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Commerce Jamming

And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers’ money, and overthrew the tables; and said unto them that sold doves, “Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise.”

— the gospel according to John

Ever since Jesus tangled with the moneychangers in the temple there’s been a sense that the marketplace is a legitimate target for abuse, ridicule and subversion. (And ever since the crucifixion, there’s been a backlash.)

One-upping Jesus was the hack of a more recent Jewish troublemaker, Abbie Hoffman, who used the greed of Wall Street against itself — showering dollar bills onto the trading-room floor and watching the brokers claw through each other to get at the cash. Only one picture of that event has survived, and it’s the one that’s going to be in your mind when you hear the phrase “guerrilla theater.”

Nowadays they’ve installed barriers to keep the riff-raff away from the stock exchange, but that doesn’t make it much harder to hack the ticker. In 2003, the comedian Gallagher snuck onto the floor at the NYSE and smashed a watermelon over the head of one of the traders.


The folks who gave us gatt.org, a parody World Trade Organization site, managed to so faithfully mimic the modest proposals of organized capitalism that they were once mistaken for the real thing.

The Conference on International Services in Salsburg, Austria invited a speaker from gatt.org to make a presentation at their Session on International Trade in 2000. The offer was accepted and hilarious hijinks ensued.

Dr. Bichlbauer” gave a confusing PowerPoint presentation and then was pied by anti-WTO activists.

The same group, or a similar one anyway, was mistakenly invited to send a speaker to an international textiles conference. They sent Hank Hardy Unruh. “Hank argued that the U.S. Civil War (after which slavery became illegal) was a useless waste of time and resources, because slavery (imported labor) would have eventually been replaced by the much cheaper system of remote labor — like we have in sweatshops today.”

That lecture ended with a confederate ripping off Hank’s business suit to reveal the “Management Leisure Suit” of the future — a comically phallic virtual panopticon in vivid gold.


A group calling itself Whirl-Mart infests the halls of commerce with site-appropriate dance:

The ritual consists of interested humans arriving at a predetermined Wal-Mart at 12 noon on the first Sunday of every month and proceeding to push empty shopping carts slowly and silently through the aisles. Eventually, all of the participants locate one another and form a single-file chain of anti-shoppers which weaves, wanders, and whirls throughout the different departments of the store for about an hour. Overall, it is a soothing and fun experience for the actors, and perhaps a memorable spectacle for shoppers. It is a collective reclamation of space that is otherwise only used for buying and selling. It is a symbolic display of the will to resist the capitalist ideology. And, it is a living, breathing, moving, evolving sculpture.


Paul Tourtelle and a number of “fungagement” activists held a party at Ikea stores in both Amsterdam and Paris. In the living rooms that Ikea provides to show off its products, “we introduced our own decorations, snacks, booze, music and dozens of guests (some of whom came dressed up). The party in Amsterdam continued for an hour, as staff thought it wise to not interfere with us much. In Paris one person was arrested for marihuana use and another for filming the event.”


William “Reverend Billy” Talen uses the model of a streetcorner preacher, the stage of a Disney store or a Starbucks, and a gospel of anticonsumerism to confront money drones and fight for their souls. We could use a hundred more like him.

His site includes scripts that you can use to organize your own actions, such as “Cellphone Opera #1:”

You can use lots of people for this one, and the more the better… each of you is talking on your cellphone. And, each of you has thoroughly researched an issue about this company [Starbucks]. One of you knows about mono-culture coffee farms drenched with pecticides, another knows all about the Fair Trade coffee they hide on the back shelf, another talks about their union-busting, another about booting out longtime local businesses, another about the Starbucks Pres. Making 2 million last year, etc. You can get this info at Global Exchange and Organicconumsers.org

So all ten go into one café at once. Each of you is talking to a wife or a husband or a close friend. In other words, the call is charged emotionally. And, each of you ten people cannot persuade yourself to get the latte-to-go that the person you’re talking to on the cellphone wanted. You were supposed to be running this errand but you are having such a fit of disapproval about this company that you, right there, are deciding to not do it. But the person you are talking to is arguing with you. You raise your voice…


Shopdropping” is like shoplifting, but even more fun. You make your own products or art or what-have-you, and sneak them onto the shelves at stores.

The sniggle artist Banksy shopdropped 500 Paris Hilton CDs in record stores in Britain that “contain Banksy’s remixes and have titles like ‘Why am I Famous?,’ ‘What Have I Done?’ and ‘What Am I For?’”


A web site called re-code.com gives you the tools to print out your own bar-code label stickers with information of your choice — so when you reach the checkout counter, you pay the prices you’ve programmed in. Oooh! That’s dirty pool.


A parody group calling itself the Organization of Corporations Against Coöperation staged a protest against small business and in favor of giant corporations. They picketed a small bookshop with signs saying things like “Size Does Matter” and urged passers-by to patronize instead huge chain bookstores.

The same group later managed to get a branch of one such giant bookstore chain to close for one day — they masqueraded as a pro-corporate taskforce who was monitoring local anti-corporate activity and said that a planned protest might get out-of-hand, recommending that the bookstore close up shop for the day of the protest.


Rob of Cockeyed.com plans to unleash an army of cloned “Safeway Club” cards on the supermarket’s databases. He’s created sheets of duplicate UPC bar-code stickers that people everywhere can affix to their cards so that they all appear to be the same shopper.

Another effort in this direction is Rob’s Giant BonusCard Swap Meet.


The Yes Men put together a creepily-verisimilitudinal public education site for Dow Chemical corporation:

Acceptable Risk™ is a voluntary initiative of Dow to safely predict the precise point at which profitability is threatened by danger to the public. Using our new Acceptable Risk Calculator™ (ARC), we weigh profits against costs in human life or health, thereby involving the public in the decision-making process about whom to put at risk, and where to locate risk globally.

And, with characteristic moxie, they launched the site by impersonating Dow spokesmen and giving a presentation at an international conference in April, 2005.

This sort of thing is old-hat to the Yes Men, who also impersonated “McDonald’s Interactive” to give “an increasingly provocative, funny and weird deadpan PowerPoint presentation” on that company’s new global warming game at a game developers summit, among their many commerce jamming pranks.


Do you want to play a game?

Leigh Beadon has developed a set of games to play at the “Gap” clothing store. There’s something good to see in this idea of converting a forum for consumption into one for recreation.


In 1992, Spy magazine investigated the public relations industry by creating a fake company that wanted to get big selling Bunny Burgers. “All nine of the PR firms we contacted expressed an interest in meeting with us as soon as possible.”


“Wherever printers are sold, you find them: crisp colorful printouts showing the whole palette of a printer’s ability,” report the folks at cockeyed.com. They decided to print up some of their own and place them all official-like at CompUSA, Best Buy and Radio Shack.

Even funnier, they scanned in a helpful guide about how to put a lid on your coffee cup without getting burned from a “Java City” café and made slight modifications to the text: “Begin by placing your hot cup of coffee on a firm, hard surface. Run your fingers slowly around the rim, checking for unusual bumps or swelling,” the instructions begin. The pranksters then laminated their modified versions and substituted them for the originals in various “Java City” locations, where they stayed up for several months.


Do you ever get those things in the mail that look like checks but turn out to be just advertisements? A fellow named Patrick Combs took one down to the bank and deposited it — it resembled a check so much (and may have met the legal requirements for a binding contract of debt) that the bank accepted it. U.S. $95,000 later, someone figured out that something was fishy, but by that time, Combs had gotten a cashier’s check written out and placed in a safe deposit box! Go to his web page to get the details of his adventures.


Taking a cue from the “open source” software movement, the folks at OpenCola have opened the source code (the recipe) for cola — so now anyone can make the stuff without having to subsidize Coke & Pepsi’s advertising campaigns.


Advertisements lie and they don’t even try to be coy about it. The rules about what lies you can tell without being hauled into court for fraud are written to be generous to the liars (when you see who wrote the rules, it’s no big surprise).

It’s the job of the commerce jammer to interrupt pathological, media-simulated social interaction of the sort that you find in advertising. (And if you like that, you’ll probably like speech bubble stickers too.)

For those of you in the parody market, there are a few web sites that display satirical commercials and cereal boxes and such.

Also, Adbusters and subvertise.org take regular aim at the advertising world and the consumer ethic.


Kudos to The Barbie Liberation Organization — they switched the voice chips in Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls and returned them to toy stores in altered form to strike a blow against stereotyped gender roles.

Speaking of which, the Los Angeles Cacophony Society infiltrated a G.I. Joe convention with a G.I. Joe War Atrocity Exhibit.

I don’t know what the makers of Invisible Jim are striking a blow against.


Jonah Peretti has an interesting collection of email exchanged with the Nike shoe people, in which they explain why they’d be unable to grant his wish for personalized “NIKE iD” shoes emblazoned with the word “sweatshop.”


Raphael Gray understands how insecure and vulnerable on-line commercial transactions are, especially those mediated by notoriously sloppy Microsoft products. And he couldn’t understand why nobody else seemed to think it was a big deal. So he decided to dramatize his case.

Over one month in 2000, Gray cracked thousands of insecure e-commerce sites, and then posted the numbers and expiration dates of some 23,000 credit cards on the web.

He even picked up Bill Gates’s credit card number, and used it to order a case of Viagra for the big guy.


Adbusters has been promoting an annual “Buy Nothing Day” as a way to make a stand against consumerism. However, this “perfect feel-good, liberal, middle-class activist non-happening” doesn’t impress one group:

“A day when the more money you make, the more influence you have (like every other day). A day which, by definition, is insulting to the millions of people worldwide who are too poor or marginalized to be considered ‘consumers’…. Well, this year, while the Adbusters cult enjoys yet another Buy Nothing Day, accompanied by their fancy posters, stickers, TV and radio advertisements and slick webpages, a few self-described anarcho-situationists from Montreal’s East End are inaugurating Steal Something Day.”

Another group, the Fanclubbers, have supplemented “Buy Nothing Day” with a Buy Everything and Then Return It Day.


Cacophonists have infiltrated and mocked some of the most beloved idols of the consumer culture, for instance Chuck-E-Cheese.

In one such prank, the Los Angeles Cacophony Society snuck into a Toys‘R’Us and put a selection of labeled, bar-coded, cement-filled teddy bears on the shelves, then stuck around to witness the resulting mayhem.


Here’s one way of making a stand against waste: A group of “fungagement” activists in The Netherlands noticed that people in Amsterdam were always throwing away perfectly good things. In November 1999 the group, calling itself the Institute for Economic Disruption, collected 207 such worthy waste products. Then, they removed price tags from comparable products at the Bijenkorf, a luxury department store, attached the tags to the objects from the garbage, and placed their products up on the shelves to be sold as new.


Marketers themselves aren’t beneath using sneaky and viral techniques to generate buzz, or to deflect criticism.


Some clever musicians-rights advocates are battling MP3-based piracy by spiking on-line distributed music databases with MP3 files they call “cuckoo’s eggs” that are named as though they were reproductions of copyrighted songs but which actually contain other sounds.

See the Evolution Controlled Creations page for more interesting Napster hacks.


When a telemarketer calls, it’s only humane to try to transmogrify the encounter into something just a little more fun. Then again, there’s something to be said for simple revenge.

And, speaking of rude panhandling, no billboard should escape being forced to uncover its ugliness or ours. (However, some billboards seem to need no help…)


A junkmail-sick fellah named Charlie writes: “I have it (on fairly good authority) that the best (worst) thing you can do to a junk mailer is send back those postage paid envelopes with an oz. or so of the ‘sparkles’ you can get in most craft shops. They are stick tenaciously to everything, including the scan heads of the mail sorters, and jam up the works. Word has it that it takes about ½ hour to clean up after this happens.”

When “spam king” Alan Ralsky was profiled in a press account, spam victims took advantage of his indiscreet hubris. They uncovered his street address and signed him up for every junkmail list they could find. This was so successful that the vengeance-minded are starting to develop automated denial-of-service-like attacks using the U.S. post office.


A bunch of angry Canadians going by the name “L’Anti-Noël Avant le Temps” sent letters to Montreal shopkeepers warning them to take down their too-early Christmas decorations and leave them down until at least December first, or face the consequences, which included vandalism and further “well written, poetic” threats.


Things that aren’t actually for sale, but have been promoted by pranksters nonetheless include Microsoft’s Windows for Macintosh, such plants as Common Dickweed and Heinous Welsh Squash, well designed weapons, cyber dildos, and pure, uncut cocaine.


Creative use of email chain-letters is showing a great deal of promise — one promised that for each pair of used tennis shoes that you send in to Nike, they’ll send you back a brand new pair. Last I heard, Nike had 500 boxes of old shoes that they didn’t particularly want.

Someone else sent out email to 25,000 customers of the Safeway grocery store chain, appearing to be email from Safeway, warning the recipients of huge price increases, and suggesting that they shop elsewhere.


A particularly wicked hack was Luther Blissett’s parody of the archetype of poisonous product tampering — instead of putting rat poison in children’s candy, he bought packages of rat poison, replaced the poison with candy, sealed up the packages and put them back on the shelf.


What do you do when some scam artist tries to trick you into sending ’em the powerbook computer you’re auctioning off on eBay in return for some improbably large amount of money being held by a phony escrow service? Well, if you’re foolish or inexperienced, you fall for it. If you weren’t born yesterday, you ignore it or report it to eBay’s enforcement arm.

If you’re Jeff Harris, you enlist a crack team of internet sleuths to track the scammer back to his den, and then you ship him a fake p-p-p-powerbook made out of some keys from a broken keyboard pasted to the inside of a white three-ring binder — and make him pay the postage and customs charges!


Enjoying “Second Life”? You should see First Life!


The workplace, degrading and soul-suffocating as it so often is, has become a favorite place for sabotage Entertaining tales are common of employees who get even with worthless supervisors, or who play pranks just to disrupt the tedium.


If you’re thinking of getting involved in commerce jamming, you should check out the folks at ®TMark. They are sponsoring a number of interesting commerce jamming projects, and even claim to provide funding for creative hacks and creative career counselling for employees whose pranks have gotten them fired.

Patrick Combs
Patrick Combs

Unruh’s Invention
Unruh’s Invention

Odd Plants
Odd Plants

The BLO at work
The BLO at work

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On This Day in SniggleryAugust 22, 2000: California Secretary of State Bill Jones issues a press release warning that anyone who uses voteauction.com “is guilty of a felony and will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.” (See Election Hacks for more political shenanigans)