Appropriation of an Occupation

Corporate appropriation. It happens to every subculture, movement, and edifying idea in America. This time the corporate entity forging to capitalize is Viacom’s MTV and their new product is Occupy Wall Street.

MTV's not the first to capitalize off of OWS. Shortly after the occupation began several venders set up shop in Liberty Square. Some merely moved their carts a few blocks closer to the camp and began selling food, scarves and products the protesters were in need of. Then came the official OWS garb and merchandise available for sale with the proceeds going back to the movement. Next entered the venders selling Che T-shirts, incense and other memorabilia aimed directly at the demographic of OWS. (If you haven't noticed, the Internet is also dredged in OWS merchandise.)

Now Bunim/Murray Productions, the agency responsible for MTV’s "Real" World franchise, has decided to take the commodification up a notch running a casting call on Craigslist for Real World Occupy Wall Street.

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

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The episode is set to profile three protesters: an artist named James, as well as students and BFF’s, Kait Cornell and Caitlin Connelo. Like the Real World before it the casting is a conglomerate of caricatures. Typically there's the bipolar gay guy, the preppy girl living outside her comfort zone, and the dude just looking to score. Although those stereotypes will probably be saved for Real World Occupy Wall Street  the unemployed college grad, the struggling but sympathetic artist, or the good willed but angry hippy/revolutionist, will surely be able to be molded and packaged as an imitative cultural commodity perfect for True Life. It's safe to bet that after two decades of Real World casting MTV isn't going to change its model now. It’s also doubtful that Occupy Wall Street will be presented in a respectable documentary format. Will we see police brutality or hear any deeper political or economic analysis? Probably not. Legitimate documentaries are not what sells, more importantly, they're not what sells ad space to other companies wishing to make a buck off OWS.

Some people may think that the coverage will be good for OWS.  There may be a glint of truth to that, however once the masses start consuming the movement like other facets of entertainment they will begin to eat it from the outside.

In the nineties, before irony was adorned as commonly as underwear, a few so called “cool hunters” spawned websites offering corporate clients -- those with the capital to pay substantial monthly and quarterly membership fees -- insights to youth trends, subcultures, and language. They struck commercial gold and have been successful to the point of getting trend setters to buy products inspired and appropriated from them. Even today cool hunters, dominantly undercover college age people, often quite “cool” themselves, take videos, photos, and interview people in a variety of social situations. If you are truly cool you’ve probably talked to one while waiting in the queue to get into the club, whizzing in a pungent graffiti covered restroom, or just sitting at a café with friends.

The advent of sites such as Facebook and Twitter have partially changed where cool hunters and marketers get their information. Now corporate interests can quickly analyze trends through social media participants voluntarily clicking “like” buttons and sharing interests with their friends. To be competitive, sites such as The Collabratory (formerly look-look), still around today, boast a marketing filter capable of weeding out the falsified information peppered throughout the net. The effect of cool hunting is that now subcultures are exploited much faster than before and the lengths of any given trend has been drastically shortened. What took Hot Topic over a decade to do to punk can now be done to most any subculture in a matter of months.

Although Occupy Wall Street is an American movement made up of Americans, the participants are much smaller in number than the citizens merely interested in watching the movement unfold. Undeniably, the activists on the street, even if truly representing the 99%, are at this time a minority. To anyone belonging to minority or subculture it’s no surprise that they’ve been prime targets for corporations to exploit for hefty profits. Consider the main movements of the nineties. Although there was the Gulf War and later the war in Kosovo, many American activists focused on domestic issues such as the environment, social equality and mobility. Now oil companies make ads blatantly lying about how they’re saving the environment, feminist terminology is used to sell hygiene products, and the language of diversity is twisted into a jingle intent on moving the hips and wallets of those desiring hyper-individualism (just check out Urban Outfitters’ latest blunder).

OWS has been an excellent force for getting people out of their living rooms and out participating in direct action.  But in places not under heavy conflict such as Oakland, that may only last so long. As corporations begin to see profits by selling the OWS brand, the winter sets in, and if another phase of the movement doesn’t take form, some may just watch from a far as though they’re watching Survivor.