In Activism!: Direct Action, Hacktivism and the Future of Society, author Tim Jordan explores the role of activism in making fundamental changes to the framework of society. During his exploration of activism! in its many forms, Jordan investigates the phenomenon of “cultural jamming,” the practice of using familiar branding “to terrorize the symbols and codes that make up the semiotics that subordinate our desires to corporate and state imperatives” (104). One example he provided of cultural jamming is an image of Ronald McDonald with “Grease” written across his mouth and the two e’s replaced by sideways golden arches.
This activism strategy has the effect of calling the power of symbols (or codes) such as Ronald McDonald into question. Corporations such as McDonald’s use branding very frequently as a means of persuading consumers to buy their products by selling an image or lifestyle while neglecting any quantitative means directly regarding the product for sale. Another branding example Jordan provides is Nike’s famous swoosh, a symbol of the lifestyle promises Nike makes in their ads. The famous athletes and calling female customers goddesses imply that by buying Nike products, i.e. by wearing the swoosh, consumers can transform their lives into ones as glorious as those of Tiger Woods and Serena. Branding like this is a very popular target for cultural jammers, who replicate popular images almost exactly but in the subtle details manage to turn an advertisement on its head. According to Jason, this juxtaposition gives way to discussion because “the language of the original adverts is faithfully reproduced, meaning that the language itself becomes a topic” (107).
However, the matter becomes difficult in situations where advertisers use cultural jamming to further their own goals, such as when Nike effectively mocked itself in a shoe advertising campaign that referenced their dependence on sweatshops. By diminishing the power of cultural jamming and forcing audiences to question its source, corporations may threaten cultural jamming as a means of protest. However, it seems that such an advertising strategy is a double-edged sword, for by exposing their faults in an attempt to hinder jamming, they leave themselves open to activists making direct acknowledgements of the flaws those corporations tried so cleverly to imply.
Whether cultural jamming is the most effective way to force people out of the hypnotic effects of branding or is merely a fleeting alternative to more radical or straightforward forms of protest, it certainly starts an important dialogue about the power of targeting the unconscious thoughts and desires of audiences and the ethical concerns behind it.