Discussing the democratization of capitalist advertising through ‘culture jamming’ and its imbrication with the British class system.

This essay will explore the relationship between consumerist advertising and the trend of ‘culture jamming’, discussing how the transformation from ‘the purest communication of capitalist ideologies’ (Fuchs, 2017) to a form of ‘cultural resistance’ through the ‘tactics used to critique, subvert and otherwise “jam” the workings of consumer culture’ (Nadaf, 2018, p. 6) imbricates the very disparate notions of the bourgeoise and the proletariat. The elitist intentions and effects of advertising will be debated, considering how culture jamming, ultimately, can subvert the capitalist objective of consumerism and democratize an overtly mainstream medium into a form of ‘artistic terror’ (Dery, 2017).

As described by Jerry Kirkpatrick (2007, p. 21), ‘advertising today does not have a good press’ – its crass values of capitalism and consumerism make it an easy target for proletarian culture jammers. In a capitalist society such as ours, advertising and marketing play an ever-proliferating role in maintaining the authority of the elite, whilst, meanwhile, inflicting some serious cultural and economic consequences such as addiction and compulsion. It inundates the public with images of a dream life filled with dream products, conditioning them to ‘love the novelty of something new’ (Skitovsky, 1976). It is proclaimed that the average UK adult is ‘bombarded with over 1700 advertisements per month’ (Milenkovic, 2019). As a result, they become a key forum of mass communication; one designed to perpetuate capitalist hierarchical structures whilst further subordinating the proletariat.

Advertising is often described as the purest communication of capitalist ideology – suggesting that materialism and commodities are central to modern life, selling the public a dream in which to market said products; attaching material value to the human condition. Advertising also has an ever-tightening grip on the media that we consume. With several modern media institutions financially dependent on advertisements, they are often dictated by what they can produce according to the type of mass audience that an advertiser may want to attract.

It is reasonable to assert, then, that because of the money-centric message of advertising described previously, the group which benefit the most out of marketing, and today’s consumer culture, is the ‘bourgeoise’. Defined as those with a ‘certain cultural and financial capital’ (Labrousse, 1988, p. 95), the bourgeoise manifest as the ruling elite. These are the groups who own the means of production, with the power and platform to direct, produce and disseminate advertising to the masses – encouraging abundant consumerism, contributing to their ever-increasing personal wealth. It is these groups that impose the hegemonic control we see in modern capitalist nations. Defined by Antonio Gramsci, the forefather of transcending academic studies of hegemony, this is the way ‘an accepted set of ideologies becomes installed in society by those in power’ (Brandist, 2015) and, importantly, ‘the domination of a state or social group over another’ (Watson & Hill, p. 84). Perhaps, then, the working-class proletariat, whose only possession of significant value is their labour-power, are almost totally illusive in modern, consumerist marketing. The way in which the ‘aspiration of product-saturated advertising’ intends, the capitalist regime relies on those who have the economic capital to maintain the financial consumerism in which capitalism is forged. As a result, the working-class become a ‘product-based out group’ of the advertising equation – marginalised as those without the economic capital to fuel the fire of consumer capitalism (Dimofte, Goodstein, & Brumbaugh, 2014, p. 416).

As a result of the hegemonic ideals of the groups which produce advertising, said media must also, naturally, be considered as hegemonic. This is communication which ‘reinforces elitist ideals and maintains class inequalities’ (Abalo, 2012, p. 108). This type of media has a long, and somewhat crass, money-centric history, as Noam Chomsky discusses in his seminal Propaganda Model (1988). Chomsky names advertising as the ‘second filter’ in his framework – contributing to society’s ‘manufacture of consent’ to the capitalist regime. He describes the mass media as ‘a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace’, with advertising enacting a key cog in the machine which ‘serves the ends of a dominant elite’. Chomsky discusses how advertising’s place within the media industry has had a catastrophic effect, specifically on the spectrum of news that we consume. He cites the example of The Daily Herald: a working-class newspaper which folded in 1964 as a result of ‘strangulation from lack of advertising support’ and the coincidental decline of the Labour Party. Advertisers were reluctant to assimilate their products with a paper supporting a fledgling party. Consequently, The Daily Herald could not compete with rival papers that were reaping the rewards of advertising subsidisation. Chomsky references how two further working-class newspapers were forced to close around the same time, leading to a sanitised and one-dimensional news perspective funded and controlled by the elite, right-leaning bourgeoise.

In proletarian retaliation to the hegemonic medium of advertising, is the concept of ‘culture jamming’. This involves ‘artistic terrorism directed against the information society which we live in’ (Dery, 2017). In essence, it is the ‘anti-consumerist social movement, wanting to challenge cultural hegemony’ (Sage, 2018) involving the actions of ordinary people, altering the consumerist messages of advertising to become something more satirical or paradoxical. As a result, the intention and form of consumerist advertising become almost totally reversed as the hegemonic, mainstream medium is democratized into proletarian, alternative retaliation. Emerging as an incarnation of alternative and oppositional narratives, culture jamming seeks to resist the hegemony of commoditisation, enacting a type of ‘expressionist turn’ – something of a cultural revolt by the proletarian mass. To do this, the mass medium of advertising is transformed into an alternative expression through key factors: ‘de-professionalisation, de-capitalisation and de-institutionalisation’ (Carducci, 2006, p. 118). This trident of alternative media conventions ensures the transfer from mainstream to alternate – harnessing the power of the ‘ordinary person’ and their ‘amateurism’ to ‘jam’ the elitist messages of the bourgeoise (Atton, 2009, p. 265).

One particular facet of marketing which often attracts the attention of culture jammers is car advertisements. The way in which they encourage consumers ‘to dream about the product’ (Amatulli, Deangelis, Pichierri, & Guido, 2018, p. 71), targeting ‘the audience’s feelings, perceptions and emotions’ (Roux, 2014, p. 1880) through the spectacle of the perfect lifestyle, inspires the opportunity for parody, satire and subversion. A recent example of this is a television advertisement from Lincoln Cars (Pfister, 2018) featuring Matthew McConaughey whereby the American actor ‘endorses the Continental as a performance vehicle; “a performance that just leaves you feeling better as a result”’ (Oliva, 2019). The advertisement harnesses all the typical tropes of the ‘scenery porn’ (TV Tropes, 2020) one might expect from a Scandinavian television drama: sunsets, placid lakes, elusive reflections and a suave, silky score to accompany the visual signifiers.

As a result of Lincoln’s over-dramatic and exuberant marketing, their advertisement became an easy target for parodies and ‘artistic terror’ (Dery, 2017). Premiered on Saturday Night Live (King, 2018), comedic actor Jim Carey harnessed the ideology of culture jammers to parodize the Lincoln advertisement, altering its message in the process. As he ponders ‘the important questions of life’, Carey mocks the dramatized narrative of the original Lincoln advert, exclaiming, amongst a diffusion of sycophantic quips met by maniacal laughter, that ‘only Uber drivers’ would be inclined to purchase the car. This is a lucid example of culture jamming. Saturday Night Live have taken a hegemonic, consumerist message, disseminated by a multi-million-dollar business, and transformed its message – ‘reclaiming public spaces’ (Nadaf, 2018, p. 1) into the control of the proletariat and cleansing its consumerist subtext. Is it possible, though, to categorise this example, broadcast by NBC to millions of Americans, as alternative media? Some media pedagogues argue that, for a medium to be categorized as alternative, it must have a ‘somewhat alternative audience’ (Downing, 2003, p. 627). Essentially, alternative media is antonymous to the mainstream – it is not vastly produced or consumed. This returns to the three characteristics of alternative media, highlighted previously: ‘de-professionalisation, de-capitalisation and de-institutionalisation’ (Atton, 2009, p. 265). The parody produced by Saturday Night Live, whilst in some ways could be considered as de-capitalized, is certainly not de-professionalised or de-institutionalised. To synopsize, then, whilst its form may not be considered as alternative, its genre and message certainly are. The way in which it transforms the hegemonic and bourgeoise narrative of the car advertisement, into a satirical and proletarian parody is evident of the form conveying an alternative meaning.

This ‘semiological warfare’ (Carducci, 2006, p. 119) is one usually fought in the ‘ghetto’ of alternative media. The example of Saturday Night Live is hardly one entrenched in the ‘grassroots’ – ‘the truest, most thorough version of alternative media values’ (Atton, 2002, p. 33). One, more traditionally ‘ghetto’ example of culture jamming is that of Adbusters Magazine (2020). Founded in Vancouver in 1989, the grassroots magazine continues to campaign for the ‘reverse of the upward flow of wealth’, ‘the discovery of new ways to live’ and the ‘punishment of every corporation which betrays public trust’, amongst other things. Through the ‘DIY scissors and glue’ (Triggs, 2006, p. 69) conventions of counter-hegemonic alternative media, Adbusters artistically lampoon consumerist images to, like the example of Saturday Night Live, reverse the capitalist rhetoric, encouraging ‘buy nothing days’ to transgress the saturation of consumerism.

This attempt to inspire a transgression of capitalist, bourgeoise oppression by inspiring ‘working class credibility’ (Triggs, 2006, p. 70) is an example of the socio-political ramifications which effective alternative media can have. The idea to ‘stay out of the shops for 24-hours to make a small stand against rampant capitalism’ (Corner, 2011) is one that, inspired by the alternative rhetoric of Adbusters, could have much wider economic and cultural reverberations. This example gives alternative media a footing in ‘the politics of resistance’ – a small, artistic and cultural form which has the ability to ‘challenge multiple borders and boundaries’ through ‘community empowerment’ (Pajnik & Downing, 2008, p. 1).

To conclude, culture jamming offers an effective example of alternative media. The way in which it hijacks the intention of the bourgeoise; their capitalist, consumerist rhetoric, and bequeaths it to the proletariat is truly a lesson in counter-hegemonic democratization. Through the amateurish tactics of the ordinary man, it is possible to subvert the message of consumerist adverting and transform it into something paradoxical. In addition, the way in which culture jamming, as a form of alternative media, can inspire the politics of resistance further highlights the capabilities of the proletariat and their transcending desire to transgress the ideals of the bourgeoise.


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