Culture Jamming

Dagny Nome

"Promotional Culture - Seminar in Intercultural Management", Copenhagen Business School

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Table of Contents

What is Branding?
Semiotics of Branding
Brands and Individual Identity
Culture Jamming - a War on Brands
Inspiration - a Line of Revolutionaries

(Promotional) Culture
Is Culture Jamming Just the Current Source of Cool?
Culture Jamming Influences Corporate Reputation and Identity
Culture Jamming is a Vector



Walking down the street I pass a Nike poster. I hardly notice it, living in the city I am surrounded by commercial messages. But something is not right with this one. I look again. What happened to the usual black athlete? Why is there a woman carrying a child, in exactly the same pose as the athlete occupied in the posters I'd already seen? And the text - it describes working conditions in Indonesian factories where Nike shoes are made. The final message is " think globally before you decide it's so cool to wear Nike." It is clearly not an ad sponsored by Nike, yet the visual layout seems the same. That is why I at first thought it was an ad for Nike, and mentally approached it that way. And that is why the negative message surprises me, and ultimately, why I will remember it. But how will my behaviour, especially the one as consumer, be influenced by a negative message about a brand I already use?

A lot of people would at first glance believe they were looking at an ad for Nike, the sportswear producer. That is part of the power of successful branding today - being able to create an image, a feel that the consumer remembers. This parodied Nike poster is an example of culture jamming, a practice that uses exactly this strength to fight the brands with which it originated. A widely used term, definitions and groups that subscribe to it abound. For some, culture jamming is more or less anything that mixes art, parody, media and the countercultural, outsider stance(1). Current examples of this would be the Guerrilla Girls that demonstrate outside art galleries and museums wearing guerrilla masks to highlight the exclusion of female artists, and the fabulous Reclaim the Streets parties taking over parts of highways and creating massive traffic jams while they plant trees in the asphalt.

My focus will be on the forms of culture jamming that concentrate on destroying the value of commercial brands, and I shall use the term in this sense. To understand their function in the current promotional discourse, I shall describe the context in which they operate, their tactics and motivation. I will mainly use The Adbusters Media Foundation (AMF), a Canadian based culture jamming group, as an example. Finally, I will discuss whether culture jamming as a countercultural movement can aspire to be a real threat to corporations, even if its expression are co-opted into the brand marketing strategies. Or does it, in fact, function as a strong visual part of a political discourse?

What is Branding?

In order to get a grasp on culture jamming, it is important to understand how corporations sell their products through branding. A brand is a name and/or symbol that signals the source of a product and differentiates it from competitors. The value of a brand is often measured in brand equity "..a set of assets (and liabilities) linked to a brand's name and symbol that adds to (or subtracts from) the value provided by a product or services to a firm and/or that firm's customers."(2) Brand value is a significant contributor to the capital value of a company(3), and the value of many major corporations' brands is far higher than the value of its physical assets(4). Building positive brand equity is a long and costly process, and for some organisations, like Ford and Nike, it has become the main focus of their activities(5).

Branding efforts are increasingly aimed at building the corporate brand, rather than the product brand. Competition on a global level, fragmentation and increased complexity of traditional markets, together with more sophisticated customers(6) are factors that have inspired this shift, and these are in turn increasing in importance by the spread of corporate branding. Establishing a global brand and treating the world as one market creates economies of scale. However, due to the costs of establishing such a global brand it makes sense to promote the corporation, which is likely to cover several products and be useful for longer than one of its products, often soon to be replaced with another one. An example of this would be Nike: The corporate name or its logo, the swoosh, is visible in all promotional activities. The Nike name is then used as a corporate universe in which the separate product brands belong, like the Air Jordan trainer. By building a corporate brand, corporations build a brand universe, an overarching dimension that can be used to consecrate value on the various products and services it sells.

Branding is done through promotional activities on two levels - direct and indirect. Direct branding is basically advertising, where the brand is the protagonist of the story. In indirect branding, this role is seemingly given to another, outside party, but the aim is nevertheless to promote the brand. Brian Moeran describes promotions as "a form of bricolage, combining familiar ingredients to create novel products and events."(7) Through such diverse promotional activities as celebrity endorsement, product placement in films, funding various cultural events from rock festivals to car racing, corporations have sought to have their brands associated with, and indeed seen as representing, the cultural values represented by the activities they sponsor. Brands increasingly sell through promoting a lifestyle, a certain way to be and feel, as connected to the brand. Promotional activities are aimed at accumulating "symbolic capital", that at later stage is converted into "economic capital" when consumers buy the product(8).

But not only do corporations seek to associate their brands through sponsoring cultural events. They also aim to take those associations out of the representational realm and make them a lived reality through creating their own promotional activities. This is a further sophistication of the process of accumulating "symbolic capital". It is in this spirit we have seen the emergence of Driversfest, a Volkswagen music festival held outside New York. Celebrities are created, not just used as endorsement; in the way that Nike elevated Michael Jordan and promoted him as the embodiment of age-old ideals surrounding sport. Nike also promoted these ideals within their own chain of flagship retail stores, Nike Town, which functions both as a temple to sports and a regular retail store. Catalogues created by clothes companies take on the look of lifestyle magazines. Diesel has adapted this stance into the ironic, and publishes the online magazine "It's Real - Tomorrows Truth Today", styled as a gossip paper covering the seedy scandals surrounding Joanna, a fictional celebrity.

Semiotics of Branding

Marketing academics like David Aaker stress the importance of creating a brand identity. To create positive brand equity, he claims, the brand must be defined in more dimensions than merely as a product, most notably as personalities, like Nike "exciting, provocative, spirited, cool, innovative, and aggressive; into health and fitness and excellence"(9). By building such a comprehensive map of the brand, it is intended that all communication from the corporation to its various constituencies will be coherent and thus enforce the distinctiveness of the brand.

Using Saussure's approach to semiotics, the process Aaker is concerned with is creating and enforcing the signifier, the mental concept related to the signified, the physical sign(10). Applied to brands, the projected identity is the signifier and the logo is the signified. In trying to define what the sign means to us, Saussure states that we can only answer in the light of what the sign does not mean. According to this model of meaning, we use the signifieds to divide reality up and categorise it in order to reach understanding. This system of sensemaking reflects a social constructivist epistemological viewpoint, also seen in Karl Weick's writings on sensemaking cycles as a way of reducing equivocality in our enacted environment(11). Returning to the Nike example, we gather that a Nike logo is given different meaning in different parts of the world, and in different societal subcultures/groups - but the logo is recognised due to its ubiquity.

Brands and Individual Identity

As I shall return to at a later stage, culture jammers believe that brands are a damaging influence on our personal identities and, therefore, on society. Before we can move on to consider such a statement, however, we have to explore whether there exists a relationship between brands and individual identity. For the purposes of this paper, I find it useful to apply a definition of identity that sees it as a general, if individualised, framework for understanding oneself that is formed and sustained via social interaction. Individuals learn to assign themselves socially constructed labels through interaction with others, and identity is thus fundamentally a relational and comparative concept(12).

Using this definition as a starting point, I suggest that constructed brand identities consistently projected form a fictional "other" that we also relate to and compare ourselves with. This is particularly relevant in the case of people inhabiting urban environments, where these brand identities are projected in abundance through promotional messages. Brands then become part of our enacted environments, and thus influence how we construct our identities. People living in urban environments are surrounded by promotional messages, and I believe that in this case a dividing line between promotional culture and culture is no longer meaningful. 

Tom Vanderbilt uses the notion of the advertised life, "an emerging mode of being in which advertising not only occupies every last negotiable public terrain, but in which it penetrates the cognitive process, invading consciousness to such a point that one expects and looks for advertising."(13) This mode of being has become difficult to discern, he claims, as media have become the surroundings.

Brands have even become cult objects, and posters of advertisements are sold as hip accessories; we carry brand names on our bodies as clothing; we use brand slogans in our everyday speech. Some even wear brand symbols as tattoos - the Nike swoosh has been rather popular inscribed in one's navel. In Wernick's words "..the range of cultural phenomena which, at least as one of their functions, serve to communicate a promotional message has become, today, virtually co-extensive with our produced symbolic world." Branding influences our taste, which classifies us. What brands we consume say something to others about who we are, and thus influence our identities.

Culture Jamming - a War on Brands

The Adbusters Media Foundation (AMF) describe themselves and their goals like this; "We are a global network of artists, writers, students, educators and entrepreneurs who want to launch the new social activist movement of the information age. Our goal is to galvanize resistance against those who would destroy the environment, pollute our minds and diminish our lives. .. We want a world in which the economy and ecology resonate in balance. We try to coax people from spectator to participant in this quest. We want folks to get mad about corporate disinformation, injustices in the global economy, and any industry that pollutes our physical or mental commons."(14) AMF publishes the quarterly magazine "Adbusters" and the website, as well as offer its services through the advertising agency Powershift, which claims only to take on campaigns for organisations with goals corresponding to AMFs own. Kalle Lasn runs AMF, and has recently published "Culture Jam" to explain the movement and give instructions in how to live an uncommercialised life.

The Adbusters magazine is like an exquisitely wrapped piece of barbed wire. Thick paper, stylish visual layout; like the jammed advertisements it resembles something it's not - a glossy fashion or lifestyle magazine. Open it, and the barbed wire's sting is found in articles that seek to expose the underlying tactics and tools used when promoting brands or expound on brands' dangerous influence. The just as stylish website contains, apart from Adbusters magazine excerpts, information on AMF campaigns, such as the annual TV-turnoff week, and coverage on other culture jamming activities.

Inspiration - a Line of Revolutionaries

Lasn cites the French avant-garde group The Situationists as his inspiration. As a movement existing in the 50s and 60s, it was critical to the influence of the modern media culture, or what they called the spectacle of modern life. This omnipresent phenomenon, everything from billboards to art exhibitions to TV, refused human beings the experience of the authentic(15). It had kidnapped our real lives. Kalle Lasn of The Media Foundation, a Canadian-based culture jamming organisation, uses this line of rhetoric in justifying an attack on commercial brands when he says: "Culture jamming is, at root, just a metaphor for stopping the flow of spectacle long enough to adjust your set." or "..breaking the syntax, and replacing it with a new one. The new syntax carries the instructions for a whole new way of being in the world."(16)

The final goal is a cultural revolution, or in Lasn's words, "an about-face in our values, lifestyles and institutional agendas. A reinvention of the American dream."(17) He sees the current culture jamming movement as part of a "revolutionary continuum that includes, .. , early punk rockers, the 60s hippie movement, ..the Situationists.., whose chief aim was to challenge the prevailing ethos in a way that was so primal and heartfelt it could only be true."(18) The revolution depicted by Lasn is one where the media-consumer trance is broken, the power of corporations seriously weakened and authenticity rediscovered. In fact, this also places culture jammers on a continuum of youth rebelling against the status quo, where the young rebel against the old and established before they fade into complacent middle age and in turn are challenged by the next generation of youth.


The culture jammers of today borrow more from the Situationists, and more specifically Guy Debord, when they speak of détournement as their main tool. The action of détournement means to lift an image, message or artefact out of its context to create a new meaning(19). The most advanced culture jams are counter-messages that mimic the corporation's own method of communication, and sends a message, a subvertisement, starkly at odds with the one originally intended. Often, but not always, the brand name or logo is slightly altered, but the visual recognition is still assured. The Nike parody at the top of page 1 is a good example of this. The culture jammers call this "a re-routing of images to reclaim them and to devalue the currency of commercial images"(20). The Billboard Liberation Front jams advertisement billboards, like the simple, but powerful jam on Exxon that appeared just after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, "Shit happens - New Exxon" or on a billboard originally advertising Gordon's Gin, "Gordon's Gin - It Fucks You Up".

Using Saussure's framework, this can be explained as adding negative messages to the sign's signifier, and the goal is that consumers will include these messages when they go through their sensemaking cycles. Promotion transfers meaning on to a product from the outside(21) and it is this process that the culture jamming seeks to enter, by jamming the original coherence between the message sent through product design, packaging and promotional messages. The acts of culture jamming are thus intended to throw a spanner into the integrated system of production/promotion which, by the corporations, are deployed together in a mutually referring and self-confirming way.

(Promotional) Culture

The culture jammers believe that the consumer culture where brands live has been allowed to occupy too much space in our lives. They believe that this influence is damaging, and paint a bleak picture of feeble consumers standing by while corporations are taking over the world; "American culture is no longer created by the people. Our stories, .. are now told by distant corporations with something to sell as well as something to tell. Brands, products, fashions, celebrities, entertainments - the spectacles that surround the production of culture - are our culture now. Our role is mostly to listen and watch - and then, based on what we have heard and seen, to buy."(22), and state the need for a return to authenticity, a second American revolution. Culture is thus elevated to something pure, almost mythical, which is being soiled by the intrusion of commerciality. Wernick states that promotion must be defined not by what it says, but by what it does. And what promotion does, according to Wernick, is to force the entry of the economic world into the cultural, and thereby devaluing the latter. His view thus reflects that of the culture jammers.

Promoting a brand can be seen as a cycle. Brands are promoting, and promoted, through cultural references, which in turn influence our perceived realities and behaviour. In Paul du Gay's words, this is "labelling from above". Just as crucial is "the actual behaviour of those so labelled", which leads our attention to how we as consumers engage with brands. Through consumption, meaning is altered(23). Proponents of what we can call ironic consumption think that meaning is drastically changed through how a product is consumed. This, then, is supposed to deny the power of the values and lifestyle promoted by the brand. At the core, however, lies the undeniable truth that as long as the product is consumed, revenue is created for the producer. And as the consumer imbues the product with new meaning, he becomes a producer of meaning that the original producer then consumes. The wheel continues to turn.

Is Culture Jamming just the Current Source of Cool?

The culture jammers see themselves as part of a revolutionary continuum. This is a crucial part of what Tom Franks calls the co-optation theory; "faith in the revolutionary potential of "authentic" counterculture combined with the notion that business mimics and mass-produces fake counterculture in order to cash in on a particular demographic and to subvert the great threat that "real" counterculture represents."(24) Through co-optation, therefore, we get a cultural perpetual motion machine, where corporations feed off countercultural trends in order to sell their brands.

What once was counterculture is now abundant in advertisements. "Never Work", "It is Forbidden to Forbid" and "Take your desires elsewhere" - all subversive messages in the sixties(25), sound eerily like Sprite's "Image is Nothing" and countless others. What was once the main enemy - the conformity ridden Company Man, was quickly used in marketing and management fashions alike. "Don't liberate me - I'll take care of that", again graffiti from the sixties, has the ring of neo-human relations rhetoric on fostering entrepreneurialism within corporations.(26)

So the cultural jammers of today have moved on. They attack the communication of corporations. It is easy to simply say - so what? The ironic stance they take is already co-opted in advertising, which has become pre-jammed. One of the popular tools of culture jammers is juxtaposing First World icons with Third World scenes to highlight inequalities caused by globalisation, as in the Nike jam on page 1. Diesel jeans uses this technique in promoting itself through the fictional Brand 0. Ads within ads, a glamorous blonde is pictured on the side of a bus that is overflowing with frail-looking North Korean workers. The ad is selling "Brand 0 Diet - there's no limit to how thin you can get". Lifestyle brands are engaging in a frantic hunt for cool and hip when they buy reports such as the L Report, sold for $20,000 a year, which presumably reveals the current cool trends that as of yet have not been commercialised(27).

Culture jamming gets our initial attention mostly because of the innovative way in which they use imagery, striving to shock and provoke. In this way they are actually enlarging the amount of expressions that are deemed acceptable by the public. What was once provoking, like billboards of Marlboro Country superimposed on images of urban decay, now forms the common element in Diesel's Brand 0 campaign. The use of the original technique by culture jammers consecrated it as cool, and Diesel can now use this to their own benefit. Seen from this angle, culture jamming is working against itself.

On top of that, the corporations will probably win out. They squash dissent by their sheer bulk of advertising, and if anti-corporate culture jamming is only a reflection of the current cool, it will probably change soon anyway. The Adbusters Media Foundation is denied buying tv-time, save on CNN headlines, presumably as their messages run counter to commercial interests(28).

There is, however, a change from earlier times' culture jamming. Earlier counterculture movements found their main enemy in "the establishment". Such a notion could easily be incorporated into corporate advertising, applying the revolutionary spirit in promoting brands. Now, however, the main enemy is the brands themselves. Cultural jammers seek to expose the oxymoronic nature of the brands and the working practices of the corporations they represent. Even if co-opted, this focus on brands, together with increased use of corporate branding, means that corporations are more sensitive to public opinion. Culture jamming can be a tool to serve a higher, political purpose.

Culture Jamming Influences Corporate Reputation and Identity

For corporations, increased interaction between "insiders" and "outsiders" through networking, alliances and the like has lead to a boundary breakdown between internal and external. Increased transparency has had the same effect, and has lead to a pressure on corporations to demonstrate internal coherence with external branding(29). Image and reputation is of greater value and the financial markets often react strongly to negative media coverage of a corporation. Events that have a negative effect on an organisation's reputation can also threaten the organisation's identity, which in turn influences motivation and commitment amongst employees(30).

Nike, Disney and several other well-known brands have been strongly criticised for the labour conditions in their overseas production facilities, most notably in Asia. Royal Dutch/Shell has been on the receiving end of public protest because of their involvement in Nigeria and their plans to dispose of the oilrig Brent Spar by sinking it in the North Sea. Rather than simply do outward damage control, many corporations claim they have taken the accusations seriously and that they have affected the way they do business. They acknowledge the need to take public opinion into account; human rights are included in mission statements and industry-wide labour standards developed. The role of non-governmental organisations has changed as many function as advisors to corporations on areas like human rights, environmentalism and labour conditions(31). Nike, for example, publishes the results of external audits performed on their production facilities on their corporate website, Nikebiz.

Can we influence our culture only as consumers of it? The above arguments point towards that our roles as consumers are paramount in influencing corporations. However, perhaps the argument can be turned around - through the role as consumer of promotional culture we can influence areas of concern related to other aspects of our lives. Politics enter consumerism when Nike, Reebok or Starbucks Coffee are boycotted because of labour conditions or human rights issues related to their business practices or the geographical location of where they do business. Culture jamming in this case functions as a marketing tool to get attention to these political issues.

Culture Jamming is a Vector

According to du Gay, meaning is created in dislocation. Dislocation is inevitable, and occurs in our case when a projected brand identity is unable to constitute itself fully as an objectivity. In order to be constituted as such, the brand depends on a constitutive outside, the consumers. Put simply, a brand identity must be accepted as such by consumers for it to be perceived as real. Du Gay calls uses the notion of vectors pulling in different directions. This creates a dynamic process, where meaning and perceived reality is the outcome. I have argued that the massive presence of promotional messages can be seen as part of our perceived realities. Thus, producers and consumers of brands are vectors. Culture jamming makes up a third. Pointing out the presence of promotions everywhere, using marketing tools to ridicule and criticise corporations and their brands, the rhetoric about authenticity lost - this provides a new vector that does its best to engage in the consumer's sensemaking cycles.

Corporations are generally reluctant to engage in conflict with the culture jammers. One reason is that when they do, as when McDonalds took two British activists to court over an anti-McDonalds leaflet, the outcome is often bad press for the corporation regardless of the outcome of the court case. The culture jammers are good at getting attention, as in 1992, when Absolut Vodka threatened to sue AMF over its "Absolut Nonsense" parody, but backed down when AMF in turn went to the press and challenged Absolut Vodka to a debate about the harmful effects of alcohol(32). Another, perhaps more important, aspect is that the culture jammers represent the essence of what so many brands want to be - they're cool. If corporations go after them they, and thereby the corporate brand, would be uncool, one of the worst things to be within lifestyle branding. 


On one level, culture jamming Adbusters style is branding, and it can be seen as the marketing division of anti-corporate groups, where AMF gains credibility through its association with other pressure groups and non-governmental organisations. The latter, in turn, gain publicity as AMF and other related organisations grab our attention through its strong visual focus. AMF even sells culture jamming accessories at its website, for which it has been heavily criticised by other culture jamming groups. This criticism is hardly a surprise, when one of the ideals AMF promotes is to lower consumption. It also reflects a more general tendency, described by Bourdieu and simplified here, of how the disavowal of money in creating symbolic capital leaves the proponent wide open for criticism as it is in reality a way to create economic capital. Thus, the ways AMF finances its operations are crucial to whether it is perceived as "genuine".

King Solomon said, in the Ecclesiastes; "For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief." Rather than talk about the choices facing King Solomon, I will steal his words and apply them to consumers today. Perhaps culture jamming will alienate the consumer rather than enlist her support? If we create our identities using brands, will we then be grateful for someone telling us how stupid we are to be so easily seduced as when we bought those fancy Nike shoes or used the popular anti-depressive Prozac to get rid of the winter blues? In the short term, I think that would be too much to hope for.

Culture jamming is, however, about more than being part of the promotional discourse. It is political, and when effective, makes consumerism political. Their main influence is thus in the realm of corporate branding itself. When the corporate brand is paramount, the various constituencies somehow involved with the organisation expect a higher degree of transparency, and this in turn makes the ways in which a corporation does business more open to outside criticism. When corporations brand themselves as responsible corporate citizens, they are expected to behave as such. Thus, they become more vulnerable to public opinion, and need to adjust their business practices to the concerns of consumers. Culture jamming keeps up this pressure through their provocative marketing and attention-seeking methods.


1.  Dery, Mark (1993) "Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing and Sniping at the Empire of Signs" (Mark Dery 1993) in Klein, Naomi, p.283

2.  Aaker, David A. (1991), p.7

3.  Ohlins, Wally

4.  Aaker, David A. (1991), p.8

5.  Financial Times, 4th August 1999.

6.  Hatch, Schultz and Williamson

7.  Moeran, Brian

8.  Bourdieu, Pierre, p.76

9.  Aaker, David A.(1996) p.91

10.  Fiske, John, p.44

11.  Weick, Karl

12.  Tajfel & Turner, 1985 in David A.Whetten & Paul C. Godfrey's "Identity in Organisations", p.19

13.  Tom Vanderbilt, The Advertised Life, in Commodify Your Dissent, p.128

14.  Presentation in "Who are we?" page on AMF homepage;

15.  Lasn, Kalle, p.101

16.  ibid p.107

17.  ibid p.88

18.  ibid p.99

19.  Debord and Wolman

20.  Lasn, Kalle, p.103

21.  Wernick, Andrew, p.16

22.  Lasn, Kalle, p.xiii

23.  du Gay, Paul, p.75

24.  Frank, Thomas (1997), p.5

25.  Julien Besançon "Les murs ont la parole"

26.  For example Peters and Waterman "In Search of Excellence"

27.  Gladwell, Malcolm

28.  Lasn, Kalle, p.32

29.  Hatch, Schultz and Williamson

30.  Dutton & Dukerich, 1991, p.517

31.  The Economist, 5.12.1998. Survey "The power of publicity".

32.  Klein, Naomi, p.288



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