Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on the WaPo Labs blog on May 21, 2012. For more posts on the future of technology, check out our Technology section; for more posts from Hannah Rubenstein, click here.
During the last several decades, scrawled on the walls of subway stations, roadside billboards, and city buildings, a particular form of culture jamming known as subvertising grew in popularity. Subvertising is the practice of making spoofs or parodies of corporate and political advertisements with the intent to expose assumptions behind commercial culture – think of the spoof ads in Adbusters or altered corporate billboards.
The very nature of subvertising – and of culture jamming in general – has relied upon traditional advertising models that target consumers in a public setting with the intent to reach as many individuals as possible through a single campaign. But, as we all know, the advertising industry is changing, moving from mass-targeted mediums like billboards and buses to the individualized, private sphere of the Internet, where engagement with ad campaigns can be quantified by counting clicks and page views.
Does this shift signify the end of subversive advertising as we know it? Or will the activists evolve along with the technology?
In an insightful piece on the Atlantic’s website, “The New Culture Jamming: How Activists Will Respond to Online Advertising,” senior editor Alexis Madrigal considers the implications of this transformation in advertising tactics and its effect upon the future of culture jamming.
In addition to the fact that Internet ad campaigns are inherently non-public, Madrigal explains, what characterizes them as a group is how their effectiveness is measured by advertisers: on a “cost per click” basis. Advertisers are charged not by how many people see their ads, as is traditional, but by how many people click on them. Passively resisting corporate culture therefore becomes an ineffective method of anti-corporate activism; in fact, according to Madrigal, not clicking on an ad actually helps advertisers ensure that those who do choose to engage with it are a relevant target audience.
So how can subvertising survive? By employing what Madrigal terms “Big Dada: speaking noise to power.”
The strange logic behind online advertising techniques relies on the idea that advertisers spend money each time an individual clicks on an ad. While the price of each click varies, based on several factors, the general cause-and-effect remains: you click, they pay.
Where does culture jamming fit into this new model? “I foresee that activists might find the best way to disrupt corporate power on the Internet is to be begin interacting with the ads they’re being shown and muddying the data that’s being collected,” explains Madrigal.
Granted, one person furiously clicking away on random ads wouldn’t have much of an effect on the system as a whole. But a million people’s clicks? A hundred million? How would advertisers know which ads were effectively reaching their target consumer and how much was subversive noise – expensive subversive noise?
In addition to skewing marketing budgets, Madrigal adds, is the hypothetical impact that mass activism of this sort could have on the quality of data that intermediaries collect on all Internet users:
“If enough people started to seem interested in home mortgages who were not actually interested in home mortgages, it might start to disrupt their ability to efficiently target users with behavioral advertising,” he explains. “This would be statistical noisemaking as a form of protest.”
Could this method of online activism be the next incarnation of culture jamming, moving off of the streets and out from under the floodlights into living rooms and laptops? Will the sound of spray paint cans hissing be replaced with the tapping of an army of keyboards? Or will anti-corporate activism as we know it fade away?
The personal (computer) is political, it seems, after all.