Culture Jamming: Subversion as Protest

Many of today’s most urgent political struggles are defined not by citizen-government conflict but by tension between consumers and corporations. The pharmaceutical industry’s opioid epidemic, Big Food’s obesity crisis, and a climate emergency created by the fossil fuel industry all point to industry’s pervasive influence in the modern world order. In 2018, 157 of the world’s richest 200 entities were private companies. Behemoth firms like Royal Dutch Shell and Wal-Mart have net yearly earnings that outstrip most countries’ GDPs. As Canadian writer John Ralston Saul put it, wealthy CEOs are writing their own rules for the international economy, engaging in a “coup d’état in slow motion.”

Politics, however, is not the sole fountainhead of power – as corporations have fought to write the rules of trade, they have cemented their power with the mortar of culture. For the private sector, the citizen’s primary public role is the consumer, and the dominant mode of communication is the advertisement, broadly defined. Corporate imagery — logos, slogans, mascots, jingles, and more — has long been more recognizable than the face of Jesus Christ.

This presents a problem for activists looking to challenge the status quo. As cultural critic Mark Dery puts it, dissenters face manifold challenges as they try to “box with shadows” and target the slippery, intangible specter of imagery, “the empire of signs.”

If advertisement and image are the main ways that corporations engage with the public, these outward-facing facets of their identities also represent the chinks in their armor. Activists — who are often relatively disempowered due to their lack of resources to amplify their movements’ messaging — can utilize the vast resources that have been poured into corporate logos and imaging for their own benefit. This strategy is called “culture jamming”: By using the corporate tools of advertisement for their own purposes, jammers piggyback off of the power structures they hope to target. In this way, as Saul Alinsky writes in Rules for Radicals, “the superior strength of the Haves becomes their own undoing.”

The Language of Memes

Coined in 1984 by the alternative band Negativland, “culture jamming” originally referred to the alteration of existing imagery in order to amplify jammers’ own, alternative messages. It was the year of Reagan’s reelection, in the middle of a decade when the government seemed to be in retreat. “Man is not free unless government is limited,” the 40th president said in his 1989 Farewell Address. Privatization policies that reduced corporate taxes and snubbed the public sector set the stage for an explosion of public-private partnerships, blurring the lines between cultural and commercial. As the state receded and corporations gained greater political power, corporate advertising rapidly encroached on public space — it was in public universities, on public transit, in public libraries. Even public space in the broadest sense was saturated with advertisements; between the airwaves (TV), the soundwaves (radio), and the visual environment (billboards), corporate influence was virtually inescapable.

Objections to this new, corporate world order fomented a resistance that was often explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist. These themes laid the foundation for the culture jamming movement of the ‘80s and ‘90s, when activists frequently sought to expose hypocrisies or injustices underlying seductive corporate advertisement. Through the lens of the culture jammer, “Joe Camel” became “Joe Chemo.” Absolut brand vodka was jammed as “Absolut Nonsense.” 

The genius of culture jamming was that it allowed activists to leverage an extensive, pre-existing groundwork of brand-building. Near the turn of the century, anti-corporate activists lacked the resources or connections to amplify their critiques of labor practices, environmental affronts, and other malfeasances. Industry, on the other hand, was investing millions of dollars in iconography that distilled its entire persona into a single image, phrase, or idea: iconic representations on which culture jammers could easily capitalize. By hijacking this self-promotion machine, culture jammers forced the corporations in question to foot the bill for their own opposition campaigns.

Culture jammers’ other epiphany was that image, rather than text, had become the prevailing form of public address. The meme — defined by Richard Dawkins as “condensed images that stimulate visual, verbal, musical, or behavioral associations” — was being used by big industry to assert its influence over popular culture. Many of these associations are so familiar they have become trite: Coca-Cola and youthful energy; Nike and athletic excellence; and Apple and creativity. The careful cultivation and dissemination of memes enabled rapid, passive communication from big industry to the consumer, commodifying culture as a means for greater market control.

But if these simulacra served corporations, they were also a tool for activists seeking to criticize complex power structures. By communicating visually, culture jammers became activist-artists. They supplanted the written manifesto with their chosen mode of discourse, speaking volumes about their opponents more rapidly, more efficiently, and — arguably — more compellingly than through text.

Beyond Pranking: Culture Jamming as “Meme Warfare”

Culture jams connote humor; they are commonly viewed, and belittled, as the antics of a prankster. There is certainly something laughable about jams like “Virginia Slime” and “Utter Fool” (rather than Ultra Kool) brand cigarettes, which turn corporate messaging on its head. But humor is just one part of the grand strategy of what Kalle Lasn, chief editor of AdBusters Magazine, has called “meme warfare,” which pits culture manufacturers — big industry — against the dissenting voice of the culture jammer. 

Nowhere has the spectrum of humor been used to greater success than in the anti-tobacco activism of the late 20th century. For example, in 1997 the New York anti-tobacco lobby bought hundreds of taxi ads for “Cancer Country” brand cigarettes. Other activists pretended to peddle “Scramel” cigarettes, which they reported to be “so fresh they’re insulting!” But at the same time that culture jammers were portraying the Philip Morris camel’s phallic nose as a flaccid, impotent penis, other protestors were speaking out against Big Tobacco with angrier, more explicit voices. For example, there was New York City priest and activist Rodriguez de Gerada, who took to the streets of New York City in the 1990s with a mission. On tobacco billboards, he amended the standard surgeon general’s warning with his own, more combative message: “Struggle General’s Warning: Blacks and Latinos are the prime scapegoats for illegal drugs, and the prime targets for legal ones.”

The best culture jams are able to navigate and reconcile this apparent divide between antics and political protest by operating on two levels simultaneously. On the surface, they are highly specific, seeking to puncture the seductions of a target advertisement. But on a deeper level, they fit into a broader framework that seeks to challenge larger cultural norms and political agendas. 

The anti-tobacco ads, for example, called out a panoply of the industry’s specific misdemeanors, from deceptions about the risks of smoking, to irresponsible advertising to minors, to the manufactured association between cultural capital and their deadly product. The movement’s overarching demand, however, was more sweeping: the culture jammers exhorted corporations like Philip Morris to take responsibility for the damage they had knowingly caused to public health.

And it worked. Although Big Tobacco was toppled by a coalition of legal, academic, and nongovernmental forces, culture jams helped create an impetus for change by reimagining cultural norms around smoking and tobacco. By 1990, tobacco advertising had been expelled from television and radio, smoking had been banned on commercial airplanes, and it was mandated that cigarettes must be packaged with explicit health warnings and images that represented some of smoking’s most gruesome health consequences.

By 2010, the tobacco industry was decimated. Not only had it lost capital in a monetary sense, it had lost cultural capital, never again to regain the influence it wielded in the early 1900s, the days of its supremacy. This is the incredible, radically democratic power of the culture jam. As Lasn told the HPR, every corporation operates on an implicit charter granted by the people — the public grants them permission to exist. In this way, Lasn argued that “we the people” can alter corporate charters by adding our own clauses. And in the most extreme cases, the public deserves the right to “unplug” bad actors: “We have to have the power of killing off corporations that have betrayed the public trust.”

Modern Resistance: Jamming Like it’s Jazz

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, culture jamming had a stick-it-to-the-man kind of mentality that allowed activists to imagine themselves outside the systems they were protesting. For this era’s anti-corporate culture jammers, there was a notion that they operated from a realm outside of capitalism, and commerce of any kind tainted one’s politics. Today, however, it is much harder to reject outright the influence of large corporations, and — as some social scientists note — Millennials and Gen-Zers may not even want to. Modern activists express their discontent through branding, by choosing (or starting) indie labels or socially- or environmentally-conscious businesses. Even the tools of modern activism — social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter — are decidedly corporate. 

Or, in a bizarre twist, the corporations preempt public criticism by becoming activists themselves – at least nominally. So-called “corporate responsibility” schemes have boomed since 2010, decorated with the vernacular of environmental sustainability and social justice. Today, 85 percent of the companies listed in the S&P 500 file their own sustainability reports, for example. “This is both good and bad,” Lance Bennett, director of the Center for Communication and Civic Engagement at the University of Washington, told the HPR. Good because corporate responsibility has become more institutionalized, but bad because it allows corporations to purchase a social license through advertising. “The trend is to spend money on advertising and not change,” ClientEarth lawyer Sophie Marjanac said in an interview with the HPR, speaking of the fossil fuel industry. Marjanac’s firm is currently involved in a complaint against BP for ads that claim BP is “working to get energy that’s cleaner and better,” despite 96 percent of its annual spending going towards oil and gas.

In general, the public’s interactions with the media have gotten much more complex since the turn of the century. At that time, many activists focused on the unidirectional nature of cultural communication. This was most apparent when television was still the dominant form of corporation-to-consumer information dissemination; purely passive, with virtually no mode of recourse (or discourse) for those who disagreed. But today’s interactive media environment is multidirectional. While corporations still have disproportionate access to channels of mass communication, the rise of grassroots, alternative, and social media has, in a way, democratized communication. It is now easier for a culture jammer to talk back to corporate advertisement, but a cluttered media landscape makes it harder for them to cut through the noise.

The “post-truth” nature of modern media has also complicated the role of culture jamming. “We’re in an age when actual news is being brought under the microscope,” said Christine Harold, a professor of Communications at the University of Washington, in an interview with the HPR. “There are legitimate disinformation campaigns out there … being used to oppress people, to suppress voters, to sway public opinion.” Even if culture jammers’ primary tools — parody, prank, satire — are used for different ends, Harold warned that the cultural moment has changed; it is worth interrogating the role of a tactic based on distortion. 

At the same time, activists note that it is not only the media environment that has shifted; the stakes have also changed. Lasn argued that the urgency of modern crises — of climate, of public health, of corruption in government — calls for responses far deeper than parody in order to challenge the political and economic paradigms at their heart. “We need radical surgery at the guts of our global system, to start veering this human experiment in some sort of new direction,” Lasn said.

Specifically, both Lasn and Harold task modern culture jammers with building positive alternatives through their culture jams. As author and activist Naomi Klein has put it, “No is not enough.” Early anti-corporate protests may have been understood as brute sabotage — “jamming” in the sense of blockage, of literally jamming the cogs of a globalist machinery. But more recently, theorists like Mark LeVine have offered a different definition: “jamming” as if activists were a troupe of jazz musicians riffing on a standard piece of music, experimenting and expanding on it, making it do things it was never originally intended to do.

“It’s collaborative, it’s more impromptu,” Harold explained. “It says, ‘I’m going to learn the tools [of corporate America] and use them toward my own ends.’” This generous construction of culture jamming speaks to activist-artist coalitions, who can simultaneously criticize existing systems while offering a way forward into a different future. 

Fury — But Make it Sexy

The cultural moment has certainly changed since 1984, the Orwellian year when Negativland inadvertently introduced the vernacular of culture jamming to the public. Neither scholars nor activists talk much about memes (in the traditional sense) or “mimetics” (the study of memes) anymore. But this does not mean that their underlying concepts have faded or become irrelevant; corporate imagery — signs, logos, slogans, etc. — has become more sophisticated and more intrinsic to every aspect of daily life. Corporations’ control over culture — and, by proxy, over the political environment — is stronger than ever, calling for a forceful, decisive, vibrant resistance, even if that resistance looks different than the culture jams of decades past. 

Corporate marketing remains highly alluring — and dangerous. Through greenwashing, for example, the fossil fuel industry continues to delay meaningful climate action. Through sophisticated PR campaigns, pharmaceutical companies perpetuate drug addiction. Through highly-personalized advertising, food companies weaken efforts to address childhood obesity. When fighting back, Lasn calls for an opposition that utilizes the full spectrum of human emotion, from parodic humor to “F it all anger.” But culture jamming continues to be unified by a common theme of reproduction, a reflective quality that mirrors the bewitchment of big advertisers. As activists challenge the corporate coup d’état, their vision of the world must be at once cynical, furious, and hilarious but also just as seductive as the market world they seek to dismantle.

Image Credit: Unsplash / Paweł Czerwiński

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