Jamming the ad culture

Advertisers have long liked to think of their audiences as consumers, the passive recipients of their messages and products. But consumers are starting to fight back. Susan Roberts reports on cultural jammers who subvert advertising messages.

SHOPPING IS THE NEW RELIGION. Forget pilgrimages to Canterbury: think Reebok and Ralph Lauren. We banish woes not with prayer but a little retail therapy.

Absolut Vodka On an average day, we see thousands of marketing brands and logos whether we like it or not. They are the new icons of our society and they infiltrate every area of life, from the workplace and schools to home and holiday. They rally people to them as the cross rallied the Crusaders. They aim to generate loyalty and inspire a following.

According to a recent survey, certain brands command more trust than political and church leaders. Marketing works. Wearing a label like an amulet against evil, people feel stronger and better. They feel that they belong, that they fit. They define themselves with logos.

BUT A REBELLION IS BUILDING, a small rebellion but one to reckon with nonetheless. Some consumers are starting to protest. They resent the way advertising occupies so much public space – on streets, the sides of buildings, buses and taxis. They are angry at the way it randomly penetrates our consciousness. It's time to stop this madness, they say.

Their acts of quiet protest – growing fast in America – are known as culture jamming. Culture jammers parody ads and hijack billboards to subvert their messages. They aim to prod people into thinking about the deeper truth behind marketing campaigns.

Adbusters, a bi-monthly magazine published in Vancouver, is one hub of the movement. It was founded in 1989 by Estonian-born Kalle Lasn, who describes it as "slick/subversive". From a distance it appears to be a glossy and visually-arresting arts magazine. Open its pages and you discover something very different.

Cars pollute my heart It's a tool of revolution, the bible of a backlash against consumerism and global marketing. It parodies major ad campaigns, analyses cultural and commercial trends and reports on corporate behaviour. It aims to hit back at "culture toxins", the forces of commercialism it believes are warping society. It wants to alter the way we think.

"Our aim is to topple existing power structures and forge a major rethinking in the way we will live in the 21st century," reads its mission statement. "We believe culture jamming will become to our era what civil rights was to the 60s, what feminism was to the 70s and what environmental rights activism was to the 80s."

Adbusters' brilliantly-designed spoof ads are as memorable as the originals they mock. Joe Camel, cigarette smoker, is transformed into Jo Chemo lying in a coffin. A horse grazes in a snow-covered graveyard in Marlboro Country. The familiar image of a vodka bottle wilts above the slogan "Absolut Impotence".

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