Thursday, September 25, 2008

Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing, and the Erosion of Integrity

Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing, and the Erosion of Integrity - Anne Elizabeth Moore

This book is overdue to the library and I've been putting off returning it until I could take time to write about it. The problem is that there is so much I want to say.

Unmarketable is about the intersection of corporate marketing and DIY/underground culture.
Moore gives examples of instances when advertising agencies have created campaigns using graffiti (both legal and illegal), appropriated imagery and phrases from punk bands, and hired underground artists/writers/zine makers to create work or run events.

It's not as simple as pointing out the sell-outs... she acknowledges that the slippery slope is dotted with what seem like sensible trade-offs. She even writes about her own experiences running a zine-making workshop sponsored by Starbucks.

In contrast to corporately-produced culture she returns again and again to an idea of undergound/DIY cultural production as being defined by integrity and passion. To me, this is too simplistic. Blatant self-interest is also a driving force, for instance. People do things partly for cred... cultural capital (Pierre Bourdieu) or subcultural capital (Sara Thornton). I don't think this diminishes the importance of this kind of work. (I also don't think it's necessary to claim that the products of the DIY/undergound sphere are more entertaining, involving or of a higher artistic quality than the products of the mainstream culture industry.)

As part of the connection between marketing and underground culture she criticizes the Adbusters-type detournement of advertising. At its most simplistic, this takes the form of something like the "Joe Camel" ads remade as "Joe Chemo." Her view is that as an anti-consumerist message this type of work is counterproductive: "Just Don't Do It" fails as an anti-Nike statement because it reinforces the centrality of Nike and their slogans in our culture. In this way, corporations benefit from brand recognition regardless of whether the association is positive or negative.

She holds up Ian MacKaye and Dischord as examples of underground integrity, both for the usual reasons and also particularly for avoiding what she would consider the pitfall of responding to a major corporation's appropriation of their imagery.

When a major athletic shoe company ran an ad campaing that blatantly appropriated the cover of the first Minor Threat 7" Dischord got them to halt the campaign but did not sue or seek money damages.

A lawsuit or settlement would have meant that Dischord had a) set a price on xxxx's use of the imagery, even if it was after the fact and b) allowed the US courts to decide the matter. It also would tie Minor Threat/Dischord to the shoe company in the public discourse. Following from the argument Moore builds about brand recognition - even when such recognition is not positive - being the top priority for corporations the athletic shoe company would benefit from their brand being tied to the name Minor Threat.

Dischord's response - to just accept that the ad campaign was pulled and then drop the subject - is fascinating: in an economy based on participation, withdrawal becomes a form of resistance.

This has parallels to the idea of exodus discussed by Hardt and Negri in Empire, and the kind of anti-protocological actions discussed by Galloway in Protocol.

Moore doesn't really go into online culture but the rise of the social networking sites is even more insidious in terms of how cultural resistance is exploited for corporate ends.

I am glad that this book exists, especially because Unmarketable comes from within the sphere that it speaks about: Moore is a fanzine maker and a former writer/editor/co-publisher of Punk Planet. I would like to see more serious attempts to understand and strategize independent/underground cultural production that come from and are directed at the participants.


Tobi Vail said...

hi al. thanks for posting so much great stuff. I actually read this while on tour, then ran into the author at our providence show. i agree with yr critique--it's like what does passion/integrity necessarily have to do with it? her description of what DIY is, is so utopian and, at times, even Puritan. she writes about intentionality, creating community that is outside of the mainstream, but doesn't really frame these actions in terms that relate to my experience. My experience includes things like necessity: you make do with what there is. People started distros and labels and stuff because there was no other way to do it. Then there's also the folk element. It isn't necessary popular culture vs. an elite, more enlightened underground--can't a music scene actually be a community of folks who happen to play music as a way of sharing their lives and listening to each other? Take Olympia or Eugene or Bellingham in the 1980's for example, or Anacortes now...why is it necessarily about consumerism at all?
Sure all those ad campaigns and "appropriation" is real, that is happening, it does happen and it's getting more and more insidious--but how does that really threaten us if we don't care and aren't concerned with that world? Is that too simplistic? I just try to ignore it. It's not interesting. A Nike commercial can ruin a particular song sure, and maybe even change the social meaning of an item of clothing-- but it doesn't take away my ability to create or live in community.

Then again, the stuff she is saying is happening and we should be trying to figure out what it means. Her book is interesting on a number of levels. It raises interesting questions. I quite dislike her writing style and often think she misses the mark, but it has spawned much thought/discussion over the past few months, that's for sure. Oh and she's very nice and seems like a genuinely committed person. If I hadn't have met her I would have been convinced she wrote the book as a way to get a job at an ad agency, because it's really just a book about marketing techniques. I'm actually interested in figuring out how to sell records to people who don't want to buy them anymore, as a part of my job and as a musician, so I'm actually interested in that. I'm also interested in "marketing" radical ideas.
She gets a lot of things right--for example, giving away FREE STUFF is how you sell records these days.
What I'd like to see is an examination of some of the contradictions you bring up--as artists struggling to survive in the face of global capitalism and as radicals trying to change the world, we do market things. Riot Grrl was a way to "market" feminism, which is probably why it was so easy to co-opt as a uniform. Still, the radicalism gets through the cracks, and that is what's really interesting. Who cares that there is a Riot Grrl Halloween costume you can buy online? Kids are still bobbing for apples and trick or treating, right? Isn't that what it's all about?

AL LARSEN said...

"Still, the radicalism gets through the cracks, and that is what's really interesting."

I think so too. Growing up some of us learned about peaceniks, hippies, punks, etc through the mass media stereotypes/characterizations but still found some potential in those ideas.