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Corporate Coopting of Culture Jamming

In chapter 5 of Activism!: Direct Action, Hacktivism and the Future of Society, author Tim Jordan describes the practice of culture jamming is described as “…an attempt to reverse and transgress the meaning of cultural codes whose primary aim is to persuade us to buy something or to be someone” (Jordan 102). Examples given in the text include subversive billboard alterations and magazine publications dedicated to satirical recreations of actual advertisements. In the context of the discussion of the definition of activism discussed in chapter 1, in which the distinction is drawn between movements that seek to fundamentally dismantle power structures and those which work for change within existing social infrastructures, culture jamming fits an interesting vein. When groups such as the Billboard Liberation Front alter paid advertising from companies with whose messages they disagree, they are working within the idea that advertising is normal. There is a power in this type of messaging; it is more meaningful to display the flaws of an ad than to simply remove the ad. It does, however further validate the practice of branding and manipulating desire as fundamental to normal life.

This is exemplified in the multilayered Nike Australia incident, in which the corporation plastered its own billboards with overtly company-originated commentary in the style of traditional jammers, which had targeted the manufacturer in the past, only to be subjected to seemingly independent jams and widely criticized in the press. It was later suggested that Nike had been behind not only the first wave of plastering but had funded and initiated the backlash, successfully creating a media storm that garnered immense publicity. Even the first round in this case is an example of culture jammers providing inspiration and impetus behind an advertising campaign, something ostensibly contrary to the unstated mission of the unincorporated provocateur. The following turns go even deeper into corporate coopting of culture jamming, facilitated by the movement itself both by providing the context for Nike’s actions and possibly having members working on the company’s side. All the while, willingly or not, both culture jammer and advertiser contribute to the dialogue surrounding the thought that the difference between vandalism and improvement is a matter of perspective. That, in contrast to direct commentary of specific messaging, challenges an accepted societal norm.

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.

 

The Convoluted Game of Culture Jamming

“…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).