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Culture Jam

As commercial messages brand brains like never before, the citizen artist strikes back!

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Ottawa—it is Saturday morning on Wellington Street and a large advertisement is staring at me from within the bus shelter. I have seen the ad before, but it looks much more appealing now that the slogan is covered with a black permanent marker and the model has somehow grown a mustache of the same colour. It is the same advertisement that a major Ottawa newspaper had on its front page last month, neglecting the news completely. A woman poses in front of Parliament, wearing the latest winter garments, and smiling as though she has found her life’s calling. With the Rideau Centre logo conveniently placed in the bottom right corner, the headline reads: Winter sale, it’s here. If this isn’t saying something about our values, I don’t know what is. When did bus shelter advertisements become our front-page news?

When evaluating the dedication people put into their consumer appetites rather than being engaging citizens, it can be difficult not to become completely apathetic. Yet isn’t this apathy responsible for driving us into the arms of the consumer comforts we know best? When gazing upon the herds of consumers, chaotically scurrying from one fix to the next, a person can see how the western world has lost the empathy needed to truly make a difference–anywhere. When considering the thousands of marketing messages an average Canadian receives daily, how is it not reasonable to consider a need to create dialogue between citizens and marketers?

Culture jamming has become one of the most important trends in the last decade, but it is not a new idea by any means. During the 1930s, 50s, and 70s, there was an insurgence of “touch-up artists.” People had become concerned with the subliminal messages that advertisements were sending and began to take matters into their own hands, doctoring ads, logos, and even paint rolling over entire billboards. There has never been any real platform for people to respond to the marketers who have made billions invading our space. Since most citizens cannot buy their own advertisements to counter these commercial messages, they believe they should have the right to create dialogue with the ads that were never invited to begin with.

Culture Jam: Hijacking Commercial Culture is an excellent documentary that shows citizen art being used to strike back against guerrilla marketing attempts. Although problems of consumer capitalism are being addressed, many people consider culture jamming not only personally offensive, but also offensive to the vendors. Yet how long can we expect people to respect laws that more often favour the corporation, rather than the individual?

Many respected writers have covered the impact consumer culture has had on society. Culture Jam: How to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer Binge–And Why We Must, by Kalle Lasn (founder of Adbusters Magazine), and the international bestseller, No Logo, by Naomi Klein, both bring our consumer appetites to the forefront and document why so many young people are taking actions into their own hands. Living in a democratic society, it is important that citizens voice their opinion. The resurgence of culture jamming shows people they can carve out a platform for themselves and exercise their right to free speech.

The corporate elite has successfully suffocated freedom of speech through burying us with messages and ideals that many believe to be their own. Just because marketing can buy its way into our public and private space does not make it ethical. Many activists believe that marketers will never respond to the requests of leaving some space untouched and that citizens should begin culture jamming.

Kalle Lasn uses Jiu Jitsu as a metaphor to explain the dynamics of a culture jam. Just as the Jiu Jitsu artist uses his stronger opponent’s momentum against them, the citizen artist is also able to flip the corporate giant onto its back with one precise technique. Saul Alinsky, author of Rules for Radicals, refers to this as “Political Jiu Jitsu.” He writes that through utilizing the enemy’s power structure, their superior strength becomes their own downfall. It is the ability to use marketing in reverse that will allow the citizen to create some sort of dialogue between the corporations that have been invading their minds since childhood.

Many say that an effective jam is almost like using X-ray vision, analyzing the deeper meanings behind the ads, and uncovering the truth marketers try to hide. As consumer culture rises higher than the sounds of our own protests, it can be hard to believe that freedom of speech is alive and well. Culture jamming is a tool engaged citizens can use in defense against manipulative commercial messages. This movement is emerging among younger generations and you can often see citizen artists jamming in broad daylight. In No Logo, Naomi Klein writes about culture jams occurring in inner city ghettos, in which marketers build alcohol and tobacco ads to target low-income families. Police officers often let these artists go because they see how the ads can contribute to addiction and crime within the community, and influence desperate kids who want to escape.

What is it that stops more people from taking action? Corporations have been liberated to target us. Why can we not target them? What if each one of us targeted a specific brand? What would happen if the voice of the consumer became louder than the voice of the corporate empire?

“I picture the reality in which we live in terms of military occupation. We are occupied in the way the French and Norwegian were occupied by the Nazis during World War 2, but this time by an army of marketers. We have to reclaim our country from those who occupy it on behalf of their global masters.”

~ Ursula Franklin, Professor Emeritus, University of Toronto

Ryan Moore is an Algonquin College Small and Medium Enterprise Management and Business Marketing alumni. He is now in the Professional Writing program at Algonquin College. This year, he won the Wingdings Award for Best Column with “Culture Jam”.

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