CULTURE JAMMING (tm)

Brought to you by Adbusters

Remember Adbusters? That goofy, sloppy Canadian magazine that helped popularize and circulate ad parodies? The writing was never really great, and the newsprint sometimes rubbed off, but it had the sort of humble, daresay D.I.Y. appeal you'd expect from a struggling non-profit.

Adbusters is still around, but with the last couple issues the anti-advertising magazine has become eerily similar to its profit-driven models. Glossy, full color everything, a graphics fetish (perhaps to compensate for the lame text) and a cover price, $5.75, that pretty much prices out the masses/students it's designed to reach. Imagine USA Today from an anti-alcohol, anti-smoking, anti-television angle. Few items of information between the covers, and lots of fluff. Everything is reducible to a catchy, meaningless slogan like "Economists Must Learn To Subtract." One new columnist takes up a whole page ruminating upon what the column will be about -- kind of ridiculous considering the magazine comes out about twice a year.

Particularly disturbing, though, is how the latest issue seems to be ushering in an even bolder new phase for anti-adland. And with it, naturally, a slogan: Culture Jamming.

The term "culture jamming" has been around a while. Negativland coined it on their Jamcon `84 (SST) cassette, referring to billboard alteration and other forms of media sabotage: "As awareness of how the media environment we occupy affects and directs our inner life grows, some resist...The skillfully reworked billboard....directs the public viewer to a consideration of the original corporate strategy. The studio for the cultural jammer is the world at large."

Negativland, then, took an active role in conducting media pranks. Their Helter Stupid EP (1989), for example, chronicles a hoax of theirs that landed them on evening news in connection with a murder. But Negativland never really did much with "culture jamming." Though there's never been a shortage of catchy slogans associated with the band and their work ("Copyright infringement is your best entertainment value," "Christianity is stupid," "Negativland is stupid"), nametags were more of an afterthought.

Nonetheless, the term was adopted and used by other media activists in the line of work. Open Magazine Pamphlet Series spotlighted culture jamming in its July 1993 issue. Tracing it back to Negativland, writer Mark Dery surveyed the varied forms it has taken in media activism: hoaxing, audio agitprop, billboard banditry, guerilla semiotics, zines, etc. Dery makes it quite obvious that Adbusters' "subvertising" is but one take on culture jamming. Realizing Negativland's view of the world-as-studio, Dery places the creative process at the heart of culture jamming.

But Adbusters has its own ideas about culture jamming. "Culture Jamming On Campus" reads the headline across the cover. Inside, there's two full pages on the subject, two full pages of tools you'll need to culture jam. Basically, this boils down to a few pointless vagaries ("challenge your economics professors to justify their scientific credentials in class") and things to buy --air-time on local TV to air Adbusters' anti-commercials, Buy Nothing Day promo goods (irony, anyone?), and the Culture Jammer's toolbox, where, for $35, you get a poster, stickers, The Culture Jammer's Video, a Buy Nothing Day t-shirt and extra copies of Adbusters. Then inside the back page, in case you missed those two pages, there's a full page of Culture Jamming materials. A set of six posters and postcards ($15), the Culture Jammer's Calendar ($13), The Culture Jammer's Video and Back Issues. Order before September 15 and get a second calendar free!

Fight fire with fire. Beat `em at their own game, I guess is the thinking. But what comes out is no real alternative to our culture of consumption. Just a different brand.