Jamming Culture with Techno Activism: When Rambo's Voice Meets Barbie's Body (Hypertext Student Newsletter)

Corporations flood our lives with ad campaigns, popular culture, and consumerist symbols; and in this world of instantaneous communication, five companies (Time Warner, Walt Disney, News Corporation, Viacom, and Bertelsmann) hold sway over much that we see and hear. Enter culture jammers, who, by altering corporate logos, distributing ad parodies, jamming radio broadcasts, defacing billboards, constructing fake newspaper ads, and developing imitation Web sites, hope to disrupt the messages of major corporations with their unique brand of techno-activism.

Culture jammers tend to spread moral messages by altering familiar advertisements, thereby challenging viewers to critique the original marketing message. Corporations have the power to spread their word to every household, and a culture jammer's message rides in on their communication coattails.

Culture Jamming in Our Own Backyard
UC Davis Master of Fine Arts student Steve Lambert recently brought the art of jamming to campus by making an exact replica of the 7-by-10-foot "under construction" signs the campus uses to advertise new buildings. Lambert installed his own sign advertising an imagined $368 million Emma Goldman Institute for Anarchist Studies. The sign is augmented by a Web site (ucdavis.egias.org) detailing plans for the ficticious institute. In culture jamming nomenclature, Lambert is a subvertiser, an activist who designs fake advertisements, mimicking an official advertisement's design, lettering, and tactics. Subvertisers often refer to their alterations as "corrections" or "improvements" that reveal the truth behind the advertisement. In addition to subvertizing, culture jamming takes on many different forms.

The impersonator spreads a message by imitating someone with authority, often by hosting Web sites that mimic corporations??? sites. When unsuspecting victims mistake the impersonation for the real thing and invite the impersonators to events, jammers take center stage to speak their message.

One such case of mistaken identity occurred when BBC World News accepted a site built by culture jammers The Yes Men for that of the Dow Corporation they were imitating. The news service unwittingly asked The Yes Men to appear on a live broadcast, through which one impersonator claimed that Dow Corporation would take full responsibility for the Bhopal, India, chemical disaster of 1984 by distributing 12 million dollars to its remaining victims. The effect of that one act was a media blitz and an overnight Dow Corporation stock drop of 2 billion dollars.

Shop Until They Drop?
Shop droppers purchase items, alter them to convey a message, and return the items to store shelves where they'll be bought by unsuspecting consumers.

Using techno-tools, the Barbie Liberation Organization (BLO) surgically replaced Teen Talk Barbie's voice box with G.I. Joe's, so that instead of spouting phrases such as "Will we ever have enough clothes?" Barbie bellowed "Vengeance is mine!" And because the BLO also replaced the Mattel customer service number with a sticker asking consumers to "call your local TV news," the BLO's message eventually spread across the country.

Flash Mobbers
Started as a type of performance art piece, the flash mob occurs when hundreds, or even thousands, of participants communicating via instant message, cell phone, pager, or email all agree to meet at a particular location to perform some act, then disappear as quickly as they came.

More recently, the flash mob has become a means for social activism, with flash mobs supporting gay rights and protesting technological "distractions," and the "over commercialization" of Christmas, to cite just three examples. Whether their messages elici t change is unclear, but technology provides a means for split-second activism.

News Parody
News parody artists combat what they perceive to be one-sided reporting. The Onion, a mock online 'zine (and hard-copy newspaper), uses creative parody to challenge the credibility of modern media, with humorous stories such as "Fritolaysia Cuts Off Chiplomatic Relations With Snakistan," and "CIA Realizes It's Been Using Black Highlighters All These Years." Unlike some other culture jamming groups, The Onion embraces capitalism, selling t-shirts, beer mugs, and other paraphernalia emblazoned with the magazine's logo.

But Does It Work?
Canadian authors Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter argue in their book Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture (Collins 2005) that consumerism is based upon innovation, and, thus, that by providing new forms of supposed rebellion, culture jamming contributes ideas to the very culture it hopes to disrupt. What's more, some of the culture jammers, such as Adbusters and The Onion participate in consumerism by selling their own brand of products, from refrigerator magnets to tennis shoes.

Hope You Like Jammin' Too
The culture jamming phenomenon lies somewhere between art, activism, and business venture. Students interested in studying the evolution of techno-activism should consider taking courses from UC Davis's Program in Technocultural Studies. "Introduction to Technocultural Studies" (TCS 001) features talks by jammers and covers the philosophies, success stories, and controversies surrounding this new form of activism. Another related course is "Critiques of Media" (TCS 002). For more infomation about the Technocultural Studies program, visit technoculture.ucdavis.edu/.