“…I know you. And you know you. And I know that you know that I know that you know you” -Ben Stiller as White Goodman in the film Dodgeball: a True Underdog Story
The warring ideas of corporate branding and culture jam are today’s topic of discussion. For any unfamiliar, “culture jamming” is the deliberate subversion and repurposing of commonly accepted mainstream symbolism to spread a message in opposition to the symbol’s original meaning. The examples given in Tim Jordan’s Activism!: Direct Action, Hacktivism, and the Future of Society include altered billboards that emasculate virile cigarette models (Jordan, Activism! pg. 105) and spoof ads, such as the campaign that mocked Absolut Vodka with slogans such as “Absolut Impotence” (107).
What I find most interesting about modern culture jam is the corporate response. Instead of simply trying to prosecute the vandalism or ignore it altogether, certain firms have responded by leaning in to the counterculture. The example that most stuck with me in Activism! was the criticism of Nike’s branding that may have been circulated by Nike itself (112-114). Firms “jamming” their own marketing is probably one of the most brilliant mind games to undermine the effectiveness of cultural jammers. It creates the “I knew you knew I know” dynamic that quickly ramps up the hopeless moral complexity of symbolic protest. By engaging in the game, the companies take away the clear message culture jammers intend to spread. Viewers now need to ask: “is this message truly protesting a transgression? Or is it simply an ironic, possibly controversial marketing campaign designed to generate publicity?”
If effective culture jamming is to continue, it must either adapt to the game or abandon it altogether. Going one level deeper (maybe by pre-empting attempts to counter-jam by making fun of corporations trying to be controversial) could be a clever way to defeat the opposition while still leveraging pre-existing marketing symbolism, tapping straight into the consumer culture that is the backbone of most developed nations. Abandoning culture jam, on the other hand, is another attractive option. It may feel like a moral defeat, but perhaps an evolution is necessary. Jordan brings up an important point: “Does the use of corporate… cultural codes reinforce these codes, even when the overt message is to oppose them?” (114).