In activism, there are a plethora of subjects one could discuss. Here are my top five:
- Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a taboo subject that is unspoken of around the world. 91% of women in Egypt have been subjected to FGM, usually between the age of 4 and 15. As an Egyptian woman, I am shocked by the lack of conversation around the subject in my grandmother’s household and in the media. I would like to explore the ways we can overcome the taboo using various methods of activism, such as comedy, art and social media in order to make the subject more accessible and easier to address.
- Art and Design Activism: The Guerrilla girls. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, United Kingdom held the exhibition: Disobedient Objects. Bringing together objects used by activists all over the world, the Guerrilla Girls section caught my eye and showcased an interesting use of art and activism. The anonymous group of radical feminists used culture jamming through art to highlight issues of racial and gender inequality. I am most interested in writing about this subject as the use of art and imagery can be valuable medium in which to evoke a feeling and display a message.
- Transgender & Trans Race Movement: Trans explores the differences and similarities of the trans gender and trans race movements. If one can be transgender, can one be trans race? Referring to the Dolezal vs Jenner debate, I would like to look at the struggle of racial fluidity, leading to a further discussion on categorization.
- Planned Parenthood: I am interested in exploring the history of planned parenthood and its effects on communities. The series, The Midwife highlights the issues of a lack of education and birth control in East London. How have women gained more control over their lives and how did this develop?
- Ocean Governance: Our climate is constantly changing and we are in need of international agreements on how we are reducing our effects on the ocean. In a space of no borders, international responsibility becomes critical in keeping the ocean safe, clean, sustainable and healthy.
In Chapter 5 of “Activism!: Direct Action, Hacktivism and the Future of Society”, the author Tim Jordan inadvertently brings to attention the brilliance of large corporations’ marketing scheme. After years of protest against Nike’s use of sweatshops to manufacture its products, Nike, facing heavy critique especially from cultural jammers, began to post provocative messages and “jam their own billboards” (Jordan, 112). Slogans like “The most offensive boots we’ve ever made” were plastered for the public, and Nike began to copy cultural jammer’s own techniques of pasting their own messages over distasteful advertisements. But Nike did not stop there. It was claimed that Nike even commissioned writers to post criticisms of the company. The whole issue became so complex that it became difficult to discern genuine activism from calculated publicity stunts.
It truly is clever for these large corporations to take public condemnation and make it work for them. How much more attention did Nike get as a result of this campaign? More importantly, how many more satisfying clinks to Nike’s coffers were heard as a result? At the end of the day, this is what matters most. But it is a terrifying thought that corporations can now counterfeit activism or provoke activism from the public in order to be more noticed. This makes me wonder if we need to be more mindful before we snatch up our pitchforks and protest signs and head to the rally we heard about through Facebook, before we share articles on social media about the injustices of companies as a show of solidarity. Maybe this is exactly what the company wants. Has activism become a vehicle for marketing?
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.
Activism! itself can be viewed as a compilation of counterculture movements, existing as collective actions intent on disrupting the social norm. In chapter 5 of Tim Jordan’s Activism! : Direct Action, Hacktivism and the Future of Society, the role of advertisements, as spewed by corporations, in shaping society and these very norms are explored. While traditional advertisements typically follow the stream of culture, feeding into the insecurities of a society or enforcing rigid societal norms, the counterpart of culture jamming seeks to “reverse and transgress the meaning of cultural codes whose primary aim is to persuade us to buy something or be someone” (Jordan 102). This culture jamming not only represents a movement intent on removing the pervasive power held by money-driven companies, but also another layer to the definition of activism! that may not be initially considered.
To use the same “language of corporate desire” in order to actually reverse the initial message is a strategy that enables cultural jammers to level the playing field with enormous corporations (Jordan 103). While the same strategies are employed, cultural jamming’s effect is jarring and unsettling, as opposed to the subconscious seductiveness of traditional adverts. Perhaps it is this emotional and mental stirring that can cause one to want to act towards change and to contribute to the overarching goal of activism!. Through this elicited reaction, individuals transcend into supporters of a unifying cause. It is this unity towards the vision of an improved world that allows semiotic terrorism, or individual acts of cultural jamming, to permeate the façade of culture put forth by advertisers.
While the average person is inundated with countless advertisements each day, it is downright dismaying as to how shallow content matter appears in a world filled with despair and disparities. Advertisements may be not only harmful for one’s self-perception, but also distract from current dilemmas, such as the millions of refugees wandering aimlessly, a group mostly consisting of unaccompanied children. Therefore, perhaps cultural jamming can be utilized to not only showcase the underlying evils of an advertisement and corporate greed, but also shed light on more pressing issues. It is through this that these acts of semiotic terrorism may permeate into larger movements and societal issues.
Tim Jordan, author of Activism!: Direct Action, Hacktivism, and the Future of Society, points out the complexities of culture jamming. The overall hope of culture jammers is to rid the current world of impure cultural codes and languages that exist because of corporate and state desires. Cultural jamming tries to fight back the manipulative ways of corporations and their branding by drastically changing messages of advertisements with small alterations. Cultural jamming is a great medium for modern activism because our world is “a media-saturated world” (Jordan 117). This can get messy unfortunately due to the fact that corporations can culture jam themselves simply for the publicity. The challenges faced here remind me of the concept, “there is no such thing as bad publicity”. Celebrities will create fake scandals when they feel as though their light is fading. They become left out of popular conversation around the nation/world until something of great proportions happens, and the celebrity themselves is best qualified to be the mastermind behind it all. They then have full control of cause and effect. This attention-seeking method is easily translated to the world of corporations by Jordan.
The strength and power of corporations has also been brought to my attention. The tactics of corporations have become almost foolproof . Jordan’s statement that “globalized capitalism does not seek control of desire, but control through desire” (Jordan 112) reveals that corporations have the upper-hand. With cultural norms already well established in society, it is easy for corporations to use branding to sell a desired lifestyle rather than just a singular product. Jordan goes on to discuss Nike and its ability to get consumers so hooked on a check mark. This symbol being on any product leads the buyer to believe they will then be able to attain the lifestyle advertised by Nike so much so that the consumers are willing to place the knowledge of Nike’s use of slave labor to the back of their mind. This goes to show how powerful symbolism is and how hard it is to be a modern day activist living in a world with very solidified ideas and 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.
I found this topic to be extremely interesting because it dealt with and culture jamming and the way society today focuses on symbolism and what it represents. For instance, Jordan states, “The Nike website for women is called NikeGoddess; if you buy Nike, you don’t get shoes, you get to be a goddess” (108). This type of imagery explains a lot about how society today functions; in particular, it shows how certain brands of today are associated with greater prestige and wealth.
The author also connects the idea that branding has become so integrated in our lives that many modern events are now seen through the eyes of cultural symbolism. For instance, he comments “the gulf war is often referred to as the nintendo war” (110) primarily because the war was around the time nintendo came out with a game, and the images of the game were similar to what was going on in the battlefield. This is particularly interesting to me because it shows that as a society, we have come to such levels in terms of being dependent and excessively following technology.
I feel that these points are extremely important when thinking about contemporary activism because slogans and branding are ways by which many important messages are disseminated today. For instance, “Black Lives Matter” is an important expression today that began its birth as the product of intelligent marketing. This expression has brought millions of new followers of the movement to restore justice for African-Americans. Another similar expression, “hands up, don’t shoot” is also very popular today primarily because the expression has become associated with police officers committing acts of brutality towards reportedly harmless and innocent African-American men. With the advent of social media, it is now easier than ever to have trending hashtags that highlight political awareness and standing up for a cause. The association of brands to new ideas and movements clearly has a compelling effect on audiences.
“…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).