Reading and Revolution in Media Sniping

Joseph Reagle Jr.

All photographs used with permission: the Napster photograph is from, all other photographs are from .


Napster photo by In September 2003, at the onset of Napster's relaunch as a reformed and legal music service, it apparently reverted to its subversive roots with a new advertising campaign. Stickers, with Napster's logo of a cat wearing headphones and the text "It's coming back," were affixed to other companies' billboards. As reported in the article Uncovering the Napster Kitty Ads, "Hijacking billboards is a practice known as 'sniping,' and is more commonly associated with punk bands or culture jammers than with a software company like Roxio, which owns the Napster brand now." (Kahney 2003)

However, as I will further discuss, these stickers were not what they appeared to be. This paper considers the co-option of underground graffiti (including tagging, stickers, sniping and stencils) by advertisers in the context of the critical media theory of Baudrillard and Hall.

Communicating meaning

britney violatedIn Encoding/Decoding, Stuart Hall argues that communication entails the translation of a historical event into a story as part of the communicative event. Just as a "'raw' historical event cannot, in that form, be transmitted by, say, a television newscast" (Hall 1992:130), Napster's relaunch required transposition into a message form . For Roxio, this transposition had to capture Napster's former edginess –though beyond its name the new service has little in common with its famed predecessor.

Hall's model of communication is most easily understood via its two cardinal points: an encoding of a message by a sender which is then decoded by the recipient. "In a determinate moment the structure employs a 'code' and yields a 'message'; at another determinate moment the 'message', via its decodings, issues into the structure of social practices." (Hall 1992:130) Of course, the contextual meaning structures of the sender's and receiver's social and economic relations are not identical. "What are called 'distortions' or 'misunderstandings' arise precisely from the lack of equivalence between two sides of the communication exchange." (Hall 1992:131) Obviously, much of the intended meaning might be perceived if there is a sharing of codes between the sender and recipient, some of which are so common, achieving a near-universality, that they become naturalized (Hall 1992:132). Hall uses this model to note that the terms connotation and denotation are best thought of as the degree to which a code is shared (fixed) within a community of social practice. Consequently, these terms (connotation and denotation) serve a useful descriptive purpose but do not presume an innate or a priori embedding of meaning.

In Encoding/Decoding , Hall was focusing his analysis on television. Consequently, he was most concerned with a homogeneous and presumptive structure of a mass media:

The different areas of social life appear to be mapped out into discursive domains, hierarchically organized into "dominant" or "preferred meanings"... We say "dominant" not "determined", because it is always possible to order, classify, assign and decode an event within more than one "mapping". But we say "dominant" because there exists a pattern of "preferred readings"; and these both have institutional/political/idealogical order imprinted in them and have themselves become institutionalized. (Hall 1992:134)

The Napster stickers appearing on other advertisements contain their own sort of meaning: subversion of the original advert and exclusivity. Hall's model accommodates these additional sorts of readings:

Negotiated decoding contains a mix of adaptive and oppositional elements: it acknowledges the legitimacy of the hegemonic definitions to make the grand signficiations (abstract), while, at a more restricted, situational (situated) level, it makes its own grown rules... (Hall 1992:137)
[In an "oppositional decoding"] He/she detotalizes the message in the preferred code in order to retotalize the message within some alternative framework of reference. (Hall 1992:138)

Consequently, recognition of the sticker is a wink and a nudge to those sufficiently "Net savvy" to recognize the Napster logo, a presumed non-dominant decoding, and to those that appreciate the edginess of the graffiti advertising, a presumed oppositional decoding.

During the Internet bubble and the eager competition for technical expertise, colleagues and I encountered a billboard by an employment agency soliciting Web programmers. The whole of the ad was written in the computer scripting language Perl, saying something akin to "for opportunities, send resume file to a list of the clients of the employment agency." This public billboard was comprehensible to only a fraction of the population, but done in such a way to immediately appeal to their sense of expertise and "eliteness." Clearly, these codes are not that of the dominant reading. However, is this billboard or the Napster sticker really an oppositional decoding if their encoded with that intent? To what extent is graffiti subversive?

The Revolutionary Significance of Graffiti

Cultural critics such as Umberto Eco and Jean Baudrillard have become frustrated with the inability to engage mass media on its terms. Consequently, they've advocated that codes of interpretation be tweaked, "To summarize his [Umberto Eco's] position: changing the contents of the message served no purpose; it is necessary to modify the readings of the codes, to impose other interpretive codes." (Baudrillard 1986:140) In fact, to trash the whole discursive exchange is one of the few options of transgression still available:

One example can illustrate Eco's perspective: the graffiti reversal of advertising after May '68. Graffiti is transgressive, not because it substitutes another content, another discourse, but simply because it responds there, on the spot, and breaches the fundamental role of non-response enunciated by all the media. Does it oppose one code to another? I don't think so: it simply smashes the code. It doesn't lend itself to deciphering as a text rivaling commercial discourse; it presents itself as transgression. So, for example, the witticism, which is a transgressive reversal of discourse, does not act on the basis of another code as such, it works through the instantaneous deconstruction of the dominant discursive code. It volatilizes the category of the code, and that of the message. (Baudrillard 1986:140)

liberationMany of the graffiti slogans appearing in Paris in May of 1968 echoed this very sentiment, "No replastering, the structure is rotten," "Politics is in the streets," and "We must remain unadapted." Of course, much of the graffiti was self-reflexive, taking on a strident self-regulatory tone, warning against inauthenticity and sell-outs. Ironically, one such slogan was a quote from Napoleon that exemplified the danger of profiteers, "In revolution there are two types of people: those who make it and those who profit from it." Indeed, this last slogan appears almost prescient of the Napster stickers, except that the revolution had already been co-opted. Twenty years prior, Adorno noted that the seemingly authentic form of graffiti was being used for advertising:

For a while, an English brewery used for propaganda purposes a billboard that bore a deceptive likeness to one of those whitewashed brick walls which are so numerous in the slums of London and industrial cities of the North. Properly placed, the billboard was barely distinguishable from a real wall. On it, chalk-white, was a careful imitation of awkward writing. The words said: 'What we want is Watney's.' The brand of beer was presented like a political slogan. (Adorno 1982:287)

Again, how then should we read the Napster sticker?

Another Layer: The Snipes Are Legal

peace love linuxIn 2001 I noted the first stencils of "Peace, Love and Linux" appearing on the sidewalks of San Francisco. As an advocate of Linux, and fan and photographer of some forms of graffiti, I was excited to see my "underdog" operating system coupled with an "underground" discourse. However, unlike the ubiquitous "Andre Has a Posse" phenomena designed by Shepard Fairey and deployed by hundreds of individuals, this was the campaign of the advertising firm of Ogilvy & Mather on behalf of IBM. When municipalities began to complain, IBM denied specific knowledge and Ogilvy & Mather claimed that they had used biodegradable markings. When the stencils failed to fade, IBM apologized and paid San Francisco $100,000 in fines and $20,000 in clean up costs (Lemos 2001). (The question of impermanence is often associated with public graffiti. At my undergraduate college it was common for student organizations to chalk information and slogans throughout the campus, until a group cast a slogan suggesting that all heterosexual men were rapists in indelible paint.)

cambridge poster young bloodFortunately for Napster, they are one of many companies to have learned from Watney's and IBM's innovations and mistakes: the defaced posters aren't real. Instead, they are "subtle parodies featuring companies like Gour-Mutt, a gourmet dog food company, or Drop 'n' Go, a child day-care center." (Kahney 2003) In the past few years, Microsoft, Nissan, and Radiohead have all effected this form of representation. Napster has been more clever by not "defacing" every parody poster and using real stickers – leading many to rip them off as collectibles which are then replaced by the agency. Radiohead avoided the sticker/stencil medium and instead deployed a provocative photocopied flier akin to a roommate or band member ad, "Hungry, sick, begging for a break? Sweet, fresh, would you do anything? We suck young blood; we want sweet meats, we want young blood." Attached to the bottom of the flier were rip-off tabs with a phone number that played recorded songs from their latest album.

Reading and Revolution

don't fear technology The "revolutionary" import of defacing ads is now suspect. It's become yet another popular media subject to commercial exploitation. Like many adverts in the New York subway, Captain Morgan Rum adverts have magic marker mustaches drawn onto the photogenic models. The difference? These posters came from the printing agency like that: "Captain Morgan was here." Sub-cultures will find new approaches, and advertising will follow closely on their heels. Baudrillard was suspect of the revolutionary import of the 1968 French media coverage, "but transgression and subversion never get 'on the air' without being subtly negated as they are: transformed into models, neutralized into signs, they are eviscerated of their meaning. There is no model of transgression, prototypical or serial. Hence, there is no better way to reduce it than to administer it a mortal dose of publicity." (Baudrillard 1986:132) Baudrillard was right in principle, but too optimistic in his view of graffiti, his mistake was not to have realized that the relevance of graffiti had been weakened twenty years prior by Watney's beer, and, would again, thirty years in the future by guerrilla marketing.

Graffiti is not immune to co-option. According to Hall, it is incorrect to consider any popular cultural form as wholly corrupt or authentic. Cultural forms are not coherent, "they are deeply contradictory; they play on contradictions, especially when they function in the domain of the 'popular'." (Hall 2002:188) How then, should one read popular culture of graffiti and sniping? Hall refuses the definition of popular culture in which the members of the public are all dupes living in false consciousness. And, a descriptive understanding of popular culture that is simply "all of that which the people do" is so encompassing as to be useless and ignores the tensions between the constituent forces of popular culture. Instead, in Notes on Deconstructing 'The Popular', he offers a definition of popular culture that is apt to our question:

It [Hall's approach to popular culture] treats the domain of cultural forms and activities as a constantly changing field. Then it looks at the relations which constantly structure this field into dominant and subordinate foundations. It looks at the process by which these relations of dominance and subordination are articulated. It treats them as a process: the process of which some things are actively preferred so that others can be dethroned. (Hall 2002:189)

stencil bush obeyGraffiti, sniping, and guerrilla marketing are now all tactics of communication cut of the same cloth: none of which is intrinsically subversive. Some use graffiti for advertising, others for independent expression, and others for subversion. The relevance and effect of their content is dependent on how it is decoded, which is dependent on their discursive context and novelty. As Hall states " Yesterday's rebellious subculture is today's commercial pap and today's pap can become the basis for tomorrow's culture of resistance." (Hall 2002:185)


Adorno, Theodor. "On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening." 1982. Pp. 270-299 in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader. New York, NY: Continuum.

Baudrillard, Jean. "Requiem for the Media." 1986. Pp. 124-143 in Video Culture. Layton, Utah: Peregrine Smith.

Hall, Stuart. "Encoding/Decoding." 1992. Pp. 128-138 in Culture, Media, Language. London, UK: Routeledge.

Hall, Stuart. "Notes on Deconstructing 'The Popular'." 2002. Pp. 185-192 in Cultural Resistance Reader. London, UK: Verso.

Kahney, Leander. Uncovering the Napster Kitty Ads. 2003.,1412,60525,00

Lemos, Robert. IBM gets $100,000 fine for 'Peace, Love and Linux' campaign. .,39020