Countercultural Commodification and The Dissenter’s New Clothes.
“Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.” ~ Henry David Thoreau
This is a tale of how our counterculture is rapidly finding its way to the sales counter, and of how our desire to rebel has caught the attention of marketing mavens keen to co-opt our tactics. After exploring some examples of corporate enterprises striving to offer dissenters ‘new clothes,’ we come to a question of utmost importance to our ongoing struggle against pervasive marketing practices; namely, how are we to effectively resist their influence, and rhetorical tropes, if the system is always looking to piggyback on such resistance? As Foucault, a postmodern French philosopher, persistently informs us, power and resistance are inseparable; you cannot have one without the other. Rebellion as a form of resistance is relatively straightforward when power relations manifest themselves through conformity. For example: during the Tokugawa period, when the Japanese Emperor banned the wearing of fine and colourful clothes, the population resisted by wearing plain kimonos with brightly coloured silk linings, or with full-body irezumi tattoos, designed not to extend beyond the parameters of their attire. Yet, how are we to effectively resist newer marketing practices that rely on less obvious power relations? What are we to do when resistance reformulates power, fracturing the Emperor’s new clothes into a multitude of rebel-centric enterprises?
Georg Hegel, an 18th century philosopher, might have inadvertently brought about the tidal wave of postmodern marketing practices, that is currently ‘breaking’ over our counterculture when he asserted that we construct our own unique identities through the property we own. Following one of the biggest judicial fuck-ups to date – namely, the granting of legal personage to U.S. corporations, through a cunning contortion of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment  – it seemed somewhat inevitable that big business would eventually seek to pass itself off as one of us; vis a vis, person to person. Whilst it was once noted that corporations-as-legal-persons ‘have no soul to save and no body to incarcerate,’ we are now told that ‘businesses have souls,’ which, as Deleuze, a contemporary of Foucault, contends, ‘is surely the most terrifying news in the world.’
Corporations are constantly re-inventing themselves. There was a time when they were relatively content to pass themselves off as ‘families,’ in a drive to push homogeneous, familial products. When many of us think of consumerism the nuclear Amercian family with its black Ford-mobile, cookie-cutter mod-cons, and uniform white picket fences, is never far from mind. This nostalgic perspective, however, promulgates a myth that consumerism is primarily concerned with conformity, which is of course, the raison d’etre of rebellion. This ‘myth’, as Joseph Heath & Andrew Potter (authors of the book Rebel Sell: How The Counter Culture Became Consumer Culture) contest, can be illustrated by Pink Floyd’s film The Wall ‘where the whole system is dedicated towards creating kids in uniforms.’ Heath & Potter’s argument, unfolds like this.
Everyone is rebelling against mass society and consumerism. Everyone has seen Michael Moore’s films, The Corporation, and Supersize Me (my copy was free with The Guardian) or read Naomi Klein’s No Logo (currently retailing in most high street record franchises for a mass-produced £2.99). Everyone is a rebel, yet nothing has changed. We still live in a consumer culture. Rebellion inherently opposes conformity, yet, as we have already noted, the idea that we live under a totalising system of imposed conformity is a myth. The system doesn’t need conformity. The system will sell you anything it wants. The system will sell you individuality, the system will sell you rebellion. Consumerism for Heath & Potter is about ‘competitive consumption’ and ‘distinction’, of which rebellion is one of the most powerful sources. The system therefore, never changes, because rebellion is one of the most, if not the most powerful sources of distinction. This, they contend, has been going on since the 1960s. They damn the fact that we are only starting to notice it now, as ‘a pathetic reflection of our critical faculties’, in the same way we are only just starting to grasp Foucault’s 1976-1984 observations, which are explored below.
In this period, Foucault traced the birth of postmodern power relations – a ‘massifying’ power that takes a population of individuals as its target – to the idea of a Christian Pastorate, charged with simultaneously shepherding their flock, and safeguarding the state of each individual soul. With this analogy, one can easily observe how the flock as a whole and the individuality of certain sheep represent a combined target for marketing practices that seek to sell individuality to a population of consumers. No one wants to be a cog in the machine, another brick in the wall, or a sheep. Rebels want to be the black sheep of the flock, to stand out from the crowd, and to distinguish themselves from the system, yet, as Heath & Potter submit, rebellion ‘is not a threat to the system: it is the system.’ Simply put, our love of all things ‘alternative’ produces cool assets, which capitalists want desperately to add to their holdings (Harold, 2007:XX), or as Micheal Hardt & Antonio Negri put it; ‘Postmodern marketing recognises the difference of each commodity and each segment of the population, fashioning its strategies accordingly’ (Hardt & Negri 2000:152). This isn’t Hobson’s Choice (take it or leave it, but only we offer it, so we’ll make you want it), or Henry Ford’s choice (’any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black’), but a multitude of choices that feed off distinction; like wolves in black sheep’s clothing, attempting to misappropriate and/or infiltrate our counterculture, and to commodify our dissent.
“Your new found dream is a fucking nightmare,
And I wonder if you even know?
Are you ready to be Davey to the new Goliath,
Taking notes at your all-ages show?
It’s like the marketing department has finally figured out
That ‘the pit’ can always make more room.
I’d love to sneer at the camera for your revolution,
But I just can’t afford the fucking costume.”
~ Dillinger Four
Let’s take a look at a few examples of postmodern marketing campaigns that not only thrive off rebellion as a form of distinction, but also seek to usurp the ethos of dissent, and hijack countercultural channels of communication. Clothing is of course, only part of the picture, though it does serve as a good precursor to some of the less obvious examples I wish to explore. As Billy Bragg so eloquently put it, ‘The revolution is just a T-shirt away’, yet – after viewing the extensive portfolio of alternative fashion styles found at www.yourscenesucks.com – one cannot help but feel that he came closer to our present reality when he sang ‘wearing badges is not enough in days like these’. Whilst the first wave of consumerism may have softened us up to homogeneous creative wants, the new system is quite adept at feeding off our ethical concerns, and rebellious nature. It is by no accident that Apple’s iPod is not only the sexiest bit of MP3 playing kit on the market, but the first to indirectly endorse illegal filesharing; or that Bertelsmann, one of the ‘big five’ record labels, bought Napster during its court case, no doubt, in pursuit of a little ‘rebellious cool’ of their own. Furthermore, it is of course, no coincidence that we are witnessing a huge proliferation of organic, and fairtrade produce, simultaneously lining our Anya Hindmarsh ‘I Am Not A Plastic Bag[s]‘ and the pockets of the supermarkets.
Consider Negativland’s Dispepsi record, an interesting album that uses remixed Pepsi and Coke advertisements, creating something entirely new by way of a fragmentary transformation of the existing work. When Pepsi’s response came it was not what the group had prepared for; the company rather enjoyed the new found ‘bad’ publicity, which, as the adage attests, is always ‘good publicity’. Instead of the legal battle they were anticipating, Negativland were offered an exemplary amount of money to do to Miller Genuine Draft’s back-catalogue of ads what they had just done to the soft-drink manufacturers’ for free. They ultimately refused the offer, ‘but to this day, continue to reel from the knowledge that their attempt at subversion struck other corporations as a great promotional ploy’. (Moore 2005:65).
We might also wish to recall the more recent 28 Months Later ad campaign, where ‘kids’ were given stencils designed to hype up the film, cans of biodegradable spray paint, and encouraged to take to the streets, not only endorsing a form of ’safe rebellion’, but 20th Century Fox’s latest hit. Whilst I’ve been informed that Banksy denies any involvement in the production of Blur’s Think Tank artwork, his unique countercultural style, and rebellious intentions have undoubtedly set an aesthetic benchmark for many guerrilla advertising campaigns . There are too many examples to cite, but my personal favourite remains State of Emergency, a Sony Playstation game in which players become anti-globalisation activists, battling the evil ‘American Trade Organization’ in an unnamed U.S. City. Safe dissent and virtual reality aside, is anyone else thinking of Seattle and the W.T.O?
Moving a little closer to home, it appear marketers are no longer content with the traditional communication mediums, and have begun to make inroads into the zine community. This shady undertaking was originally brought to my attention in a Punk Planet article by Anne Elizabeth Moore, describing a purportedly grass-roots campaign for Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith, recounting the receipt at Punk Planet HQ of a nondescript envelope ‘containing a stencilled T-shirt, several crappy, homemade stickers, some one-inch buttons, and a deliberately crumpled letter signed in crayon from Lucasfilm Ltd’. Furthermore the letter ‘invites readers to a website, Grrl.com, that contains no official markers of its creation by Lucasfilm employee Bonnie Burton. That Burton is also the publisher of a zine called Grrl only serves to further blur the line between what is genuinely DIY and what is done for the man.’ Moore ultimately concludes: ‘zines, stencils and wheatpasted posters are a great way to reach out to the underground. That’s why we use them, here in the underground. That the Star Wars promotional team felt comfortable misappropriating these methods, despite its dedication to the perpetration of generic, mainstream media, isn’t surprising either: zinesters, skateboarders, and rock-poster artists alike grew up with Yoda, Darth Vader, and Leia (Moore, 2005:62)’ Anyone who has ever been privileged to visit Last Hours HQ, and observed the humongous Empire Strikes Back poster on prominent display will no doubt, agree with such a claim.
This is just a small part of a larger whole. Lest we not forget, Rupert Murdoch’s acquisition of MySpace has not only bought a huge proliferation of target and viral advertising, consumer products the opportunity to make ‘friends’ with their demographic, and the holy grail of target market research, but a new breed of corporate advertising. Through the employment of ‘influencers,’ hired to talk up brands – in the same way zinesters recommend bands to one another, or share DIY resources – peer communication has been hijacked as a more ‘friendly’ way to further marketing’s blandishments.
I too, have been the target of a similar campaign, logging onto MySpace to find an email from an alleged Back To The Future fan, informing me of a cool new project to replicate the ‘sneakers’ Marty McFly wore in Back To the Future II – not only playing on my 80s cultural upbringing (and the misplaced notion that as a zinester, I am a gatekeeper of underground culture), but requesting I spread the word in my zine. Needless to say, I was somewhat sceptical of this so-called ‘independent project’ and with a little research, managed to track this ‘wolf in black sheep’s clothing’ all the way to Nike HQ.
We might also wish to recall how Nike left themselves open to a new world of criticism when they chose to misappropriate Minor Threat’s album artwork on their Nike Skateboarding ‘Major Threat 2005 East Coast Tour.’ Ultimately pulling the ad and issuing an apologetic letter halfway through the tour, the athletic shoe giant left a bewildered Ian MacKaye to declare: ‘It is disheartening to us to think that Nike may be successful in using this imagery to fool kids…into thinking that the general ethos of this label, and Minor Threat in particular, could somehow be linked to Nike’s mission.’
“You should never wear your best trousers when you go out to fight for freedom and liberty.” ~ Henrik Ibsen
Nor should you wear your high-topped Chucks for that matter (as Edd has already attested in a previous issue of this zine, they’re not very easy to run in). Aside from the fact that Converse’s beloved underground icon is now owned by Nike, you may be surprised to hear that I wouldn’t recommend swapping them for a pair of Macbeth’s, Vegetarian Shoes, or Adbusters’ Blackspot Sneakers either? Whilst I am in no doubt that their path of resistance is to turn the system against itself, Adbusters is a paradigm example of an inappropriate form of resistance that can no longer be distinguished from the system it so vehemently rails against.
Contributing to this criticism against Adbusters, is its attempt to simultaneously deploy and escape the tropes of advertising. ‘Its self-righteous outsider stance,’ as Christine Harold contends ‘inevitably sets it up for charges that the organisation has sold out.’ As New Statesman’s James Harkin wondered after an interview with Adbusters founder Kalle Lasn: ‘If the raison d’etre of Adbusters is to combat the white noise of the messaging industry, how does Lasn justify a special claim on our senses for its anti-branding propaganda? Or, to put it another way: what exactly is it that distinguishes an anti-brand from a mainstream commercial brand?’ In a similar vein to its commercial counterparts, Harkin notes, Adbusters is ‘beautifully produced, has created its own distinctive aesthetic and boasts a global circulation of 100,000′ (Harold, 2007:54). Now boasting a magazine circulation of 150,000 (that has led to some of its original contributors landing lucrative marketing contracts with the likes of Diesel Jeans), alongside their anti-logo, rebel-conscientious, ethically-sourced Converse-alternatives, Adbusters’ ‘Culture Shop’ also offers Kalle Lasn’s revolutionary design manual Design Anarchy, a Media Empowerment Kit, and all manner of other anti-consumerist must-haves. To this end one wonders whether Adbusters are sincere in their enterprise, or merely seeking to profit from countercultural rebellion ?
How are we then, in the face of such countercultural commodification, to pursue a path of active resistance against the truly damaging rhetorical tropes of consumerism, and how do we resistant such an enterprise, without further stoking its flames? How are we to smash a system poised to make a quick buck off such dissent, and more specifically, how long will it be before Starbucks starts selling Zapatista coffee (or at least advertising in a manner that gives that impression)? Perhaps the answer lies partly in Adbusters’ intentions to ‘prank’ or ‘jam’ the system – turning it against itself – though they ultimately fall short of fulfilling this promise.I have always held reservations regarding their claim to be turning the system against itself. I have always found their preachy, ‘just say no’ to consumerism, drugs, alcohol, smoking, etc, ’stance’ to be, not a playful pranking of the system, but rather, a grotesque exercise in nay-saying that merely usurps marketing strategies to a different end. As Harkin quite rightly asserts above – in spite of its anti-consumerist thrust – it remains propaganda nonetheless.
The true ethos of sabotage is lost in their interpretation of ‘brand sabotage.’ We should not forget the etymology of the word sabotage stems partly from the Industrial Revolution, where it is said that powered looms could be damaged by angry or disgruntled workers throwing their wooden clogs, or ’sabots’, into the machinery, effectively clogging the system. Yet, by a perverse twist of marketing fate it now appears, under Adbusters agenda, that the same outcome can be brought about by buying the right shoes from the onset. Sticking with French etymology, we may also recall the ’sans-culottes’ label attached to poorer members of the Third Estate (the lowest social strata in pre-revolutionary France), who were literally ‘without knee breeches’. Often wearing full-length pantaloons instead of the chic knee-length culottes, the term came to refer to the ill-clad and ill-equipped volunteers of the Revolutionary army during the early years of the French Revolution, but, above all, to the working class radicals, who could not afford better legwear, let alone consider it necessary in their fight for freedom and liberty.
Whilst it is relatively simple to attack ‘hip’ ad-agencies at the behest of their corporate payrolls (such as Weiden and Kennedy, BrainReserve, and BzzAgent), how are we to resist countercultural commodification within the counterculture itself? We could, of course, choose to not consume, yet I wouldn’t call such an undertaking active resistance. Should we accept Heath & Potter’s ‘mythic’, revolutionist posture or, might we instead consider modes of resistance that are not predicated on independence from markets? (Harold, 2007:xxxi). Whilst, I feel the latter approach has been somewhat insincerely undertaken by Adbusters’, the best way to turn the market system against itself has long been presented by the Situationist International tactic of detournément . Whilst many believe Adbusters’ attempts at ‘brand subvertisement’ incorporate this tactic, on a closer inspection it better resembles their theorisation of recupertaion (where radical ideas and images become safe and commodified). Instead of ad-parodies that further promulgate an alternative consumerism, we might chose to pursue detournément in a manner that seeks to ‘prank’ the system, without leaving such an undertaking wide-open to corporate recuperation.
Whilst such an endeavour is no doubt a difficult task – take the Billboard Liberation Organisation for instance, who may have inadvertently provided ad-agencies with yet another guerrilla tactic to incorporate into their agenda – it is imperative that we attend to the creation of new ‘weapons’ that are impervious to misappropriation. Recognising that ‘the system’ feeds off rebellion and individuality as a much as conformity, is undoubtedly the best place to start. Furthermore, it must be borne in mind that for individuals to exist, everyone else has to be relatively homogeneous. In constantly striving for individuality, we create damaging consequences – like disassociation – to which further consumption, and the satisfaction of more creative wants, is presented as our only cure. But it is through this intended outcome, that we can best observe the one glistening crack in the system rife for exploitation, namely, that the joys of a rebellious lifestyle, and of railing against the system, are not to be found in isolation, but in solidarity and community. We must also attend to redrawing the distinction between rebellion and resistance the system seeks to so heavily distort.
Finally, it is imperative, as good Situationists, to locate ourselves within the centre of this shit-storm. If we are not prepared to admit to our own flaws, to concede that we too are products of the system we seek to smash, our plight will be taken as seriously as Adbusters’. I am prepared to concede I am a product of late modernity whether I like it or not. I consume; I have read No Logo; and I have seen The Corporation, yet I am wholly aware that in so doing, I am not railing against the system, but contributing to it. We grew up with disassociation, media, advertising, and rebellion. We must recognise our flaws, and attend to our futures. It has not been the intention of this article to offer concrete solutions. Such an undertaking would be better pursued through active community debate, and ongoing experimentation. If this article however, helps any of us to continue reflecting on the provenance, and effectiveness of the weapons we employ, it will have ultimately served its purpose.
1. Passed after the American Civil War to protect the life, liberty and property of ‘persons’ read: newly freed slaves. Between 1890 and 1910 there were 307 cases brought before the Court under the 14th Amendment, 288 of these brought by corporations, 19 by African Americans. 600,000 people were killed in pursuit of rights for ‘people’ yet, over the next thirty years Judges systematically applied those rights to capital and property. A corporation is not a group of people. It is, as defined by law, a legal person. This, in the same way legal shorthand for ‘he’, also means ’she,’ allows laws applicable to people, to also apply to corporations. They are not moral persons, or even socially responsible persons. To best describe this type of person, would be to compare it to Frankenstein’s monster, created, and required by law, to put the interests of their shareholders above other, competing interests. A corporation is legally bound to put its bottom line before everything else, even the public good.
2. And has also been heavily appropriated in the video advertising Naomi Klein’s new book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kieyjfZDUIc
3. If we really wanted to put this question to a ‘litmus test’ – to test whether their anti-logo is essentially a logo in itself – it is submitted that the easiest way to do so would be to knock-up a few t-shirts with their ‘blackspot’ anti-logo on them, start selling them on the Internet, and see if it lights their ‘legal fuse.’
4. Short for ‘detournément of pre-existing aesthetic elements…The integration of past or present artistic production into a superior construction of a milieu.’ (Internationale Situationiste Issue 1, June 1958). Simply put, images produced by the spectacle of pervasive advertising are altered and subverted. Rather than supporting the status quo, their meaning becomes changed in order to put across a more radical or oppositionist message.
5. Not in a chemical or psychological sense, but through a corporate ideal that requires ‘individuals who are totally disassociated from each other, whose conception of themselves, whose sense of value, is ‘how many creative wants can I satisfy?” (Noam Chomsky in The Corporation)
- FRANK, T. (1997): ‘Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos from the Baffler’ (W. W. Norton & Co.).
- FRANK, T. (1998): ‘The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture and the Rise of Hip Consumerism’ (University of Chicago Press).
- FRANK, T. (2002): ‘One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism and the End of Economic Democracy’ (Vintage).
- HAROLD, C. (2007): ‘OurSpace: Resisting the Corporate Control of Culture’ (University of Minnesota Press).
- HARDT, M. & NEGRI, A (2000): ‘Empire’ (Harvard University Press).
- HEATH, J. & POTTER, A. (2006) ‘The Rebel Sell: How the Counter Culture Became Consumer Culture’ (Capstone).
- KLEIN, N. (2000) ‘No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies’ (Picador).
- MONBIOT, G. (2001) ‘Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain’ (Pan Books).
- MOORE, A. E. (2005): ‘Black Market’ (Punk Planet #70).