Culture jamming refers to an organized, social activist effort that aims to counter the bombardment of consumption oriented messages in the mass media. For Habermas (1985), an ideal speech situation is one in which all participants within a public space are empowered to reach consensus on issues of mutual importance through engagement in symmetrical discourse. Culture jammers see contemporary public space as filled with distorted communications, and seek to right the situation. These activists see fair and accessible public discourse as eroded by a mass media controlled by corporations, whose sponsored advertising has become the primary propagandist supporting the social logic of consumption culture. Culture jamming, then, is consumer culture jamming. The activists seek to break through the wall of corporate controlled, distorted, asymmetrical public discourse, awakening people from the hegemonic culture where the logic of consumption permeates all aspects of their lived experience (Rumbo 2002).
The rationale for culture jamming is found in the writings of Frankfurt School theorists, perhaps most powerfully espoused by Horkheimer and Adorno (1996). The Frankfurt School’s conceptual framework critiques social structures constructed under the guise of a capitalist ideology that come to define a culture of consumption. Here, corporations act as ‘‘cultural engineers’’ (Holt 2002) that define a limited set of socially acceptable human activities and identities, inherently limiting human potential and freedom. By controlling and permeating virtually all public spaces, corporations and their capitalist ideology serve as the groundwork for a hegemonic cultural logic of consumption. Ontologically, while this culture of consumption is socially constructed, it becomes reified as a ‘‘natural’’ social order, appearing concrete, objective, and void of competing worldviews and any alternative possibility for human expression.
Consistent with the underlying philosophy of the Frankfurt School, culture jamming involves at least three steps in its effort to break through this oppressive framework of social meaning. First, culture jamming tries to identify the contradictions buried beneath the apparently seamless barrage of capitalist messages. Advertising, the communication carrier of the capitalist cultural code, naturalizes consumption by interweaving consumer goods and the very fabric of social life (Leiss et al. 1990). Through advertising, consumption of consumer goods appears as the sole route to solving life’s problems and achieving individual happiness. Culture jamming’s first step is to unveil the economic, social, and environmental misery that hides beneath this happy exterior.
The second step in culture jamming involves achieving a type of reflexive resistance whereby consumers (i.e., the general public) become aware of the hidden contradictions underlying the cultural ideology of consumption. By revealing these otherwise hidden contradictions, culture jamming empowers consumers by enabling them not only to see the discrepancies lurking beneath capitalism’s glossy and seductive messages, but also to examine critically how the dominant capitalist ideology imposes constraints on human freedom. In achieving this, culture jamming sets the stage for the third step, which is emancipation. Here, consumers are changed – which is the culture jammers’ ultimate objective. They are able to envision and act upon other cultural logics and alternative possibilities for social expression and individual happiness.
Culture jamming’s perspective of omnipotent consumer culture that can only be broken by organized activists who heroically emancipate consumers has come under considerable scrutiny. At the axiological level, the culture jamming project inherently assumes that consumers are cultural dupes who have been hoodwinked by clever capitalists and are in dire need of emancipation by enlightened activists. Cultural studies of consumers have found that individual consumers can, on their own, be well aware of the contradictions that permeate a culture of consumption. These consumers come to see the contradictions in culture jamming itself as an attempt by yet another set of cultural elitists (social activists) to control the social agenda (Kozinets & Handelman 2004).
Ontologically, postmodern researchers view the erosion of a culture of consumption as occurring not through top down activist attempts at culture jamming, but via fragmented and self produced consumption whereby individual consumers produce their own system of cultural meanings (Holt 2002). With this type of resistance, consumers come to form their own patterns of social interaction and cultural meaning, which are organically produced not through consumption of mass produced products but by alternative methods of exchange, such as gift giving and sacrificial practices (Kozinets 2002).
Empirical research in this area lends itself best to interpretive (qualitative) techniques. As the issue of culture jamming is intricately tied with issues of cultural meaning, social movements, ideology, and the like, examining culture jamming and other forms of consumer resistance is best achieved by studying these activities embedded in their cultural context. Ongoing research in the area of culture jamming will grapple with the alternative axiological and ontological perspectives mentioned above. On the one hand is the idea of consumer resistance such as culture jamming as occurring in the form of an organized, top down social activist attempt to break consumers free from a hegemonic capitalist ideology that sustains materialism as a central cultural value. On the other hand is a postmodern conceptualization of consumer resistance that advocates self directed agency towards consumer sovereignty (Thompson 2004).
- Habermas, J. (1985) The Theory of Communicative Action. Beacon Press, Boston.
- Holt, D. B. (2002) Why Do Brands Cause Trouble? A Dialectical Theory of Consumer Culture and Branding. Journal of Consumer Research 29(2): 70-90.
- Horkheimer, M. & Adorno, T. W.(1996 ). Dialectic of Enlightenment. Continuum, New York.
- Kozinets, R. V. (2002) Can Consumers Escape the Market? Emancipatory Illuminations from Burning Man. Journal of Consumer Research 29(1): 20-38.
- Kozinets, R. V. & Handelman, J. M. (2004) Adversaries of Consumption: Consumer Movements, Activism, and Ideology. Journal of Consumer Research 31: 4.
- Leiss, W., Klein, S., & Jhally, S. (1990) Social Communication in Advertising: Persons, Products and Images of Well Being. Routledge, London.
- Rumbo, J. D. (2002) Consumer Resistance in a World of Advertising Clutter: The Case of Adbuster. Psychology and Marketing 19(2): 127-48.
- Thompson, C. J. (2004) Marketplace Mythology and Discourses of Power. Journal of Consumer Research 31(2): 162-80.
Back to Sociology of Culture.