ONE of the great ironies of living in a consumerist culture is that, in pursuit of success, so many of us unwittingly surrender our freedom. We confuse career and consumer choices with personal liberty, when in fact they all represent the same underlying decision: to buy into the system that produced them. Two new books -- "Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing, and the Erosion of Integrity" by Anne Elizabeth Moore and "The Freedom Manifesto" by Tom Hodgkinson -- remind us that we have other options. We can resist rampant consumerism despite its infiltration into every corner of our culture. The key is to reject the competitive ethos at the core of capitalism and embrace failure.
Maintaining such integrity, however, is no simple proposition, as "Unmarketable" reveals. The book investigates corporate exploitation and the co-opting of the anti-consumerist underground, unflinchingly exposing complicity from DIY and punk artists. Although the DIY ("do it yourself") movement has become associated with home-improvement superstores and craft kits, it embraces an ethos much more political at its core. It promotes a philosophy of self-reliance -- resisting the idea that we must hand over hard-earned cash for products and services we can make or do ourselves. The DIY ethos has a close relationship with punk, which rages against authority and asserts individual freedom. While these philosophies might seem immune to corporate exploitation, they possess cultural currency that marketers crave -- which is how we end up with corporate-sponsored "graffadi" (the use of the graffiti ethos for advertising) for the Sony PSP or Axe deodorant.
Marketers, Moore contends, do not simply want to advertise products; they want consumers to see "pure passion" -- to feel the brand. All the better to co-opt the cultural underground, which carries a cachet of passion and integrity. Consumers feel part of that underground simply by purchasing, say, a pair of Nike skateboarding sneakers. The idea is to trade on the "street cred" of underground artists: resistance repackaged as commodity. The brand then becomes "an agenda setter, a tastemaker" -- more than a mere product. Worse, attempts to fight the consumerist culture can actually advance it, as Moore makes clear with her analysis of satirical ads -- such as those that use the Nike swoosh, with the familiar "Just Do It" changed to "Don't Do It." Such tactics end up only promoting brands they set out to mock -- spreading logo recognition and sparking deeper associations with the underground. One of the most profound insights Moore makes is that when activists use the same branding, marketing and even legal strategies as corporations, they in essence play on corporate terms. According to Moore, such could have been the case with Nike's "Major Threat" campaign. Nike played on -- without permission -- the art from an album by punk band Minor Threat (beloved by skateboarders), to promote its skateboarding footwear. Dischord Records, horrified at the unwanted association with Nike, could have sued for copyright violation. Instead, the band and music company felt queasy at the thought of turning to the judiciary over a copyright issue, especially since the underground generally does not support strict copyright law. A courtroom battle would have done Nike's bidding.
Ultimately, Moore concludes that if there is any lesson to be learned, it is that "failure can operate successfully." Failing to engage in competitions over values and integrity means that neither can be commodified. Without a price, they become "unmarketable." Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of a Tylenol-sponsored contest for 'zine publishers, for which the prize was one year of free health insurance. This is no less absurd than a capitalist system that pits worker against worker for full-time positions with benefits. Submitting a 'zine to the contest would have been tacit support for that system.
But while Moore offers an interesting model for failure, it is a bit abstract. What can the average person actually do? "The Freedom Manifesto" by Tom Hodgkinson offers 29 practical ways to choose personal freedom over slavery to consumer desires, employers and inept government. In a very real sense, it is the answer for the dilemma laid out in "Unmarketable." Hodgkinson shares an eclectic philosophy that weaves strands from Thomas Aquinas, Bertrand Russell, Alexander Trocchi, the Situationists, French existentialists, punk and more. Although philosophical, the book is practical at its heart.