Culture Jamming: Semiotic Banditry in the Streets

ImageBy Jan Lloyd




The rise of postmodern consumer culture and the growing awareness of the negative effects consumerism has on the environment have precipitated a backlash from many quarters. Ecological economists, environmentalists, ecofeminists and the like, have come to the fore to oppose the ecological and environmental degradation of our planet. Culture jamming is one reply amidst this growing awareness.

Culture jamming, although enjoying a resurgence, is not a new phenomenon. Contemporary culture jammers, however, are now jumping on the political bandwagon and concerning themselves with a wider range of environmental, social and cultural issues. Culture jammers are a loosely affiliated group of activists who use a particularly unique medium to strike back at the culture industry and the abusive practices and power of multinational corporations. This essay explores the role of discourse and visual art in the public sphere and their implementation as strategic tools in the semiotic warfare culture jammers wage. I have reviewed several of these groups and individuals in the hope of presenting a comprehensive range of their tactics, beliefs, and accomplishments. The question I am faced with, and attempt to answer, is: How effective is culture jamming as a political weapon and can it accomplish what it sets out to do?

The Historical Roots of Culture Jamming

Culture jamming’s historical roots lie within a revolutionary continuum that includes early punk rockers, the 60s hippie movement, the surrealists, Dadaists, and the 1957 Situationist International movement (Lasn, 2000, p.99). It was the Situationists that first coined the phrase detournement and demonstrated its power as a subversive tool for communication on the street. This student movement in Paris, led by Guy Debord, used and defineddetournement as “an image, message or artifact lifted out of its context to create new meaning” (Klein, 2000, p.282).

The term ‘culture jamming’ was coined in 1984 by the San Francisco band Negitivland, and jamming in this context comes from ham radio language, its original meaning being the illegal interruption of a signal. Culture jammers use the term for their tactics of hijacking , de-mything, un-cooling and subverting messages the culture industry relays to the public. Detournement is a tactic used extensively on billboards, commonly called billboard alteration or billboard banditry. “The skillfully reworked billboard.directs the public viewer to a consideration of the original corporate strategy” states a Negativland band member on the Album Jamcon, 1984 (Klein, 2000, p. 281). Culture jams are thus counter-messages. Jammers hack into a corporation’s method of communication to either subvert the intended message or expose the underlying truth of a corporation’s strategy.

Although culture jamming has enjoyed somewhat of a revival lately, there have been significant anticorporate campaigns executed in the past. Along with the short-lived Situationist movement, the genesis of the recent brand-based actions lies with the Nestle boycott, which peaked late 1970. Nestle was targeted for its marketing strategy, aimed at developing countries, which pushed its high priced baby formula as a “safer” alternative to breastfeeding (Klein, 2000).

There are many culture jamming groups who have been successfully hacking into corporate logos and advertising since the 70s. One successful group of billboard bandits that warrants mention is the Billboard Utilising Graffitists Against Unhealthy Promotions (BUGAUP). They reached their peak in 1983, causing an unprecedented $1 million dollars worth of damage to tobacco billboards in Sydney, Australia. Culture jammers use a variety of tactics and mediums (which I will expound upon later) and are a loose network of artists, activists, environmentalists, poets, philosophers, ecofeminists and the like.


The Public Sphere

The culture jamming movement (if one can be allowed to call it that), is about reclaiming urban spaces. For all the diversity of rhetoric and tactics engaged in by culture jammers this appears to be a unifying concern, which connects them to broader organised protests against the commodifying of culture (Baines, 2001). Thus, their main area of concern lies within the public sphere.

Habermas first introduced the notion of the public sphere as a space that mediates between society and state. He claimed this space as pivotal to the organisation of public opinion, which in turn allowed for a reformist, democratic process of decision-making (Louw, 2001, p93). Habermas wrote extensively on how the public sphere was a revolutionary site that allowed the bourgeoisie to ultimately overthrow feudal hegemony in Europe. The public sphere, to Habermas, was a place where ‘private persons’ could meet as if equals to discuss ‘public concerns’ (Fraser, 2000, p. 521). However, this utopian public space was never fully realised, for, once the bourgeoisie had dislodged feudalism, the public sphere was relegated to a form of hegemonic control, facilitating the new ruling class’s order rather than disrupting or challenging it. Horkheimer and Ardorno (1973) termed this new public sphere as ‘affirmative culture’, by which the public now affirms the existing hegemonic order (Louw, 2001, p95).

Habermas’ concept of the public sphere as a forum for public debate amongst equals does not, however, go unchallenged. He has been accused of presenting an idealized version of the freedom of speech that supposedly constituted the public sphere. Recent revisionist historiography has highlighted the exclusionary nature of Habermas’ liberal public sphere (Fraser, 2000, pp.520,521; Lees, 1998, p.237 ). This revisionist historiography suggests that the public sphere has never operated as a democratic, free space where alternative voices could be heard. A significant exclusion has been that of women. Joan Landes actually challenges the motivation of the construction of the public sphere under bourgeoisie terms. She asserts instead that, in France, it was constructed as a deliberate exclusionary fulcrum, in opposition to women’s salon culture (Fraser, 2000, p.521). Thus, the public sphere rests on “masculinist gender constructs which worked to exclude women and relegate their version of a public forum for discourse to the “artificial” and “effeminate” (Fraser, 2000, p.521). Geoff Ely contends that this exclusionary practice was typical of other European countries, not just France, and that it also incorporated the exclusion of people based on class and ethnicity (Fraser, 2000, p.521).

The culture industry and the commercialisation of the public sphere have also been attributed to the loss of public discourse. Kalle Lasn, (editor of the Adbusters magazine and prolific writer and activist) argues, “America is no longer a country. It’s a multi-trillion-dollar brand” (2000, p. xii). With the rise to power of several media megacorporations, which control our access to information, this, he asserts, causes the scope of public discourse to shrink, culminating in a lack of media space in which to address or challenge commercial corporate agendas (2000, p.24).

Horkheimer and Adorno in their chapter on “The Culture Industry” critique the culture industry as a site of “manipulation and retroactive need” whereby “consumer culture defanged political opposition by restructuring it as taste” (Holt, 2002, p71). Habermas termed this the “pseudo-public sphere” which deflected genuine public debate in favor of “public relations and passive spectatorship” (Livingston & Lunt, 1994, p. 10).Thus, advertising is a triumph of the culture industry through the channeling of consumers’ desires. Corporate brands are considered by culture jammers to in fact be waging war on public and individual space (Klein, 2000, p.5). This is culture jammers’ fiercest criticism of large corporations. They believe that, as members of the public, they have the right to reclaim this space.

Lasn draws attention to the guarantee of freedom of expression drawn up in the English Bill of Rights. Today, claims Lasn, this is a global imperative. He cites Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human rights which reads, in part: “Everyone has the hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers” (Lasn, 2000, p.186). These rights, claim culture jammers, are not being upheld.

Public Discourse: The Site of Cultural Production & Counter Messages

As we can see through historical accounts of exclusionary tactics, the public sphere has only ever been a site of communication and “free speech” for those that hold political, cultural, and economic power. In an interview with Pedro Carajal (winner of the Chicago International Film’s festival Silver Plaque award and ardent culture jammer), he was asked, “Do you think of billboard alteration as working to break down the outdoor advertising industry?” He replied, “Advertising is not just about manipulating people anymore. It’s about taking over their major environment” (Prothers, 1998).

Culture jammers believe that the aggressiveness and proliferation of advertising results in a one-way flow of information. In the movie Culture Jam: Hijacking Commercial Culture (2002), Carly Stasko (Zine publisher of Uncool), contends that “There is no medium to comment, no place on billboards to respond. All the space has been bought and paid for by large corporations, the only difference being that they have money and I don’t. I don’t think that’s a good enough reason” (paraphrased, 2002). Klien (2000) argues that just because advertising buys its way into our public spaces, we don’t have to accept this one-way flow. She advocates that, instead of asking for some space to be left, we need to start seizing it back (p.281).

In Textual Politics (1995), Lemke, in asking, “What is the role of discourse in the processes of social and cultural change in our community?” contends that because sign systems are semiotic resources and all discourse is social, “the deployment of linguistic resources (including graphics with writing) is essential to the social meaning of the result” (pp.100,102). Thus public discourse is an important site for the cultural production of meaning and as a tool to initiate change. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), as we have seen, ensures the right for all to engage in social discourse, and impart information. Akin to Habermas’ idealized version of the public sphere, however, there are implicit exclusions inherent within this social process that impedes certain groups from the deployment of linguistic resources.

According to Walter Benjamin (1968) art is a fertile site in which contradictory messages can be expressed, precisely due to its capacity to appear in many contexts (Less, 1998, p.273). Billboards can thus be viewed as private art in public spaces. They constitute a form of urban language. Culture jammers argue that this public art, sponsored by private companies, subverts the democratic process of free speech.

Culture jammers (amongst their many other activities), in turn use billboards to express their contradictory messages, as an act of free speech. When Perdo Carvajal was asked, “If billboard alteration is illegal how do you justify it?” his reply was that although others, particularly corporations, may argue that we’re infringing upon their right to express themselves, “.it’s my human right to deface a message if it’s a false statement. I have the right to change it” (Prothers, 1998). This is a reoccurring argument that culture jammers put forth. They claim that they have a right to alter billboards they never asked to see and cannot afford to answer with advertisements of their own.

Hodge and Kress (1988) describe the exclusionary process of public discourse as operating within what they call the logonomic system, which acts as a set of prescribed rules dictating “the conditions for production and reception of meaning” (p.4). Thus, communication is politically and ideologically proscribed, allowing some the power to initiate and produce meaning whilst excluding others. The media operate within this logonomic system and as such are positioned with the “forms and rights of access, modes of participation and types of influence”, which in turn exacerbates the inequalities of political influence (Livingstone and Lunt, 1994, p.12).

Culture jamming is a response to this logonomic system inherent within the hierarchically organised and exclusionary culture industry. This system allows paying corporations to buy public space to display their messages whilst delimiting, forestalling, or outlawing the public’s ability to produce texts of their own. Culture jammers base their actions of billboard banditry, street demonstrations, zines, etc, upon their human rights as citizens to ‘talk back’ to the messages they encounter. They actively write their theories in the streets, subverting the messages displayed in advertising, whilst graphically portraying a message of their own. To them the public sphere is a site of cultural meaning-making. Historically, many groups have been excluded from this process; now, culture jammers argue, the entire public is being excluded from discourse in the streets and in the ensuing cultural production of their society.

The Brand Empire

Before I proceed, I think it is important that we look at the rise of the corporate brand, for this is one of the main targets of culture jammers. What exactly is a corporate brand and what does it set out to do? The corporate brand is the central meaning that provides the basis for identity programs, strategies, and competitive thrust to the individual brands within a corporation’s portfolio. Branding and advertising are not one and the same thing. The brand resides at the core of a corporation whilst advertising is just one of the strategies used to convey the brand identity and meaning. This brand identity or “corporate consciousness” was firmly in place by the end of the 1940s (Klein, 2000, pp.5-7). Companies have always used advertising to promote their products in socially and culturally proscribed ways. Recently, however, brands have sought to “take these associations out of the representational realm and make them a lived reality” (Klein, 2000, p.28).

Consumer culture is the ideological infrastructure that dictates and motivates people’s activities of consumption. Capitalism rests on the construct of the individual and their freedom of choice. This paved the way for large corporations and marketing firms to assert their knowledge and expertise upon the masses in their pursuit of individual expression. With the rise of postmodern consumer culture, however, consumers became wary of marketing strategies that were overly manipulative; they wanted to pursue identities outside of institutionalized forces of control. This did not, however, lead them to reject brands altogether. Instead, it brought about a paradigm shift in how corporations marketed their brands. Brands thus became the site that cultural content was channeled through to determine what was to be socially valued. In this way, consumers have set companies up as their cultural authorities (Holt, 2002, pp.81-83).

There are many differing opinions, however, on how all-encompassing this brand empire and consumer marketing is. Horkheimer and Adorno have theorised the effects of the culture industry, claiming that mass cultural production “maintains broad consensual participation in advanced capitalist society” (Holt, 2002, p.71). Thus, consumer desires are channeled through brands with their implicit consent.

Lasn, in his book Culture Jam: How to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer Binge- and Why We Must, proclaims that we are all culture zombies.
Without even realising it all of us were recruited into a cult (pp.51-57). As brainwashed ‘cult members’ we are in need of being deprogrammed, which is the objective of his book. This is an interesting, and rather condescending, position for Lasn to take considering that he, along with many others, actively resists and challenges this brainwashing cult entity. One has to wonder who was responsible for his and all other culture jammer’s deprogramming.

Other theorists, however, take a more optimistic view of the consuming public, allowing that some do exercise their relative autonomy for creating alternative meanings from the messages they receive. Michel de Certeau argues against the notion that the “efficiency of production” necessarily equates to an “inertia of consumption” (1984, p.167). A consumer, says de Certeau, is also a producer, capable of manipulating imposed knowledge and symbolisms to produce new meanings (p.32). Hodge and Kress (1988), agree with de Certeau’s theory that consumers hold potential to create their own social and culture meanings. However, whereas de Certeau positions a reader/viewer as capable of production, as “every reading modifies its object” (De Certeau, 1984, p.169), Hodge and Kress point out that a reader/viewer “cannot participate in any public act of meaning making’ (1988, p.9). It is only when readers allow themselves to be constructed as consumers that they have the power and ability to act.

I’d like to return for a moment to Hodge and Kress’ articulation of the logonomic system. They explain it as a prescribed set of rules “which specify who can claim to initiate (produce, communicate) or know (receive, understand) meanings about what topics under what circumstances and with what modalities (how, when, why)” (1988, p.4). Within their theory of social semiotics, they trace the actions of  BUGAUP’s billboard alteration and show the consumer’s potential to act as producer and thus resist the set of rules proscribed by the logonomic system (pp.9-12). Thus, by altering, hi-jacking, or defacing a billboard and subverting its intended meaning, BUGAUP “are inserting themselves into a forbidden semiotic role” (p.11). Not only are they challenging the company’s right to be the only producer of texts within the public sphere, they are also re-writing the texts with a message of their own.

To explain this billboard banditry more closely I will turn now to an examination of culture jammers’ techniques and tactics and the different mediums they use to transgress this semiotic boundary. Or, as Klein so succinctly puts it, their acts of “semiotic Robin Hoodism” (p.280).

Culture Jammers and Their Acts of Semiotic Banditry

Rodriguez de Gerada has been altering billboards for more than ten years. Unlike many culture jammers, he refuses to slink around under-cover at night, preferring instead to make his statements openly. Many label billboard alteration as “guerilla art” but Rodreguez prefers to term what he does “citizen art”, thus putting more of a legitimate spin on it. Because he firmly believes in his right as a citizen to engage in public discourse, his desire is to portray what he does as “a normal mode of discourse in a democratic society” (Klein, 2000, p.279).

Another group loosely affiliated with culture jamming, who also engage in open acts of protest is Reclaim the Streets (RTS). This group started up in England in protest to the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, which gave the police far-reaching powers in clamping down on raves (Klein, 2000, p.311). They saw the Act as a political move against street culture, and ravers joined up with activists such as radical ecologists, anti-corporate activists, political and New Age artists etc, to start the political movement. Their tactics involve, amongst other things, street parties, whereby they close off streets, blocking all traffic, for their gatherings. Although often thought to be anti-car protestors, RTSs contend that they are about reclaiming the streets in many forms. To quote a Toronto RTS “Whether we were reclaiming the roads from cars   r eclaiming buildings for squatters.reclaiming our voice from the deep dark depths of corporate media, or reclaiming our visual environment from billboards, we were always reclaiming.We want to Reclaim the Streets” (Klein, 2000, p.323).

Culture jammers use many mediums to convey their message and one recent example is the 2002 movie: Culture Jam: Hijacking Commercial Culture. It was here that I was “introduced” to several culture jammers. One of them was Carly Stasko. Stasko, at the age of sixteen, frustrated with advertising images that “made her feel bad about herself” fought back by starting up her own zine publication Uncool, which features “jammed” ads and manifestos on culture jamming. In the movie we saw Stasko’s strategy of fighting back to the advertising images she feels invades her visual domain. She plasters subversive messages such as “You are the Product” over advertisements in trains, the street, and in public toilets. “We can’t keep on taking it in” say Stasko, “and not let some of it back out, it’s unhealthy for us” (paraphrased, 2002).

Two people on the train who witnessed Stasko’s “additions” to the advertisements were asked what they thought of her actions. They were unanimous that it was an abhorrent practice and that “Companies pay for them and people have no right to deface them” (paraphrased, 2002). This type of reaction occurred several times in the movie, which I think warrants comment. Perhaps these are Lasn’s “culture zombies”, unaware that they have been co-opted into a mindset which allows only paying corporations the right to speak.

Another very interesting, and charismatic, jammer who featured in the movie was Reverend Billy from the “Church of Stop Shopping”. Reverend Billy is Bill Talen, who uses his theatrical background to reinvent himself as an evangelical holy roller, set on saving the world from the eternal damnation of shopping at questionable company stores. His “trademark’ is Mickey Mouse strung up on a cross; now Mickey Martyr. One of his main targets is Disney and his strategies include staged demonstrations outside of, or inside, Disney Stores where he preaches to potential Disney customers. Talen’s target of Disney is fuelled by his growing anger over Disney’s questionable corporate practices, their use of sweatshops and employee conditions in developing countries, and Disney’s excessive profits.

Again, it is interesting to note the public’s reaction to his tactics. Talen, alias Reverend Billy, contends that his main motivation is to get people thinking. He notes that many people will stand there watching his performance with non-comprehension written on the faces. “People have no idea”, he says “What, Disney is bad?” In the movie two women who had been shopping in the Disney store were questioned over their reaction to Reverend Billy’s performance. One women replied “I am offended, I have a right to spend my money where I like, I’m not answerable to anyone” (paraphrased, 2002). The other women had a completely different reaction “You’re offended?” she said, “I’m offended that Disney has sweatshops. They’re a multi-million dollar company, the least they can do is pay their workers a decent wage” (paraphrased, 2002). She asserted that she would be looking into Reverend Billy’s claims.

The “Billboard Liberation Front” was also included in the movie and they have been hijacking San Francisco’s billboards for the past twenty years. They represent a rather sophisticated, professional culture jam, possibly due to the fact that several graphic designers are included in the group. Certainly, their jamming tactics are impressive. They, unlike de Gerada, do their billboard banditry at night. I felt, whilst watching them, that they should rename themselves “The Masked Bandits” as, although I’m unsure why, they all wore some manner of a mask. This group of culture jammers were obviously out to have fun, and as Jack Napier (a nom de guerre from the Joker in the Batman comics, and the founding member) stated “You’ve got to enjoy yourself otherwise you lose” (paraphrased, 2002).

Another culture jammer who cannot be overlooked is Kalle Lasn. Lasn, editor of Adbusters magazine, takes his culture jamming into various mediums, including the internet and television. He has instigated several campaigns through an agency he runs called Powershift, such as “Buy Nothing Day” and “Turn Off TV Week”. His Adbusters magazine is ultimately, he says, an ecological magazine. He targets the unsustainability of big cities, advocating, among other things, reduction in car usage by trading cars in for bikes. His book Culture Jam: How to Reverse America’s suicidal Consumer Binge – and Why We Must, constitutes a self-help in down-shifting our lifestyles and becoming politically active as anti-consumerists. He has produced several TV documentaries but has enjoyed limited success in airing his ads on television. Most Canadian and U.S. television stations refuse to air the spots, claiming that they have the right to refuse to “carry a message that would be offensive to other sponsors” (Lasn, 2000, p. 197). Again, we can see the logonomic system at work, dictating who gets to speak and what modalities they can use.

According to Lasn, the threat of large corporations stems from the power they gained in 1886, when the Supreme Court ruled that a private corporation was a “natural person”, thus giving corporations the same power as private citizens. Due to their “vast financial resources” with which they can defend and exploit their rights and freedom, Lasn contends that corporations have “far more power” and are therefore “more free” (Lasn, 2000, pp. 68-70). To counter this Lasn advocates that new corporate criminal liability laws should be put in place along with the revocation of a company’s charter if caught repeatedly and willfully acting irresponsibly towards the environment or employees (Lasn, 2000, pp158-160).

Within the culture jamming movement, however, there is a diversity of opinions about what strategies should be deployed and what the ultimate goal should be. Many question whether consumerism and its marketing techniques should be targeted or whether capitalism itself should in fact be the ultimate target. Some, calling themselves “deep jammers” take Lasn’s “Buy Nothing Day” campaign further, advocating a “Steal Something Day”. This, they believe, not only attacks consumerism “but also the illegitimacy of extreme wealth and inequality in capitalism” (Baines, 2001).


Incorporation: The Empire Strikes Back!

Despite culture jammer’s aims to cripple the culture industry, and perhaps capitalism as well, many jamming activities are, not so subtly, being incorporated into the culture industry’s marketing strategies. The culture industry does not seem particularly concerned about the damage jamming can do, instead they feed off movements such as this to create “a new hip consumer ethic” (Baines, 2001). Precisely because oppositional meanings can readily be incorporated into new marketing strategies, jammers must work to maintain their edge. As Klien points out, “culture jamming, like punk itself, must remain something of a porcupine; . to defy its own inevitable commodification, it must keep its protective quills sharp” (2000, p.296).

Jamming strategies have been incorporated into marketing strategies in two distinct ways. Firstly, they are appropriated by way of replication in answer to the issues jammers raise. Thus we see Internet sites, such as Yahoo! for example, who have an official culture-jamming site filed under “alternative”. They have obviously recognised the sales potential of culture-jamming. Also, apparently, you can find in many shops where alternative gear is sold, logo-jammed T-shirts, stickers and badges etc. Sprite’s “Image is Nothing – Obey Your Thirst” and Nike’s “Just do it” campaign strategies worked to distance the companies from overly hyped conventional advertising strategies, thus “incorporating the political content of adbusting’s anticorporate attacks” (Klein, 2000, p.298). This type of marketing strategy has now become commonplace.

Another way that the culture industry has attempted to incorporate jamming activities into their marketing strategies is through the appropriation of jammers themselves. Although this has not proved so successful to date, it raises the question of how long it will take before antibrand campaigners are hired to “help reposition [a company’s] brand identity’ (Harkin, 1996). Klein herself has been approached by at least half a dozen advertising agencies to present to their executives. She always declines. Another group that has been approached is the band Negativland. As the band who had first coined the term “culture jamming” they were asked if they would do the soundtrack for a new Miller Genuine Draft commercial. Mark Hosler of Negativland said the offer sent him spinning. “They utterly failed to grasp that our entire work is essentially in opposition to everything that they are connected to.” (Klein, 2000, p.298). Some have capitulated, however, and a street graffiti gang called the TATs crew now creates advertising for companies such as Coca Cola.

Jammers have developed strategies of their own in answer to the incorporation and commodification of their antibrand messages. One such tactic is the incorporation of brand names into inappropriate sites or products. This is exemplified by the actions of ecstasy dealers’ appropriation of famous logos, branding their tablets as: Big Mac E, Purple Nike Swirl E, and a mixture of uppers and downers called a “Happy Meal”. Musician Jeff Renton explains the drug culture’s appropriation of corporate logos as a revolt against invasive marketing. “You put logos in places that make us feel uncomfortable, so we’re going to take your logo back and use it in places that make you feel uncomfortable” (Klein, 2000, p.297). However, although jammers actively work against the incorporation of their antibrand messages, smart advertisers make use of these guerrilla tactics themselves, using them as a way to cash in on the new political and cultural climate.

Culture Jamming – Just Another Brand?

Another issue culture jammers need to address is whether, as they gain more sophistication and acceptance, they can indeed be viewed as a brand themselves. This critique has been leveled at Kalle Lasn in particular. Lasn’s Media Foundation, through which he edits and publishes Adbusters magazine (named Canadian magazine of the year in 1999), and his agency Powershift, along with other product lines, caters to a consumer niche he has been instrumental in creating. In a newspaper interview in 2001, Kalle was interrogated aboutAdbusters and was asked whether he viewed what he was doing as building his brand. Although at first denying this, he went on to concede that “I know that is one of the things that is happening, too, but I personally, right now, am not building my brand. Maybe not consciously” (Harkin, 1996).

This highlights the blurring of the boundaries that is happening between mainstream advertising and anti-brand activists. In producing and marketing magazines, commercials, movies and so forth, culture jammers are claiming our attention and our consumption of their products. As Goldman (1999) astutely points out, “Lasn’s career shows that good de-marketing works just like good marketing does” (p.13). I have to admit that whilst viewing the Culture Jam movie, I did not feel as if I was witness to a cutting edge or extremely subversive production. This view, I have noticed, was felt by others as well. The Billboard Liberation Front, although having worked extensively and effectively over the years, seemed more like middle-class hobbyists than serious political guerrillas. They, and all other culture jammers featured, used what seemed like a marketing strategy to convey their message through the medium of the cinema.

A Political Weapon or a Drop in the Bucket?

This brings me to the final consideration of how effective culture jamming is. In answering this question it is important to give due consideration to what it is actually attempting to accomplish in the first place. Primarily, jammers attempt to reclaim the public sphere, which to them is an important site for the cultural construction of society. They want to be “heard”. Their jamming strategies and techniques are varied and also appear effective as a means of public discourse. If their main aim is simply to jam the brand empire’s messages with alternative ones of their own, then they manage this well and have sustained this over a long period of time. If we ask if they are managing to reclaim their rights to public discourse, the answer is less certain. Although they are successful as jammers of corporate messages they have not been particularly successful in changing the political and cultural climate on the rights of citizens to engage in free speech in the streets. There is still no forum that allows legitimate spaces for the viewing public to respond to the proliferation of advertising. Neither has this advertising been curbed; the media still control the urban environment. So, have culture jammers made any political headway in terms of reclaiming space and discourse for the public? Has the culture industry been thwarted in its attempts to hold on to the political and cultural sway they exercise so efficiently?

There is evidence to suggest that culture jammers have had an effect on the culture industry. Protests have stoked a general suspicion of multinationals and their influence over our lives. Corporate unethical and environmentally damaging activities, such as pollution, sweatshop practices etc, have been brought to the public’s attention and instigated public disapproval and a desire to hold these corporations accountable (to some degree). This has precipitated a “crisis management” strategy within the culture industry whereby companies are now reinventing themselves as ethical brands. Coca Cola is a prime example of this strategy at work. It decided to reinvent itself as a Corporate Citizen, the new pitch being to “lead as model citizens” (Harkin, 1996).

Although Lasn believes that adbusting will be instrumental in shifting public consciousness and expecting more ethical and ecologically viable practices from corporations, nevertheless, this may not necessarily lead to corporations becoming more ethical. It may only mean that they will present their brand in a more culturally acceptable light, aligning it with issues of social responsibility to which the company does not necessarily conform. Starbucks is a case in point. Although reputedly exploitive in its economic transactions with coffee bean growers in developing countries, Starbucks has recently associated its brand with “fair trade” and eco-friendly coffee cups. Another company, Reebok, who has been embroiled in several sweatshop scandals, presents an award to a teenager who brought child labor practices to the world’s attention. As rather cynically, but possibly accurately, put, “Highlight the right cause and you’re still in the game” (Harkin, 1996).

In conclusion, I reluctantly concede that although it is an authentic and effective strategy for engaging in subversive practices of public discourse and visual art, culture jamming’s effectiveness as a political weapon for social change appears somewhat limited. This is partly due to the commodification of its subversive practices into mainstream media, the media’s refusal to air or print advertisements that criticize consumer society and its values, and its ineffectiveness in engendering policy changes, which would constrain large corporation’s political and social power and abusive practices.

Historically the public sphere has been a site of implicit exclusions, regardless of the legal status people may hold. The consumer’s potential to act as a producer is limited. Although Benjamin (1968) rightly contended that art is a fertile site in which contradictory messages can be expressed, this does not guarantee its effectiveness as a technique for social change. Perhaps Klein sums it up best when she says that culture jamming is “More a drop in the bucket than a spanner in the works” (2000, p.297). In saying that, however, evaluating the effectiveness of counter-movements such as culture jamming proves to be problematic. I feel that the somewhat limited scope of this research prohibits me from pronouncing any final judgment. Perhaps it is time that will have the final word on how effective culture jamming really is, for as the saying goes: “Only time will tell”.


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