Culture Jamming, Culture Schmamming

A while ago, I wrote about how impressed I was with the authors of Rebel Sell, who I heard on the CBC. I ordered the book, and have started reading it. For a relatively-academic tone, it’s exceptionally readable and pop culture-savvy (more so, certainly, than No Logo). I just read about the security footage of the Seattle WTO riots in 1999 that showed anti-globalization protestors busting up the Nike store while wearing Nike shoes. It seems like there’s a heretical notion on every page, and though I’ve only read a couple of chapters, I’d definitely recommend it to anybody who read and enjoyed No Logo.

I mention Rebel Sell because there’s an article about it at The Tyee.

Their new book, ‘The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can’t be Jammed’, takes aim at the strategy of using shopping to effect political change, which they say has only reinforced society’s materialistic cravings, not dampened them. Worse, they told The Tyee when they were in Vancouver last week, it’s also privatized political action, by taking it out of the voting booth and into the supermarket.

There’s also an article by the authors in This Magazine, and you can watch a decent introductory video on their site. They’re not the most telegenic guys in the world, but they sure are smart.


  1. I can understand what can seem so “heretical” about their theory, I suppose – taking Naomi Klein to task for owning a loft (see the This Magazine article) seems like fun, but it also appears to make them feel AWFULLY superior, and it is that smug satisfaction of theirs that turns me off. They are busy positioning themselves as counter-counter-culture theorists, and are, rather amusingly, going through the exact process which they are indicting – seeking status through professing originality or rarity.

    The mass media and mass consumer culture are irrevokably intertwined, and while it may seem counter-intuitive that Adbusters sells anti-logo sneakers, consider a) their current lawsuit over being denied access to mass media advertising with their non-product anti-consumerist messages because the networks say it would offend their other clients (one side says the companies can do whatever the f*** they want, the other side points out that broadcasting frequencies are considered to be in the public domain); and b) the amount of media landscape they’ve been able to grab with the strategy, even if much of it is smug, caught-you-being-hypocritical reporting.

    Deciding to strictly, dare I say Quixotically ignore the idea-transmitting power of corporate communications dooms your message to the backwaters of thought. The fact that corporate interests also choose to adopt supposedly anti-corporate advertising models does nothing to invalidate the initial anti-consumerist critique.

    That said, they do make an excellent suggestion to close the tax-deductable loophole for advertising. And if major US political offices were open to anyone other than multi-millionaires, or those that multi-millionaires choose to endorse, perhaps there might be some action on that.

  2. Well said, Matthew, here’s my reply.

    First off, check out this Q & A in the Rebel Sell FAQ: I think it articulates their position in a broader context. If I were to state it succintly, it’s this: “Since the sixties, counter-culture has been woefully ineffective at affecting social change. Institutional efforts, within the culture, have been far more successful. In short, culture jamming doesn’t work.” For example, what kind of actual impact does Buy Nothing Day have on the average store? Nearly nil, I’d guess (the Web wasn’t forthcoming with statistics of any kind).

    I don’t actually think they’re indicting seeking status through originality. If you check out this question (, you’ll see that they’re critical of the convergence of cool-seeking and consumer goods. As they say, “thus the perpetual cycles of obsolescence in consumer culture, far from being a cynical plot on the part of corporations, is actually driven by competitive behavior among consumers.” They’re discouraging us from keeping up with the Joneses.

    I also don’t see where they advocate ignoring “the idea-transmitting power of corporate communications” (a very broad term, when I think you might mean just advertising?). They want to tax it, certainly, and they think there’s too much of it, but I don’t think they’re in favour of eliminating it. Where’s that concept in these articles?

  3. errr… This has been articulated in Thomas Franks book a few years back – The Conquest of Cool (1996). His follow up, One Market Under God, is better at examining the wider political and social ramifications.
    An excerpt from Conquest (which is more oriented towards a historical purview of advertising and P.R.) can be found at…

    Also recommended: Hal Niedviecki’s “Hello I’m Special”

  4. Indeed, in the This Magazine article they say “it is a position that Thomas Frank, editor of The Baffler, has been trying to communicate for years.”

  5. It sounds like a very good book, and there is a lot of marketing studies, but we have to be careful from “what” we are drawing conclusions from.

    For example: The security footage indeed shows people wearing Nike footwear destroying a Nike store, however you have to take into account that the vast majority of the people doing the damage are NOT WTO protesters nor anti-globalization, but are mostly made up of the large number of homeless kids that have moved down from “the hill” once the protesting started. I believe it was Time magazine that did a really nice article shortly after the incident that detailed crowd movements and how the WTO protesters were blamed for the actions of people that just took advantage of an opportunity for chaos.

    Half of those that were brought up on charges were from Seattle and had no affiliation with the WTO protesters, but that is not the picture that is typically painted.

    I just think we have to be very careful when drawing conclusions about society when the details are so tainted.

  6. One more thing Darren might be interested in: Thomas Frank’s writing is first rate. He’s been compared to H. L. Mencken (and Frank cites Mencken as one of his influences– a writerly influence and not a political one).
    When T Frank is going full bore, look out…

    You can check him out using Amazon’s “look inside the book”:

    Nowadays Frank frequently publishes in Harper’s.

  7. Thanks for the original tip Darren, I went to see the authors at UBC’s ‘Town Square’ and it was quite a fascinating discussion.

    I haven’t read the book yet, but so far I agree with their assessment that 40 years of counter-culture isn’t working and that to make progress we need to focus on using the power of the state to make real, collective, progress.

    I especially like their arguments and examples which show how many of our problems require collective (mandatory) action to solve.

    The one aspect where I disagree with them is when they give a couple of examples of where what seems like counter-culture activity is really status-seeeking (i.e. Klein’s apartment, Adbuster shoes) and then they make a sweeping generalization that all ‘counter-culture’ activities are really just about status and feeling morally superior.

    The truth is, if I spend extra money or make an extra effort to buy free-range eggs, or organic produce or fair traded products or whatever, it’s not because I want to feel morally superior or more distinct – it’s because I honestly believe that these choices lead to a (very marginally) better world. And if everyone else started doing the same thing, I wouldn’t lament my loss of status and switch back to pesticide produce and so on to be distinct again, I’d think it was great.

    I’m overstating the author’s point a little here (based on their arguments), but I think I’m accurately capturing the general impression they give based on some of their rhetoric and their choice of examples. It’s too bad, because I think this one point alienates a lot of the people they are trying to reach, and distracts attention from their main argument which is both very convinving and very important (in my opinion, anyway).

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