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

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


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of culture jamming would say that anticorporate activists should run ad blockers or perhaps something like the (now outdated) Firefox extension, Add-Art, which replaced corporate callouts with curated art.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.)

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