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Culture Jamming

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Abstract

Culture Jamming has various meanings. First, it refers to an anti-consumerist social and political activist movement that wants to challenge the cultural hegemony of capitalist enterprises and corporations. Second, it is also a tactic used by various social movements that blends art and activism, for instance by (but not limited to) modifying and manipulating advertisement and mass media messages to disrupt or subvert their meanings and break up established media routines and standardized ways of representation and interpretation.
To appear in: The SAGE International Encyclopedia of Mass Media and
Society. Edited by Debra Merskin et al.
Culture Jamming
Culture Jamming has various meanings. First, it refers to an anti-consumerist social and
political activist movement that wants to challenge the cultural hegemony of capitalist
enterprises and corporations. Second, it is also a tactic used by various social movements that
blends art and activism, for instance by (but not limited to) modifying and manipulating
advertisement and mass media messages to disrupt or subvert their meanings and break up
established media routines and standardized ways of representation and interpretation.
The coinage of the term culture jam is attributed to the acoustic experimenters of the rock
group Negativland in 1984 and relates to the idea of radio jamming. However, the activity of
subverting and distorting media messages in the name of art or political activism predates the
work of the band and can be traced back to various art and social movements such as the
Situationist International in the 1950s or the Spassguerilla (fun guerrilla) in the 1960s.
The first mention of the phenomenon in the mainstream media was an article by Mark Dery in
the New York Times in December 1990, in which he used Negativland and various other
culture jammers, such as media hoaxer Joey Skaggs, the graffiti artist Robbie Conal, billboard
painter Jerry Johnson and others as noteworthy examples for showing how media age
provocateurs exposed the cultural hegemony of corporations and how these abused the media
for their interests.
In a pamphlet for Open Magazine in 1993 Dery further explained and elaborated the theory
and historical and philosophical foundations of cultural jamming, symbolic subversion and
guerrilla semiotics, as he calls it, which is still a foundational key text in the culture jammer
movement. In the 1990s Dery also wrote a series of articles for the Canadian anti-
consumerism magazine Adbusters, which later came to be one of the mouthpieces of the
culture jamming movement.
The editor of Adbusters magazine, Kalle Lasn, published a call to arms and manifesto of
culture jamming in 1999 in which he portrays the ideology of consumerism, the affluent
Western lifestyle, the power of big corporations and the pollution of media channels, human
minds and the environment through the abuse of the media power by big corporations as the
prevailing problem of the time. Lasn consequently called for ‘meme wars’ and public
information warfare, for ‘rebranding’ strategies and ‘social demarketing campaigns’ so that
citizens could reclaim what is rightfully theirs; the built environment, autonomous self-
images, a clean natural environment, free and democratic media and a sane society which is
not polluted and intoxicated by harmful prompts to consume.
Lasn’s book lists a variety of methods and concrete campaigns to show how various specific
corporations and ills of society had been addressed and targeted by culture jammers. One
recommended method is to reclaim the media by buying airtime at local TV stations (and
other media outlets) and produce and broadcast short clips and other contributions that
challenge and subvert the commercial messages spread by corporations. Other campaigns
from Adbusters included TV turn-off weeks, a Buy Nothing Day held on the Friday after
Thanksgiving in the United States, and billboard ‘liberations’ and ‘subvertisements’ that
spoof and manipulate popular advertisements and turn messages for consumption into other
messages, also against consumption.
Another issue addressed by the Canadian non-profit organization Adbusters Media
Foundation, founded by Kalle Lasn and Bill Schmalz in Vancouver in 1989, is the fight for a
To appear in: The SAGE International Encyclopedia of Mass Media and
Society. Edited by Debra Merskin et al.
clean environment, a sustainable economy and against neoclassical economics. The economic
vision endorsed and pushed by Lasn and Adbusters is called ‘true cost economics’, i.e. the
view that all efforts of economic calculations of costs need to encompass the negative costs
for humans and their mental, physical and natural environments as well, an issue which has
not been addressed in conventional economics so far.
Another goal of the jammers of Adbusters is to challenge the power of brands and to distort
their carefully manufactured images about what counts as being cool and what does not. One
target here is the beauty industry and its unhealthy and harmful body images, which are
countered by spreading images of vomiting female models and self-obsessed male models in
fashion photographic style.
Other declared enemies are tobacco and food corporations that lure consumers into the
consumption of harmful products. Here Jammers ran truth campaigns in order to show what
fast food really contained: more than fifty percent fat. Sports outfitters were attacked for
producing their products under irresponsible conditions. As an antidote Adbusters developed
their own ‘blackspot sneakers’, which have an open-source name and logo free of private
trademarks and are produced without sweatshop labour in a small union shop in Portugal. The
campaign attached to the shoe was called ‘rethink the cool’ and was targeting the
manufacturing and marketing practices of commercial giants such as Nike.
Adbusters also played a central role in the Occupy Wall Street protests against social and
economic inequality, starting in New York in September 17, 2011. While Adbusters had
started the movement it has now grown worldwide and new spokespeople for the protest
movement have emerged in the meantime. The Occupy Wall Street protests, and particularly
the viral spreading of the twitter hashtag #OccupyWallStreet, also demonstrated that the use
of the internet and social online media have been added to the arsenal of the cultural jammers
and will probably play a more central role in future activities and events.
Concerning the reach and impact of methods and activities of cultural jamming it is
impressive how many people an organization such as Adbusters could reach and how much
public attention it could gain for its issues. Critics of Adbusters, however, have criticized
them for being complicit in the commodification of anti-consumerism and also being
commercial themselves, e.g. when they are selling products, such as their glossy magazine,
calendars, T-Shirts and other items to their followers. Some critics also think that culture
jamming activities in reality have only little effect on the consumers and markets and that
many industries and producers can quickly adapt to new consumer demands.
Joachim Allgaier
Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt
See also: Adbusters, Advertising, Capitalism, Consumer Culture, Hacktivism, Hegemony,
Mediated Culture
Further readings
Dery, Mark “The Merry Pranksters And the Art of the Hoax.” The New York Times,
December 23, 1990.
To appear in: The SAGE International Encyclopedia of Mass Media and
Society. Edited by Debra Merskin et al.
Dery, Mark. Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing, and Sniping in the Empire of the Signs.
Westfield, NJ: Open Magazine Pamphlet Series, 1993.
Lasn, Kalle. Culture Jam: How to Reverse America's Suicidal Consumer Binge And Why
We Must. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Culture Jam: How to Reverse America's Suicidal Consumer Binge -And Why We Must
  • Kalle Lasn
Lasn, Kalle. Culture Jam: How to Reverse America's Suicidal Consumer Binge -And Why We Must. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.