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The Commodification of Occupy Wall Street | The Nation

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Allison Kilkenny

Allison Kilkenny

Budget wars, activism, uprising, dissent and general rabble-rousing.

The Commodification of Occupy Wall Street

Well, it was inevitable. No person, cause, or movement is capable of existing in America for very long before some entrepreneuring pioneer comes along and tries to slap dollar signs on him/her/it.

The commodification of Occupy Wall Street has arrived, but before we delve into how exactly the movement is now being exploited by corporate interests, let’s back up to how Americans are conditioned to think about social upheavals, in general.

From the get-go, the media assists in the commodification of movements by conditioning its audience to think of rebellions as brands. Part of this stems from a desire for convenient titles. Repeating “Tunisian uprising,” risks accusations of staleness, whereas “Jasmine Revolution” not only sounds pretty but creates the sexy image of a romantic kind of revolution in the audience’s minds.

See also: the Rose Revolution, Iran’s Green Revolution, Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution, etc. One can almost picture these revolutions neatly boxed, complete with colorful slogans splashed across fronts, and sold in some American store aisle.

Americans then “participate” in the upheaval just as they participate in American Idol or Dancing With the Stars. They watch the revolution on television, or if they’re super-engaged, tweet about it, complete with hashtag and tailored avatar, expressing their undying support of the show, er, revolution.

Occupy Wall Street is obviously different because it entails Americans’ (albeit a tiny fraction of the population) actually participating in the uprising. However, OWS has not been able to avoid its own brush with commodification.

It began as it always does with pre-existing merchants trying to capitalize on the popularity of the movement. NYC’s vendors suddenly appeared at Liberty Park as if they grew from the ground, selling “I heart NYC” T-shirts, baseball caps, mugs, etc. The food carts set up shop nearby the revolution in order to capitalize on the increased foot traffic. But these are strategies utilized by almost all small businesses, and they make good sense given their situations. On the spectrum ranging from “opportunistic” to “evil,” these businesses remain safely on the opportunistic side of things.

The second phase involves merchandizing. All of a sudden, “Occupy Wall Street” T-shirts and hoodies emerged, some the official merch of the movement with all proceeds benefiting the cause, while others benefited anonymous parties. I observed one very clever merchant set up shop nearby Liberty with only his best Che Guevara and Bob Marley wares to sell. He certainly understood his market.

The full-blown commodification comes later when corporate suits finally catch on (because it always takes them a bit longer to process this stuff) that, gee, folks sure do seem drawn to this OWS business.

MTV is the first major network to fully understand how popular OWS is among young people. The network announced Monday that its O Music Awards will honor Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello with an award created specifically in response to the “music spontaneity, artistry, and virility of the Occupy Wall Street performances”—or “Most Memorable #OWS Performance.”

So here we have a major celebrity being awarded a “Most Memorable #OWS Performance” trophy by a huge corporation owned by another huge corporation, Viacom, as thousands of protesters protest corporate greed. MTV, and by extension Viacom, then reap the rewards of understanding popular culture, specifically OWS, by capturing the audience’s attention and securing more ad sales featuring other major corporate products.

I wish the evilness ended there, but this is MTV, so…

Bunim/Murray Productions, the agency responsible for MTV’s Real World franchise, appears to be ready to start casting for Real World Occupy Wall Street. The ad first appeared on Craiglist, seeking “cast members to tell their unique stories on our show.”

MTV also announced plans to air a special episode of its “True Life” series that will take viewers “deep inside” the OWS movement to “capture the day-to-day realities of the protesters, and uncover some of the motivations that continue to drive them.”

The episode will profile three protesters: James, an artist, and Kait Cornell and Caitlin Connelo, best friends and Pace university students. One is reminded of Real World casting: the cheerleader, the black dude, the gay guy. These roles become more like characters we expect to behave a certain way rather than true-life protagonists in a compelling documentary.

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I’m sure there are some out there who believe this kind of exposure is good for OWS—that it will raise the movement’s profile and expose more youth to its message. And that might be true, but the more likely outcome is that youth will begin to consume OWS as they do every other facet of their entertainment experiences. Most people don’t run out and sign up for dance classes after watching Dancing with the Stars. Some might, but more often, Americans fulfill their need for arts and culture by watching others do the art and experience the culture for them.

Previously, Americans were known for protesting vicariously via Twitter or online petitions. OWS is so tremendously exciting because it is a return to direct action, and MTV’s commodification of the experience runs the risk of inverting that which makes OWS so successful. Rather than engage, young people may just remain on the couch, operating under the false assumption that they’re participating by watching from afar.

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