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Culture Jamming

A culture is an “interconnected system of daily living that is held together by signs, codes, texts, and other sign-based phenomena” (Danesi 335). There are two different kinds of culture involving a mass audience and visual culture: high culture and low culture. High culture “distinguishes culture that only an elite can appreciate, such as classical art, music, and literature, as opposed to commercially produced mass culture presumed to be accessible to lower classes,” (Cartwright & Sturken 357). Thus, the ruling class were reagrded as high culture, and the working class as low culture.

Visual culture is everywhere: magazines, billboards, television, etc. Society revolves around visual culture. Culture is also consumer-based making it a consumer culture. Companies, often well-known brands, commonly use catchy and witty slogans and attractive models to sell their products to consumers. This concept is known as advertising which is a “persuasion technique [used] by anyone in society who wants to influence people to do something,” (Danesi 255). In a way, they are tricking and pressuring their consumers into buying their products by promising them great results and usefulness from the product. Their advertisements are sending subliminal messages to viewers to go out and purchase their products. When consumers see models advertising certain products, they often think that the product will be as attractive for them as it was when advertised. Companies will do whatever they can to advertise their products, promise a good end result, hoping that consumers will be naïve enough to flock to the nearest stores to purchase them, when really all the companies want is a good profit. “Corporations [do] not care how people interpret [brand logos] as long as they keep buying [their] products. This is the viral power of the brand—its ability to provoke through sheer replication of form” (Harold 16).

Culture jamming is in a way a form of artistic protest. Culture jamming is “a process through which everyday people can make their contempt of advertisers known through simple acts of vandalism, sabotage, creativity, and imaginative spoof ads that counter the popular culture,” (DeMelle). Culture jamming tends to target major, successful corporations. Culture jammers “are active social critics, testing the limits of the first amendment by printing and airing their own spoof ads anywhere they can,” (DeMelle). Culture jamming involves altering a medium (print advertisements, commercials, radio advertisements, etc.) to change the message that corporations are trying to get across to consumers.

Advertising and Culture Jamming

It is important to keep in mind that advertising is a vital component to any company’s survival. Furthermore, the main goal for any corporation is to convince audiences that their product is superior then the competition. Many motorists base their choice of gasoline on price alone. Retailers usually post their prices up on large street signs. This causes a price war since retailers know that the majority of consumers are sensitive to price, and they are very alert to meet or beat their competitors' posted rates. These large vertically integrated corporations are established through social convention, this is why retailers frequently charge similar or identical prices. In addition, there are many reasons as to why gasoline prices have risen. One belief is that large oil companies can easily control gasoline prices by exploiting their market share, keeping prices artificially high long enough to rake in easy profits but not so long that consumers reduce their dependence on oil. For instance, automotive companies have had to redesign their technology in accordance to high gasoline prices and environmental concerns, the outcome of their redesign are hybrid fuel efficient cars.

In order to achieve a larger market share companies have to build long term customer relationships. Again advertising is crucial to this industry to retain and generate new customers. Jean Kilbourne states, “Advertising is the most important aspect of the mass media. It is the point. Advertising supports more than 60 percent of magazine and newspaper production and almost 100 percent of the electronic media.” (Kilbourne, 2000). Millions of dollars have been spent each year in all forms of media in the gasoline industry. Generally actual physical gas does not appear in the ads instead some sort of logo or signifier is represented. These companies have redesigned their logos and names to create personality for their service. They use both verbal and non verbal techniques to send messages to the ultimate consumer. Research indicates that “advertisers create a semiotic world in order to persuade their audience of the essential "rightness" of purchasing the product or service advertised. Simply put, advertisers try by various means at their disposal to get people to buy the product or service advertised” (Harris, 1989).

The culturally jammed illustrations signify the use of strategic marketing and advertising techniques that deceive consumers. Each advertisement displays how the consumer, environment and businesses are affected by fuel companies in a negative way. In the information society we live in today it is important to communicate through techniques such as culture jammers that corporations use advertising for more then just propaganda, however there is not a lot that can be done. Realistically consumers would rather have a lower price then be bombarded with thousands of advertisements. The alterations perfectly resemble the corruption and false advertising found in the ads. Advertising is a very interesting field and many semioticians value the study, they analyze not only the denotations but also the deeper underlying meaning. It is interesting to examine how many corporations try to offer a unique experience with their products but in the end it is just an illusion in the complex system.

The Decline of Culture Jamming's Effectiveness

Culture jamming is a rather recent phenomenon that includes the practices of urban graffiti and appropriating billboard messages, and the creation of independent media. It can be seen as promising resistance with specialization in the manipulation of mainstream media and its deconstruction of hegemonic discourse for those who are intested in being rebellious (Wettergren, 28). Culture jamming is a symbolic form of protest in the sense that it "targets central symbols of dominant discourse, deconstructs the discourse and reintroduces the symbol in alternative contexts" (28). The Media Foundation (MFA) is an organization that was founded in 1989 who's sole purpose is to distribute a culture jamming magazine called Adbusters to the globe. Although culture jamming is something that has become quite popular, it is for this reason that its effectiveness is beginning to fade. It is being conclusively found that culture jamming is not as successful as it was in the past due to the fact that now, corporations are beginning to jam their own advertisements therefore appropriating the original intent. They are using the phenomenon to further sell their product and at the same time, managed to entice viewers with their clever ads by virtually jamming their own media. Culture jamming is being appropriated and turned against the activists therefore its effectivess is being lost.

Culture jamming is a more intriguing way to raise public awareness in comparison to other attempts, however, enough action is not being taken once these ads are jammed in that the viewers don't nedessarily participate anymore in the resistance after viewing. Much of the work has artistic merit and that a great deal of thought is put into the appropriation of these images but it seems that corporations have caught wind of this and have too appropriated it further by jamming their own ads so that they are now in control of the situation. Now that this “re-appropriation” has occurred, media activists have to pave another path with stronger methods to try and incorporate the viewer and encourage more active participation by them.

Works Cited

Danesi, Marcel. Messages, Signs, and Meanings. Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press inc. 2004.

Demelle, Brendan. "A Critical Analysis of Culture Jamming." St. Lawrence University. 26 Feb. 2006. Available online at: <>.

Harris, Alan C (1989). Sell! Buy! Semiolinguistic manipulation In print advertising.
Harold, Christine. “Pranking Rhetoric: ‘Culture Jamming’ as Media Activism”. Critical Studies in Media Communication. Volume 21, Number 3, 2004. Pages 189-211.
Kilbourne, Jean (2000). Can't Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We
Think and Feel.

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"Bigbucks Capitalism"

Wettergren, Asa. "Like Moths to a Flame-Culture Jamming & the Global Spectacle". In Representing Restance: Media, Civil Disobedience, and the Global Justice Movement. Andy Opel and Donnalyn Pompper, eds. Westport: Praeger Press, 2003, pp.27-43.