Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. April 2006

15.1. Transnational Activism, (Cyber-)Cultural (Re-)Presentations and Global Civil Society
Herausgeber | Editor | Éditeur: On-Kwok Lai (Kwansei Gakuin University, Japan)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Branding Subversion, personalising media.
"Busting and blogging" in a global media context

Roland Graf (Fachhochschule St. Pölten)


Globalization is often viewed as a media phenomenon (which, by the way, is not a new tendency, given Stefan Zweigs critique of the global synchronicity in times of radio in the 1920s), but rarely mirrored in the production of (new) media itself. Regarding the case of pokémon and its "Americanisation" as well as the adbuster-movements I will try to show two processes which are only two sides of the same coin: indigenization and subverting global signs (brands). The signs and brands, which are used like the flags of nations in former times, are widely recognised, but this also makes them an easily hit target. New technologies have not only brought global networks, but possibilities of showing one’s dissent to the world. Weblogging does not show the consumer as a helpless victim any longer. Counterculture indeed became consumer-culture, but it did not always give up its rebellious attitude. New conflicts are not a matter of territory, but they are a struggle for cultural hegemony. Therefore we will look closer on how the individual possibilities of content- (which often means: dissent) production and networking also affect a global economy, which used to rely on spotless corporate images.

Two major changes took place within the traditional concept of space due to informal or even anonymous ways of gathering as is possible on the internet. Urban space is no longer the main locality for social exchange and the places once sacred as the place of cultural memory are no longer private property of persons, clans or cultures. Not every form of manifestation or protest has shifted into the virtual sphere like the online-demonstrations (e.g. against Lufthansa, who earned money by escorting illegal immigrants back to their home country(1)). Even some of the content of classical demonstrations is now distributed via the world wide web(2). Concerning the latter tendency, the globalisation of once mono-cultural spaces or forbidden zones, some cultures still tend to protect those places of memory. Nevertheless, this conservation is nothing more than the first step towards a historization of a once living tradition. It is not this sociological notion I want to focus on any further in my paper, but the semiotic consequences of these two changes especially for global brands and marketing.

As it is all about "content", a term introduced worldwide by digitalisation, a seemingly banal example, the map of Korea, shall show the new mechanisms of "truth", not built on history but directed to easy understanding. For years the Republic of Korea emphasised, that the sea around the peninsula is named the "East Sea" and not the "Sea of Japan", as featured in most international maps. The latter refers to the Japanese occupation and therefore is not favoured by the residents of Korea. To promote their view the Korean Overseas Information Service published a rich documentation (Coulmas 2005) with statistics of names for this part of the ocean and many historic maps to prevent being colonized again, this time semantically. Because the new interpreters of the old signs are not keen on dealing with the cultural background, the hegemony over the content itself - the thing to be said or described - changes in a media society. Indigenization (Lull 2000: 242), the appropriation of cultural content by non-members of that culture, is a known phenomenon for narrative concepts. Commercially, entertainment means simplification and specific cultural backgrounds hinder international distribution. Comic books and TV Shows are based on adapted ancient tales - like the Amazons, Hercules (Greek) or Thor (Nordic). Yet, cartoon series are censored and purged of their Japanese heritage, as it was done for "Pokèmon" (cf. Neumann-Braun;Astheimer 2004: 124ff.). International buyers don’t even think about the already cleansed contents as they buy the Americanized versions for their networks. There is a growing need for a smooth-edge-variation to fit the (economic) demands of the "iconologic convention" (Böhme 1999: 29) of media producers. And this, in my opinion, also gives us hope in a global world, branded by multinational companies, who spend a lot of money to transfer meaning and image in arbitrary signs. The phrases of consumerism are also an easy target, as I want to show by analysing the newly won freedom of personalising content and taking over corporate means of communication.


Annexation of the Channel: Personalized Content

Placing criticism in the media, which are the main vehicle for trans-national utterance of discontent, depends on three "freedoms", as the Italian Marxist Ferruccio Rossi-Landi pointed out. Communication without manipulation and restraints means control over channel, code and circumstances of decoding (Rossi-Landi 1974.: 252). The latter is not only used for "hiding" unpopular truths in late night broadcasts or manipulating the weary evening spectator with advertisements, but also in such non profit-campaigns as fundraising. The so called Guerilla Marketing offers cheap and surprising effects by hitting the public at times and places, where they do not expect messages. In that case the circumstances of decoding are at stake, but the more vital usage is made by assaulting the code and channels of international communication. The triple condition made it impossible for a long time to oppose most media on their own terms, which would have meant on an equal basis. Occupying radio- or TV-stations and operating them meant a lot to most revolutionaries, but under non-violent circumstances the crucial point was funding (and protecting) of pirate radios and other subversive channels. It was the internet that offered a cheap and fast possibility of reacting personally on a global screen for millions worldwide. Nevertheless, the increase in personal homepages, including weblogs(3) did not live up to the expectation of a real counter-public in the world wide web. It seems as if Jean Baudrillard was proved right when he blamed the media which prohibit any answer, which is not integrated into media transmission in form of a simulation of an answer (Baudrillard 1978: 91). In former times and for the "old" media it was the technical barrier, which banned other opinions, as not everyone was fortunate enough to publish his own newspaper, feature broadcasts or the like. Nowadays the question of awareness and personal time budgets in media consumption make it difficult to find those alternative media offers.

The commercialization of the entrance to private or NGO-pages did not set up a technical frontier, but still an economic one, although the focus changed. "google’s" AdWord-program e. g. makes it easy for commercial pages to optimize their ranking in the gatekeeper’s algorithm. Spending money on advertisements are up to date corporate means of securing hegemony in the opinion market, which cannot be equaled by most citizens. The ruling class and the dominating opinions are highly interested in redundant messages on various channels (= multi- and cross-media) without disturbing signals to foster their use of language (Rossi-Landi 1974: 253). Media concentration and the selling of content regardless of its carrier will even widen this economic gap between non-profit- and commercial information.

Weblogs as an emancipating medium of free speech are easily set up (channel), as well filled with content (code). Dense linking to other websites or weblogs technically reminds one more of early hypertexts than most corporate websites, orientated on usability and use-time spent on the respective site. Furthermore the structure of these online-diaries provokes highly actual and spontaneous entries, and offer a thematic focus and segmentation of the readership. Promoting high traffic on most weblogs, the relevance of blogging is explained by its correcting function to official readings of the world. Users are drawn into them by shared interests, not products. Subjectivity, not indoctrination, polysemic, not monothematic contents determine the individual presence in the "blogosphere". In terms of semiotic reception we are not offered a "preferred reading", but a personalized "oppositional reading" based on individual experiences, or at least a "negotiated reading", filtering other messages by social discontent (Hall 1980: 136ff.). Conscious oppositional reading of the messages in a corporate world is a cultural effort and destroys the vibrant fiction of international brands, an "encoding that fails to recognize that people of different cultural or subcultural experience will read the message differently" (Fiske 1990: 78 f.).

Monitoring content production and the media is the explicit aim of the so called Watch-Blogs (e. g. concentrating on the German tabloid -, but a lot of other blogs also show a strong personal angle on the world, often critical to mainstream opinion. The grassroot effect of private weblogging may be shown by a glance on media-related weblogs dealing with the German TV-show "Planetopia" or the ring-tone-provider "Jamba". The power of this civil content production has to be measured by the new index of popularity, the ranking in the "Google"-search engine. Six out of ten entries were negative, when looking up "Planetopia" on August, 3Ist, 2005. Similar to advertising those sites contribute to a pre-emptive switching, the change of consumer habits before the buying decision at the point of sale. Another example,, relates to the negative experience with the customer care unit at the Mazda-automobile company. There even was a lawsuit against this weblog(4), which in turn caused wide media coverage in the German public TV-station ARD’s format "Plusminus". Result was a new address of the private site, mocking the official Mazda-Slogan ("Zoom, zoom"): This orthographic variety as domain-name leads us to another mass-media-like criticism of the brand world, demonstrating the violation of corporate social responsibility (CSR) by annexation of brand names, logos or slogans.


Annexation of the Code: Brands of Subversion

Utopian views of an international pictorial communication, avoiding any misunderstanding, were not realized, as the Socialist Otto Neurath (1991) had hoped, but were an achievement of global consumerism. Contextualising neutral signs in an environment of advertising (e. g. Lucky Strike’s target or Nike’s swoosh) adds a commercial sense to them. In marketing, the emotional transfer between brand, logo and the product is the main factor for the sympathy effect of a whole campaign and therefore the loyalty of a potential customer. In an ideal strategy, the values of the campaign and the values of the target group are the same. Customer relationship management (CRM), the leading philosophy in marketing, tries to gather communities around the core values of the brand. Not only the visuals (corporate design), but also image (corporate identity) and the corporate behaviour(5) influence the "loan, we give to the pictures"(6) (Derrida 2001: 84). The signs used in advertising must be taken as if they were natural signs ("naturalia signa"), not artificial ones ("signa data"). If beauty were regarded as a logical result of the use of a certain cosmetic, then that transfer has been successful. Normal communication differs from buy-triggering messages in an important semantic detail, the suppression of polysemic meaning. Apodictic "truths" take the place of free association on the listener’s/viewer’s/reader’s side. The unspoken verdict against a "free swarming of connotations towards individual regions" (Barthes 1990: 35), as Roland Barthes put it, became the main stimulus of ad-busting, a growing movement following anti-globalist-critique.

International brand names and logos(7) make up the found weapons of these subversive activists, who rework newspaper-ads and present them, as was done by the leading activist Kalle Lasn in his Ad-Busting-magazine(8). It is even possible to name the birthday of Ad-busting with a P. R.-effect, when the Newark Evening News was published on May, 16 th, 1921. The close ties to art and a cultural environment was present(9), when the story of Stuart Davis was told in the article "Even in Grinnich There’s Nothing as Odd as Emblazoned Walls of ´Nut Shop` Here". The painter, whose later pictures also were "full of commercial logos and cursive signatures" (Wollen 1993: 107), had done a redesign of the advertisements on Gar Sparks’ Nut Shop, showing now "letters of every colour, letters of every shape and size, looking at first as a pied form in a lunatic’s print shop" (Sims 1991). Similar in structure, but different in purpose, this ancestor of the present ad-busters also aimed at the "media literacy" of the public. Modern activism therefore developed a "media empowerment kit" for 125 Canadian Dollars ( to open young consumers’ eyes for the manipulation by means of manipulating signs.

In addition, the home-made "anti-brand" tries to function as a role-model, "how to uncool a megacorporation" ( Logos are painted over with black colour, an alternative can be obtained by the original ad-busters-sneaker in the online-shop. TV-Commercials ( for the own range of de-branded goods ( also show the main dialectic problem of the movement, which depends on the use of such existing channels as the attractive (and expensive) commercial by-line of the Larry King-Show. This media age grammar can not be overcome; and Lasn, who also promotes the national "TV turn off-week" and the "buy nothing day", went a long way to get his commercials for this day free of consumption into the networks. Refusals to air the spots, because it is not usual to sell ad-time for political content, as it was argued (Lasn 2005: 46), caused other media to ridicule the TV-networks. Ironically enough, it was the "Wall Street Journal" - among others - which made Lasn’s vision visible on screen. To a certain extent, counterculture really becomes consumer culture (Heath; Potter 2005), when it comes to make itself heard.

A dilemma, which even the most extreme form of protest, terrorism, did not solve, as the considerations about the design of the logo of the Italian "Brigate Rosse" (Franceschini 1990: 54) show; as well as the German RAF’s consultation of a designer (cf. Graf 2005); or the video-messages by Al Kaida. The greatest number of customers is reached by the most commercial media. Therefore, ad-busting became international (like brands!) and also had a profound impact on the generating of new media, not only online as mentioned in the first part of this paper, but also offline. "Buy nothing-day" is celebrated on November, 25th in various countries like Switzerland, Germany, Japan and France. There, the "Casseurs de Pub" came together in 1999 and published their manifesto (, which got cited by anarchists as well as nationalists. Their journal, "La Décroissance", sells up to 45.000 copies.

Meanwhile, offline, and not only in subcultural activities and media, travesties and re-worked ads also became fashionable again in political rhetoric, as two examples may show. Austrian Socialists published a poster featuring the secretary of financial affairs and the slogan "a zero and his deficit" in 2004, mocking the fetish-like zero-deficit of the minister. George W. Bush’s presidential campaign even went so far as to turn the sportive picture of Democrat candidate John F. Kerry windsurfing into a threat by simply linking it to waltz-music and the "flip-flopping" of his votes, climaxing in the claim "John Kerry, whichever way the wind blows" (Mc Kinnon 2004: 4).


Re-Annexation of a Lost Power

To sum up, private channels of global communication as well as individual content production only get relevance from a community of interested other citizens. Pleading with them to see things, not how they are wrapped up and promoted by the industry, but in their personal relevance (Hoffmann-Axthelm 1984: 306) calls for an advanced media literacy, the most important single condition for making voices audible in competition with the commercial media. Interaction with the consumer and taking his personal taste and opinion seriously, when it comes to content production, offers chances for commercialisation as well. Book stores, both on- and offline, have discovered the selling power of private critics. offers a ranking for "useful", which means sales enhancing, postings by its users, Random House and Harper Collins send the most active private critics their new books and use their comments in their leaflets and brochures. Joachim Unseld, chairman of Germany’s publishing company Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt, showed himself to be rather old-fashioned, when insisting on professional critics: "If everybody were allowed to chatter forth his sermon, where would any orientation come from?" (Weingarten 2005, translation by the author, R. Graf). In other words: Stay a loyal customer, but do not tell us your opinion or listen to other fellows! For these reasons, let us remember the semiotic freedom, which - in the words of Umberto Eco - is "a tactic of decoding, where the message as expression form does not change but the addressee rediscovers his freedom of decoding" (Eco 1976: 150).

© Roland Graf (Fachhochschule St. Pölten)


(1) Förderverein Libertad,, Stand: 22. 07. 2005

(2) Like a visual virus web-distributed pictures find their way as physical manifestation on the walls of the public sphere. Without physical presence of the designers, the messages on or are spread far and wide.

(3) As a recent survey shows, only 4 % of the 100.000 users in question were regularly visiting weblogs (cf. Fittkau & Maas,, last visited 20. 12. 2005)

(4) Weblogs and hate-pages usually congregate around mighty opponents, as the multitude of pages about the supermarket-chain Wal-Mart- or show. A German example, promoting the Stop of Atomic Energy, is

(5) In addition, brand worlds like Nike-Town or the Flagship stores of Prada open up a physical "experience of ingression" (Böhme 2001: 46): To enter a fictive world in which everything is exactly as it has been promised by the "image" of a product. Corporate Architecture, the inclusion of architectural elements, is another component of this comprehensive advertising aesthetics. The more room becomes branded, the more "opportunities to see" occur.

(6) The pun with the French word "crédit" hints at both, "credibility" and "loan"

(7) The identity-donating strength of supranational brand names treats these forms as a part of the theory of the non-places by Marc Augé: " A foreigner lost in a country he does not know (a "passing stranger") can feel at home there only in the anonymity of motorways, service stations, big stores or hotel chains. For him, an oil company logo is a reassuring landmark; among the supermarket shelves he falls with relief in sanitary, household or food products validated by multinational brand names " (Augé 1995: 106).

(8) Cf. Die ZEIT online,, last visit: 25. 07. 2005

(9) One could also trace that iconoclastic tradition back to Kasimir Malevichs "Composition with La Gioconda" (1914) or - likewise based on da Vincis "Mona Lisa" - "L.H.O.O.Q." by Marcel Duchamps 1919. Nevertheless, both painters did not rework icons of the consumer world but art history.


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15.1. Transnational Activism, (Cyber-)Cultural (Re-)Presentations and Global Civil Society

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For quotation purposes:
Roland Graf (Fachhochschule St. Pölten): Branding Subversion, personalising media. "Busting and blogging" in a global media context. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

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