"Growing numbers of observers contend that the dominant public role of our time has shifted from citizen to consumer. Indeed, respondents in polls typically cite entertainment, shopping, and other consumer activities as their top free time preferences. Commercial media and public entertainment venues offer environments carefully constructed to avoid politics and real world problems that might disturb these consumer impulses.
As people in global societies increasingly enjoy the freedoms of private life, it becomes increasingly difficult to communicate about many broad public concerns. The personalized society enables people to choose individual lifestyles and identities that often lead to disconnection from politics. Many citizens become receptive only to consumer-oriented messages about tax cuts, retirement benefits, or other policies targeted at particular demographic social groups.
Culture jamming is an intriguing form of political communication that has emerged in response to the commercial isolation of public life. Practitioners of culture jamming argue that culture, politics, and social values have been bent by saturated commercial environments, from corporate logos on sports facilities, to television content designed solely to deliver targeted audiences to producers and sponsors. Many public issues and social voices are pushed to the margins of society by market values and commercial communication, making it difficult to get the attention of those living in the "walled gardens" of consumerism. Culture jamming presents a variety of interesting communication strategies that play with the branded images and icons of consumer culture to make consumers aware of surrounding problems and diverse cultural experiences that warrant their attention.
Many culture Jams are simply aimed at exposing questionable political assumptions behind commercial culture so that people can momentarily consider the branded environment in which they live. Culture jams refigure logos, fashion statements, and product images to challenge the idea of "what's cool," along with assumptions about the personal freedoms of consumption. Some of these communiqués create a sense of transparency about a product or company by revealing environmental damages or the social experiences of workers that are left out of the advertising fantasies. The logic of culture jamming is to convert easily identifiable images into larger questions about such matters as corporate responsibility, the "true" environmental and human costs of consumption, or the private corporate uses of the "public" airwaves.
The basic unit of communication in culture jamming is the meme: the core unit of cultural transmission. Memes are condensed images that stimulate visual, verbal, musical, or behavioral associations that people can easily imitate and transmit to others (see Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, second edition 1989). For example, culture jammers play on familiar commercial memes such as the Nike swoosh, the McDonald's happy meal, or the Coca Cola polar bears to engage people of different political persuasions in thinking about the implications of their fashion statements or eating habits. In one example, a jammer named Jonah Peretti strained the purity of the Nike image by creating an email exchange with a custom Nike web site that refused his request to put the word "sweatshop" on his custom Nikes. This e-mail circulated in viral fashion to a huge population world-wide. As a result of the meme play with a popular icon and the paths through which such messages often travel, Peretti's culture jam made its way quickly into mass media news and culture content. As a result, mass media content became a carrier of questions about the limits of consumer freedom and the fashion statement involving expensive shoes made by child sweatshop labor.
For Kalle Lasn, one of the founders of Adbusters, the best culture jam is one that introduces a meta-meme, a two-level message that punctures a specific commercial image, but does so in a way that challenges some larger aspect of the political culture of corporate domination. One metameme, noted above, is "true cost" which conveys the larger environmental and human costs of products beyond their sales price to the consumer. Another is "Media Carta" which calls for a serious charter to make the public airwaves truly public, and not just a corporate domain. Another is the call to rewrite the corporate "genetic code" so that corporations have less license to become social and environmental predators, and more responsibility to contribute to the well being of society. For example, a TV "subvertisement" produced by Adbusters begins with a series of tobacco executives lying to congressional hearings (the specific product/corporate jam) and ends with the question of whether such corporations should be allowed to exist (the meta-meme). Yet because of the lack of well developed public media rights (the "Media Carta" meta-meme), Adbusters has had little success in getting broadcasters to sell air time for these subvertisements. Most broadcasters reject the ads on grounds that they might contaminate the purity of media environments designed exclusively for communicating commercial messages.
Culture jamming and meme-driven communication offer interesting windows on the transformation of politics and communication in our time. We are interested in studying these developments and learning how they may be useful in striking a balance between commercial values and other human interests in society."