The Commodification of Subversion

Smith_Murdoch

Buzzwords like brand equity, brand values and brand ethos can be heard echoing off boardroom walls and be seen sprawled in moleskin mind maps the world over. But are these just benevolent buzzwords or do they translate monetarily across the market?

Increasingly, it seems like the answer is cash money. Not only does a brand’s values and ethos shape office culture and moral but it also gives the consumer something bigger to buy into — a movement they can align themselves with, a cause they can contribute to, or even a mantra they can live by. Idealists see an opportunity to spread a brands mission; cynics see an opening to peddle more products.

Millennial consumers are demanding companies with consciences and transparent transactions. New start ups have led the way in this arena, building brands that care from a non-allergenic clean slate, and corporations like Coca Cola have taken notice. Unable to re-invent themselves, mega brands quietly acquire Innocents to tap into an otherwise unattainable millennial market. But what affect do these new parent companies have on their conscientious subsidiaries? Are start ups making smart business moves or are the simply selling out?

At the time of the acquisition, Innocent Smoothies founder Richard Reed commented, “I genuinely believe that this [Coca Cola acquisition] is not a selling out but a continuation of our work. There will be no change in the commitment to natural healthy food, to sustainability and to giving 10% of our profits to charity.” Of course it is in Coca Cola’s best interest to maintain Innocent’s brand ethos (valued at £1.79 for 250 ml), massaging middle class consciences and allowing rich hippies to elevate themselves above recession strapped Brits who drink, well Coke. But if you think your kiwi, apples and limes smoothie looks murky what happens when brands that pride themselves as subversive ‘sell’ out?

Founded in 1994, Vice magazine (originally known as Voice of Montreal) was initially started as a government funded project to build community welfare. Under the helm of founders Surrosh Alvi, Gavin McInnes and, most notably, current CEO Shane Smith, the mag has evolved from a tax funded youth publication to the established-fuck-the-establishment news empire of Gen Y.

Vice forged new and important ground, reaching apathetic audiences by sharing a common enemy —everyone else. Today, it’s hard to discern if the intentional juxtaposition of gritty investigative news and sensationalist bullshit is authentic or simply a subversive spectacle to distract from its burgeoning empire.

Over recent years, Vice has expanded into digital, music, film, television and books, complete with an in-house advertising agency courtesy of WPP. Still Vice had remained relatively unknown to any one over 35 until Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox bought a 5% stake in a £71m deal, valuing the company at a whopping £1.4bn.

So why didn’t 21st Century Fox just acquire Vice? The simple answer is: because they didn’t need to. As an investor, Murdoch could attain the intangible — the fountain of relevance. Meanwhile, Vice aspires to grow up to be just like dad.

Vice plans to continue growing and will by forming an “unholy alliance that will ensure no other media company will ever stand a chance against Vice’s relentless onslaught.” I couldn’t make Shane Smith sound more like Murdoch. See Newsnight for evidence of Vice’s expansion into established spaces like the BBC.  Smith makes his end game clear; “Vice will be 10 times the size of someone like CNN.”

Again, Murdoch is able to make Smith’s dreams come true. Murdoch has been poised to buy Time Warner, owner of CNN. While he has just withdrawn his $80bn bid for the company, David Folkenflik, NPR media correspondent and author of the book Murdoch’s World, said: “Anyone who thinks that this is the last move in this particular game of chess hasn’t been paying attention.”

Duplicity is only bad business if audiences can see past the subversive spectacle. Companies are successfully commoditising culture by engaging clicktivists on issues of the now and never initiating long term discussion or change. They strike the match and set fire to an issue, dousing the flames with the next raging topic.

In the case of Change.org, activism is governed by funneling users to similar sponsored petitions. Change.org argues that there is no boundary between profit and activism, boasting over 300 paying clients. The same way Vice monetised subversion, Change.org has commodified change by providing charities with a price point for your attention. Whether clicktivists notice they’re advocacy is being regulated or they’re being served an infomercial for Sky Sports is okay, as long as they don’t stop clicking.

Expansion will provide countless consumer touch points ready to monetize engagement. People will be placated with tastemaker status and the revolution — well, there is no revolution. While it is clear millennial consumers care about the appearance of transparency, conscientious products and biodegradable bullshit, it is unclear if they care enough to see past marketing façades.

“Gen Y have the most sophisticated bullshit detectors on earth, so the only way to circumvent the bullshit detectors is to not bullshit.” Maybe, just maybe Shane Smith’s own words will come back to bite him.

7 responses to “The Commodification of Subversion”

  1. I realize a lot of people hate Vice. There’s probably some legitimacy to their arguments. The thing is, while it may be a for-profit organization whose intention is not entirely humanitarian, I think it FAR out-shines media companies like CNN or Fox News who – at this point – do not even show the slightest shame in doing everything they can to protect profits and shut down dissenters.

    Of course Vice isn’t perfect, but as someone who consumes media on a regular basis, I much prefer Vice over others simply because there is SIGNIFICANTLY LESS bullshit.

    You have to be happy with improvement, not angry with imperfection. People need to stop getting so fucking puffed up about things not being EXACTLY how they want.

    Change happens slowly, invest in better but don’t flip out if it’s not the best.

  2. “Vice magazine […] was initially started as a government funded project to build community welfare.”

    Wrong. If you read any interview with Gavin McInnes, the guy who actually gave early Vice its voice, its original mission was to subvert and tell entertaining stories, nothing more, nothing less.

  3. The below sources confirm that Vice, previously known as the Voice of Montreal, was funded by the Canadian government.

    “…Voice of Montreal, a magazine funded by the Canadian government as part of a welfare programme to provide work and promote community service.”
    http://www.theguardian.com/media/2008/mar/30/pressandpublishing.tvandradioarts

    This is confirmed by Gavin McInnes himself in the following interview he gave: http://canadalandshow.com/podcasts/vice-oral-history

  4. @Kaytee Hernandez, you’re still missing it:

    Yup, it was funded indirectly by the Canadian Gov’t, this is true.

    What you’re getting wrong is your conflation of “building community welfare”, which was the mandate of their funders, the Haitian-Montreal non-profit, Images Interculturelles, who wanted to help sponsor an english-language arts-weekly, with what McInnes & Co. had *actually* envisioned from day 1; subverting, sh!t-disturbing, and fashion jokes.

  5. I think the issue is the bigger picture. Conglomerates are buying up their competition to lessen the threat and increase their market share without the hard work to attain the kudos. Thereby creating a state of hemogeny that leaves less competition. In a media context that means there less room for debate and conflicts of interest within a monopoly. The very reason why Murdoch group hasn’t been allowed to take over the world of media to the extent of their intentions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *