Why brands are the US Army – and culture jammers are the Viet Cong

In this guest posting, Dave Burgess, who painted ‘No War’ on the Sydney Opera House, claims that ‘amoral’ advertisers have copied his idea.

Culture jamming is a 28-year-old term coined by the San Francisco-based band Negativland, who declared that the ‘Studio for the cultural jammer is the world at large’. The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought defines culture jamming more narrowly as: ‘The manipulation of the mass media by artists and activists. The intent, in most cases, is to critique the media’s manipulation of reality, lampoon consumerism, or question corporate power.’

I prefer Negativland’s idea, as it doesn’t limit an act of culture jamming to only taking place in the mass media. Human behaviour doesn’t change much over time. It merely gets the opportunity to play itself out with newer and faster technology. The truth is that acts of parody and subversion has been around since year dot. But opportunists in every generation like to believe that they have invented something new and rebrand it with a new name, in our case the ‘culture jammers’ and, in the now and immediate future, the “hacktivists”.

Of course, modern acts of culture jamming are most effective in the mass media as it is a dynamic fertile playground, and also the most visible platform given the large potential to be seen. But they are not restricted to it. Our action atop the Sydney Opera House on the day of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was an act of culture jamming. But we were also culture jammed ourselves – by the media and advertisers.

The SMH’s Peter Fitzsimons was the first rework it four days later by changing the message to ‘NO WARNE’ as our drug positive spinner was expelled from the World Cup. On the other side of the fence there was Tim Blair’s ‘NO VISA’ in The Bulletin – a reference to my partner in crime’s British citizenship. Then in the same week we went to court, eventually to be jailed for our graffiti, St George Bank took out a half page ad in the SMH with ‘NO FEES’ on the Opera House. The ad was for the Freedom Account and the fine print referred to “our campaign for freedom”.

Depending on how people sat with the whole thing, the first two were funny or, in the case of Blair, an attempt at being funny. The St George ad, however, bore no relevance to the issue, its campaign for freedom was a campaign for customers, and all that was required to produce it was the plagiarism of an idea and a basic knowledge of digital manipulation. This led to the suggestion by Jane Caro in an SMH article on culture jamming that:

Advertising, being completely amoral, will latch onto anything that might catch someone’s attention. It’s always trying to stay fashionable and relevant. Unfortunately, once advertisers get hold of it, a movement is over.

Advertising is amoral, I agree. In the case of St George, they moved in on an incident that caught everybody’s attention. But there was a lack of relevance. So much so that it annoyed ourselves, people who supported what we did, people who hated what we did, and the Opera House management to the point that the latter forced the ad to be pulled after just one posting. It was hardly a movement ending moment and seemingly unprofitable (although I’d love to hear the inside story about the ad being pulled and whether St George thought it a winner).

Is it a given that advertising aimed back at culture jammers ends a political movement? Culture Jammers are not so much up against the ad industry but its clients. And billboards or websites are the best battlefields. But this misses the point.

Throughout history activists have always found a way, and it would be a boring and oppressive world if they had not. Spin is the indispensable and successful tool of the corporation. However, activists don’t set about their work naively and, like the Viet Cong over the US Army, a successful culture jammer will get far more bang for their buck than a corporate promotion.

Being culture jammed in reverse, if you’re an activist, is a tribute to your effectiveness. If you’re an advertiser, it probably means your promotion has drifted from the amoral to immoral.

Caro’s quote also misses the point that political culture jamming is a movement’s tactic rather than the movement itself, and people fighting for a belief or an idea are often exceptionally good at coming up with new tactics when the current ones no longer work. A culture jam is like the big hit in a footy game or a ball at the throat by the bowler, preferably followed by a good sledge. It won’t win you the game. But it will rattle your opponent.

Caro’s point is valid in terms of social movements in that music and fashion are readily made commercial (the ‘K-Mart Goes Grunge’ catalogue just after Nirvana toured in 1992 being one of my favourites) and the spiky parts of those movements softened. But political movements are more focused on an end game than social ones, the stakes so high that they will outlast an advertising campaign (especially if the client continues to commit atrocities) and the wider public is able to recognise an act of passion over an act of promotion.

For examples of culture jamming in Australia, have a read of a fellow culture jammer’s piece on the topic from a few months back.

The belief that a movement is over once advertising has grabbed hold of it cloaks a less self-indulgent reality. Advertising has always relied upon a large amount of stolen or plagiarized material. It may be clever. And of course it makes sense economically. But musicians and artists are probably bigger victims of the advertising industry than political movements and culture jammers (John Butler being a recent one). But the beauty of Carl Orff has not been made redundant by a Carlton ad or Mozart by Air France.

What Caro fails to see is that culture jamming is a tradition as old as humanity. Even in the most repressed and obedient of societies there will always be those who question. For culture jammers it’s not about the advertising industry. It’s about the less noble of its clients with behavioral problems in corporate social responsibility. These campaigns are likely to last a lot longer than a marketing contract. Especially if the mud sticks.

Dave Burgess is a campaigner at Total Environment Centre


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