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Culture Jamming
Dissent: Volume 6 of the Helter Skelter Anthology of New Writing

Culture Jamming

The phenomenon of mass globalisation and profligate spending as we know it really took shape in the early part of the 20th century. Many of the marketing campaigns and techniques of major corporations, in the early years, ideologically corrupt as they might be, were essential to generate a well-off economy. However in the following years, holding that almost utopian image of a better lifestyle as ransom and avoiding intervention by governments and lawmakers, the idea of globalisation ran amok, filthy with fraudulent practices.

Helter Skelter: Culture Jamming
Helter Skelter: Culture Jamming
Helter Skelter: Culture Jamming
Helter Skelter: Culture Jamming
Helter Skelter: Culture Jamming
Helter Skelter: Culture Jamming
Helter Skelter: Culture Jamming

Corporations soon discovered that profits lay not in manufacturing and marketing of products, but in selling branded identities people would adopt in their lifestyles. Products would become secondary to an idea, itself devalued by losing an essential connection to a belief or action. The measure of a successful brand became not a mark of quality of the product but rather how far it could permeate the culture creating a stratosphere of the ‘super brand’. Brands like Nike, Coca Cola, Tommy Hilfiger and McDonald’s, became revered symbols worldwide, accomplishing an assault on the public sphere in the form of corporate sponsorship, bombarding potential consumers with images, with blatant disregard for decency or the sanctity of personal space.

In the current climate, despite the promise of choice and interactivity, there in reality has been a drastic reduction in options as it goes, with the rise in corporate consolidation and a corporate monopoly of the market. Increasing number of companies have begun to adopt what can be best described as Nike’s ‘paradigm of sweatshops’ company model, involving outsourcing to low-wage workers in developing countries, further contributing to the diminishing global job quality.

In spite of the fact that several of these multimillion dollar corporations appear to be concerned with the uniqueness of their customers, in reality they tend to paint every customer with the same brush, exploiting the media to instill into the public minds carefully selected messages of globalisation and mass consumerism, using advertising to inform values and assumptions of the cultural system, while determining social standards and equating personal happiness with accumulation of materialistic possessions. Corporations detest citizens thinking outside the box, seeing that ideas of individualism and distinctiveness are considered to be the enemy, given that by their thought process, freedom of choice should be restricted to, in essence, choosing from several predetermined options.

It can be largely agreed upon that the prevalence of these voracious practices at present poses a legitimate threat to the overall authority of the public good. These corporations unmistakably invade people’s privacy, manipulate politics and governments, creating unduly false needs in people, who are in more and more numbers acting out against this almost imperialistic rule. This backlash against the increasing economic and cultural reach of multinational companies has taken the form of a cultural movement consisting not of intellectuals, politicians, or even musicians that are no doubt indebted to these corporations themselves, but rather independent, free thinking artists who still possess the creative license to point out the discrepancies and more often than not unlawful practices of these corporate giants.

The movement of ‘Culture Jamming’ is designed as a means to force a dialogue with an agenda of altering globalisation practices. Culture jamming baldly rejects the idea that because marketing buys its way into our public spaces, it must be passively accepted as a one-way information flow. A consumer’s response to corporate restraints within a capitalist society, this activist movement involves the act of transforming exciting mass media such as billboards and logos, hijacking these images to produce commentary about itself using the original mediums communication method.

Playing with these heavily circulated images that are already infused into the public’s general consensus, it aims not only to expose corporate agendas with government propaganda, along with seizing back commercialised private spaces, but also to enlighten the public and provide them with knowledge to make informed decisions and possibly even change consuming habits. These jammers have the ability to raise issues that are purposely kept out of public knowledge; environmental issues, child labour and exploitation, health issues, and the driving of small businesses into bankruptcy, all issues that jammers bring to the foreground, which corporations would most likely suppress. Repeated instances of culture jamming have dealt a heavy blow to corporate giants, adversely affecting both public approval and more importantly customers.

Although in practice since the ’50s with the Situationists in France, the term was reportedly coined by obscure experimental band Negativland, who championed it to become a catch-all word for modern day anti-globalisation practices, such as billboard alternations and other forms of media sabotage. Media and economic theorist Noam Chomsky has been highly influential along with No Logo, the bestselling book by Canadian journalist and activist Naomi Klein acting as almost a manifesto for anti-globalisation resistors on its release in 2000.

Ron English has been a prominent figure in the culture jamming movement since the ’80s with his brand of satirical and subversive ‘popaganda’. His formative work in billboard subvertising or changing advertising was extremely significant in establishing and changing the radical ideas of corporate speech and individuality. Roaming the streets with a bucket of glue, a set of rollers, and a few trusted collaborators, he plastered his work in broad daylight on billboards he didn’t own, changing meaning in a matter of minutes, intent on stimulating curiosity, forcing people to question the system, and often having to incur the wrath of law enforcement.

Cuban-born artist Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada, based in New York, began injecting art into the urban landscape and changing billboards in order to bring attention to the problem of disproportionate advertising in minority areas and transforming legitimacy and the so-called good intentions of the corporations in the eyes of the consumer. He believes staunchly in reclaiming the public spaces that have been snatched from our hands by advertisers and corporate manipulation while cementing the fact that our identity should come from within and not from the brands we wear.

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Creating an altered sense of the original content, refiguring iconic imagery, and making us rethink the way we interact with dominant cultural figures isn’t restricted to billboards alone. Cult graphic artist and one of the most visible practitioners of guerrilla-style art, Shepard Fairey achieved notoriety with his ubiquitous Orwellian posters of Andre the Giant, featuring the nonspecific command to “Obey.” A star in the world of street art for nearly two decades, Fairey has nurtured a reputation of a heroic artist single handedly waging a war against the corporate powers, producing works usually displayed illegally on buildings and signs.

Another anti-consumerist organisation exploring ideas about corporate control over information flows is ‘Adbusters’, who literally deconstruct corporate culture with a waterproof magic marker and a bucket of wheat paste. The encroachment of big-name brands on the daily lives of citizens has led to an array of in-your-face countermeasures by members of this group, witnessing the icons of corporate power subverted and mocked. Such ‘adbusting’ practices have been carried out against a number of major corporate entities: Levi’s, Ford, and Apple, amongst others.

Some of the most notorious events include turning cigarette mascot Joe Camel into Joe Chemo, hooked up to an IV machine, or sabotaging Apple’s ‘Think Different’ campaign, featuring dead famous figures by replacing them with the face of serial killer Charles Manson or Stalin, and the altered slogan of ‘Think Really Different’ accompanying the Apple logo, which is morphed into a skull. Street theatre and public pranks carried out on the expense of major corporations by artist collectives such as ‘The Yes Men’ and the ‘Cacophony Society’ hints at the movement now gaining momentum and public support.

Cyberspace has been a godsend to most culture jammers, offering endless possibilities. The intensification of individual expression and anonymity across the internet has led to a remarkable increase in the communication of the idea across the world, free of censorship by both state and corporation. This homemade media bashing has obliterated what the corporations have fought so hard to establish, a corporate rule by granting a certain notoriety to hackers, who have hacked time and time again into websites of major corporations such as Nike, defacing logos with anti-globalisation messages or redirecting visitors to a site exposing the inhumane practices being observed in the company’s sweatshops.

Though many conservatives and high-powered executives regard the practice of culture jamming as futile vandalism, the movement has acquired an almost quasi-revolutionary following, with average citizens taking to the streets, striving to uncover the truth hidden beneath layers of advertising euphemisms and the selling of mass-produced lifestyles.

View Comments (4)
  • Good shit man. I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of cultural jamming and flash mobs and other forms of anti-consumerist protest. Sure, I don’t expect it to ever make a huge impact, but in an environment like ours, we constantly need to remind advertisers and corporates that WE are still around and that not everyone buys into what they’re selling so easy. It’s good to keep them on their toes.

    Plus, vandalism is fun.

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