Tit-For-Tat: Manipulating Cultural Codes

In Activism!: Direct Action, Hacktivism and the Future of Society, Tim Jordan discusses the omnipresence of cultural codes in society and the implications of the existence of these codes. Cultural codes are meant to “persuade … to buy something or be someone” and these codes are usually “controlled by corporations and states … whose ultimate goal[s] [are] a profitable bottom line and … to manage its citizens, [respectively],” effectively allowing a select few individuals with high positions in industries and governments to control the narrative of what society’s values are (Jordan 102). Naturally, society fought back with a technique known as cultural jamming, turning these cultural codes back on their heads. For instance, Jordan describes a political culture jam: a bumper sticker displayed the text “Employ Labour Now,” but after a clever rearrangement of letters, the bumper sticker displayed the text “No Labour Ploy,” a new cultural code with the exact opposite message as it had originally (Jordan 101). After reading that anecdote, I did a mental fist-pump as common people had wrested control of the cultural code from political parties.

Unfortunately, the powerful do not intend to give up their power of persuasion so easily. Later in the same chapter, Jordan outlines a Nike advertising campaign in which Nike attempted to impersonate a culture jam. Nike had just created a new sports footwear, and to promote the supposed superiority of their product, they utilized culture jamming as a novel advertising technique. Messages such as “What next, rocket packs?” and “Fair-Minded Footy Fans say Not Fair Mr Technology” overtly appeared to be populist culture jams, but in reality, Nike was taking advantage of these phrases to promote their own product – to promote their own interests. Nike had even paid off various parties to try and increase media coverage of their product for the sake of publicity (Jordan 112-114). It was disturbing to me that corporations would go to such lengths of deception in order to preserve their sales figures. In this particular case, society ultimately won the culture jamming battle, plastering a genuine message criticizing Nike’s use of slave labor. Not every story has a happy ending though. How many corporations and governments have gotten away with the manipulation of cultural codes for their own selfish purposes? It may never be known who is winning the endless tug-of-war between society and corrupt executives, but the existence of these shadow battles to control culture is frightening.

 

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3 thoughts on “Tit-For-Tat: Manipulating Cultural Codes”

  1. I agree completely with the disgust at corporations using supposed “activism” to further their corporate interests. I wonder what it means for society to “win” against these corporations – the slave labor was publicized, yet Nike still had a solid profit margin. Other shoe and clothing companies still use sweatshop labor. How do we measure success of these movements?

    You question how many corporations and governments have gotten away with this manipulation of cultural codes. Similarly, I think as Stanford students, we should also question how far Stanford (as both an academic institution and a corporation) has affected us by manipulating cultural codes. Maybe they focus so intensely on the freshman experience so as to “train” us to further the Stanford brand? Maybe it is the idea that the further the acceptance rate drops, the more valuable the Stanford degree is?

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  2. I agree it’s infuriating that Nike employed similar tactics to cultural jammers, but this situation does beg an interesting question about the definition of activism. Does Nike’s advertising not constitute as activism because it champions an immoral cause? And if so, who decides if that cause is immoral? Obviously slave/child labor seems pretty abhorrent but still the question remains at a theoretical level.

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  3. It does seem disturbing that Nike commissioned people to promote their own cultural critique and in response to your final questions, I believe that the true number of corporations and states who have used the power and influence of press (any kind, whether good or bad) is far higher than we’d like to believe. Unfortunately it may not be possible to implement a system that could check whether or not these manipulations of media were occurring — at least not at this point.

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