COUNTER-ADVERTISING AND ITS EFFECT ON CYBER-MEDIA
By Jennifer Berdock
The proceeding discussion is perhaps best initiated through the employment of a study from the late 1950s and early 1960s, analogous to the current state of affairs in advertising standards and practice. During this time in the twentieth century, a radical physician by the name of Dr. Ewen Cameron began to experiment on patients to determine whether the human mind could essentially be ‘depatterned’, and inputted with entirely new information. This experiment would prove successful if it succeeded in altering the consciousness of the individual, thus making them especially susceptible to suggestion. Dr. Cameron determined that ‘depatterning’ could be accomplished through the use of a technique he called psychic driving. Psychic Driving is a technique that enlisted the ceaseless repetition of a key word or phrase, rendering the patient incoherent, and often disoriented even at the conclusion of the experiment. Phrases such as "you have no self-confidence" were essentially implanted in the minds of Dr. Cameron’s patients, later to be undermined by affirming messages intended to counteract the effects of the former. This driving message resulted in patients inability to decipher reality from implant, and culminated in the process of psychic driving as a torturous one. This sort of ‘research’ served to indicate its ‘brainwashing’ value if utilized within the context of the military, and in fact the CIA, who became very interested in the results of such ‘depatterning’, funded Dr. Cameron’s work for three years under the coded pseudonym of MKULTRA.
Dr. Cameron became infamous in later years for the experimenting that he did upon his uneducated human subjects. He was especially ostracized by both the medical and general public for the administration of tranquilizing drugs such as LSD and sleeping pills to his subjects, as well as using unconventional methods such as electric shock therapy and deep hypnosis to ensure his patients’ compliance and lack of resistance in the experimental process. Needless to say that Dr. Cameron’s experiments succeeded in alienating both himself, and participating government agencies such as the CIA, from society’s previous trust – rendering both the psychiatric profession and the government susceptible to unyielding public scrutiny.
In one sense, Dr. Cameron’s work continues to thrive in contemporary society, even withstanding the general outrage that resulted in the 50s and 60s. As explained by Bruce Grierson, a writer and editor for The Media Foundation,
Under new stewards and another guise, the "electronic lobotomies
continue apace. The subject pool has expanded from a few dozen
people to a couple of billion. The driving messages have become
more sophisticated: cryptic, alluring, alarming. They are no longer
called implants. They are called ads.
Of course, current advertising executives are unable to tamper with the physical nature of their subject’s minds by administering either mind-altering drugs or therapies to induce compliance. Their tools of late; the advertisements themselves, must prove so arresting that these secondary methods are no longer necessary to ensure that the ‘patients’ of the public will indeed purchase their products – regardless and irrespective of any real necessity for whatever it may be. The model of contemporary advertising follows Dr. Cameron’s scheme of depatterning. However, modern advertising proves a broader and more sophisticated process in that the public is bombarded with thousands of different, and often competing, messages, intended to lead us towards the given product willingly and readily – the effects on our long-term consciousness (as in the cases of Dr. Cameron’s patients), unknown.
Advertising corporations may be said to "break down" and "build up" our minds by moving us through four stations. Initially, we are assured that purchasing a given
product will enrich our lives. This is followed by the realization that to obtain this product and enrich our lives we must have enough money. Ultimately, the quest for money will alienate ourselves from one another as it becomes a central defining factor in our respective daily routines. At last, we feel socially and spiritually void by this repetitive and often fruitless process, and this may only be purged by returning to the first step in this circular system.
Perhaps to a larger extent than any of us are willing to admit, we have already been fed so many driving messages to have assured our general compliance, depatterning us and leaving us susceptible to some of the most cryptic and disturbing advertisements prevalent in our social domain.
Counter-advertising is a concept dedicated to an ethic of revealing and undermining the systematic manipulation by current advertisers and corporations in their desire to sell their products. One organization committed to this ideal is The Media Foundation. The Media Foundation is a media activist coalition striving to overthrow the supreme and subliminal powers of money-hungry corporations who dominate quite literally, all arenas of the media.
The Media Foundation has grown to incorporate several counter-advertising strategies. In efforts to reach the same mass audience levels of those targeted by corporate advertising gurus, The Media Foundation has created its own Internet site, pioneered the Powershift Advocacy Agency, and publishes the controversial "Adbusters" magazine. Those in support of the foundations’ ethic include a multitude of media and environmental strategists, as well as a healthy salad of media and advertising professionals, students and educators of media literacy, and enough intelligent individuals concerned for the welfare of their social world being bombarded by disturbing and offensive images and messages aimed purely towards gaining profit.
As mentioned, "Adbusters" is a controversial print magazine that is published by The Media Foundation. Adbusters is a Canadian publication, and has recently expanded to include its own website (see Appendix A), breaking new ground and wreaking anti-commercial havoc in cyberspace with its message faithful to the ethic of humane and responsible advertising. Adbusters is perhaps most notorious for its shockingly laughable spoofs of popular media icons, such as those directed at the McDonald’s corporation, Nike, Benetton retailers, and a slew of other such "innocent victims" of the media’s ‘double-edged sword’. Lest we forget the seriousness in the satire, Adbusters is, all jokes aside, committed to its critical investigation of current media and its propensity for irresponsibility in the public sphere (1).
Powershift, the social marketing limb of the Media Foundation body, has sequentially been producing a series of Adbusters "uncommercials", directed at an uncompromising expose of the motives, and the means employed by large corporations to sell their products to the public. So controversial were these uncommercials, and the resulting reactions of targeted companies, that the majority of television networks, such as those on the forefront of T.V. advertising (i.e. NBC, CBS, ABC) absolutely and resolutely denied Powershift the airtime necessary to broadcast these crucial messages to the public. However, CNN did meet with representatives from the Powershift Advocacy Agency and The Media Foundation on the subject, and proceeded to air an hour-long CNN special report on their network to encourage and stimulate public education about the mission of the foundation’s leading cultural critics. Five of the most recent uncommercials created by Powershift, and denied television network airtime, are available to peruse and download from the adbusters website, providing for the public the rare opportunity to regard what the major networks (and their major sponsors) are attempting to – for all intents and purposes – censor from the public sphere.
retaliation to much of this corporate resistance to change, such
counter-advertising strategies support an ideal of "culture-jamming":
undermining the purpose of existing advertisements by ‘jamming’ them full of
critical cultural messages. This process ultimately subverts the original
message by disturbing the circuitry of the delivery, and reveals the blatant
objectives of the advertisers. An example of live culture-jamming is in the
activism of Chicago-based artist Ben Rubin, hell-and-bent on plastering his own
message that, "I keep getting mugged in my sleep" – indicative of the
power the media has to shape our desires and deliver its message, even when we
are most unconscious of it. Rubin pastes his blurb beside the temple of as many
billboarded faces as possible (to date, somewhere between one and two
thousand), by spending most of his time in the
Cyberjamming: It’s like using the enemy’s own gun to shoot him in the back. An offspring of culture-jamming, "cyberjamming" strives towards the same ends, although using a different means: namely, the Internet. However unfortunate, the realistic truth is that most counter-media groups who operate on a smaller scale than The Media Foundation, have limited accessibility to the potential weapon-like value of the Internet. With worldwide connection, the web provides ideal places and spaces in which to educate and involve mass audiences in proactive strategy against advertising manipulations. But alas, who will foot the bill? Obtaining a website is hardly the problem, the problem is how users will know where to go and how to get there. Purchasing space on the larger search engines like Alta Vista for direct links to sites may prove a petty expense for the McDonald’s corporation, while a serious hurdle for the McDonald’s boycott organization.
Fortunately, such activists have much experience in getting over such hurdles and finding some viable and innovative solutions. Heath Bunting, a pilgrim in proactive net infiltration, for the purpose of ‘jamming’ major corporations’ electronic medium, has suggested a method of ‘subversion’ to achieve a means to an end. The condensed version is that Bunting has created a situation in which the vehicle carrying messages from the corporation to the consumer is essentially stuck in traffic. A recent example is his attack on Nike and Adidas shoe retailers. When a user initiates a query, his/her search engine sends back a dozen or so initial links sending the user immediately to Bunting’s created space which reads "URL FOR RENT" and has a consequential link to the competition. The forum of cyberspace is a preferred one for Bunting and many of his contemporaries, assumedly as a result of its said potential to attack large corporations in a most valuable way – through the most interconnected of all global media avenues.
Another related site is one housing a master ‘blacklist’ of those advertisers who have been known to use "spamming" (2), e-mail, and newsgroup postings as devious guises to send out their ads. The site suggests several ways in which to counteract this underhanded method of advertising (3).
In order to reclaim the tools of communication, we must both rethink, and thus reorganize, the current standards in advertising. In other words, we need a paradigm shift. This is to say a transformation that inevitably occurs when sufficient individuals become proactive towards the same ethical advertising ends. Presented by Linda Starke in The New Paradigm in Business, is an expanded model of what may be termed a moral development of the corporation. This model indicates and defines five fundamental steps in this process that would reform greedy corporations into more "user-friendly" ethical institutions. The model proceeds with stage one’s Amoral Corporation, followed by The Legalistic Corporation, The Responsive Corporation, The Emergent Ethical Corporation, and finally, the much sought after, Ethical Corporation. Although positive, this model, at this moment, remains idealistic.
The Amoral Corporation pursues an ‘ethic’ of victory at any cost, and considers its employees as mere units of production. The Legalistic Corporation is utterly preoccupied with operating its business as per the ‘letter of the law’, for purposes involving only the ability to shield themselves safely from too close a scrutiny. In most instances, codes of conduct within a legalistic corporation read like legal doctrines, and are followed inasmuch as is deemed necessary by executives without having their employees feel to appreciated on the job. The Responsive Corporation is more committed to responsibility than the preceding two, yet for purposes of becoming a more economically efficient unit. However, it does in fact prove more ethical in practice than the others thus far. Stage four in this process is The Emergent Ethical Corporation that actively promotes an application of social standards and ethics within the corporation, attempting to instill the like in the dispositions of its employees. The Ethical Corporation, representing the ideal model for a corporation, is dedicated to balancing profits and ethics throughout its corporate culture (4).
Able to barely identify a semi-handful of corporations turtling towards stage four, counter-advertising activists have their work cut out for them.
I will, however, briefly address one such corporation, progressive in the ethical example it sets by its responsible and accountable advertising strategies. A pioneer in practicing what they preach, The Body Shop sells diligently the ideals of health and wellness – bottled or otherwise. The Body Shop has always stood behind their humane vintage point, as has been demonstrated in their continued support for such charitable causes as the ethical treatment of animals, fighting violence against women, and international recycling campaigns. Until recently, I had not fully appreciated the company’s keen eye on society – and how it affects their applications in honest, and often satirical, media campaigns. Upon launching their newest advertising campaign, The Body Shop chose to examine the plight of women in a culture ‘jammed’ by unrealistic and stagnant standards of aesthetic beauty – through satire, as well as other clever eye-catching alternatives (see Appendix B).
Online, The Body Shop website houses valuable corporate information, including its mission statement, as well as an account of its practiced ethical principles. Further, any critical consumer may download a case study detailing how the company accomplishes its goal to monitor this aforementioned ethical strategy. This sort of information relays to the public arena how such companies as The Body Shop enforces, and remains accountable for, these kinds of proactive policies (see Appendix C).
There is hope yet. The Body Shop maintains a successful business, and likely its frontline advertising executives have enough conscience to sleep at night. It is, however, the lack of a moral majority in this business that perhaps is driving the value out of advertising. Consumers are no longer oblivious to the underhanded methods, however obscure they may be, of major corporations to manipulate the media and ourselves, for the ultimate capital reward. It takes such creative individuals as those involved with The Media Foundation to demonstrate how devastating and far-reaching the capital effect is upon our lives; our standards, ideals, self-concepts, and even our most treasured aspirations.
TALK IS CHEAP
CHANGE IS GOOD
1. Visit Adbusters at http://www.adbusters.org/
2. The concept of "spamming" was elaborated by guest lecturer Peter Roosen-Runge,
who asserted that "spamming" comprises the pump-out advertisements prevalent on
the Internet, which are transmitted by way of relay computers that propagate e-mail
on their behalf.
Visit the Internet Advertising Blacklist at www-math.uni-paderborn.de/~axel/BL/ The Adbusters organization is on the cutting edge of cyberjamming tools and tactics,
and welcomes any such input at aXel @ adbusters.org
This exerpt is a condensed, and paraphrased version of Linda Starke’s discourse on the model of the moral development of corporations, from The
New Paradigm in Business.
http://www.the-body-shop.com/ – website for The Body Shop corporation
http://www.adbusters.org/ – website for The Media Foundation’s "Adbusters" online magazine (also in print as a Canadian alternative media publication)
http://www.shift.com/ – website for the online "Shift" magazine (also in print as a Canadian alternative media publication)
http://www.utne.com/ – website for the online "Utne Reader" magazine (also in print as an American alternative media publication)
http://www.reason.com/ – website for the online "Reason" magazine (also in print as an American alternative media publication)