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Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008

Branding “Alternative Culture”

How corporations ape the underground

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Inthe summer of 2005, Nike SB, a division of the shoe giant in charge of producing footwear for skateboarders, created an advertisement for their upcoming skateboarding tour that attempted to connect the brand with the type of music that many skaters loved.

Titled “Major Threat,” the ad reproduced the iconic album art of hardcore punk legends Minor Threat’s 1981 self-titled album. The response from many skaters—and from Dischord Records, the Washington, D.C., label run by former Minor Threat frontman Ian MacKaye—was swift and predictable.

“It is…disheartening to us to think that Nike may be successful in using this imagery to fool kids…into thinking that the general ethos of this label, and Minor Threat in particular, can somehow be linked to Nike’s mission,” the Dischord Web site announced.

Many skateboarders, in response to Nike’s unauthorized “borrowing” of Dischord’s street cred, promised to stage a boycott against the shoe company. Yet, more than two years later, Nike seems no worse for the wear. In fact, following the Minor Threat controversy, the company has actually been successful in making more inroads into “alternative” culture. In the fall of 2006, indie band-of-the-moment LCD Soundsystem produced a 45-minute track exclusively for Nike (underground rapper Aesop Rock reached a similar agreement with the company in 2007), and such venerated independent artists as J. Mascis, Lily Allen and MF Doom have even gone so far as to design shoes for Nike SB.

For many of us who came of age during the height of the do-it-yourself (DIY) ethos of the late-1980s/early- 1990s, such developments have proven both disheartening and incomprehensible. How did we get to the point where alternative bands and artists are literally lining up to make deals with companies like Nike? It is this question that is at the heart of Anne Elizabeth Moore’s wonderful Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing, and the Erosion of Integrity, (New Press), a work that wisely puts the focus on the corporate side of this burgeoning relationship. Moving beyond the standard narrative of co-optation, Moore shows the reader that marketing

 “is a business dependent upon both expansion and innovation to survive,” one that is constantly looking for the newest—and, by the early 21st century, edgiest—ways to reach potential consumers. To Moore, it is therefore not surprising that marketing firms would “think outside of the box” when it comes to designing new advertising campaigns.

What is shocking, however, is the ingenuity that these firms have exhibited in their forays into underground culture. Moore illustrates how well companies like Toyota, Pepsi, Lucasfilm and Sony have used tools such as crudely produced zines, DIY arts-and-crafts fairs, guerilla-style graffiti campaigns and well-respected alternative artists to peddle their wares. These companies have learned to ape the language of the underground so well that it has becoming exceedingly difficult to draw the line between the mainstream and the alternative.

This corporate cunning is matched by a growing level of complicity within the world of underground culture. As Moore astutely points out, more and more alternative artists are willing to use the corporate world to get their products out to a larger audience. And while the history behind such a mind-set remains rather vague, Moore does provide us with one potential explanation: Those that are now running today’s cutting-edge advertising firms also came of age during the world of DIY (not surprisingly, this is the explanation that Nike SB provided when taken to task for appropriating the image of Minor Threat. They weren’t “stealing” the image, they said; they were only paying homage to one of their all-time favorite bands).

Such a reality only serves to underscore this complex relationship between the corporate world and the world of DIY, and it may make it easier to see why so many underground artists are willing to make that plunge into the world of advertising. It may not be so hard to strike a deal with the devil when that devil looks and talks a whole lot like you.