a short excursion last week into World Cup land suggested that it is only good for trade marks.
I had decided that I did not want to enter into the hype by jumping up and down in a yellow shirt and blowing a horn. My unwillingness did not have to do with any lack of support for soccer, but rather with the way in which FIFA appears to have hijacked our country, forcing us into its own very commercialized and Eurocentric version of what a soccer World Cup should be, rather than the very much livelier and more democratic event that a truly South African soccer cup would have been. And so I decided that I would instead appoint a surrogate supporter, in the form of a soccer-mad seven-year-old in Khayelistsha and buy him some of the gear so that he could be an enthusiastic supporter.
Thus I found myself shopping for a child-sized yellow Bafana soccer shirt in a very big shopping complex in a suburban centre one weekday afternoon. Trailing from shop to shop, I rapidly realised that I was accompanied by a throng of other potential customers all engaged in the same exercise. South African shops are pretty good and you can normally find what you want. However, here we all were, all shapes, sizes, ages, income levels, potential customers every one of us, all vainly seeking the holy grail of a world cup t-shirt for some soccer-crazy child. A wonderfully large captive market, I would have thought, a really good revenue-earner, a boost for local trade.
It soon became apparent what the problem was – Trade Marks. Only goods branded with the ‘official FIFA product’ status could be sold. But why were they not everywhere, so that all these shoppers could buy them? Because they are too expensive. And boring. But surely Trade Marks are supposed to promote and not inhibit trade? And in any event, the fashion trade seems to operate better without this IP apparatus, as Johanna Blakely made so gloriously evident in her recent TED talk about how well fashion does without the apparatus of IP protection.
I eventually found a t-shirt and a track suit top in the right size for my young supporter. But the selection was too narrow and the pricing all wrong. Most customers looked at the price tag and then moved sadly on. There was much shaking of heads and many disappointed faces. What was happening was not only to do with the normal excessive level of protection offered an event like the World Cup, but with South Africa’s over-the-top willingness to give FIFA everything they wanted. And so we have lavish generosity in the trade mark legislation that it has passed, not only declaring the World Cup a ‘protected event’ but enacting an extraordinary wide-ranging set of prohibitions that forbid the use of words associated with the World Cup, so that we cannot use ‘World Cup 2010’. or ‘2010 Cape Town’ , or ‘Soccer World Cup’ , or just ‘2010’ in a context in any way connected with a company or merchandise.
Forced into FIFA control-land, the merchandise that is ‘authorised’ comes across as anonymous and anodyne, lacking the creative pizazz that South Africa is so good at. What seems completely missing is the realisation that Johanna Blakely makes clear, that there are different markets for the top-of-the-range designer label and the high street rip-off. They don’t erode one another, but probably promote one another. In the same way, there could surely be room for South Africa unofficial and low-priced goods alongside the official FIFA regalia. Particularly when the alternative is no trade at all
In South Africa, soccer is a blaze of colour and energy and it would have been great to find something ‘made in South Africa’. cheap and creative for my young soccer fan. Because there is another irony here. The government has been trumpeting about how the protection of the official merchandise supports local industry. However, it seems that a lot of the official gear is made in China, so that the seizure of ‘counterfeit’ goods, for sale by street corner vendors is not a matter of preventing erosion of local trade, but only of protecting a FIFA trade mark and ensuring that even the poorest customers pay their tithe to the lords of the occasion.
So what price IP myths and hypocrisies as the World Cup looms? Is it really an advantage to have a brand so well protected that it does not sell? And so well protected that competing goods cannot sell either? What I do look forward to is seeing the ways is which innovative fans get around this with outrageous gear in the fan camps during the World Cup. (They won’t be in the stadium because the tickets are too expensive and were sold mostly online – but that is another story.)