On the 31st of March I walked up in the morning, it was another cloudy day in Maastricht. I was preparing some coffee when I realised there was no milk left. So I put on some clothes and went down to the shop on the corner to buy some. But as soon as I step off the house I notice that there’s something different in the landscape, the billboard standing in front of my door doesn’t hold the same H&M advertisement that was there the night before. I usually notice when there’s a new one, but this time it caught my attention more than accustomed. Perhaps, because I couldn’t identify the brand, what a surprise! To be frank, I was shocked by the fact that the tree drawn in the bill didn’t seem too elaborate; in general the poster appeared not to be professional. It was then that I realised the bill was actually handmade! I was so puzzled by it… because I couldn’t decipher what was written in Dutch. I called my house-mate Anna to come downstairs and translate it for me: “Instead of an advertisement, here there could be a tree”, the advertisement said.
I have to confess that this billboard captivated me more than others I’ve seen before; it was love at first sight. I felt butterflies in my stomach and idealistic-thoughts inundated my mind. I started to think about how artificial city landscapes are and how unfair it is that street art is for instance penalised but corporations, as they can afford it, have the right to bombard us with corporate messages. I appreciated for once to come across a thought-provoking and non-commercial message on one of those billboards that invade the streets of Maastricht and many other places over the world.
It was kind of relieving to step out of my house in the morning and not feel like if the ‘city-furniture’ was already trying to sell me something. At that moment I became conscious of the fact that corporations have totally conquered the public space. As citizens, we constantly inhale their toxic, unethical and persuasive message, and we are drowning of not being aloud to breath-out. Fortunately, I came across this ‘hacked’ billboard, which encouraged me to reconsider the commonplace, made me realise how easy it is to subvert advertisements that are all over the map and forced me to discern what was before unperceivable to me –the hidden forms of media power.
As you might have noticed, in the poster it was also written: M31 European day of action against capitalism. That same morning, while having my coffee with milk, I ‘googled‘ it and discovered that behind that billboard there was a whole organisation that was taken steps in fifteen countries all over Europe to promote the idea that a non-capitalist society is possible and necessary. I took my time to read the M31 arguments, which in fact seemed quite reasonable to me, yet what fascinated me the most was the means used to promote their convictions and to create awareness, known as Culture Jamming. This term was coined in 1984 by The Negativeland band from San Francisco, nevertheless the practice has been carried out for more than thirty years now.
“As awareness of how the media environment we occupy affects and directs our inner life grows, some resist. The skilfully reworked billboard (…) directs the public viewer to a consideration of the original corporate strategy. The studio for the cultural jammer is the world at large.”-
The San Francisco Billboard Liberation Front, who is still functioning nowadays and which slogan is “Marketing for the people”, did the first culture jam action that we have record of in 1977. The expression culture jamming was described in 1999 by Naomi Klein, author of No Logo as “the practice of parodying advertisements and hijacking billboards in order to drastically alter their message” (1999, p.280).
Numerous anti-consumerism social movements have used culture jam strategies in order to disrupt or destabilize mainstream cultural institutions, mainly corporate advertising. I already alluded at the beginning to one of the motivations of this kind of activism –reclaim the public space that seems to have been plagued by corporate advertising. Nevertheless, the broader reason of being of culture jamming, which also makes it theoretically more interesting is “the construction of a counter-hegemony as a strategy to challenge dominant forces and discourses in society” (Cammaerts, 2007, p. 3). Culture jamming performs a counter-hegemonic practice per se, as Cammaerts (2004) declares, although it is inherently ‘political’ as it “reacts against the dominance of commodification and corporate actors within society and everyday life, the way it has been articulated up until now focuses foremost on attacking and mocking the capitalist corporate brand culture and not that much on the realm of politics” (p.4).
Culture jamming has been used sometimes as synonymous to ‘guerrilla art‘, however the widely recognized artists Rodriguez de Gerada prefers to call it “citizen art” since he believes culture jamming should be seen as a normal way of dialogue in a democracy (Klein, p.280). Although he risks getting arrested ‘de Gerada’ acts during the day, catching everyone’s attention. The reason for this, as he explains, is to empower citizens to take the same initiatives and to be able to explain children and adults –even to the policeman sent to arrest him- the reason of his deed. (Klein, 1999, p.280). Unfortunately, legal forces are not the only ones to stop anti-corporate activism. Indeed, mainstream media can also be blamed for anti-consumerism censorship. In the video you will know see, a CNN journalist interviews Kalle Lasn, editor and chief of the Adbusters Magazine on the topic of ‘Buy Nothing Day’, an initiative that started in 1992 and that has reached sixty-five countries.
I cannot avoid mentioning the ignorant comment of the interviewer when she completely denies the obvious devastating consequences of overconsumption and her selfish reflection: that the American economy is more important than the global poverty and inequality caused by mass-consumerism. But what really makes my blood boil after watching this video is to know that MTV, Fox, CBS and NBC refused to sell any advertisement-time to promote Abusters’s one-day boycott on shopping. The incompetent laughing interviewer reveals shameless that they –TV channels- make their money out of commercials and it would be unwise to bite the hand that feeds them. This video really made me think: what about the freedom of speech? We seem to live in a business-dictatorship, where any attempt to go against corporations will be legally punished or censored by the mainstream media.
And now I will finally introduce you to Adbusters, the perfect example of an organisation that works as a counterhegemonic to the existing power structures in order to knock them over and to boost for a radical shift in contemporary lifestyle. Adbusters is a media foundation, which describe itself as “a global network of artists, activist, writers, pranksters, students, educators and entrepreneurs who want to advance the new social activist movement of the information age”. It is also a not-for-profit magazine, based in Canada that deals with the destruction of the natural and cultural environment by commercial forces.
This reader-supported magazine offers “philosophical articles as well as activist commentary from around the world addressing issues ranging from genetically modified foods to media concentration”. Along with the latter they promote campaigns such as the one mentioned above –Buy Nothing Day- and Digital Detox Week. Adbusters is into the bargain the head office of the culture-jamming scene. Through their web site they give tips to citizens on how to use the most versatile activist tool ever: the Internet. In order “to return to the real world”—as they claim, and to metamorphose from passive spectators to participants. This organization has been so significant for the perpetuation of culture jamming that it’s own name serves as a synonym for it. In fact, many social activists and scholars have used it as a verb: ‘to adbuster/adbusting” (Klein, 1999, p. 284) and/or a noun: ‘the adbuster’ (Sandlin & Milam, 2008, p.332).
But what makes a good culture jam? Klein argues that the most sophisticated adbusters are not unrelated ad parodies but counter-messages that hack into a corporation own method of communication in order to send a very different meaning from the one that was sought. This technique is known as a détournement, term coined by the Situationists, which signifies to change the context in order to create a new meaning. Through this method the strength of the hegemonic power becomes its own undoing. Activist Saul Alinsky (1971, p.152) refers to this phenomenon as “Mass political jujitsu”. Despite the fact that there are many other ways of protest and resistance against corporations and their unethical means of selling, adbusters power resides in the fact that hits the companies where it most hurts: in their brand image (Klein, 1999, p.281).
Due to the current financial crisis, activists are increasingly focusing their criticism in big business corporations. In many demonstrations over the last years around the world, such as ‘Indignados’ in Spain or ‘Occupy Wall Street’ in the USA, the people have claimed to feel powerless and scammed by their governments, since private companies seem to exercise excessive influence in politics, damaging the basis of public good and democracy.
A potential cause can be the huge amount of public money that is being injected to large corporation and banks in order to secure their private profits; meanwhile politicians announce devastating public austerity programmes that affect citizen’s lives directly. Although the present-day discontent that people have with the dominant power that large corporations wield over politics is a reason more than enough to adbuster, sadly, it’s not the only one. In fact, criticising the capitalist corporate brand culture has many reasons that I’ll explain by showing some adbusters:
promote eating disorders,
and sex assault
Many advertisements use immoral persuasive tricks to sell products we don’t need
Many products that are harmful to health present unethical advertisements
Advertisements don’t represent reality causing frustration and delusion in society
The working conditions of many large corporations are unacceptable
Over production caused by mass consumerism is ecologically unsustainable
The Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (2011) declares that “we are all consumers now, consumers first and foremost, consumers by right and by duty. The day after the 11/9, outrage George W. Bush, when calling Americans to get over the trauma and go back to normal, found no better words than “go back shopping”. It is the level of our shopping activity and the ease with which we dispose of one object of consumption in order to replace it with a “new and improved” one which serves us as the prime measure of our social standing and the score in the life-success competition. To all problems we encounter on the road away from trouble and towards satisfaction we seek solutions in shops”. Bauman states what many already suspected: that we are not full citizens, but fool consumers.
Culture jamming makes us reconsider the way we buy and consequently the validity of our actual economic system: capitalism. Even if you agree with the reasons cited above, which would logically stop you from buying unnecessary stuff, in the same way a reasoned fear might arise in your mind: if we all stop buying, corporations will go bankrupt, there will be no jobs and the economy will fall. It’s not by chance that this warning pops up in your head. For too long now, political and cultural hegemonic discourse have made us believe that we, the people, don’t understand how economy works, that it’s too complicated for us and that we should trust them: what’s good for business corporations will eventually be good for us anyways… But in the midst of a deep financial crisis like the one we are suffering now, many people start to doubt whether capitalism is in crisis or is in fact the crisis.
Not only Bush encouraged citizens to continue buying, check out this TV spot aired by the Spanish television, which promotes the consumption of branded products:
“For lack of a nail a horseshoe was lost, for lack of a horseshoe a horse was lost, for lack of a horse a knight was lost, for lack of a knight a battle was lost, and thus the whole kingdom was lost. All this because of a missing nail. Consume branded products. We all win”—Own translation.
This apocalyptic commercial puts pressure on us to continue consuming branded products threatening us to become responsible for the fall of the whole society otherwise. Although this spot is too alarmist, it’s undeniable that the crack of mass consumerism would shake the basis of capitalism. Nevertheless, I think the time has come to wonder… What about the devastating ecological, political and psychological consequences of consuming as we do? Isn’t that driving us towards ‘the end’? And finally: Do we actually have no other option than to consume compulsively? The hegemonic power, which profits from this system, has made us believe there’s in fact no other world possible. Beyond calling into question the suitability of capitalism, culture jamming reveals that there’s no room in our society to think outside the box.
But the pillars that make adbusters strong – it’s empowering nature, the opportunity to create community through dialogue, the consciousness-raising and free critical-public-pedagogic aim– generate citizens to evaluate the content and broader implications of commercial advertisements and reconsider the status quo (Curry-Tash, 1998, p.43). I truly believe that culture jamming offers the basis for a necessary social transformation by subverting the production of the dominant social structures and power relations that are responsible of the inequities and injustices of the current state of affairs.
Now that all has been said, Just do it! Culture jam I mean
Bauman, Z. (2011). ‘The London Riots – On Consumerism coming Home to Roost’ (2011) Social-europe.eu. Retrieved June 7, 2012, from http://www.social-europe.eu/2011/08/the-london-riots-on-consumerism-coming-home-to-roost/
Cammaerts, Bart (2007). Jamming the political: beyond counter-hegemonic practices. Continuum: journal of media & cultural studies, 21 (1). pp. 71-90
Cherrier, H. (2008). Anti-consumption discourses and consumer-resistant identities. Journal of Business Research 62 (2009) pp. 181-190
Curry-Tash, M (1998). The Politics of Teleliteracy and Adbusting in the Classroom. The English Journal, Vol. 87, No. 1, Media Literacy (Jan, 1998), pp. 43-48. Retrieved June, 1, 2012, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/822020
Darts, D. (2004). Visual Culture Jam: Art, Pedagogy, and Creative Resistance. Studies in Art Education, Vol. 45, No. 4 (Summer, 2004), p. 313-327. Retrieved June 1, 2012, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1321067
Giroux, H. (1981). Hegemony, resistance, and the paradox of educational reform. Interchange on Educational Policy, 12(2), 3-26
Klein, N. (1999). No Logo: no space, no choice, no jobs: taking aim at the brand bullies. New York: Picador
Sandlin, J. & Milam, J. (2008). “Mixing Pop (Culture) and Politics”: Cultural Resistance, Culture Jamming, and Anti-Consumption Activism as Critical Public Pedagogy. by: The Ontario Institute for Studies