Like Naomi Klein’s No Logo, Anne Elizabeth Moore's excellent book Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing and the Erosion of Integrity (New Press, 2007) exposes the spread of corporate marketing into previously untapped areas of our lives. Because many young consumers consider themselves immune to advertising, corporations have responded with a bewildering array of new techniques to get us thinking about – and buying – their products. This includes everything from the illegal (commissioning underground artists to work on graffiti campaigns is a well-used tactic) to the insidious (BzzAgent, a website where users sign up to promote products within their social networks, their only compensation being free products.)
Her focus is how countercultural movements – from punk and riot grrl to skateboarding and graffiti – have all been used by companies like Nike and PepsiCo to effectively sell their products to the anticorporate crowd. There's an occasional success story, like photographer Tom Forsythe, who won Mattel's lawsuit against him thanks to the Fair Use Doctrine. (Tom photographs Barbie dolls in compromising positions as a comment on consumerism.) It is shortly followed by the story of a Minor Threat poster, so resonant with the band's fans that Nike used it, without permission, to advertise a product tour. After the poster had been widely circulated for two days, Nike removed it and issued an apology. No lawsuit or compensation followed. The author, a co-editor of the now defunct Punk Planet, doesn't spare herself from scrutiny, either. She describes being ejected from a toy store for "shopdropping" messages mocking consumerism, and her dismay over finding out at the last minute that a zine-making workshop she was hired to teach was sponsored by Starbucks.
Irina Ivanova: You write about the major shift that happened from an overt onslaught of advertising into “small media and word-of-mouth techniques” that now make up a lot of marketing. Would you talk about when that shift happened and what caused it?
Anne Elizabeth Moore: I think the best example in the book, of course, is the Star Wars campaign, because Star Wars is the most overmarketed product on the face of the earth. A lot of that is because people of my age who were six or seven when the movie came out grew up with Star Wars as our defining mythology, and so a lot of it seems natural. But there are no other ways of getting a message out that Star Wars hasn’t already tried. Putting your message on a bag of potato chips in the grocery store is pretty extreme for a film, but they did that a really long time ago. And so when Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith, came out, I think they were like, "We still need to find a way to get in with the kids. You know, kids love graffiti and they love zines so let’s do that.” So they tapped into the underground. And now the messages weren’t just everywhere in mainstream America, but they were everywhere that mainstream America wasn’t really willing to go, either. And that’s where it gets really scary and really gross. Because you literally can’t escape Star Wars. And now that you have government in on the marketing of Star Wars [with Star-Wars themed mailboxes], it's become frightening. The promotion machine behind this film is unstoppable.
II: So the state and the underground are both in on it…what’s left?
AEM: Well that’s the thing, right? There’s not much else left to go. Except, of course, they could realize that somewhere there are people having Thanksgiving dinner where they’re not actually going to talk about Star Wars. So then we move into this strategy of word-of-mouth marketing. If you control people’s conversation, ultimately you influence their pocketbooks. And that’s where all of the BzzAgent stuff and the word-of-mouth stuff and the youth intelligence agency come in, because those are the spaces that are left free, sometimes, of marketing. Except for that they’re not, anymore, because people are being given the incentive to market into our normal one-on-one relationships.
...The problem is that once corporate messaging has become normalized for the next generation, they won’t even realize there is a base of dissent against this stuff. And once we’re able to remind them that this might not be OK all the time, they can come up with really pretty amazing ways of fighting it.
II: Let’s back up a little bit and talk about the difference between marketing and advertising.
AEM: People will say that the difference between marketing and advertising is that marketing is creating a general system of support for products or goods or services, usually on behalf of a client. And then they will say that advertising does that but is specifically a sales pitch to try to convince people to buy these specific goods or services. But I also think that these discussions started in earnest in the 1940s or 50s with Vance Packard’s book, The Hidden Persuaders, and that was where people who work in the corporate world, in what we [now] would call marketing, sort of tried to distance themselves from advertising. They weren’t actually going to let go of the sales pitch aspect, so the sales pitch became more subtle and became integrated into the idea of marketing. And so even though most people who work in marketing and public relations will not say that they actually do advertising, most of what [we receive] now are consumerist messages that do have a sales pitch buried within them.
There are a lot of decisions that go into trying to get us to buy stuff, and most of them aren’t decisions that we’re being offered on a consumer level at the same rate as we’re being offered all these things to buy. ... There’s been a veritable assault on our integrity, especially for people who work in the anticorporate ethos, in order to normalize the marketing of corporate products as an everyday activity. And there’s been a series of deliberate decisions that went into that, and that basically does mean that there’s been a plan to erode our integrity for quite a while, ever since that was identified as barrier to marketing appearing in all venues at all times.
II: What is integrity, anyway?
AEM: What I think of when I think about integrity is making sure that when you perform an action or create something, that all the way through from your conception to production you're keeping it in line with your original goals, and you’re aware of what the implications of that are. And, if part of your thing is to make yourself into a brand that sells really well on an international level – if you know you want to do that, you’re following your own integrity. But when you’re not thinking about that stuff, that’s when it starts to become an issue, and when people start telling you, hey, it is totally in line with your integrity to wear these Nike shoes to the anti-Nike protest, and you do it, that’s when it becomes a real big issue.
I also don’t want to get caught in the trap of actually being able to define what is or isn’t integrity. You can work anything that you want into your intentions and your plans and your decision-making skills, and I don’t really care what those things are. And you should probably think about all of them before you start running around the world willy-nilly accidentally marketing things you hate.
II: Do you think corporate products and corporate messaging can ever be fought effectively on their own grounds? I’m thinking specifically about the example you had in your book about Dischord and their refusal to sue Nike over Nike’s theft of a Minor Threat poster for an ad campaign.
AEM: That’s an interesting question, because what it does address directly is that the corporate world dominates the playing field. They set up the rules, they set up all the terms of engagement and they basically started all of the fight. So, there isn’t a way to engage with them or even to respond to them and still win. Because even if you win, you’re winning on terms that they’ve defined. So, if Minor Threat had gone to court, and had sued Nike, and retained control of its copyright, then – what? Then Minor Threat would have made it clear that Nike wasn’t allowed to use their copyright, and what good does that do someone who’s not interested in making a legal claim over copyright based on these ideas in the first place? And then, of course, the issue of money comes into it – can you put a price on something that you did not intend for sale?
I think what we have to do is re-separate the legal world from the corporate world. Even though we know that these things aren’t really separate, we have to find a way of making the legal precedent without necessarily falling for the financial trap of it. The legal system is the only system we have. That’s the catchall for everything that we participate in in this society. And so, you can set a legal precedent, like Tom [Forsyth] did with the Mattel case, you can maybe get your fees covered, and have the corporate players who are involved in creating this system in the first place cover all the finances of it, but maybe walk away with nothing. And maybe just say, ‘well, this was a big fuckin’ waste of my time, but I did have to set a legal precedent so they know they can’t do it to other people.’ Those are the terms we have to start thinking about.
II: Corporations' appropriating of "free" culture is a catch-22 situation for creators who want to let other artists use their work but don't want it usedby corporations. What do you think of practices like copylefting/Creative Commons as effective alternatives to copyright?
AEM: Creative Commons and the practice of copylefting are both great ways of rethinking how we might reconsider image or content reuse in our culture, but they are not alternatives to copyright, which remains the law. I think, I hope, that we're heading for a time when all the Creative Commons kinks will be worked out and we can pass it as law, I think it's an incredibly smart and well-articulated system of thinking about content, but I think it hasn't been tested yet by the forces that are most going to oppose its legal use, which are the corporate.
But outside of those communities who use Creative Commons, it is rare to find artists that don't want their work used in marketing campaigns, which is the audience I want to read this book. That "debate" is controlled entirely by mass media, who will argue, as they borrow your work for their ad campaigns, that it is important for all unique voices to be heard by the widest possible audience. They will argue that *that* is democracy, that their control of the means of distribution of all culture provides the variety of voices we demand from democracy. But that is the thing we have been overlooking about democracy, since at least the Telecommunications Act of 1996: That democracy can not be provided to us. It is not the same thing as consumer choice. It is a participatory system that requires we have access to it.
II: You mention several times that corporations used Naomi Klein's No Logo to get new marketing ideas. Are you worried that Unmarketable will be used in this way?
AEM: Oh, I wrote the book specifically wary of that audience. Naomi Klein knew it too: consumer culture consumes. And of course, if you write a book stating "some culture must be kept free of commerce," people who do not want any culture to be free of commerce are going to read it, to game it, figure out that strategy's weak spots, use it as fodder for an edgier marketing campaign. But in a way, I want to position the theories forwarded in this book in the same way that I want to position the culture of independent production, as important to democracy. And so requesting marketers leave it be then becomes not only an issue of respect, but also one of civil rights. Unless they repealed the First Amendment. I don't know, maybe they did.
Marketers do know something that the rest of the world has forgotten: that criticism can only strengthen projects and approaches. In art, books, film, music, real engaged criticism—people writing about the deeper issues that underly content and production—has totally fallen away. I mean, that's happened through a long, drawn-out process of corporatizing media whereby anything less than relentless positivity is labeled counterproductive to the selling environment supposedly sought by journalists today, so it's not exclusively the fault of the writers. But once again, we're allowing a field based in commerce—marketing—to preserve something of vital cultural importance—a space to analyze our culture. Why aren't the rest of us freaking out about it? And don't tell me it's because we're all on the dole, because that will just depress me.
II: What was the hardest part of writing this book?
AEM: Doing it while I was feeling the effects of it in the loss of my magazine. Like, literally watching the things that I was writing about during the day erode my financial stability at night. And then on top of that, like – who can write a book when they’re just going through the loss of their entire career in independent publishing, or any career? It was really – it was really affecting.
But that’s also something that makes it so gratifying that people are so excited about it. I’m totally out of a job because these [corporations] think that they can take over everything! And frankly, a lot of people have let them. A lot of friends of mine have let them. And so, really being able to have this fallback position of ‘no, I’m not crazy, this is actually happening, and here’s the proof,’ has been one of the most gratifying things about people [reading this book.] It’s just been amazing.
II: Do you see any sort of resurgence for independent publishing in print, or should we be looking elsewhere?
AEM: No – not until some of this stuff changes. I think that bigger fights need to happen before there is a resurgence of print publishing, but I also think that people who work in print should just hunker down and make it happen for the next couple of years until that happens, because the Internet is not the savior.
As we were closing up Punk Planet, you know…I mean, I’ve been doing this stuff for 22 years. Since I was 15 I was publishing or self-publishing. So I’ve been around this stuff for my entire adult life, and as Dan and I were closing up Punk Planet, it was like “you know, we could do this – we could just hunker down, move it back into our basements and just put it out every other month, scale it all back, eliminate the heavy reliance on advertisers, really focus on our subscribers, and just make it work, but I don’t have the energy anymore.” You know. I’ve done that for over two decades; I couldn’t do it for one more second.
So the people who can, should. For sure. But it’s not gonna be easy.
II: What can we people who make media and consume media do to protect physical and mental spaces from corporate marketing?
AEM: Christ, this is such a good question. Because as I've done these interviews and events more and more, and talked to people who are getting fired up about this book, really getting excited about the ideas in it, I've also gotten kind of bummed at how many people don't look at their own actions within the structure I'm trying to describe. Like the guy who was just railing about how horrible the shoe company is for encroaching on his culture, but then staunchly defended his own decision to allow a beer company to sponsor an alternative art space. And I know what that's about, because I rationalized my decision to do the work for the coffee company as something that I had earned. That I deserved. But some of the consequences of that I allude to in the book too, and I don't even go into the really truly insane cultural production sponsorship strategy that coffee company seems to have formulated since, either. You know? We are all culpable in this now. Start by not being culpable anymore. Don't wear the shirt, do the design job, print the brand name, get the tattoo, or use the logo on the flyer or placard. Start there. Let's see what that alone can do.
Art by Dana Vindigni. Book cover courtesy of the New Press.