Culture Jamming in South Africa: A Brand Perspective – How should major brands be approaching the issue of culture jamming
Somewhat behind the times, South Africa is finally being introduced to the art and politics of culture jamming courtesy of Justin Nurse and his band of local brand activists, Laugh It Off, who shot to fame last year, largely on the back of SABMiller’s legal budget.
Laugh It Off produced a T Shirt which subverted the Carling Black Label brand, adopting the style and colour of the Carling Black Label brand identity while delivering a rather ironic twist: instead of the standard Black Label brand stuff, the Laugh It Off logo read, ‘Black Labour. White Guilt. Africa’s lusty, lively exploitation since 1652. No regard given worldwide.’ Logo manipulation is a stock in trade for culture jammers.
SABMiller was highly offended, and dragged Laugh It Off to court. The major legal claims put forward by SABMiller included:
• Laugh It Off was using SAB’s intellectual property, without permission, for its own commercial gain
• The wording on the T-shirt was offensive, inaccurate and had the potential to damage SAB’s reputation
In reply, Laugh it Off claimed:
• They were merely poking fun at the brand – as they have done with many others – and SAB must “chill” 1
• By using a well-known cultural commodity for social commentary Laugh it Off was exercising constitutionally endowed freedom of speech
• The shirts were meant as a comment on race relations in South Africa, and not on Carling itself
The case is still being heard on appeal, but SABMiller won. Or did they?
Nurse had to put his Black Labour T Shirt back in the cupboard, but the Laugh It Off brand itself received incredible momentum from the media exposure afforded it by SABMiller’s legal action. In 2003 Laugh it Off published its first annual of youth culture writing, expanded its range of comedy and other events, and, of course, sold a lot more T Shirts. Even if the SABMiller court battle does crush the Laugh it Off business on a fiscal level, the figures behind the company have achieved major profiles – personal positioning that lays the foundations for future personal success, and more culture jamming, albeit in another guise.
Despite some claims that the exposure increased Black Label sales, SABMiller is left looking like a big, nasty brand, suffering from hypersensitivity and paranoia.
All of which begs the following questions. How should major brands be approaching the issue of culture jamming? What sort of impact are ‘subvertisements’ likely to have on brand equity and reputation? Does the exercise of culture jamming signify a major challenge to brands? What shape is culture jamming likely to take in South Africa?
In order to answer these questions, it is important to examine the rise of the global jamming movement.
The Global Movement
‘Culture jamming [refers to] the innovative and alternative ways in which people are offering a form of creative, non-violent resistance against the way in which we view the world, either for the sake of the interruption or for getting an alternative message across.’ 2
In a branding context, culture jamming can be considered to be the practice of subverting brands – by harnessing the same mediums that brands use to reach consumers.
While Laugh it Off is currently the only really active culture jamming outfit in South Africa, globally culture jamming carries a much heavier weight in the sphere of popular culture, and also in academic circles.
Culture jamming has resonated in recent times thanks to significantly raised public awareness of the political, social and environmental power of global brands and monopolies. This raised awareness is reinforced by a global consumer society that is buckling under the weight of brand-centric lifestyles.
Today, consumers have a voice – and many of them are using it to express their disdain with the global consumerist lifestyle, and to network with others of similar mind sets. Issues such as environment and labour malpractice now speak to consumers as never before – and the same consumers have the ability, thanks to modern technology, to truly express their feelings.
Culture jamming has its roots in 1960s ‘counter culture’, and can be seen in almost any urban environment. The most basic form of culture jamming is the work of the graffitio – who alters the copy on a billboard to deliver an entirely different message… a message that reacts to the ideological claustrophobia of post-post-modern society. In recent times, the Internet has given the counter culture mind-set a major boost – allowing those of similar intellectual persuasions to practice unified activism through the rapid dispersion of information.
One of the most famous examples of Internet based culture jamming is the hilarious email correspondence, between Jonah Peretti and Nike that swept the Internet a few years ago. Peretti subverted Nike’s custom web site, which offered consumers the opportunity to have personal words stitched onto their trainers. Peretti requested the word ‘sweatshop’ to be stitched onto his Nikes. The back and forth correspondence between the two parties pointedly highlighted issues surrounding Nike’s labour practices, and the Internet provided the perfect medium through which to spread the message. Nike’s marketing tool had been turned on its head.
Culture jamming is often ideologically linked to the widespread anti-globalisation movement, and Naomi Klein’s acclaimed assault on corporate brand culture, No Logo, is frequently hailed as the bible of the culture jamming anti-globalisation campaigner.
No Logo deals with the incursion of brands into cultural space, the ‘squeezing out’ of the human businessman and the labour practices of big business. For many readers Klein’s breakdown of these often hidden practices of capitalism are both shocking and enlightening. No Logo also addresses the anti-capitalist mind-set that is increasingly characterising certain aspects of western consumer society. Klein paints a fairly loose scenario of possible change in the global capitalist system, driven by consumers fed up with a lack of choice and suffering under general brand domination. In particular, Klein hails the activism of culture jammers as the arrowhead of this change. Although No Logo has come under fire from academics for its lack of historical perspective, it remains the definitive text for most culture jammers.
The Global Pioneers
Adbusters is the most widely recognised global practitioner of culture jamming. The Adbusters magazine and web site (www.adbusters.org) focus on publishing ‘thought leadership’ writing that places global capitalism under the microscope. Included in the content are a range of amusing ‘subvertisements’, graphic and thematic inversions of brand identities and advertising campaigns that deliver social / media commentary. Not included are conventional advertisements – these being the source of much evil in Adbusters country.
Apart from editorial content and ‘subvertisements’, Adbusters runs regular ‘anti-brand’ activism campaigns, such as ‘TV Turn Off Day’, or the Black Spot Sneaker campaign, which is engagingly summed up by the organisation in the following way:
“Adbusters is making a sneaker.
We’re putting it on our feet.
We’re doing some kicking.
Our target – Phil Knight’s ass.”
The Black Spot Sneaker campaign ‘Call to Action’ asks activists to either purchase the anti-brand sneaker, sell it as a retailer, or join local culture jams against Nike by placing symbolic red dots on branded sneakers. The Black Spot Sneaker Campaign follows an archetypal culture jam model, and the foundation stone of the drive is a call to all consumers to jam any and all Nike promotions.
This Adbusters campaign subverts conventional marketing and distribution methods, for seemingly social ends. In effect, global brands like Nike have become a feeding pool for culture jammers, who leverage the power of popular perceptions that they themselves have played a role in creating. From an Adbusters perspective, Nike is the big bad brand, while culture jammers are the ‘noble rebels’, fighting against well established, often sinister (see No Logo), ‘powers that be’.
Who Are The Culture Jammers?
The ideology of culture jamming is tightly aligned to the trials and tribulations of media workers, who are generally aged 16-30, and who operate in their very own creative sweatshops. Media workers tend to form the vanguard of culture jamming movements because they have intimate relationships with the creation and maintenance of brands, and they are fully exposed to the conflict between espoused brand ideologies and real world practices.
While copies of Adbusters lie around on ad agency desks, and while creative workers are likely the majority purchasers of Laugh It Off T-Shirts, we have not seen a significant shift in the brand work being conducted within the media environment. Ideologically media workers may be ‘anti-brand’, but on a practical level most of them continue to work for the big brands, and to produce the media content they abhor on abstract levels.
Although culture jamming may seem on the surface to be trapped in an ideological cul de sac, one should not underestimate the resonance of the movement across broader society. Indeed, culture jammers have played a significant role in recent years in conscietising the general public with regards to brands and their role in society.
Culture Jamming in South Africa
In Africa, global brands and big local companies are very necessary – like them or not, they provide employment for millions of people. Add to this the fact that a great majority of South Africans are too busy looking for a job to indulge in culture jamming, and that broad based internet lifestyles (the fuel on the global culture jamming fire) are not yet a reality, and you have an environment where conventional culture jamming does not look likely to build the momentum it has in first world countries.
Nevertheless, culture jamming has taken its place in the South African cultural landscape. One only has to take an empirical look at the popularity of Laugh It Off T Shirts to realise that many South Africans are actively enjoying a subversion of brand identities and mediums, albeit on a largely playful level.
Why The Fuss?
Often culture jams do not take the form of a direct attack on a brand as such, but rather use subversion of the brand identity to deliver a broader social commentary. Indeed, sometimes culture jams are simply funny, and deliver no real message at all. But regardless of the nature of the commentary, culture jams can prove to be highly offensive to brands or organisations that have spent decades cultivating a particular identity. While the intentions (and similarly the interpretations) of local culture jamming are often unclear, there is obvious merit in Sven Woodside’s development of George Orwell’s assertion that, ‘every joke is a tiny revolution.’3
Brand managers need to be aware that increasingly widespread ‘brand frustration’ is emerging locally, outside of the realm of collective culture jamming groups like Laugh It Off.
There has been a recent increase in direct brand attacks, in the form of what can best be classified as ‘hate’ web sites. SAA, BMW and Telkom have all been targeted in this context by individual consumers with a serious gripe against the brand. These ‘one man’ brand attacks are motivated more by a negative commercial interaction than by a broad concern for the health of brand-led society and could easily be shrugged off by the brand concerned (even though such ‘shrugging off’ indicates a lack of willingness to listen to the consumer, and therefore runs contrary to espoused brand values). Indeed, BMW’s response to its ‘hate site’ was short and to the point:
“In the general course of business it is unfortunately not possible to please everyone and I am sad to say that Mr. Rios [the web site’s creator] is in this category.” 4
Solo powered hate web sites are a good indication of the power of the modern consumer. Armed only with web design software and a little creative flair, it is possible for one person to launch an anti-brand campaign that will generate an irksome level of negative exposure, via the Internet.
On a deeper social level, general frustration is increasingly expressed in South African culture – particularly in the youth’s ideologically active hip hop and spoken word poetry environments. Music bands like Skwatta Kamp and Cashless Society, through their names alone, are offering strong comment on the frustration thousands of young South Africans feel in dealing with consumer driven life.
The compounding success of brands such as Loxion Kulca, YDE and YFM – to name a few – indicate that, where choice is an option, local youth are increasingly leaning towards brands that are backed by an anti-establishment flavour. Indeed, the local popularity of FUBU – an iconic young black American brand – also serves to illustrate the broader point: the youth market is responding to brands created for young people, and by young people; brands that buck the multinational trend and that speak to a more relevant ‘youth’ identity.
Behind the heavy handed legal responses we are currently seeing to culture jammers is the fact that brands are realising that the notion of the brand bully is now a part of collective consumer consciousness. Ergo, culture jammers have the ability to inflict real reputation harm in certain instances. Thus brand custodians and decision makers are seeking ways to counteract this threat.
Apart from SABMiller, Unilever PLC and Lever Ponds SA have also instituted legal action against Laugh It Off for a ‘subvertisement’ centred on domestic violence that plays on the Domestos brand. The subvertisement ran in Laugh it Off’s 2003 Youth Culture Annual, and is interesting on a number of levels.
Laugh It Off was making a statement against the widespread prevalence of domestic violence, and although the subvertisement clearly leveraged the Domestos brand in its execution, Domestos was not the target.
Nevertheless, Unilever et al decided to institute legal action, demanding that Laugh It Off retrospectively arrange the destruction of all distributed copies of the subvertisement. With roughly 7000 copies of the 2003 LIO Annual distributed, this may be a tall order.
In response, Laugh It Off have claimed that a constitutional right to freedom of speech supersedes a company’s legal right to protect its trade mark; particularly when that freedom of speech is exercised in book form – as opposed to satirical T shirts.
Assessing the Impact: A Brand Perspective
In order to assess and control the severity of the situation when a brand is brought under the culture jamming light, business decision makers have to develop an understanding of the new environmental context, and the new role brands are being asked to play in society.
1. A New Communication Landscape
Despite clearly relevant concerns over the public use of registered trade marks, it seems possible that those brands looking to retaliate through forceful (and often legal) action could well be missing the broader message lying behind culture jamming. Culture jammers are, in effect, telling big business that the days of the one way brand street are numbered. That brands need to start realising that consumers are taking ownership of communication mediums that used to belong solely to media owners and media buyers. That the tables are turning.
“To my mind, branding has become a kind of language – in fact, one of the most powerful forms of language on earth. For everyday people, brands and logos are major agenda setters. Most companies, though, use that power only to sell their products,” Justin Nurse, Laugh It Off’s founder, sums the growing public perception of brands up neatly.
Commercial entities in the West have already latched firmly onto culture jamming as a mainstream media tool. In the UK, below the line agency, Cake, painted an entire street red in honour of Barbie’s birthday, while the likes of Sprite have been using an anti-image positioning for years (Image is nothing etc. etc.). Indeed, a great many successful international culture jammers have been recruited by major brand names such as Coke. Many of those who used to kick against the global system are now working for it – and making good money to boot.
More than likely we will see South African, brand-centric culture jamming following this pattern and being absorbed by marketing and advertising as an additional tool, with a few independent outfits bravely flying the intellectual flag.
The clearest evidence of the impact of the ‘anti-consumerist’ mind set on marketing is the relatively recent emergence of viral marketing as a promotional tool.
Viral marketing acknowledges a widespread resistance to mainstream marketing and advertising. Indeed, this resistance is the conceptual foundation of the viral model – which seeks to circumvent ‘media immunity’ through carefully constructed, interactive promotional drives. The active and willing participation of the consumer is central to the concept of viral marketing, which attempts to engage the consumer in brand driven activities, events and happenings. Viral marketing says that modern consumers are ‘genetically’ immune to conventional advertising. They simply bounce media messages away – unless of course they have actively chosen to absorb information, or an experience.
Once a consumer has engaged with a brand of their own volition, the virus is absorbed into the system, and, much like a physical virus, stands a chance of replicating itself in people who have contact with the carrier.
South Africa has already enjoyed viral marketing success, with Lucky Strike the trailblazer. Lucky Strike Live events have in the past featured secret venues, moderately complex admission procedures and high profile international music stars. The Lucky Strike Live events proved most popular with the elite of South Africa’s media and marketing communities, and raised the profile of the brand substantially over a short period of time.
Viral marketing, then, takes practical steps to meet the consumer on an ideological middle ground. While undeniably brand driven, viral marketing drives are designed to slice through the brand clutter that has become such a barrier to reaching your average young consumer – offering instead unique, event-based experiences that actually facilitate the enjoyment of young lifestyles.
2. Aligning the Brand and Business
What culture jammers are also telling us is that brands must start to achieve true alignment between the business and the brand strategy. On practical levels, this means closing the gap between brand strategy, values and operational reality – a gap which most culture jammers would suggest is actually a gaping chasm.
While almost all major brands claim to talk with their consumers, the reality is that only a fractional minority have actually entered the new marketing paradigm in a meaningful way. The majority are still engaged in one dimensional, Orwellian marketing strategies.
Annita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop, puts it like this.
“Brands are dying, because consumers are tired of being lied to and manipulated. People want brands that are honest, moral and local… Brands which are able to tell simple stories about themselves, about real people and real places, will have an enormous advantage.”
It is doubtful whether brands are actually dying, or whether Western consumers will ever lash back at brands in a truly destructive sense. Equally, brands need to look beyond telling simple stories. But the essence of Roddick’s message remains sound. In the near future brands will have to:
• Under-promise and over-deliver: marketers need to scale down the hype and notch up the service delivery;
• Take meaningful strides towards true business transparency and good corporate governance;
• Recognise and accept the new communications landscape and utilise / leverage two-way communications within the marketing strategy;
• Demonstrate clearly visible commitment to the outputs of customer dialogue – in the form of a business strategy that reflects the mind set and concerns of consumers.
While culture jamming may not be a direct, immediate threat to the position of brands and big business in our society, it most certainly is a powerful barometer that aids in assessing popular feelings towards companies and their actions.
Those brands and businesses that choose to ignore this barometer do so at their own peril, and at the risk of rendering their carefully constructed identity irrelevant to future generations. Flash mobs, wacky T Shirts, defaced billboards and defiant web sites are not just ‘strange kids’ doing their thing. They are clear signs that new consumers are interested in more than simply the ability of a product to perform a certain function; companies are slowly being forced, by consumers, to align all of their actions with their portrayed image.
How well South African businesses will cope with this challenge is, as yet, an unanswered question.
With 18 years of Marketing, Sales and Advertising experience Janice Spark has directed the marketing efforts of leading global organisations. Spark launched her career at Standard Bank in ‘84 where she pioneered specialised banking packages for high-end consumers, before moving on to pioneer the concept of ‘sell thru videos’ for Gallo Home Video. Then as Marketing Director of Adcock Ingram in the late ‘80s Spark oversaw the introduction of 15 successful new brands in a three-year period, whilst achieving market leadership for the company’s hair care, skincare and household product ranges. Before co-founding Idea Engineers, Spark was a Director of Estee Lauder South Africa where she entrenched Aramis as a market leader and introduced Tommy Hilfiger and DKNY to South Africa. Spark is regularly published in local and international marketing and branding media, and a speaker at brand conferences.
2 Sven Woodside: ‘Every Joke is a Tiny Revolution – Culture Jamming and the Role of Humour’, University of Amsterdam, Media Studies, 2001
3 Sven Woodside: ‘Every Joke is a Tiny Revolution…’ 2001