The New Culture Jamming: How Activists Will Respond to Online Advertising

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A preview of what the next wave of anti-corporate activism might look like. Call it Big Dada: speaking noise to power.

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Through the 1990s, a practice called "culture jamming" grew in popularity and sophistication. It aimed to disrupt consumer culture by transforming corporate advertising with subversive messages. So, as in the example above, a Coca Cola sign has been defaced to note the company's other imperative aside from love. Another canonical example was current BuzzFeed chief Jonah Peretti's 2001 attempt to order a pair of Nike's through the company's website emblazoned with the word, "sweatshop." Culture jammers would use the power of brands against themselves. Their most famous organ remains the magazine AdBusters, which is widely credited with helping jumpstart Occupy Wall Street last year.

Culture jammers capitalized on the general feeling of many on the American (and global) left that corporations had (and have) too much power and that one very powerful expression of that power was advertising. Advertisements seemed to have mythic influence that could get people to do all kinds of things from buying Hummers and McMansions to starving themselves to attain fashion-model thinness.

Active culture jamming was always a niche activity, but failing active engagement with brand transformations, ignorance was considered the next best policy. Better to skip past commercials with Tivo or stick to NPR than watch or listen to the ads on these broadcast media. Being ignorant of advertising has been considered a moral good; it meant that one was not in sway to the corporate paradigm, etc, etc. The underlying idea is that the activist position is to transform or ignore corporate assets and advertising.

Fast forward to our world in which an increasing amount of advertising runs online. The old logic of culture jamming would say that anticorporate activists should run ad blockers or perhaps something like the (now outdated) Firefox extension, Add-Art, which replaced corporate callouts with curated art.

But the system of advertising has changed in the online world. First, because of the private nature of the browsing experience, there is no way to transform ads for others' political consumption.

Second, Google and Facebook ads are measured on what's called a cost-per-click basis. Advertisers are charged not by how many people see their ads, but by how many people click on them. That means that the old method of passive resistance to corporate power -- ignoring ads -- costs the advertisers nothing. In fact, it makes the delivery of those ads more efficient. Advertisers' dollars get spent on those who find their ads "relevant" and are open to their marketing methods. And because of the private nature of the browsing experience, there's no real way to deface or transform an ad as a political statement to others. Whatever personal pleasure one might find in Add-Art, it's not doing anything in the societal realm. (There are anti-corporate memes, sure, but those would not be a direct response to the ads that Bank of America runs when you search for mortgages.)

I foresee that activists might find the best way to disrupt corporate power on the Internet is to be begin interacting with the ads they're being shown and muddying the data that's being collected.

The counterintuitive logic of online advertising is that any time someone clicks on an ad, it costs the advertiser money. So, clicking on any, say, mortgage-related Google ad, would cost the company that placed it more than $1, according to current pricing. Other banking-related keywords are more expensive, too. "Jumbo mortgage" has an average cost-per-click of $2.42 (and you'll find Citi, Union, and Fremont banks advertising on the search). "Mortgage calculator" goes for $5 (presumably because those searches are more serious). One person's clicks, of course, don't mean much. But a million people's clicks would. Tens of millions of clicks would. And this is a kind of online activism that's closer in nature to Anonymous' famed distributed denial-of-service attacks than to protesting in the streets. It's something people could participate in without leaving their computers and it would not be hard to write tools that would help activists coordinate their actions.

In the commercial world, already something like 10 percent of all clicks on Google ads are perpetrated by various bad actors, usually bots or spyware that are trying to make a tiny bit of money for delivering clicks to Google. The company has to actually refund that money to advertisers, which means it's probably a vast sum when you consider Google's $37 billion of 2011 revenue. (Consider that the Move Your Money project claims they got about $50 million moved out of big banks to credit unions.)

This form of activism, however, wouldn't be click fraud if it weren't perpetrated by machines. It's hard to see how it could be against the law or even against Google's terms of service. It's "window browsing" as activism, sucking up corporate resources as a political act.

But beyond the immediate financial impact this kind of action could have on marketing budgets, if the collective action became large enough, it could begin to impact the quality of the data that Google and other data intermediaries are collecting about each and every Internet user. If enough people started to seem interested in home mortgages who were not actually interested in home mortgages, it might start to disrupt their ability to efficiently target users with behavioral advertising. This would be statistical noisemaking as a form of protest

After the attention that Occupy Wall Street garnered last year, the attempts to revive the movement in May have not caught fire. As they always have, activists will keep trying new things. How long before they realize that many businesses are valuable more for their data than their storefronts? Banks are troves of data being mined for profitable strategies. How long before activists see that making their data harder to analyze could be a political tool?

Call it Big Dada: speaking noise to power.  

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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