Culture Jamming and Meme-based Communication
Growing numbers of observers contend that the dominant public role of our time has shifted from citizen to consumer. Indeed, respondents in polls typically cite entertainment, shopping, and other consumer activities as their top free time preferences. Commercial media and public entertainment venues offer environments carefully constructed to avoid politics and real world problems that might disturb these consumer impulses.
As people in global societies increasingly enjoy the freedoms of private life, it becomes increasingly difficult to communicate about many broad public concerns. The personalized society enables people to choose individual lifestyles and identities that often lead to disconnection from politics. Many citizens become receptive only to consumer-oriented messages about tax cuts, retirement benefits, or other policies targeted at particular demographic social groups.
Culture jamming is an intriguing form of political communication that has emerged in response to the commercial isolation of public life. Practitioners of culture jamming argue that culture, politics, and social values have been bent by saturated commercial environments, from corporate logos on sports facilities, to television content designed solely to deliver targeted audiences to producers and sponsors. Many public issues and social voices are pushed to the margins of society by market values and commercial communication, making it difficult to get the attention of those living in the "walled gardens" of consumerism. Culture jamming presents a variety of interesting communication strategies that play with the branded images and icons of consumer culture to make consumers aware of surrounding problems and diverse cultural experiences that warrant their attention.
Many culture jams are simply aimed at exposing questionable political assumptions behind commercial culture so that people can momentarily consider the branded environment in which they live. Culture jams refigure logos, fashion statements, and product images to challenge the idea of "what's cool," along with assumptions about the personal freedoms of consumption. Some of these communiqués create a sense of transparency about a product or company by revealing environmental damages or the social experiences of workers that are left out of the advertising fantasies. The logic of culture jamming is to convert easily identifiable images into larger questions about such matters as corporate responsibility, the "true" environmental and human costs of consumption, or the private corporate uses of the "public" airwaves.
The basic unit of communication in culture jamming is the meme: the core unit of cultural transmission. Memes are condensed images that stimulate visual, verbal, musical, or behavioral associations that people can easily imitate and transmit to others (see Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, second edition 1989). For example, culture jammers play on familiar commercial memes such as the Nike swoosh, the McDonald's happy meal, or the Coca Cola polar bears to engage people of different political persuasions in thinking about the implications of their fashion statements or eating habits. In one example, a jammer named Jonah Peretti strained the purity of the Nike image by creating an email exchange with a custom Nike web site that refused his request to put the word "sweatshop" on his custom Nikes. This e-mail circulated in viral fashion to a huge population worldwide. As a result of the meme play with a popular icon and the paths through which such messages often travel, Peretti's culture jam made its way quickly into mass media news and culture content. As a result, mass media content became a carrier of questions about the limits of consumer freedom and the fashion statement involving expensive shoes made by child sweatshop labor.
For Kalle Lasn, one of the founders of Adbusters, the best culture jam is one that introduces a meta-meme, a two-level message that punctures a specific commercial image, but does so in a way that challenges some larger aspect of the political culture of corporate domination. One metameme, noted above, is "true cost" which conveys the larger environmental and human costs of products beyond their sales price to the consumer. Another is "Media Carta" which calls for a serious charter to make the public airwaves truly public, and not just a corporate domain. Another is the call to rewrite the corporate "genetic code" so that corporations have less license to become social and environmental predators, and more responsibility to contribute to the well being of society. For example, a TV "subvertisement" produced by Adbusters begins with a series of tobacco executives lying to congressional hearings (the specific product/corporate jam) and ends with the question of whether such corporations should be allowed to exist (the meta-meme). Yet because of the lack of well developed public media rights (the "Media Carta" meta-meme), Adbusters has had little success in getting broadcasters to sell air time for these subvertisements. Most broadcasters reject the ads on grounds that they might contaminate the purity of media environments designed exclusively for communicating commercial messages.
Culture jamming and meme-driven communication offer interesting windows on the transformation of politics and communication in our time. We are interested in studying these developments and learning how they may be useful in striking a balance between commercial values and other human interests in society.
CCCE has conducted an original interview with Kalle Lasn, Culture Jams and Meme Warfare.
Definitions and Perspectives
Jonah Peretti's essay on culture jamming and the future of culture jamming campaigns.
With this essay Peretti shares the experience of his ironic e-mail exchange with a custom Nike Website. Asking for a pair of Nikes with the word “sweatshop” attached to it he provoked a reaction contrary to the feel of the brand and its slogan. The narrative easily crossed different personal networks and has been forwarded to probably one million people. Peretti offers reflections on both the nature of the story and the future of viral branded communication.
Mark Dery (1999) Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing and Sniping in the Empire of Signs. Grove Press.
This article popularized the term Culture Jamming and sketches a definition of the concept. Many times republished on the Web, this text serves as a Culture Jamming Manifesto for many.
Sven Woodside (2001) Every joke is a tiny revolution. Culture Jamming and the role of humour. Media Studies, University of Amsterdam, Final M.A. Thesis
After giving a general introduction to Culture Jamming, Woodside draws on different forms of humor and relates them to Billboard Alterations and Culture Jamming. Exploring 25 of those Subvertisements in the public domain by semiotic methods and supplementing the available literature with 25 e-mail interviews, this thesis is the most comprehensive and detailed overview for Subvertising, Billboard Alteration, Culture Jamming and the underlying motives. Skillfully composed jokes and humor are shown to be “a very powerful tool” easing acceptance of radical ideas and appealing to groups of people with diverse backgrounds.
Describes Culture Jamming as “experimental and playful activities that question underlying social relations with the place of the media in society,” he rejects the notion of citizens as merely consumers. Cox frames Culture Jammers in the DIY culture of the 1970s and ‘80s and the counter-cultural spirit traced back to the Beatniks. He interprets Culture Jamming as one branch of a bigger field of media activism or popular media resistance that especially attracts an urban youth that is framed mainly negatively in the media and whose cultural spaces are being closed in favor of commercial interests. Culture Jamming aesthetic, following Cox, derives from a two-way conversation with the found material that is being used for a personal message thus reworking the one-way flow of media. The demand for glossy marketing images brought many artists into the realm of Design and Advertising that also enjoy subverting those images and circulating them through the Internet, a space that can hardly be censored.
Dagny Nome (2001) Culture Jamming, Promotional Culture - Seminar in Intercultural Management. Copenhagen Business School, Unpublished Final Paper
Nomy starts her analysis with a discussion of branding and its effects for identity construction and presents Culture Jamming, which she understands mainly as Subvertising. This war on brands borrows methods from theorist-artist Guy Debord and the Situationists Internationals. As negative associations with their brands do influence corporate reputation and identity, Culture Jamming is to be seen as a third vector alongside the producers and consumers of brands in the dynamic process of image construction. She precisely points out the weak spot in building brands. “When corporations brand themselves as responsible corporate citizens, they are expected to behave as such.”
Matt Soar. "The Politics of Culture Jamming: Adbusters on the Web and in Print" (link not available).
Soar, a former volunteer at Adbusters Magazine, is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His article presents himself being torn between being a designer agreeing with Adbusters editor Lasn’s First Thing First 2000 Manifesto and a cultural critic highlighting intellectual flaws and programmatic incoherence in the project called “Culture Jamming”. Adbusters critique of “the Left” together with TV-pundits’ and academics’ assumed ineffectiveness alienates potential sympathizers and “rapidly paint(s) themselves into a corner”. Finally he warns that the involved designers’ commitment is fragile and can easily shift as it mainly depends on the fun factor of “cooking up trouble for contemporary capitalism”.
Graham Meikle. "Gwbush.com Tactical Media Strike" (link not available).
Using the concept of Tactical Media developed by Geert Lovink and David Garcia, Meikle discusses the publicity success of the clone website that ®™ark made of the official 1999 G. W. Bush Campaign Website. The fact that G. W. Bush reacted to the charges of cocaine consumption publicly provided extensive media coverage (ABCNews, USA Today, Newsweek, New York Times) and a platform for the activists’ issues. (See also the clone website and documented media coverage in the “Examples & Sample Websites” section below.)
Olli Schneider, Wege aus dem Spektakel? Eine Untersuchung von Methoden von Situationisten und Culture Jammern. Hochschule fuer Grafik und Buchkunst Leipzig, Fachbereich Fotografie, Theoretische Diplomarbeit
Schneider discusses the ideas and ideals of Guy Debord and the International Situationists in order to contrast them with one part of Culture Jamming, Subvertising. By exploring the origins of the concept of the Society of Spectacle and the function of Détournements he shows one important influence factor in the development of the Culture Jamming scene. Being a graphic designer and photographer himself, Schneider asks, if Culture Jamming can be an effective way to step out of the spectacle.
Activists & Organizations
Adbusters.org is the Website outlet of the Vancouver-based quarterly magazine Adbusters published by the Media Foundation. The team around founder Kalle Lasn projects its anti-consumerist messages through sophisticated marketing techniques. One of the best-known websites on Culture Jamming it features the magazine, merchandising and a web gallery which shows the work of diverse groups. For a CCCE interview with Kalle Lasn, please click here.
Negativland is the experimental-music and art collective that coined the term "culture-jamming" in 1984. Negativland's view of corporate culture from outside its fringes, and their first confrontation with what they consider to be the ill-advised aspects of our nation's copyright laws, produced the 1995 book "Fair Use: The Story Of The Letter U And The Numeral 2." Mark Hosler of Negativland has recently given talks and performances in Seattle and at the University of Washington.
Culture Jamming 101
Andrew Boyd, author, artist and grassroots publicist, self-proclaimed “pioneer of viral activism” and associate professor at the New York University founded and directed for several years the Arts and Action Program of United for a Fair Economy (UFE) and now offers workshops and training in Culture Jamming, Media Pranks and Viral Communication. He was the driving force behind the Election Campaign Parody “Million Billionaire March” in 2000. The performance of hundreds of New Yorkers dressed up as millionaires demanding to be freed completely from social responsibility in exchange for their contributions to the presidential election campaigns. The Million Billionaire March combined elements of Street Theater, Subversive Affirmation, Creative Action with a carnevalesque atmosphere. The action was backed up by a website that is now offline.
Andrew Boyd’s Article “Truth is a Virus: Meme Warfare and the Billionaires for Bush (or Gore),” first published in: Cultural Resistance, Ed. Steven Duncombe, Verso, April 2002.
Billboard Liberation Front
The Billboard Liberation Front is one of the most known groups of subvertisers, altering billboards in the San Francisco Area since 1977.
Subvertise (link not available) is a web gallery sharing hundreds of subvertisements and advertisement parodies. It is also possible to obtain spoof banners that link to random web designers.
The group behind this website understands ®™ark as a corporation investing in cultural capital by funding acts of cultural sabotage. The posted ideas range from silly pranks to skillful Culture Jams to serious vandalism. Mocking the limited liability usually granted to business investors by their setup, ®™ark’s ultimate goal is to be sued - and lose, thus ironically challenging the fact that corporations enjoy the same rights as U.S. citizens but are not liable the same way. Besides the brokerage of funds for this kind of projects the website links to a free download option for the software “Floodnet” that can be used for denial-of-service attacks, theorized as virtual sit-ins. Also links to The Yes Men’s “Reamweaver”, a software allowing easy website cloning.
Memefest (link unavailable) focused on the production of memes. From their site: "Feeling the full force of consumer consciousness and information overload lately, culturally-savvy students from Slovenia have responded with a call to explore the power that targetted ideas (memes), have to spin the social fabric. As a semi-virtual space and festival, Memefest intends to generate and release helpful memes which may bring some balance back into a brand-crazy world."
General Articles & Interviews
Lisa Prothers, Culture Jamming: An Interview with Pedro Carvajal (link unavailable), in: Bad Subjects. Political Education for Everyday Life, Issue 37, March 1998
Pedro Carvajal directed two documentaries about Culture Jamming groups Cicada and Artfux who are active in the New York Area. In the interview, Carvajal talks about the development from defacing only tobacco and alcohol billboards to generally attacking advertising “detrimental to society” in order “to convey that there are more important things than making a profit." For him, product recognition is only valid if there is being a negative message attached to the brand or company. Although Culture Jamming is mainly attractive to young people who like to express their radical attitude - and experience the adrenaline rush - Carvajal believes it can change views and in the longer run change policies. He states that the use of the Internet is crucial for local actions to achieve a bigger impact.
Alissa Quart, Cultural Sabotage Waged in Cyberspace, in: New York Times August 17, 2000.
This short newspaper article is a good entry point for the cultural politics of ®™ark’s “cultural sabotage corporation.” It introduces one of its successful lawsuits and shows some limits to their agenda.
Warren Berger, Commercial Rebellion. Advertising’s voracious appetite for underground culture swallows another victim: culture jamming. In: Metropolis, October 2000.
Presenting various examples, Berger argues that Culture Jamming techniques have already been incorporated into the language of the advertising industry.
Examples & Sample Websites
Billboard Liberation Front
The loose network of people connected as the Billboard Liberation Front makes well-planned changes on billboard advertising, then informs journalists and republishes the media coverage with photographs of the actions on their website.
Catastrophic Climate Change
This Subvertisement uses the style with which SUVs are marketed and contrasts their gas consumption with their imagined “playing field”, the open wild. The image is accessible over the Internet, can be sent to peers or printed for circulation. Adbusters regularly collects donations to place Subvertisements in print media or uncommercials in broadcast media.
"Sweat Gear" is a parody mail-order clothing catalog created for the Anti-Sweatshop Organization CISPES in 1995. Using the established mail-order catalog aesthetic the parody is obvious from the very beginning.
WTO Parody: GATT is a copy of the WTO Website and continuously receives e-mail from people who think they visited the WTO Website. ®™ark and its associates, The Yes Men, responsible for the clone, already fooled a Swiss lawyers’ association into inviting one of their peers to a conference. Using the search engine Google with “WTO” and “GATT”, gatt.org is the third hit on display.
Dow Parody: Dow-Toxical imitates the Dow Chemical Company’s Website in order to demand clean-up operations and reparation for the victims of the accident in Bhopal/India that happened on the site of Union Carbide, now merged with Dow. It also contains other charges from environmentalists about Dow’s misdeeds that are presented as the company’s own PR. Formerly registered and later shut down under the URL http://www.dow-chemical.com. An example of how the software Dreamweaver allowed easy copying and editing of target websites, and proved effective in keeping the clones online. About a dozen of new clones appeared after the shutdown of the original one. See the press release issued by The Yes Men.
During the 1999 election campaign ®™ark helped launch a website cloned from George W. Bush’s official campaign website. Slight changes had been made to the content of the Homepage suggesting that national politics were serving mainly corporate interests and the rest of the site contained material from ®™ark’s own website.
A group of Vienna-based artists and activists opened up an information center on the historic Karlsplatz to “inform” the public about the renaming of the plaza into Nike Plaza and the construction of a gigantic red swoosh sculpture at the adjoining park. Their Website that goes along with the guerilla theater imitates the marketing aesthetics of Nike and appears to be an original Nike Website announcing the Plaza project in Vienna and in other cities over the world to come. With this intervention, in the form of subversive affirmation, the group exaggerates Nike’s branding campaign. The site sparked a wave of citizen protest directed at the Vienna city council.