There are lots of reasons to go to Burning Man, but one of the best is to get away from the relentless consumerism of mainstream society. It’s a relief to be part of a culture that isn’t marketing at you all the time.
Part of Burning Man’s magic is having experiences that are unmediated by corporate influence, where relationships aren’t transactional and are instead based on things with unconditional value. It’s what makes it different from festivals or other pre-produced events and social spaces. That’s why using Burning Man to sell or promote stuff feels so wrong.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the Decommodification Principle, it states: “In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.”
In the spirit of Decommodification, you may not use Burning Man, Black Rock City, or any imagery from the event to promote a product, service, or brand. The playa is not a backdrop for your business! That means your furry coats and sparkly boots, your hats and headdresses, your necklaces and glasses, your masks and LED trinkets, your e-bikes and scooters… and it’s definitely not okay to do your couture fashion shoot in the Temple.
Here are a few examples of things you should not be using photos from Black Rock City for:
Example 1: You’re a yoga instructor. You took a picture of yourself doing yoga on the playa with an amazing art piece in the background. You want to post that picture on the Instagram page for your yoga practice, where someone can click on a link and book a paid session. Stop! Not ok! You would be using Black Rock City — and someone else’s art! — as a backdrop to promote your business, and none of that is ever Ok.
Example 2: Your friend makes leather belts and sells them on their website. You wear one to Burning Man and want to post a photo of yourself wearing it in front of the Man, and you want to tag your friend’s business as a way of saying thank you. Stop! You would be using imagery from the event to promote a product. Black Rock City is not a canvas for advertising.
Example 3: You’re in the Temple surrounded by people’s remembrances. PLEASE DON’T TELL US YOU’RE THINKING ABOUT USING THAT SACRED SPACE AS A BACKDROP FOR A FASHION SHOOT.
If #3 sounds familiar, that’s because it really happened this year. We’ve seen troubling reports about stuff like this coming out of the 2018 event, and it’s time to take a stand!
Using the event for marketing purposes is not just a violation of Burning Man’s Principles, but also of our ticket terms and conditions (to which everyone agrees when they go to Black Rock City) and federal regulations. Practically speaking, our trademark and image-use policies give us the legal right to protect Decommodification.
For example, we routinely reach out to promoters who advertise “Burning Man” parties or use images from Black Rock City without permission from Burning Man Project. Uniformly enforcing our policies ensures that we retain our ability to prevent a “Burning Man Spring Break Party” sponsored by some massive corporation.
Compared to that, your Instagram post promoting your small business might not seem like a big deal, but it is. It contributes to a blurring of the line, and protecting Burning Man’s name and imagery from exploitation is important to the survival of our culture.
How-To (And How Not-To)
Everyone shooting still or moving images in Black Rock City for any professional purpose goes through an approval process, which ensures that the creators of the media project understand and adhere to our policies. This includes the fact that Burning Man “may not be used for any commercial or promotional purpose whatsoever without prior written permission”. If you’re not sure whether you have prior written permission, you don’t!
The place we’re seeing the worst offenders is on Instagram, and the rate of commodifying posts has gone up significantly in the past couple of years.
How You Can Help
We need your help! If you see a playa photo/video on social media with a brand tagged, post a comment about Decommodification and ask them to take it down. Is your friend promoting their stuff with images from BRC? Seize that teachable moment and educate them about the 10 Principles! If you’ve tried reaching out to someone directly about their commercial use of Burning Man photos or the Burning Man name, and they ignore, block, or argue you with you, go ahead and email our team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lastly, we are not saying you can’t post your photos from your time at the Burn! You absolutely can tag an art piece and the artist who built that piece. You can (and always should) tag an artist whose work is featured in an image or a photographer when making personal use of a photo.
If you have effective messages you want to share with the Burning Man community on the topic of Decommodification, we’ll share them on social media (see this Instagram post for an example). We’re looking for language, images, graphics, or video — whether it’s your own message about the importance of Decommodification, your funny spoofs of commodification, or examples of people doing it right (or wrong) on playa. Send the goods to email@example.com.
Let’s keep the virtual playa as decommodified as the one in the Black Rock Desert!
(Top photo by Bill Kositzky)