Anarchy's Ad Agency
Published: Monday, November 13, 2000
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01
Bomb the mall. Graffiti Makes Sense. Die MTV Die.
Not exactly the typical slogans one finds on a T-shirt. Then again, this isn’t a typical company.
In 1992, while a student at Stanford, Srini Kumar created a fake organization targeted to stop the reelection of then President Bush – just for kicks. He produced numerous pieces of propaganda resplendent with such slogans as “If you stay in the middle of the road, you’re likely to get run over,” and was amazed to find them re-printed and posted around campus and in the city. A few years later, the Internet hit; he started a Web site and the rest, as they say, is history.
For six years, Kumar has spear-headed a project known as Unamerican Activities, (www.unamerican.com) selling T-shirts, stickers and ideology over the Internet. “We’re older than Amazon.com!” he announces with exuberance, following it with what can only be described as a diabolical chuckle.
The Unamerican catalog features over 300 black and white vinyl stickers, nearly 20 T-shirts, as well as an assortment of coffee mugs and pins. Each item boasts a trademark Unamerican slogan – everything from the straight-forward “Fear Bush” to the somewhat more quixotic “Stop Living Like Veal.” With the exception of the T-shirts, nothing on the site costs more than a buck or two. The on-line order form is easy to navigate and nearly every form of payment is accepted.
Besides at the homepage, Unamerican’s wares can be found in retail locations like head shops and independent record stores such as Newbury Comics. A deal is currently in the works to distribute at Hot Topic, a nation-wide retail store found in most malls. While reluctant to delve into the realm of specific dollar amounts, Unamerican is doing enough business to fully cover its costs, allow for reinvestment in the organization, and support Kumar, his business partner and a couple of interns.
But business isn’t what this is about.
“This is an adventure,” says Kumar. “I live this! I want to be able to survive off raw creativity and I’ve found a way to turn writing into money … and business is one of the things I’ve got to learn — and I’ve never been a super-good business person — but that’s part of the adventure.”
The adventure has taken Kumar from his original home-base in the San Francisco Bay Area most recently to New Bern, NC. He calls this move into relative isolation a “sabbatical,” during which he plans to perfect the craft, sharpen the company’s focus towards future goals and above all else, catch up on back orders.
Rebellious phrasing is not all there is to Unamerican Activities, however. “Anyone who says: ‘Oh, he’s just selling stickers …’ that’s such a trivial analysis,” says Kumar. “I have trouble respecting that kind of critic.” The continuing focus of this organization lies in two directions: first, encouraging the continued politicization of his target audience and second, helping independent business, the formation of a “Punk” economy, to emerge. The Web site features articles and essays discussing this ideology, as well as on-line forums designed to promote communication and community building.
With regards to the first goal, Kumar sees the choice to purchase something from his company as a form of advocacy, which in turn is the first step towards becoming a political-minded individual.
“One of the biggest lines I’ve propagated ‘is your real vote is the dollar.’ And every time someone buys a sticker for a buck, I see that as a vote for me and what I do ... The way I see it, there’s this unexercised gland in the brain that’s labeled: ‘political consciousness’ – and it’s not secreting right now. What I think these stickers can do is catalyze that beginning.”
To this end, Unamerican Activities has begun work with activist groups, seeking to bridge the gap between those who are willing to get involved and the actual groups themselves. The site will soon feature a section devoted to these political-minded organizations, taking the form almost of a rating guide and on-line forum where individuals can come to post information, want ads, or simply views on the current political landscape.
About his other goal, Srini says: “I’m not just launching a business, I’m launching a movement of businesses. If we’re ever gonna successfully challenge Nike, we have to learn how to make shoes. What I’d like to see is a whole generation of micro-businesses emerging and building on the wealth of everything’s that’s gone before.”
Not only is Unamerican Activities leading by example in this endeavor, functioning as a successful independent business that owes nothing to the existing corporate framework, but Kumar has a literary project underway, entitled F—k Work. The book – soon to be published by a firm in Boston – is designed to be a how-to book for young, potential entrepreneurs with a vision, but without the knowledge. It is hoped the book will serve as tool kit, recipe book, manifesto or a rallying cry for that portion of America’s youth.
With all these ambitious plans, some criticism has been leveled at Unamerican as a company – blasting it as taking advantage of “alterna-teens” and “teeny boppers” who are just trying to look cool, and at Kumar himself, contending that he suffers from delusions of grandeur … After all, we’re just talking about stickers here, right?
“Anyone who looks at the literal aspect of what my stickers are saying is missing the point,” Kumar says. “People are completely in the thrall of the media. The media exists to tell people what to say, to the point where people go around dressing exactly like Eminem. My stickers are a way people show their interest in things. What I know from my central location is that they aren’t alone, that these are actually popular things [whether the media acknowledges it or not].”
Perhaps Unamerican is doing even more than that. In a period of our cultural development where what one looks like is seen as a key to their personality, especially with regard to musical preference, socioeconomic standing and political views, it is important to have a company that supplies the public expression of those who cannot be represented through Abercrombie and Fitch, Karl Kani or Urban Outfitters. Certainly, Unamerican meets that demand while, at the same time, offering a critique of both prevailing fashion norms and perhaps the values of those who adopt them.
“This isn’t a culture, it’s a headache,” Kumar says.
If so, Unamerican Activities is the aspirin.