Protest | Support | Act – On the commodification of the signs of protest

by Rudi Maier

Translated from German by Alain Kessi

Advertising and revolution

Daily each and every one of us is being “advertised” 5000 times – on television, on the radio, in the newspaper or on the streets and squares of the cities, in the Internet, when cooking or taking a shower, when traveling or in the pub in the evening. Our attention has long become a scarce resource. In the sphere of the “economy of attention” the PR agencies are trying to sell themselves to their customers as being successful, with apparently ever-new strategies. Playing with signs and codes is part of the basics of their trade, the motto is to draw attention whatever it cost. The collection “that’s how revolution works” documents a specific section of the work of advertising agencies, by showing ads which all operate with the signs and symbols, slogans and icons of leftist and alternative protest movements. As an “exhibition project in progress” it currently comprises about 1800 print ads from 1967 to date, as well as about 80 advertising clips. Starring, among others, Che Guevara, Karl Marx, Lenin, Mao, Rosa Luxemburg and Ulrike Meinhof. Their demands: “Fight for your rights!,” “Join the revolution!,” “Viva la libertad!” and “Radicalize life!” In a campaign a few years ago Diesel, an Italian fashion label, succinctly captured this contested relation – Protest, support and act:

Making money and more with Marx

One of the first commercial ads making use of a “leftist iconography” was published in 1967, and this is no accident. The social tensions in the West at the time made it possible to use the portrait of Karl Marx to tie in with significant discourses, thus guaranteeing a minimum amount of attention. The “unfriendly takeover” by the advertising industry and the use of leftist codes and symbols on mass-produced goods has a strategic function. Dick Hebdige from the surroundings of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) in Birmingham investigated this strategic function in the end of the 70ies already, in his study “Subculture – The Significance of Style.” On the example of Punk in Great Britain he shows how (subcultural) dissidence and refusal, protest and resistance are continuously integrated in the “threatened order” and the “cultural hegemony” is thus re-established. In his study Hebdige distinguished between two forms of re-integration: “Firstly the conversion of subcultural signs (dress, music, etc.) into mass-produced objects (i.e. the commodity form), and secondly the ‘labeling’ and re-definition of deviant behavior by dominant groups – the police, the media, the judiciary (i.e. the ideological form).” [1] Recently paper tissues with the portrait of the Commandante Che Guevara have made their appearance, an exemplary object of mass production. The labeling and re-interpretation of political resistance takes place mainly through “strategies of belittling and ridiculing.” The belittling serves the “taming of the dangerous” while the ridiculing turns you into an insignificant exoticism, a “jester.”

Strategies of invocation in flux

Advertisings are systems of signs of the social, an expression of concrete social relations and conditions, and they show the transformation of capitalism. They can be interpreted as a suggestion as to how life could be mastered, as a social instructions manual, or as an attempt to make people more stupid than they are. After all, people continue to have a brain of their own… The British cultural scientist Stuart Hall speaks (schematically) of three possibilities of media reception: The dominant-hegemonic reading, the negotiated reading and the oppositional reading. While advertisings from the sixties and seventies that operated with signs and icons of the left were intent on re-integrating the dissenters into the bourgeois mainstream camp, the new strategy is now rather to offer difference to the mainstream as a consumption motive: “Think different!” says Apple, “Be different!” retorts DaimlerChrysler, and Tiscali goes: “Disconnect.” Or potential customers are encouraged to disregard the social rules of the game: Live “according to your own rules.” In the “production halls of difference” described by Marion von Osten, in which radically subjective present-tense worlds are continuously designed, the re-interpretation, disaggregation and the constant game with signs and codes are part of the day-to-day business.

Attention, attention, here speaks…

In the summer of 2004, a branch of the most famous Scandinavian furnishing house, whose name does not need to be mentioned here, opened in a major city in Southern Germany. Political activists in this city, hooked by the “for-free” movement of that year, decided to pay a visit to the branch and to ask the customers present: “Do you still shop, or do you already live?” They printed T-shirts with the slogan, painted banners, devised flyers and stocked up on sparkling wine and munchies in order to squat one of the so-called display apartments in the newly opened branch. They boarded the display apartment and fastened their banner: “This apartment is squatted.” The action lasted almost two hours. Then the activists moved on – and were disappointed. Perhaps because the head of the branch – who had studied ethnology – gave his ok under the condition that they would not light a fire and did not call the police, perhaps because the customers on site liked the action, and perhaps because some did not quite know whether it was a protest action against, or an advertising action in favor of the furnishing house. At good last the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution at least recognized the dangerousness of this action and on its home page spun the tale “that the ideological background of this squatting action is to be found in the search for a different model of society. For according to the Communist conviction, Human Rights are impossible to realize in capitalism.”

The staging of the colorful pictures

William J.T. Mitchell noted many years ago a “pictorial turn.” Since the introduction of the private/commercial television in the mid-eighties, television has become the picture-producing machine number one. Also, the Internet has turned from cryptic Unix machinery to a colorful multimedia platform. The discourse around the “power of pictures” has existed for quite some time. In the preparation for the war in Iraq the US government presented: pictures. Pictures which apparently show the production sites for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Who still remembers, in this context, the alleged liberation of the woman soldier Jessica Lynch? A perfectly staged incident for exoneration on the home front. With Foucault’s approach of the “art of seeing,” which aims at deciphering the relation between power and picture sketched above, pictures are “spaces of constructed visibilities.” Pictures are triply functional. They are the expression and image of social processes; they are the bearers of the production and dissemination of knowledge; they are a structural element of the exercise of power in the sense that one should always also ask: “What is being shown and what is not being shown.”

You too can move great things!

Excerpt from a press release by the Europcar company for a campaign which made use of one of the photographs most often reproduced in the world. The photograph was shot by Alberto Korda in 1960 and contributed quite significantly to the iconizing of “the most complete man of his time” (J.-P. Sartre [2]): the Commandante Che Guevara.

“At the beginning of March the Europcar car rental is starting an unusual advertising campaign. (…) Arguably the most eye-catching motive with the Cuban freedom fighter “Che Guevara” under the headline “You too can move great things” will be run in the Berlin city magazine “tip.” Europcar also understands itself as a company who offers its customers freedom – the freedom of mobility. In comparison to the great deeds of Che Guevara, the customers of Europcar can move even particularly great objects with the extensive truck fleet available to them.


[1] Hebdige, Dick: Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Methuen, London 1979, p. 94.

[2] Anderson, Jon Lee: Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, Grove/Atlantic 1998, p. 624.