Shilling for 'The Man,' for Your Art

Anne Elizabeth Moore's 'Unmarketable' Explores the Controversy Behind Underground Artists Who Become Brand Ambassadors

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For years marketers have gone spelunking into underground culture in search of artists, musicians and other assorted scenesters to enlist as collaborators.

The reasons for this exploration are simple: to tap new audiences in a fragmented marketplace and, often more important, imbue their brands with a frisson of cool.

It's a mutual arrangement that seems to work for everyone: Marketers get hipster cachet, artists get paid -- maybe even enough to buy some health insurance.

And yet, something within the avant-gardist persona associates these partnerships with "The Man" with fear, shame and often resentment. Why is that, and are these feelings justified?

Anne Elizabeth Moore sheds light on the artist as marketing medium in "Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing, and the Erosion of Integrity." It's a cri de couer against the varied tactics of modern marketing -- word of mouth, guerilla street campaigns, underground collaboration -- and the complicity of alternative culture in the whole endeavor.

"The problem is not that marketing strategists have managed to convince dirty punks and radical activists the world over to shill for their products; it is that the way we experience marketing has changed so fundamentally that DIY enthusiasts could shill for corporate-made products," writes Moore, a zinester and one-time editor of the magazine Punk Planet (now defunct, though its book imprint lives on).

"Unmarketable" takes a close-up look at some corporate marketing campaigns that have enlisted underground support, including Tylenol's Ouch! effort, the Yaris DIY campaign and the hipster outreach program for "Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith." Moore also investigates Nike's appropriation of imagery from an album cover by legendary hardcore punk band Minor Threat without permission.

The book has its share of problems. It's jargon-heavy ("heteronormativity," anyone?) and the analysis occasionally leans toward the dramatic. ("I saw 'Star Wars: Episode III--Revenge of the Sith' because I was raised in a media environment saturated with Star Wars imagery that dictated I care how the series concluded.") Moore's argument that underground artists risk losing "integrity" if they cooperate with marketers is unlikely to win over people who don't already agree.

(Moore neglects to mention how the punk movement owes more than a little bit to a canny U.K. capitalist named Malcolm McLaren, former manager of the Sex Pistols. Also, the book doesn't entertain the notion that media-savvy citizens, artists and audiences alike may have no problem with a favorite artist doing something to get paid to support artier, more personal projects.)

That said, Moore is an often perceptive writer who deserves attention. Her critical eye extends not only toward marketers but critics of the marketing industry itself. For instance, while some activists embrace "culture jamming" -- the parodic use of brand logos or slogans -- to critique consumerism, Moore points out this tactic may actually just reinforce the power and prominence of the brand.

It's always good to get an understanding of how those not in the business view modern marketing techniques. Marketers may see a word-of-mouth effort as passé. But more than a few consumers find it discomfiting that collaborators might have commercial motives -- even if it's only receiving free stuff -- to talk up brands in conversation.

Moore does an excellent job of describing how companies in collaboration with artists sometimes fall short on their end of the deal. Compensation for the partnered talent may barely amount to minimum wage (by Moore's calculations). Promises of long-term project support may fall through. We're offered the story behind the Autumn Bowl, a skateboard park in Brooklyn, N.Y., born out of a $30,000 "seed grant" from McNeil to promote Tylenol's Ouch! campaign. David Mimms, owner of Autumn Skateshop and the mind behind construction of the Bowl, claims friends and he put up thousands of dollars of their own money to complete the park despite McNeil's assurances of additional funding. According to Moore, the funding never arrived. To Mimms' frustration, the park is still known by locals as the "Tylenol Bowl."

So far marketers haven't paid a price for their shortcuts. But with the proliferation of blogs and social media -- many of the events described in the book took place three or more years ago, a lifetime ago in user-generated-media years -- outrage over a misstep can quickly fan into a conflagration of blowback. Recall how a supposedly un-shockable public reacted to Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" during the telecast of Super Bowl XXXVIII. If offended, the underground can be much more unforgiving than the mainstream.

The bottom line from the book (though likely not one Moore intends for her readers to depart with): If you're going to work with underground artists, do it with integrity. And make sure you pay them fairly.
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