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PERSPECTIVE ON THE MEDIA : Waging War on Culture Pollution : 'Jamming,' a new breed of dissent, parodies popular ad images in a campaign to cleanse our mental environment.

November 22, 1992|RONALD K. L. COLLINS | Ronald K.L. Collins teaches law at George Washington University and is one of the co-founders of the Center for the Study of Commercialism in Washington

Culture jamming. A new dance fad? No, the new dissent in America.

How does it work? Simple. Take a commercial message and turn it against itself. Sabotage advertising, sabotage television.

Just as the entertainment-consumption complex filched America's most cherished images, language and values, so now culture jammers use the same tactics to obstruct their adversaries' ideology. To defend culture jamming as a First Amendment freedom is to support an insurgent idea--and that's precisely what these new radicals want.

Their strategy is to meet the enemy on its own turf. They take space on billboards, in magazine ad slots and on commercial television--they even distribute T-shirts--to plant critical messages in the style of the targeted offenders. Some examples:

* Magazine ad of a riderless horse in a cemetery with the caption "Marlboro Country."

* Billboard ad showing a bedraggled woman sitting at a breakfast table with a glass of vodka in hand. The caption: "Every morning's a Smirnoff morning."

* A television commercial showing an innocent-looking youngster with a fixed stare, as the voice-over announces: "Kathy is 8, and she's addicted. It changes the way she talks. The way she acts. The way she thinks. She is addicted--to television."

* A T-shirt emblazoned with a familiar-looking camel. While puffing away, the camel holds a name-brand packet of cigarettes in one hand and a sickle in the other. The caption: "Smooth reaper." Their ad, the jammers boast, is a "dead ringer" for the original.

Such forms of "subvertising," as jammer ally Mark Dery tags them, have surfaced in numerous cities, from Los Angeles to Portland, Me.; they are even more prevalent in Canada, and have been adopted by the French health ministry in an anti-smoking TV campaign.

Culture jammers are striking out against Madison Avenue, which, for profit, appropriates our values, symbols, language, art and even our personhood. They are infuriated when, for example, advertisers use Malcolm's once radical "X" to peddle potato chips, or when marketers hype sequined "X" clothes, capitalizing on the memory of a revolutionary who lived life on the edge of poverty. Rebels are also lashing out against TV types who turn ideas into images, substance into style and critical perspective into passive acceptance. To jammers, this is pollution of our mental environment to the point that the very logic of our lives and language is infected by ubiquitous commercial campaigns.

These environmentalists of the mind abhor commercials that "commodify" women's bodies to sell everything from beer to cologne. They loathe the idea that life-denying products (cigarettes, alcohol) are given life-affirming appeal. Their hit list is virtually endless. And these cultural critics turn radical red when the pollution is compounded by the medium of television, with its surfeit of pap that robs our society of much of its vitality.

Their objective is to inspire a cultural ecology free of the cloud of commercialism, free of the acid-rain-of-the-mind that television pours down on us. Says Prof. Stuart Ewen of Hunter College: Culture jammers "hope that there could be another kind of world," where there might "be an understanding of the commodity in the service of the human" rather than "a devaluation of the human in favor of the commodity." Adds Kalle Lasn, a ringleader of the Canadian movement and editor of Adbusters magazine, "We vow to regain custody of our minds, and thereafter to resist the muck of commercialism."

Predictably, the jammers have prompted a backlash. The corporate heads of state summon up the law of business libel, trademark infringements and copyright violations to prevent jamming and punish the jammers. The major television networks typically refuse to sell the culture jammers air time for their public-interest spots.

Jamming continues, but lawsuits and blackouts can take their toll. If, as Justice William Brennan once put it, "Debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open," then broadcasters need to (voluntarily) open up the public airwaves to jammers. Federal and state laws should be broadly interpreted to allow breathing space for this form of public dissent. At the very least, the use of well-known commercial names and images should be deemed protected expression when done for political, non-commercial-profit purposes. In short, the First Amendment should be liberally applied to shield these kinds of parodies from legal liability.

Commercialism and TVism are wrecking America. What to do? Get jamming!

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