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How to challenge Capitalism

A few months ago I attended a debate by Onbegane Grond about the relation between art and activism. The question was whether art should save the world.

As the debate unfolded the panel divided itself into two camps. On the one hand, there were the activists who felt that artists have the responsibility to make the world a better place through their work. And then, there were the artists who see activist themes as a great inspiration to make art. They were only interested in the artistic value of their work – not in its effect.

This prompted me to pose the hypothesis that activist campaigns would be better off in the hands of advertisers than in the hands of artists. After all, the advertiser is much more experienced in crafting effective communication. He tries to engage the masses, rather than just a niche of art connoisseurs.

It was a shame that there was not much time to discuss this hypothesis. But I think that the case for it has grown stronger over the last couple of months, because of what is probably the most effective activist campaign in recent history: The Occupy movement.

Campaign poster for the Occupy movement - by Adbusters

The Occupy movement was initiated by Adbusters, an award-winning magazine with an anti-capitalist agenda. The magazine looks as polished as advertising and makes use of the same techniques to promote social change: Simple, single-minded, powerful communication. Adbusters published their big idea and the hashtag #OccupyWallStreet, supported it with the right visuals and social media did the rest. It came as no surprise when I learned that its founder, Kalle Lasn, is a retired marketing consultant.

Of course there are many more examples where the techniques of advertising have come in handy for activists. The Yes Men, for example, stage prolific hoaxes where they launch whitewashing campaigns in the name of big corporations. They use the same tone of voice and visual style, which makes the media believe that the corporation is really behind it. When the media calls to confirm, the corporation is forced to publicly respond on the issue, increasing the effectiveness of the campaign.

Steven de Jong recently suggested in the Dutch newspaper NRC that the Occupy movement should protest against advertisers. This was a strange suggestion. Not only because his column is partly funded by advertising, but also because it seems rather ineffective to change the minds of the consumerist masses through a protest against advertisers. Rather than protesting against advertisers, the activists should become advertisers. To learn the tricks of their trade. To hijack their messages. To join them, because they are hard to beat. Especially when it comes to engaging an otherwise apathetic crowd.

21 thoughts on “How to challenge Capitalism

  1. It is not just products that need advertising, good ideas need advertising.

    Sometimes it is easy to forget the root of a word when it becomes associated with something that is staring you in the face almost 24/7. So lets 'turn our gaze' towards advertising and its etymological roots:

    early 15c., "to take notice of," from M.Fr. advertiss-, prp. stem of a(d)vertir "to warn" (12c.), from L. advertere "turn toward," from ad- "toward" (see ad-) + vertere "to turn" (see versus). Sense shifted to "to give notice to others, warn" (late 15c.) by influence of advertisement; specific meaning "to call attention to goods for sale, rewards, etc." had emerged by late 18c. Original meaning remains in advert "to give attention to." Related: Advertised; advertising. (

    So here we already see how easily activism can be correlated with advertisement. What else is activism then trying to force the attention of someone towards some problem that is in need of attention?

    Most corporations have huge Public Relation wings, that are bent on steering people their attention away from the problems intrinsic to their conduct. On top of that they have huge sums of money to back up where their mouths are, so they can 'occupy the media'.

    This is a huge problem, as activist really do not have the money to arrest the attention of people often enough. Social media and the internet have made it more easy to spread these ideas though. But then again, they do not have the money to occupy congress or parliament, like the lobbyist of Big Business.

    Ideas do not just find their way on their own. The need some force to back it up. The magic employed today is grounded in money, which increasingly controls the informational infrastructure. Money informs society. It forms society. So money is art, in the classic sense: art as ars, as technique.

    But how can this technique be subverted? How can activism start informing society without the money to back it up? Especially when it is trying to subvert the principle of money as such?

    (on a side note, check out this book: MONEY AND MAGIC: A Critique of the Modern Economy in Light of Goethe's Faust, a review is here:

    • one idea for getting an activist message across without a huge budget might be by re-appropriating advertisements for huge brands and thus making use of their budgets. For instance this ad for Levi's Go Forth changed into an activist clip: . But then again the original by Levi's has more than three million hits and this one just over twenty thousand. So using the revolution for advertisement seems more effective than vice versa…………

      • Daniel, for me this anti-ad is still a Levi's ad. This kind of anti-capitalistic advertisements are already incorporated (as the clip explains at the very beginning). Take this GAP ad for example by Spike Jonze. This kind of anarchistic-guerilla-styles are so corporate, just like the Adbusters book is the bible at every ad agency nowadays. For me it is very logical that Adbusters is behind Occupy Wallstreet, giving a clear answer (everyone who lost it's home, put your tent in front of those to blame), too a complex problem. It is very advertising thinking, what is the problem (the banks, the stock exchange, the business people) and what's the solution; confront them. But it's not that easy, the answer is not that easy, advertising is not the solution. The text by Niels is making that very clear again; corporate thinking to stop corporate thinking… Occupy for me is almost a reconstruction of the situationist acts that resulted in the protest of '68. The situationist, with the famous 'détournements' (the starting of the guerilla art) made a lot of noise, but did not solve a world that became more and more unreal. We've got to come up with something new, maybe artists should no longer critic the corporate, but should become the corporate. Capitalism as Art!

  2. The power that money gives an advertiser is starting to fade.
    The traditional model of advertisers is to buy attention. However shallow and uninteresting their message was, the advertiser could always rely on a media budget to buy attention. Whether it was a 30-second spot on TV, an ad in a magazine or a billboard at the side of a road.
    As more and more people are turning to the web for entertainment and information, advertisers are starting to realise that buying attention does not work on the web. Would you, for example, look up a TV-ad about washing powder on YouTube? Let alone share it on Facebook? The closest online equivalent of bought media is bannering. Then again, do you ever click on them?
    What activist communication has going for it, is that the topic often is something many people really care about. Many people care about social inequality, the fur industry, the environment or digital rights. People are more likely to engage on these topics, also because they are polarising. People can disagree on these topics, so they feel their voice matters. That's why it is easier to deserve attention on these topics that to deserve it on, say, washing powder.
    To get the masses behind your cause, all you need to do is to set a clear, simple example. There is an interesting book by marketing guru Seth Godin on amassing followers for your cause. It is called 'Tribes'. It's written in a tedious tone-of-voice, but the content is really quite inspiring.
    Recently, this approach has been championed by a Dutch digital rights activist organisation called Bits of Freedom. Their re-emergence is an absolute success story and other activist organisations should take note. Within 2 years and with only 3 employees they managed to get a tribe of thousands of active followers on Twitter, a voluntary workforce that helped them propel digital rights back onto the agenda of Dutch Politics. We are now the first country in the world with a law for Net Neutrality, which they co-wrote. And that's just one of their many achievements.

    • Very good points Niels!

      But the problem with the internet is the 'information bubble', or its more classical term: the problem of preaching for the priory. Those who are already 'on the path' tend to look for and spread certain information in between a network that has already been 'turned on'.

      But there are people who need to be reached, who are not reached in this way. A large part of the electorate are not netizens like we are, they still swallow the force fed mass media crap. That something like the occupy movement is in the news, is a way to reach out, but they are very easily subverted by mainstream media, when their intent is on ridiculing them (like FoxNews and PowNews, although pownews is of course sprung from an internet phenomenon, but is a special case because it is of 'the dark side', 'de reaguurders').

      Bits of Freedom is indeed a good example of activism done right. What is the essence of doing it right with the help of 'tribes'. By finding a way to 'brand' activism in such a way it is easy for people to identify with it?

      In the case of OccupyAmsterdam, which is dealing with quite a view image problems, what could they learn from tribe-marketing?

      • I would not say that the preaching to the converted is the problem. On the contrary, it is part of the solution.
        What marketeers and advertisers get right, is targeting. They try to reach people that are open to their message. A successful advertiser will never try to sell a product or service to someone who would never want it in the first place. That's why, say, detergents are not marketed to teenagers. That's also why we should not try to sell FoxNews-viewers the ideas behind OccupyWallstreet. We should try to sell them to people like you and me. Give us an engaging piece of communication that we can share with our friends. Our friends might be the secondary target group, the people who were previously indifferent/ignorant, but that we can win over. Because a message relayed to you by a friend will always have a stronger reception than a message broadcasted from an organisation.
        Another lesson we can learn from them is that we should not want too achieve too much with one piece of communication. Either you try to make people aware, or you try to change their attitude, or you try to activate them. Define one simple goal and stay single-minded. As they say: Keep it simple, stupid.
        This is a crucial point for the Occupy-movement. They had no single-minded message. This makes it hard for followers to share, impossible for the masses to comprehend and easy for the media to scrutinise.

        • Interesting point – we were experiencing the same problem with the Exchanghibition Bank. The project has a lot of layers and will keep amassing more of them as we grow. After all this bank is the only bank in the world which considers spiritual and intellectual equally (or maybe even more) important as financial growth. We noticed that this makes it sometimes really difficult to explain the whole project though to newcomers and are now – with the help of an advertiser/marketeer(!) – working on a new 'mission statement' and website. But there's a clash as well – from a marketeers' standpoint the project should be single-layered, but from an artist point of view I'd rather have a Million layers!

          • You can always expose the newcomer to more layers as you pull him in. It's just that the every single moment of contact should be simple and engaging. There is a good book on advertising called "Hapklare brokken", which main vision is that information in advertising should be served in manageable chunks. This metaphor hits the nail on the head.

        • Indeed, interesting point, but still problematic in a special sense. Maybe the difference of perspective is instructive here. You as a marketeer think more practical and realistic and specific (product/niche), whereas I as philosopher try to focus on the ideal as a concrete universal (relating everything with everything else)

          I have always been ambiguous concerning the preaching to the converted. Forming the bubble on the one hand is obviously negative, as it a self serving feedback loop, which could make it more difficult to enter for people from a different sphere. But on the other hand, this feedback can enforce a more rigorous kind of style within the group, through which they become more 'attractive', gain a style with people could really identify with, so as to become a tribe, which can become more popular.

          I think it is very difficult for occupy to be specific and try to focus on some easily identifiable and single minded message, as the nature of the problem is highly complicated. In that sense the catchphrase 'occupywallstreet' is immediatly clear to people, as almost everybody realizes that the financial system is fucked up. But when people start questioning what actually can be done, trouble rises, as the problem is so deeply ingrained in the whole structure of the contemporary global society, that every specific message can easily divide those who should be united in their struggle against the system.

          Pension plans? Mortgages? Loans? Debt? Almost everyone is part of the problem, and that is why people are affraid to leave the status quo. They'd rather go back to a time where the problems were still only potential problems to be dealt with later. Everyone wants to go back to the place where we could still fake ignorance of the corruption intrinsic in the system. Because of this, people like to remain ignorant, they want to surpress that nagging feeling that something is amiss. But they cannot ignore it anymore, just as much they cannot comprehend it.

          "It is well that the people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning." – Henry Ford

          So how would you go about to streamline the communication of Occupy, so it can focus its energy better in the media onslaught?

  3. What makes a person member of a tribe? Does that person need to be an active participant, or just his/her contribution to the cause would be enough? How many different types of involvement do activist groups usually provide to prospect users?

    If Levis put out a pair of Jeans that gives 10% of profit to a specific, advertised (in the Levis campaign) activist group (a carefully chosen group), would people prefer to buy this pair of pants? What kind of special signs would that pair of pants should have so that the buyer can be recognized as a member of that tribe by other buyers (or even the public), by other "light", "passive" members of that tribe.

    Just giving the above example to express that another way for activism to become sexy, is to allow for more grades of involvement, from the full on to the passive, from the monetary to the "just passing on the info" type, coupled with great feedback of the "work" the buyers have done by buying this pair of pants f.i. , and maybe some subtle social reward.

    I'll check Bits of Freedom

    • In a tribe, there are different levels of participation. You can be the leader, an active participant, a sympathiser who spreads the word or just someone who observes the tribe from a distance.

      I don't think money is the best incentive for tribe members. Usually people join tribe for a sense of community, a sense of belonging. People who share the same hobbies, world views, etc. naturally like to engage with each other. That's how we got to know each other too ;-)

      But it is true that for some levels of involvement money is a tool. Bits of Freedom had 3 paid members until a few months ago, and now they are expanding.

  4. Two comments:

    - Should we consider art as art if it has an explicit commercial or political purpose? In my opinion, art could be a reflection of our society and could trigger the thoughts of the viewer, but should not have a specific comme…rcial or political goal. Then it becomes propaganda or an advertisement and the artist a politician or an advertiser.
    - Advertising, defined as the promotion of an idea, product or service, has many purposes. Activists could use these techniques to promote their ideology, multinationals could use advertising to create demand for their product and an NGO’s to raise funds for their cause. The NRC article discusses the side effects of advertising of consumption good and consumer loans and poses the question whether advertisers rather than bankers created greed and caused the crisis. Activists could still use techniques from advertising to promote their own ideas.

    • 1. I totally agree with you. In the debate whether art should save the world, you, just like me, belong in the camp of the artists, not the activists.
      2. My criticism of the NRC article lies in its lack of practicality and strategic vision. How would an attack on advertisers by Occupists convince materialist couch potatoes to shift their values to something more meaningful? I think that this kind of resistance is futile, it would be much smarter to penetrate the world of advertisers from within, adopt their lingo and reach the materialists that way. In a language they know, but with a fresh message they haven't heard before.

  5. I agree with Thomas. When an artist crosses the line from commenting on society to a place where his art is meant to sway someone to a specific political viewpoint, he stops being an artist and becomes a propagandist. Most artists don't want to go there.

    • I am not so sure. Some imagery is intrinsically iconoclastic, and thus has a political dimension. It is not so black and white. For instance: abstract art is an expression of an almost metaphysical shift which also has political dimensions. But it is not right to reduce this as political propaganda. 'Pure art' as totally devoid of politics is poltical in itself. Just look at the history of art: many paintings are religious and political, reflecting a certain image of man, reflecting a certain place in the the order of things.

      Just look at this website: art as money is iconoclasm, critiquing finance with ironic imagery. That is politics, but that does not reduce the value of its art.

      The boundaries between art/advertisement/propaganda are not clearly cut. And they should not be clearly differentiated. All great art has a depth that crosses boundaries.

      Just think of Hitlers detest of modern abstract art! Abstract art seems to be the most pure and non-political art, as it is not figurative, it does not 'make a scene', but this fact on its own is enough to be found obscene, to insult both the esthetic and the political sensibilities of the viewer.

    • It is a very thin line!
      Quoting Dickson in The Guardian:
      “Art for Art’s sake” is a seductive message for art lovers and artists; but the declaration was itself a social and political act, calling for artists to have a space outside society’s norms. To be sure the credo led to the creation of works of beauty, as the V&A demonstrated in its Cult of Beauty exhibition; but Brecht and Sartre, to name but two, would have found the idea that Art had no particular social or political goals suspect. That did not stop them from making significant aesthetic contributions that offered Truth and Beauty alongside social commentary and moral instruction.…?

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