Culture jamming, or sniggling, is the act of using existing mass media to comment on those very media themselves, using the original medium's communication method. It is based on the idea that advertising is little more than propaganda for established interests, and that there is little escape from this propaganda in industrialized nations. Culture jamming's intent differs from that of artistic appropriation (which is done for art's sake) and vandalism (where destruction or defacement is the primary goal), although its results are not always so easily distinguishable.
The phrase "culture jamming" comes from the idea of radio jamming: that public frequencies can be pirated and subverted for independent communication, or to disrupt dominant frequencies. The Situationist International first made the comparison to radio jamming in 1968, when it proposed the use of guerrilla communication within mass media to sow confusion within the dominant culture. (Kalle Lasn, the founder of AdBusters magazine, wrote a book entitled Culture Jam, but the term predates his title.)
Culture jamming is a form of activism and a resistance movement to the perceived hegemony of popular culture, based on the ideas of "guerrilla communication" and the "detournement" of popular icons and ideas. It has roots in the German concept of spass guerilla and in the Situationist International. Forms of culture jamming include adbusting, performance art, graffiti, and hacktivism (such as cybersquatting).
Examples of culture jamming
- The Reject False Icons movement, encouraging the placement of stickers on pictures of "False Icons" like Ashlee Simpson and Usher. Supporters also use graffiti to spread the word.
Billboard modifications, done in the style of the original billboard.
- The appropriation of corporate logos for evangelical purposes. Christian groups have appropriated the 'Cover The Earth' logo of the Sherwin-Williams paint company, and modified the Coca-Cola trademark to read, 'Jesus, he's the real thing.'
- Modifying slogans to create political statements. For example "Just do it... or else!" was used as a modified slogan to comment on Nike's alleged sweat shop practices.
Google bombing, a widespread effort to purposely influence the automated association of specific keywords with results produced by internet search engines, especially Google. One practice of this has been associate the names of public figures and public institutions with humiliating and denigrating keywords, such as the phrase, 'miserable failure,' which, when typed into Google, yields the White House biographies of U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, as well as the homepage of Fahrenheit 9/11 filmmaker Michael Moore. When entered into Google, Rick Santorum's name formerly came up to a website dedicated to spreading the neologism santorum, which was penned by sex advice columnist Dan Savage. Technically, Google bombing works because the hyperlink has the address of the target, with the text being the keyword that the Googlebomber wants to have associated with the target.
The Who's classic 1967 album The Who Sell Out, featuring satirical faux commercials on the cover and between the tracks.
- The band Negativland's Dispepsi album, in which recordings related in some way to soft drinks are used to comment (in a negative way) on the beverage industry and its marketing practices.
- The Church of Satan's ad featuring founder Anton Szandor LaVey holding a snake in the style of Apple Computer's "Think Different" campaign.
Critique of Culture Jamming
Canadian authors Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter in 2004 released a book called The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can't be Jammed, criticizing culture jamming as not only ineffective, but encouraging the very consumerism it seeks to quell. (The U.S. release of the book is called Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture). In a wider critique of the underlying theory of counterculture, Heath and Potter note that the capitalist system thrives not on conformity -- as so many 'culture jammers' believe -- but rather on individualism and a quest for distinction. Thus, culture jamming cannot bring down "the system" or "The Man," because "the system" doesn't care if you do things differently from others, and, in fact, is more than happy to accommodate you by selling you 'non-conformist' goods.
The book goes on to explain that consumerism comes largely from competitive consumption in an effort for distinction, and 'rebellion' is an excellent path to distinction. Since most goods depend on exclusivity for their value, especially goods which are said to decry mainstream life, a purchasing 'arms race' is created whenever others begin to follow the same tendencies: if you lag, you become mainstream. Not surprisingly, then, the image of rebelliousness or non-conformity has long been a selling point for many products, especially those that begin as 'alternative' products. Far from being 'subversive,' encouraging the purchase of such products (such as Adbusters' line of running shoes) does nothing more than turn them into 'mainstream' ones. This tendency is very easy to observe in music, for example.
Critically, explain Heath and Potter, most of society's problems (and rules) are traceable to collective action problems, not traits inherent in our culture as most culture jammers believe, a mistake which leads them to attempt to disrupt the existing social order with very few results. It also allows people to wrongly claim a political element to their lifestyle preferences, or glorify criminality as a form of dissent.
The book recommends a simple legislative solution to problems such as consumerism, for example, through eliminating tax deductions for advertising. The authors also point, however, to the counterculture's tendency to reject so-called 'institutional' solutions, a mistake which merely invites the problem to remain.
Last updated: 09-03-2005 18:37:12