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The Commodification of Julian Assange

A small sample of the items featured on the user content created sites RedBubble and Cafe Press. (Photo by Alysia Santo/CNS)

The face of Julian Assange, the Australian founder of the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, has been on front pages around the world over the past year.

It has also been found in plenty of unexpected places, too. Like on T-shirts, dog clothing and teddy bears. Is your mom an avid open records nut? Get her a “Julian is my homie” apron. Ship your cutting-edge friend an “I was pro-Julian Assange before it was cool” tee. Or perhaps your lover’s birthday is approaching, so how about an “I <3 Julian” thong? There is even a box of “Dikileaks” condoms, although its slogan does not inspire confidence: “We leak more than the truth.”

Assange’s near-instant passage into rebellious iconography is reminiscent of that of Che Guevara, the late Argentinian Marxist revolutionary who played a key role in the Cuban revolution. His glowering image, bearded and bereted, occupies everything from pocket flasks to mouse pads — even a bikini famously modeled by Giselle Bundchen as she sashayed down a Brazilian runway. Now, some artists and marketers are melding Assange’s and Guevera’s faces for posters and T-shirts, one of them even calling the juxtaposition “Assanche.”

Displaying Assange’s likeness allows people to broadcast a rebellious identity and anti-authority stance, says Andrew Potter, co-author of  “Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture.” Assange feeds into a viewpoint of the world that is sellable. “He’s the guy who sticks it to the man. That’s always been a great marketing opportunity,” he adds.

But Assange may be trying to control this with his recent application to trademark his name with the United Kingdom’s Intellectual Property Office. According to forms filed on Feb. 14, he is attempting to maintain ownership over his name as it pertains to a number of goods or services, including “public speaking services,” “journalism,” “publication of texts other than publicity texts” and “entertainment services.”

Assange’s status as both villain and hero was reinforced Feb. 24 when a British court granted Sweden’s demand to extradite Assange to face rape charges, as supporters gathered outside the court donning masks and holding signs. While the situation may be hellish for his legal defense bills, his very public troubles are making money for a lot of other people.

And it’s not just books and movies that are in the works. Cafe Press says it has more than 17,000 items that have to do with either Assange or WikiLeaks, and is shipping products to fans all over the world. Zazzle has hundreds of designs on its website.

Andrew Trous, a 16-year-old from Ontario, Canada, uploaded a WikiLeaks T-shirt design onto RedBubble.com, a website that sells merchandise based on its user’s designs. After selling 25 he felt “guilty because I was profiting” from Assange’s situation. He decided to donate the money — all $64.87 of it  — to WikiLeaks, “because this world needs more people like him.”

WikiLeaks itself has jumped on the capitalist bandwagon, launching its own store on Feb. 10. Official WikiLeaks gear includes shirts, tote bags, umbrellas and children’s clothing.

Given that WikiLeaks was cut off from receiving donations via PayPal, Visa, MasterCard and Bank of America, one might wonder how to pay for this merchandise. Have no fear, the official store folks have anticipated that by making it part of the Spreadshirt platform, a German company that lets individuals and organizations sell personalized apparel. Kelly, a spokesperson for the WikiLeaks store, said via e-mail that using a middleman makes it difficult for payment providers to cut them off since, “Spreadshirt pays us our commission,” with an average mark of 30 to 40 percent. The store has received around 900 orders, so far, mostly from the U.S. An official WikiLeaks poster store is now in the works.

Some see Assange’s status as the face of WikiLeaks as a decidedly mixed blessing. Birgitta Jonsdottir, who worked with the organization to release one of its first sensational revelations, the Apache helicopter video “Collateral Murder,” called it a “double-edged sword.” The “branding of WikiLeaks is a sad development,” she wrote in an e-mail, which is “not in tune with how many of us who were involved with it as a grassroots movement had ever anticipated.” It has, however, helped spread awareness of issues surrounding freedom of information. “Perhaps that was needed in the larger context, for him to become such a megastar,” she wrote.

Martin Hosking, the managing editor of the website RedBubble, says it is rare to see someone combine this level of controversy and marketability.

It all started with the Spartacus-inspired “I am Julian Assange,” in reference to “I am Spartacus” from the 1960 film wherein Spartacus’s fellow gladiators refuse to let him be singled out for punishment by all declaring to be him. “When he was arrested in London, and that meme started going around, we started seeing a whole bunch of shirts,” said Hosking. RedBubble, which is based in Australia, has 70 items featuring Assange or WikiLeaks and Hosking says they have sold in the thousands, with half being shipped to the U.S.

The appeal goes far beyond Assange’s geeky hacker computer ways. “For reasons I cannot comprehend, he seems to be an attractive figure to women I know,” says Potter. “But he’s a bad boy too. The fact that he’s being charged with sexual assault could be quite bad for the WikiLeaks brand,” says Potter.

JulianAssangeIsGorgeous.tumblr.com features the many magazine shoots whose moody lighting depicts Assange as a sexy spy. The captions may be snarky, but they capture the surprising emergence of Assange as something of a sex symbol: “Look, you British tabloids, you can call Julian a ho all you want. But we dare you: YOU try being a tall, fine and mysterious idealist and not attract the ladies,” reads one post.

Well, perhaps that explains the “Julian Assange please marry me!” shirts.

E-mail: ahs2146@columbia.edu

February 25, 2011