Culture Jamming: You Win Some, You Lose Some

McDiabetes, MurderKing, Khemically Modified Chicken (KFC). Everything from the signs to the logo to the color scheme were the same as ones we’d expect from our beloved fast foods. Only this time they conveyed a drastically different message. Through emulation of logos and images, these anti-fast food messages exemplify a culture jamming campaign. Tim Jordan describes the methods, motives, and efficacy of culture jamming in his Activism!: Direct Action, Hacktivism and the Future of Society. He describes culture jamming as a method of subversion that first requires a keen understanding of the “cultural codes defining our desires in ways that serve corporations and not individuals” (Jordan 108). Adbuster spoofs, for instance, are eerily similar to the ones they attempt to undermine distinguished only by their contradictory messages. By adopting all other aspects of the brand, the attention is then focused on the message and the particular aspect of the brand being disputed.

The same power of culture jamming enjoyed by activists can just as easily be wielded against them. In 2000, culture jammers targeted Nike’s new football boots for using slave labor through messages like “the most offensive boots ever made”. Since words like offense had more than one connotation (i.e. offense in sports), Nike capitalized on the ambiguity with cultural jamming of their own, through messages like “Fair Minded Footy Fans Say Not Fair Mr. Technology” (Jordan 112). The power of Nike to be able to control its brand and its criticism speaks to the upscale battle protesters face and how culture jamming isn’t a tool that necessarily favors the activists.

One interesting topic is how culture jamming has evolved in the age of the internet and big data. With most ad-revenue being generated online through massive corporations like Google, culture jammers can no longer use the same methods of attack to interfere with individual browsing experiences. One technique of fighting online ads involves using bots to repeatedly click on a certain ad in order to drive up exponentially the cost of posting that cost-per-click ad. At the same time, delivering this misleading click information adds significant noise to companies using click data to drive their marketing strategy. Another much more powerful form of protesting that most resembles modern-day culture jamming is the use of memes. These cultural memes can range from hashtags like #firstworldproblems to pictures of Michael Jordan crying. Serious or not, these messages shape the online experience for most millennials. Since teenagers are most familiar with the culture and attitudes of their own generation, they now have unique access to one of the most powerful tools in modern activism. However, culture jamming will always be a double-edge sword, and it will continue to remain one of the most risky yet powerful forms of activism.

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