The term ‘culture’ means the complex soup of meanings that a particular group use to make sense of their world. Preface that term with ‘consumer’ and we arrive at a peculiar situation in which the act of consumption, the brands being consumed and even their advertising messages form the basis from which people make sense of their world. Consumer messages are used to identify oneself with others and, equally crucially, to define one’s own identity internally. In a consumer culture, the act of consumption and the practices of marketing become more important than simply selling and buying goods – they become the means by which we understand things.
I was reminded of this over the weekend while watching the footage of the national wave of protests sweeping Brazil. After a brief spurt of economic growth and national optimism, Brazil has been mired in a downturn in the economy. Corruption and the growing spectre of spending billions on the 2014 World Cup have only served to add fuel to the fire and the streets of São Paulo, Rio and more than 100 other Brazilian cities have been filled with protesters angry at the country’s current malaise.
Traditionally, the protesters would have flown red flags and chanted The Internationale in Portuguese. At first sight the banners on display – ‘Vem Pra Rua’ (Come to the streets) and ‘O Gigante Acordou’ (The Giant has Awoken) – might appear to be political statements drawn from the local imagination. But, Brazilians, like all of us, are firmly in the grip of consumer culture. These protests are not Marxist slogans or Brazilian calls for revolt. They are advertising slogans.
Vem Pra Rua is a major campaign launched by Fiat to promote its sponsorship of the World Cup 2014. The slogan was launched this year via social media and a major TV campaign in which Brazilians are shown emerging from their houses wearing their national colours and rising to support the Brazilian football side. O Gigante Acordou has been the Brazilian slogan for Johnnie Walker for two years. Initially, this was a masterful attempt by Diageo to link its global brand campaign – Keep Walking – with the local market climate in Brazil. A fabulous TV commercial shows Rio’s famous ‘Sugar Loaf’ mountain transforming into a giant who rises and begins to walk. The campaign was meant to capture the growing Brazilian economy and its cultural renaissance. Once again, however, protesters have taken the ad and its slogan and applied an entirely oppositional context, even going as far as creating a mash-up video for YouTube mixing the original Johnnie Walker ad with footage from the protests. It ends not with the words ‘Keep Walking’ but ‘Keep Fighting’.
The media is calling this interesting phenomenon ‘subvertising’ but they are missing the point. This is a much older, more established activity and it has a name: bricolage. It is a term first used by media theorist Dick Hebdige to describe how a disenfranchised subculture will use the signs and symbols of the dominant group within society, add a twist and then present them as their own.
A century ago, young African-American men took to wearing the top hat and tails of the upper classes and rioting with them on. In Britain, punks took the safety pins and bin bags of the domestic middle classes and turned them into fashion items to protest mainstream societal values. In America in the 1990s, gay men and women took the slogans and logos of big brands and gave them a gay twist (Häagen-Dazs became Fag’n Dyke, Nike became Dike) to protest at the lack of explicit recognition that gay people were getting
from mainstream brands.
And now in Brazil a new generation of protest has emerged by taking the campaigns designed to support Brazilian success and its upcoming World Cup and turning them into a critical call for change. This is what we really mean by consumer culture. Not simply the passive increase in shopping, but the use of brands and slogans to make sense of and make changes to the very heart of society.