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Sunday, April 27th, 2008
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Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing, and the Erosion of Integrity

by Anne Elizabeth Moore

Unmarketable: A Review

A review by Iris Blasi

Since the early 1970s, sales of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer had plummeted steadily. Then, in 2002, the beer became the beverage of choice in hipster haunts everywhere. Sales rose 5.4% that year, followed by a 9.4% increase in supermarket sales in the first quarter of 2003. Marketwatchers initially scratched their heads at this sudden and inexplicable uptick. The beer hadn't been actively advertised in years, but that's precisely what worked in its favor. With ads from the competition (typical T&A showcases, burping frogs, and the ubiquitous catchphrase "Wassup?") as foils, PBR was automatically imbued with an anti-corporate aura that couldn't be bought.

Except that it was.

As it turns out, a savvy marketer had decided to forgo mainstream advertising, instead targeting his pitch at those bastions of corporate culture, bike messengers. And that's just one of the many tales of corporate marketing firms plundering the underground Anne Elizabeth Moore tells in Unmarketable.

Moore herself is somewhat of a sellout. In 2002, the Chicago-based writer (and Bitch contributor) was producing her own zine and co-editing the now-defunct Punk Planet when a local arts festival approached her to run a zine-making workshop. Moore jumped at the chance to fly in zinesters from across the nation, and to run free-of-charge workshops with a full cache of fresh supplies. But due to the arts festival's sponsorship deal, Moore's paycheck ultimately came from that king of corporate behemoths: Starbucks. Despite successfully fighting the last-minute request that the Starbucks logo appear on the back of every zine, Moore confesses it did end up "on the programming guide, in all promotional materials, and in several locations within the venue...[so] the zine-making space was branded, even if the zines themselves were not."

It's unlikely that readers will judge Moore too harshly, though. Using her own experience as a jumping-off point, she conducts Unmarketable as an intelligent, funny, and frequently dispiriting study of the ways in which the mainstream has repeatedly pillaged the underground, repacking what they find before setting it afloat in the sea of mass consumption. The book is a clever roadmap of the techniques most habitually applied: brandalism ("vandalism that is committed as an advertising campaign"), graffadi ("graffiti that is advertising"), copyfighting ("activist projects that take on copyright and intellectual property issues"), and mocketing (“product placement that is integrated into parody-based entertainment media content").

It's clear something insidious is happening in cases like that of the artist sued by Matell for using Barbie in his work (he won in appeal, as the work was clearly parody), or Nike's co-opting of the images and design from a cover of a Minor Threat album for their "Major Threat" campaign. But Moore is at her best treading the blurrier lines of demarcation, as when she speaks with the artists who contributed to Tylenol's "Ouch!" campaign, in which executives commissioned work by indie artists hoping to make the brand relevant to the younger generation. The Tylenol logo and depictions of bottles were rarely used, and reluctant artists were assured the corporation would be hands-off as they created artwork, including comics, depicting every-day incidents of pain. So was collecting a paycheck from a large corporation essentially telling you to do whatever you’d like really selling out? (Ultimately, of course, some editorial tweaks were requested by Tylenol in the end, making it not entirely hands-off, but that’s beside the point in this debate.)

Parts of Unmarketable may be impenetrable to those unfamiliar with the ways of DIY art and activism, but that's precisely why the book works. Instead of a "don't-always-trust-what-you-see" tome targeted at the masses, Moore talks straight to the artists producing the work, passionately prodding them to think about integrity, ownership, and meaning. In doing so, she's created an authentic work about the collisions of corporate and counter cultures that everyone who cares about culture should read.

Iris Blasi is a freelance writer.

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