How to beat the adman at his own game

Call up GWBush.com or www.gatt.com, and what you actually get is an activists' website. Johann Hari

Last year, a shiny new branch of Starbucks was launched in London's Leicester Square with a glitzy, no-expenses-spared party. As balloons were handed out, clowns juggled and the aroma of coffee filled the streets, one lone anti-globalisation protester wandered into the fray. He began to shout about Starbucks's failure to guarantee a living wage for its coffee-growers, and the wave of sexual harassment lawsuits the company was facing in the US.

As staff attempted to remove him, one Starbucks employee suddenly snapped. He leapt from behind a table, threw the protester to the ground and began to beat him. "You piece of commie s**t! You f***ing anti-globalisation scum! Why don't you go back to f***ing Soviet Russia! Don't you see that Starbucks sets you free?" he screamed, as he whacked his victim's head against the floor.

But the angry "Starbucks employee" with a taste for protester-bashing was not what he seemed. In fact, the men were both members of an anti-globalisation protest group called Space Hijackers (www.spacehijackers.co.uk), which was formed in 1999 and acts out rather unusual protests of this sort. The group is trying to make ordinary people look at the corporations that we increasingly take for granted in a different light.

The Space Architects describe themselves as "anarchitects", and their mission is to "battle the constant oppressive encroachment on to our public spaces by institutions, corporations and urban planners. We oppose the way that public space is being eroded and replaced by corporate profit." Anti-globalisation protesters only make headlines when they riot, but their energies are increasingly deployed between the Genoas and Seattles. A large slice of the movement concentrates not on the big street clashes, but on more subtly subverting the corporate occupation of our public spaces, particularly the internet.

The "eToys v etoy" clash illustrates perfectly the nature of this new battleground. EToys.com was a $6bn monolith, one of the great success stories of the internet boom - the Amazon.com of internet toy shopping. However, two years before eToys bought its domain name in 1997, a small Swiss artists' collective had set up and registered etoy.com - a website dedicated to radical (and occasionally pornographic) artworks that often parodied exactly the kind of corporate culture represented by eToys. EToys was furious about the "brand confusion", and took etoy to court, even though the humble artists' circle had got online first. Etoy responded by stepping up the anti-corporate information on its site, and became a symbol of the right of individuals on the web to stand up to the multinationals. The protracted legal battles caused huge damage to eToys's share price, to such an extent that it proved unable to withstand the downturn in the US economy and filed for bankruptcy in March 2001.

Emboldened by the success of etoy, a number of sites began to undermine the brand images and commercial interests of irresponsible corporations, individuals and institutions. They aim to use the techniques of advertising to promote not corporate interests, but social aims. One of the most popular websites of the 2000 US presidential race was GWBush.com - a site run by radical activists - which initially seemed to be Bush's official campaign site, but quickly began to highlight his hypocrisy on cocaine use, along with information about his fondness for ordering the frying of other human beings when he was governor of Texas.

Similarly, activists bought up www.gatt.com (Gatt was the precursor of the World Trade Organisation) and created a site that looked very similar to the WTO's, except that it provided information about its less admirable actions in the developing world.

The "hactivists" who hijack websites are only a small part of the movement; brand images themselves are being hijacked. T-shirts are printed using the Nestle logo and font, and alleging: "We kill babies". There are similar T-shirts that use the lettering and style of the Coca-Cola logo, and proclaim: "We employ Latin American death squads".

Umberto Eco anticipated this "semiological guerrilla warfare" in his 1986 book Travels in Hyperreality. He wrote: "I am proposing an action [which would] urge the audience to control the message and its multiple possibilities of interpretation." When corporate interests go so far as to employ "viral marketing" - where, for example, two good-looking, trendy people are employed to walk around public places talking loudly about how great Stella Artois is - subverting these acts seems to some activists the only meaningful way to protest.

Such techniques have become known as "culture-jamming". Stuart Ewen of Adbusters, the group that has led the way in this field, explains the rationale behind the campaigns: "Not only are mass media images intrusive into nearly every second of people's waking lives but . . . increasingly, these images are penetrating into the most intimate recesses of people's inner lives, their fantasy realms of desire and fear. We need to recognise that media images, increasingly, are sales pitches; that, rather than merely depicting or entertaining, they are instrumental in the sense that they are designed to gather audiences, designed to motivate certain kinds of behaviour . . ."

More and more, corporate publicity machines are trying to co-opt subvertisement images and techniques for their own ends, often with preposterous results. Several trendy clothes firms have sensed that Subcomandante Marcos, the leader of the Zapatista movement in Mexico, is "cool" - and have begun to stencil his images on to walls and stick his image on sweatshop- manufactured clothing.

Naomi Klein was recently approached by the clothes firm that owned the copyright to the words "No Logo". "I hear you have some book that is really hip with that name," it said. "Let's use it and start a new label. Naomi Klein, Calvin Klein - it's perfect!"

The campaigners who are fighting this kind of mentality draw on a heritage from the left that stretches back at least to Guy Debord and the situationists, who sprang to prominence in 1968. They showed how the power of an image or logo lifted out of its normal context forced consumers to confront the way that corporations manipulate them. They were keen on talking about "the political power of the prank".

Similarly, the political repercussions of these tactics are not new: after all, they are just technologically advanced forms of civil disobedience - of the kind practised by Thoreau, Gandhi and Martin Luther King. But although we may accept these tactics when we agree with their motives - for example, drawing attention to exploitative corporate behaviour - we have no way of preventing them from being used for causes we loathe. What if neo-Nazi subvertisers begin hijacking the websites of "Jewish" corporations? What if some enterprising opponent of the anti-globalisation movement really does decide to ridicule Naomi Klein by manufacturing "No Logo" T-shirts?

What is she going to do - sue for brand infringement?