Bright Lights Film Journal

What Is Cheaper Than Nothing at All? <em>Czech Dream,</em> Culture Jamming, and Consumerism

“I jam because I am without ID.”

What is happiness like?/What makes a dream full?
How can anything be bright/When the day is so dull?
You see what you want/No need to idealize
Life lasts but a second/So want truth, not lies.
— “Czech Dream Hyper-Anthem”

Directors Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda begin their documentary film Czech Dream (2004) by explaining their intent to “open” a nonexistent “hypermarket,” Czech Dream. They will groom themselves as executives, hire a top-notch ad agency, blanket Prague with playful, and somewhat contradictory, advertising slogans and images promoting the store, and watch anxiously as shoppers arrive on “opening day.” Questions arise. Will the campaign be successful? How will shoppers react when they discover that their promised shopping center with its incredible bargains is nothing more than an enormous canvas façade? Is the fake store just a cruel prank? Most importantly, is the film a cynical condemnation of consumer culture, or a whimsically absurd example of the way the advertising industry can be used against itself? By warping the theories and practices of organized culture jamming, adbusting, and media hoaxing in their film, Klusák and Remunda take an X-ray of not just “the subconscious” of ad campaigns, but also the nature of branded capitalism’s effect on the Czech Republic. Before analyzing the film or noting the ways it contrasts with “traditional” forms of media-focused anti-consumerism, the term “culture jamming” should be examined from a few angles so that the word will make sense when it is used in different contexts.

To optimistic practitioners, culture jamming is a subversive, media-intensive method of not only exposing and curbing consumerism’s destructive effects on cultural and individual identities, but also a way of highlighting its function as an agent of cultural homogeneity, which is necessary for retaining the dominance and power of any Gramscian-styled hegemony. Naomi Klein gives a simpler and more practical definition of culture jamming, calling it “the practice of parodying advertisements and hijacking billboards [“sniping”] in order to drastically alter their messages” (281). If that definition seems too narrow, Klein quotes Mark Dery, one of the first authors on the subject of jamming: “anything, essentially, that mixes art, media, parody and the outsider stance” can be considered culture jamming (283).

If the three previous definitions are joined, a final, general one can be made. The act of jamming creatively exposes the power held by corporations and advertisements over consumers, and/or expresses a message of anti-consumerism by turning corporate media or merchandise against itself or inverting, or at least manipulating, the advertisement’s originally manufactured meaning (directly or indirectly); in this way the jammer regains a bit of power and identity from the steadily expanding, homogenizing blob that is consumerism run amok. Now that the term has been given its meanings, the process of actually jamming and/or organizing a large-scale jamming campaign against corporate ubiquity still needs explanation. A loose generalization of a grassroots culture jamming operation will suffice at this juncture.

Scheduled, worldwide, synchronized campaigns like “Buy Nothing Day” and “Mental Detox Week” are very loosely arranged for the sake of simplicity and announced via Adbusters magazine and its website, but smaller community-based campaigns are possible, and popular, as well. A small culture-jamming campaign usually focuses on a single method of jamming, an example of which is “Buy Everything and Then Return It Day,” instead of attempting to organize many activists into different cells that perform different sniping adbusts. After the organizers set the method and date of the jam, the word of its existence must be spread. Information about the jam is distributed via emails, fliers, and word of mouth. In the best-case scenario, the jam is mentioned or even spotlighted by various local independent media, including ‘zines, free alternative weeklies, underground or “pirate” radio stations, and especially DIY/activist Internet sites. Finally, on the day of the event, those “in the know” buy things at stores and then return them, repeatedly, and after a while they might leave and perform the same jam at a different store. That is the end of the campaign. A culture jam like “Buy Everything and Then Return It Day” is also just an ideologically loaded prank that is performed by many people in different stores on a certain date, and one could argue that it is silly to call minor pranksterism a campaign against bloated consumerism. Although BEaTRI Day jammers do not hijack advertisements during their “attack,” they do turn merchandise against itself, parody the obsessive consumer spirit, and mix performance art and protest. It fits the definition of a culture jam, and it has the characteristics of being an interesting one. However, like many jams, certain flaws bar it from being a truly successful event.

One of the jam’s problems stems from how it announces itself through the media. The independent, and sometimes radical, media that disseminate practical information about culture jams or other “underground” topics are often considered inaccessible to much of mainstream society, which is problematic for the campaign as well as the anti-consumerist movement as a whole. The limited communication options caused by being too far outside of the mainstream can seriously hinder the effectiveness of a culture jam or adbusting event, particularly if few people actually participate on the big day, or if no one except the activists understands the purpose of the event, which is a big problem in this case. The campaign itself promotes a creative, theatrical approach to expressing anti-consumerism — returning store merchandise symbolizes a “rejection” of material overconsumption — but if no one knows that the items are being returned to protest the ad-ridden cultural environment, the cashier and other customers will simply believe that the items themselves are faulty. “Buy Everything and Then Return It Day” is a culture jam as performance art, but it risks resembling bad performance art; an interesting concept that gives hints of its significance before becoming as meaningless as TV commercials.

In fact, culture jammers have been known to wax poetic about their own importance and self-promote as much as actual TV commercials and advertisements testify to the magnificence of their product. Ads are even present in anti-ad magazines. One such magazine, Adbusters, used to sell “culture jammer ‘tool boxes,'” and at one point even sold “T-shirts to coincide with Buy Nothing Day” (Klein 295). On the other hand, culture jamming is much more similar to shopping than selling, in that sometimes the act seems to be performed for its own sake or as a way to define one’s identity. Is culture jamming simply a postmodern, reactionary update of cogito ergo sum, or an active response to Barbara Kruger’s ironic provocation: “I shop therefore I am”? Culture jammers tend to think that we certainly exist, but our identities have been stolen. Culture jammers are tired of shopping for who they are. By hijacking Descartes’ old motto, parodying and manipulating it as if it were an adbusted billboard, a fresher, more accurate motto is created: “I jam because I am without ID.”

One activist quoted in Klein’s book indirectly draws one of the biggest distinctions between the type of culture jamming mentioned above and Czech Dream: media saturation. Says the disillusioned adbuster,

When you’re jamming, you’re sort of playing their [the corporations’] game, and I think ultimately that playing field is stacked against us because they can saturate . . . we don’t have the resources to do all those billboards, we don’t have the resources to buy up all that time, and in a sense, it almost becomes pretty scientific — who can afford these feeds? (297)

The answer is, of course, two film students from FAMU, Prague’s Film and Television School of the Academy of the Performing Arts.

In the most literal sense, Czech Dream depicts how directors Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda utilize a top-quality advertising agency to create an ad campaign around a nonexistent hypermarket in order to examine the advertising world from behind the scenes, and to find out how “people react in the moment that their expectations, built up by advertising, collide with reality” (Pasternak). The film’s directors do not manipulate pre-existing ads or products, but instead film how advertising manipulates consumers. Similarly, the directors do not turn any ads against themselves (they commissioned the ads in the first place), but they turn the marketing machine against itself by using corporate money to fund the majority of the film while documenting the ways in which the same corporations carefully manipulate consumers through advertising. They are culture jamming in every sense, taking “an X-ray of the subconscious of a campaign, uncovering not an opposite meaning but the deeper truth hiding behind the layers of advertising euphemisms” (Klein 282-283). The film ultimately examines the effects of advertising and commercial marketing in the post-socialist country, confronts the uncomfortably unstable “realities” of a people who have been stuck in a state of cultural and political flux for centuries, and reveals the interesting ways in which the threads of “reality” and “image” intertwine, sometimes so tightly that it becomes impossible to tell one from another. Some history of post-1989 Czech marketing and consumer culture must be explained first in order to unravel the reasons why Remunda and Klusák decided to perform the largest culture jam ever seen in Eastern Europe.1

In his short description of life before and after 1989, Pavel Seifter notes a few details that help one realize how powerful Czech Dream is if read as a documentary about consumerism:

Whenever I arrive in Prague these days and see the city encircled by Europe’s biggest hypermarkets, a comparison with the old grey days of Communist Czechoslovakia comes to mind [. . . We used to have a colourless land with everybody waiting to get something they needed or for something to happen. It was a grey place where time got stuck [  . .] slogans [were] everywhere and people [were] standing in queues waiting [. . .] Suddenly, with the velvet revolution in 1989, colour, sound and life broke into the country. Markets, supermarkets and hypermarkets were standard bearers of this new life and more welcome than anyone in the west can probably imagine, because of the freedom and prosperity they symbolised. But where do we find ourselves fifteen shopping years on? (3)

Oddly enough, we find ourselves back in a place where slogans are still everywhere, in the form of advertisements, and people wait in lines outside of stores not to buy food, but to purchase the latest hit album or hot video game system. The overwhelming spirit of consumerism had noticeably invaded the country by 1995. So, by the time the country was around six years old, it had made quite a leap from one political system to another, completely different one. The directors say in an interview, “We were born in an advertisement free country, with Communist propaganda all over the place. And then it turned the other way around. Perhaps the author of the red slogan of the 1980s, ‘Sovetský svaz, mírová hráz (Soviet Union, Dam of Peace)’ creates slogans for sanitary towels and detergent today” (O’Connor 40). In other words, one type of culturally sanctioned manipulation was phased out and a new type took its place. The socialist government controlled propaganda while corporations control advertisements; the driving elements of manipulation and control are essential in both propaganda and ads. “Soviet Union, Dam of Peace” was once propaganda because of its location in time and place. The directors’ notion that the slogan’s author could be writing ad copy today is interesting and plausible.

Consider an ad designed to attract and appeal to young, “hip” women who have only vague recollections of the Socialist regime: “Tampax, Dam of Peace.” The concept is edgy, ironic in its nostalgia, even rebellious. But which newly built, private or corporate owned business should one patronize to buy such a product if other items need to be bought as well, like groceries or stereos? In 1995, the first “hypermarket” opened. The word “hypermarket” itself is indicative of the amazing speed with which the superstores spread across the country. From 1995 to 2003, when Czech Dream was produced, 125 hypermarkets had been built in the Czech Republic (Czech Dream Press Kit). Consumers who could not stop shopping were labeled as addicts, and so a new pathological term was invented for them — “hypermarketománie,” the mania attributed to crazed hypermarket shoppers (Massoumi). For these shopaholics, as they are known in America, life means consuming, nothing more. As mentioned earlier, shopping becomes an end in itself as the consumer is consumed by the store, drifting further and further into the hypermarket aisles, searching for some product that can provide identity or foundation. The search is fruitless, even with ads guiding the way.

Until 1995 or so, the Czech Republic’s citizens were extremely vulnerable to the variety of goods offered by free-market capitalism. In an interview with Andreas Beckmann, Yvonna Gaillyova says that after 1989 shopping

became regarded as a necessary part of freedom. Everyone could buy what they wanted to buy. And so they did.[. . .] At a time when the beginning consumer feels like an Alice in Wonderland among all of the products that are on offer, training them is easy. If the consumers themselves do not know what they need, they are simply told what they need. Their laundry can be cleaner than clean. Their cars can be faster, their skin smoother . . . We have learned the freedom to consume very well.

Consumers were guided by advertisements, of course, and they were trusted as reliable sources of information, perhaps due to the mental fallout left by years of propaganda posters. By the late 1990s, shoppers were much more adept at finding their ways through the free-market maze, advertising was a lucrative industry, and ads were no longer the simple posters and radio announcements of the early years of capitalism. Advertising agencies and the companies employing them used all sorts of tricks to lure customers to their products: flashy designs, bright colors, reverse psychology, etc. Most consumers were savvy to advertising hyperbole by 2003, and no longer were ads considered trustworthy “sources of information,” although some of the older generations trusted them (Beckmann). After discovering that the Czech Dream hypermarket was a façade, an elderly man touchingly says, “I thought the era of lies was over. But it’s not.” No matter, though: as the film shows, advertisers do not lie.

Czech Dream and the ad agency employed by the “hypermarket” of the same name use the techniques all advertisers do in order to “sell” an image without actually lying. In fact, because there was nothing to sell in the first place, the Council for Advertising ruled that Czech Dream was not false advertising (Czech Dream Press Kit). The ad campaign lasted two weeks, and consisted of many anti-shopping slogans (“Don’t Go,” “Don’t Rush,” “Don’t Spend,” etc.), 400 billboards, TV commercials, radio spots, 200,000 flyers, its own ad jingle (called “Hyper-Anthem”), newspaper and magazine ads, and a website (Czech Dream Press Kit). The ads promised ridiculously low prices for all products, but since they were nonexistent, no promises were broken. The “image” of a TV for 500 crowns (around $19 in 2003) can be bought if the consumer really wants one, as a representation is still valid even if it stands for an imaginary product. This campaign is most certainly a culture jam, but it is much more extensive and impressive than most. Instead of taking over or altering a specific company’s ad space, they take over and alter as much general ad space as possible. This actually jams the ad culture by preventing other companies from buying 400 billboard spaces for two weeks. The only problems that the directors could have run into would be other adbusters jamming the ads or a leak publicly announcing the “surprise” alluded to in the campaign’s ads.

In fact, a leak did occur during filming when some journalists exposed Czech Dream as a film project and not a hypermarket, but one of Klusák and Remunda’s PR agencies reacted quickly to defuse the situation. Using a strategy based on reverse psychology and exaggeration, Remunda says that the agency agreed when the media told potential consumers not to attend the grand opening, as the statement “Don’t Come” was already part of the ad campaign; when journalists accused the campaign of costing hundreds of thousands of crowns, the agency reported that it actually cost millions of crowns (Coover 66). Thus, the PR firm turned potentially disastrous media coverage into an attention-grabbing marketing tool.

According to the directors, nearly 75% of the film’s budget came from companies who were told that their logos would be in the film credits; the idea of being connected to such a controversial hoax actually enticed them (O’Connor 38-39).2 Obviously believing the old dictum that “any publicity is good publicity,” the companies felt that the film’s inevitable scandal would ensure an expansion in name recognition. The directors note: “Even though we intended to offer a product that did not exist, create a misleading campaign, betray thousands of people and produce an almost inhuman scandal, the companies still wanted to be involved – just as long as they were guaranteed media coverage” (Sullivan). The directors can safely distance themselves from the corporations, though. For one thing, the companies only knew that the hypermarket did not exist, and that controversy would erupt, expanding the “advertising effect”; aspects of anti-consumerism were not mentioned (when the corporations finally caught on to the film’s subversive nature they tried to stop it from getting distributed (Coover 67)). Further, the filmmakers have to involve themselves with these businesses for in order to understand the subjects and portray them clearly. In other words,

In order to fulfil their old critical duty towards the society, the artists have to look for new strategies [. . .] they have to acquire the system, identify with it and occupy it as thoroughly as their own house. If they treated the system ironically or passed moral judgments over it, no one would believe them. Only when the artists control the system and seemingly totally identify themselves with it, they can uncover its obscene basis. At the same time they put the viewers in a situation that requires his or her critical attitude. They do not answer their questions, but ask them. (Ševcíkovi)

The question the filmmakers ask before the “start” of the film: “You are probably asking yourself: Why are we doing this? We hope, at the end of the film you will know why.” By the end we do. The audience has to join the directors and keep silent as they wander about the advertising factory and observe machines of control that could have come from a cyber-punk novel. The audience has to be with the directors at all times even as the knowledge dawns on them that they are passively watching a film, which is by nature a manipulation of images, about the manipulations that take place every day one sees an ad on the tram or passes a billboard. The audience is forced to realize that they are not only watching a movie, they are watching a documentary, a film designed for the express purpose of influencing its audience under the pretext of informing them. This sounds familiar.

Quite simply, the reason the two students made the film was not to point fingers at the manipulators, or to expose the “evil” behind the scenes of the advertising world, but “to show that advertising works on the basis of the consumer’s constant participation” (Kosík). The word participation can mean, among other things, passivity. The film can only be understood when the audience realizes that they, too, are being manipulated. Like the hopeful shoppers at the end of the film, we put our trust in these two grad students. Unlike those shoppers, the discovery of the façade is not a revelation; the extents to which our muscles grow tense as we passively, pathetically watch them discover the façade, this indicates our revelation. These consumers have been fooled, but they are not necessarily fools. If anything, many of them have gained knowledge by realizing their role in the hoax. The tricked shoppers do not stand still and passive after wandering through the entrance of the fake hypermarket’s canvas scaffolding, they react to the situation: some argue ferociously, some laugh at the absurdity of the situation and decide to have some fun outdoors before leaving, and some decide to vote “NO!” to entering the EU, in direct opposition to the government’s own ubiquitous ads which read, simply, “YES!” The dream was false, the bubble burst, but the duped shoppers wake up. That is the jam.

The last scenes of the film indicate the near impossibility of resisting corporate noise for long, as Czech Dream hypermarket ads are taken down and replaced with ads for cigarettes and credit cards. The adbust can only last for so long, it seems. Although “it is important to remind society that billboards are not a natural part of nature,” Remunda says, there remains a feeling that nothing can be done to control the corporate machine (Coover 68). While the machine may not be able to be controlled, it can be understood. Czech Dream is not a cynical or cruel film, but an uplifting one because it gives consumers and film-goers a backstage pass to the world of advertising and allows them the opportunity to reflect on the ways the industry manipulates their desires. Czech Dream is unlike any other adbust or culture jam because it offers more than simple parody, more than short-lived rebellion, more than an anti-identity. It offers a healthy skepticism, a simple way to escape from the kung-foo grips of consumer culture and the ad industry. As the children sing in “Czech Dream Hyper-Anthem:” “Life lasts but a second/ So want truth, not lies.”

Works Cited

Beckmann, Andreas. “Freedom to Consume.” Central Europe Review. 1.8 Aug. 16, 1999. Accessed Jan. 21, 2009.

Coover, Roderick. “Czech Dream in a Capitalist Republic: An Interview with Czech Film-maker Filip Remunda.” Film International. 5.3 (2007): 63-68.

Czech Dream. Press Kit. 2005. Taskovski Films Ltd. Accessed Jan. 21, 2009.

Klein, Naomi. No Logo. London: Harper Perennial, 2005.

Kosík, Antonín. “So Does Parsley Weep? Does Basil Laugh?” Czech Dream. Nov. 2, 2004. Czech Television. Accessed Jan. 22 2009.

Massoumi, Naz. “Supermarket Sweep.” Socialist Review. June 2005. Accessed Jan. 21, 2009.

O’Connor, Coilin. “The Czech Dream That Wasn’t.” New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs. 6.3 (Autumn 2004): 38-41.

Pasternak, Petra. “Stunt Fools Hypermarket Shoppers.” The Prague Post. June 19, 2003. Czech Television. 21 Jan. 2009.

Seifter, Pavel. “The Czech Dream?” Open Democracy. Apr. 21, 2005. openDemocracy Ltd. Accessed Jan. 21, 2009.

Ševcíkovi, Jana and Jirí. “Czech Dream: A Post-Socialist Hypermarket.” Czech Dream. Dec. 2005. Czech Television. Accessed Jan. 21, 2009.

Sullivan, Chris. “Hoax Movie That Horrified a Nation.” Oct. 5, 2006. Accessed Jan. 20, 2009.

  1. Czech Dream has been called a hoax, a sociological experiment, a “provocumentary,” and a “documockmentary,” among other things. As far as I know, though, it has not yet directly been referenced as a culture jam or an adbust, even though it was and is still screened with the film Culture Jam (2001), and is often included in programs of anti-consumerism cinema screenings. []
  2. Aside from the corporate funding, Czech Dream received money from the Fund for the Support and Development of Czech Cinematography, Czech Television, and FAMU. Since these are public institutions, many of the articles written about the film in the Czech Republic focused on the government’s financial support of Czech Dream and debated whether it was an appropriate use of tax money. Similarly, no one can seem to agree on how many prospective “customers” showed up at the fake hypermarket — figures are cited variously that less than 1,000 came, others say more than 4,000. The factuality of the Czech Dream website’s trailer, which shows the tricked consumers chasing and beating the filmmakers, has also been disputed by viewers, although the way the trailer is filmed prohibits the scene from being anything but staged. The trailer is not actively connected to the film as being real or even in the movie. The trailer is simply listed as “Trailer.” Directly underneath “Trailer” is another video clip, called “The Scene from the Film,” and it is indeed in the film and not staged. The juxtaposition of the generic “Trailer” and the directly referential “The Scene from the Film” strongly implies that the website is continuing the legacy of the film by offering image and reality to the audience and consumer, without commenting on any difference between the two. Remunda states in an interview that the “Trailer” was indeed staged for the film’s promotional campaign (Coover 67). []