Imagine a world without McDonald’s, Nike, or Kraft Foods. A world where the budget-conscious and time-strapped have nowhere to grab a quick bite, where almost no one drives a car, where television is extinct. Sound pretty bleak? This is the utopian vision of the Adbusters Media Foundation.
“We will wreck this world,” Kalle Lasn declares in his book Culture Jam: How to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer Binge — and Why We Must. That, quite simply, is the goal of the Vancouver-based organization he founded and runs. A self-described group of “anarchists” and “neo-Luddites,” Adbusters are not merely environmentalists, animal-rights activists, anti-technology activists, or neo-Prohibitionists. They are all these things and more.
Their preferred method of social change is “culture jamming,” the term coined by a San Francisco rock band called Negativland. In her anti-globalization bible No Logo, Naomi Klein defines culture jamming as “the practice of parodying advertisements and hijacking billboards in order to drastically alter their messages.” Culture jamming runs the gamut from painting bicycle lanes on roads to covering logos on billboards, from affixing “GREASE” stickers on fast-food restaurant trays to replacing outdoor display ads with messages that are decidedly antithetical to the advertiser. Millions learned about the concept from the anti-consumerism narrator in the movie Fight Club — which Adbusters magazine contributing editor Bruce Grierson called “the first mainstream movie (in part) about Culture Jamming.”
A Literal Culture Jam
Adbusters is the brainchild of Kalle Lasn, an Estonian-born documentary filmmaker. He spent his childhood in a German refugee camp and in Australia. Lasn founded a market research company in Tokyo in the 1960s and eventually moved to Vancouver, Canada. For twenty years, he produced documentaries for PBS and Canada’s National Film Board. Then, as he tells it, a “realization” hit him.
Lasn stood in a Canadian supermarket parking lot frustrated because he had to insert a quarter into a cart to shop there. He jammed his quarter in so that the cart became inoperable. This was the first “culture jam” (quite literally). “I didn’t stop to analyze whether this was ethical or not,” Lasn would later explain in his book. “I just let my anger flow.”
This small step led to much bigger ones. In 1989, British Columbia’s forestry industry, under attack by radical environmentalists, fought back with billboards and television ads. Along with wilderness cinematographer Bill Schmalz and other activists, Lasn launched a counter-ad. But television stations refused to air it. So the activists protested in front of logging company headquarters and complained to the media. They garnered quite a bit of press coverage, and the industry’s ads were pulled after hundreds of people phoned the networks in support of the environmentalists.
Exhilarated with their success, the protesting cabal started the Adbusters Media Foundation.
Adbusters now also has a PR arm, the Powershift Advocacy Advertising Agency. Powershift creates campaigns for favored non-profit, militant causes. And Adbusters also maintains a website that serves as a network for (ironically) high-tech anti-technologists.
But the foundation’s primary product is Adbusters magazine. It began as a local quarterly in 1989 with three full-time volunteers and a circulation of 5,000 copies. Now an international bi-monthly (still advertisement-free), it boasts a dozen editors, over 250 freelancers, and a circulation of 120,000. Two-thirds of those readers are American, but there are subscribers in more than 60 countries. The magazine is the top-selling Canadian title in the U.S., and can be found at mainstream outlets like Barnes & Noble and Borders.
Leafing through a copy of Adbusters, however, the typical book-browser is likely to be shocked. The publication is a sort of MAD Magazine for the pretentious — but much more sinister. There are always parodies and rip-offs of well-known ads. There are articles on how to be a better activist, and justifying the targeting of activism’s latest disfavored industry. And there is art: sometimes obvious, sometimes incomprehensible. One recent issue included a picture of adolescents giving the finger, and a photograph of hair being plucked from a human nipple.
United in Hate
Sometimes Adbusters can seem disjointed, including polemics against tobacco companies, food companies, logging, fashion designers, and more. What unites this motley crew and keeps them working together?
At the heart of Adbusters is hatred of big business, in any form. As Naomi Klein writes in No Logo, “Simply put, anticorporatism is the brand of politics capturing the imagination of the next generation of troublemakers and sh*t-disturbers, and we need only look to the student radicals of the 1960s and the ID [identity politics] warriors of the eighties and nineties to see the transformative impact such a shift can have.”
This leads Adbusters to its animus: the desire to make corporations extinct. Citing the global vilification of tobacco as his model for other industries, Adbusters chief Kalle Lasn writes: “[Culture] Jammers are now mobilizing to repeat the tobacco story in many other areas of life. We’re going to take on the global automakers, the chemical companies, the food industries, the fashion corporations and the pop-culture marketers in a free-information environment …We want auto executives to feel just as squeezed and beleaguered as tobacco executives. We want them to have a hard time looking their kids in the eye and explaining exactly what they do for a living.”
Self-described culture jammers are typically also rabidly opposed to economic globalization and harbor virulent hatred for multinational corporations. Don’t call them “lefties,” though. Lasn thinks the Left is too “establishment” these days.
The Adbusters team believes Western society has become too materialistic, and that so-called “unsustainable” consumerism is running rampant and ruining the Earth — and our minds. They claim that big-name brands, feeding on our feelings of inadequacy, promise us better lives that they can’t deliver, leaving us instead with serious “mood disorders.”
The group holds a special contempt for marketing. “Adbusters has told you that your desires are largely shaped by media,” reads a line in the kids section of an early issue (Summer 1994). Advertising does not exist to inform or persuade, in their view, but to coerce and control. The idea that advertising is essential to a free society — that without it, markets would collapse and consumers would be information-starved — is alien to them.
So in an effort to scare us away from advertising, Adbusters offers the shocking information that companies study ways to provide consumers with what they want, the better to make profits. What most of us think of as consumer research and target marketing, Adbusters sees as sinister, covert “mental manipulation.”
And where food producers and restaurants are concerned, the size of these industries alone makes them worthy of attack. Successful is re-positioned as “bad”: Lasn adds that “junk food is one of the most frequently advertised products on TV; that makes it a big target.”
Fighting Fire with a Flamethrower
Despite all its bluster about the virtues of an advertising-free world, Adbusters uses the very techniques it excoriates corporations for. It uses marketing to try and kill marketing.
Adbusters runs a number of increasingly high-profile campaigns throughout the year. The best known is Buy Nothing Day. Begun in 1992 and now “celebrated” on the biggest shopping day of the year — the day after Thanksgiving — this campaign urges consumers not to buy a single thing for one day. This, Adbusters’ activists claim, serves as a brake on the “rampant consumerism” that has wrecked society. Adbusters purchased a 30-second slot on CNN’s “Moneyline” in order to advertise the 2002 event. A burping pig was the metaphor for gluttonous Americans, who were told to “Give it a rest.”
The group also bought space on CNN –30 seconds of dead air — in order to advertise “TV Turnoff Week.” Kalle Lasn despises television. Its form and content represent everything he hates about America. In one issue of Adbusters, he called television viewing “a major mental health problem. And because our broadcasting system is largely controlled by commercial interests, television is one of the root causes of our ecological crisis as well.”
Adbusters’ latest (and most ambitious) campaign is a misguided effort to “Unbrand America.” It was kicked off with a full-page advertisement in The New York Times. With it, Adbusters seems to be branching out into foreign policy. Published on July 3, 2003, the ad consists of a page of fake stock-market listings underneath a big black dot with the words:
Because my country has sold its soul to corporate power
Because consumerism has become our national religion
Because we’ve forgotten the true meaning of freedom
And because patriotism now means agreeing with the president
I pledge to do my duty … and take my country back.
Adbusters also created a version of this message for network television with the Jimi Hendrix version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a musical backdrop, but the major networks rejected it. ABC said the spot violated its advertising guidelines: “It is clearly a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance and we believe that such issues are better handled in news and public affairs programming.” CBS explained that the ad takes advocacy positions on a number of topics of public importance and that Adbusters itself, through its website, asks for and provides means for the public to take action.” MTV said they would not accept it because it was “issue oriented.” NBC gave no reason.
Most networks have rejected Adbusters’ previous ads, too, explaining that they do not wish to sell airtime to those who seek to destroy them. Lasn, however, believes it is his “right” to buy time on private networks, citing Article 19 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But he appears oblivious to the fact that the corporations he despises have the same right to advertise that he claims sacred.
In the face of rejection, Lasn has gone to court and intends to keep suing.
Adbusters generally prefers rage to discernment. “Let your anger out. When it wells up suddenly from deep in your gut, don’t suppress it — channel it, trust it, use it. Don’t be so unthinkingly civil all the time,” Kalle Lasn advises. “Rage drives revolutions.”
The very name of the group implies destruction of private property. This is specifically advocated in nearly every issue of the magazine. Of course, its leaders prefer to couch this directive in lofty rhetoric, thinking of themselves as freedom fighters. “Consumer capitalism is by its very nature unethical,” Lasn writes, “and therefore it’s not unethical to jam it … liberating a billboard in the middle of the night can be a rather honest and joyful thing to do.”
Adbusters magazine teaches and encourages subversive tactics that typically lead to property destruction. It may only be billboards now, but the cost adds up — a group of Australians has already caused $1 million in damage to outdoor advertising alone. Occasionally, Adbusters suggests “busting” people — and videotaping the evidence. The September/October 2002 issue urges: “Culture jamming: take it to the next level. When you and your friends organize a street party, liberate a billboard, or throw a pie into the ugly face of authority, we want people all over the world to see it the next day on adbusters tv.”
In a July/August 2001 article, “The Smell of Swoosh,” that scandalized even some of the magazine’s loyal followers, Lasn exhorted readers to assail their local Nike stores with stink bombs.
Consumers are urged not to spend a dime on Buy Nothing Day, but the results are often more anarchist. Belgian protesters once closed down banks by jamming their locks. An American set himself on fire in a shopping center. A group of Londoners purposely group-vomited in shopping malls.
Some people, however, think such anti-consumerism does not go far enough. A frustrated splinter group formed in Montreal, Canada, a few years ago began a Steal Something Day. “They think Buy Nothing Day is too white middle-class,” Adbusters general manager Brant Cheetham told Sydney, Australia’s Sun Herald. “[They’ve] had it with traditional means of protest and are looking to do something more radical.”
Adbusters even flirts with violence. One page in the September/October 2002 issue features a picture of a burning building. “The clash of civilizations is a romantic term. Forget about medieval horsemen. Expect instead a fistfight with smashed vodka bottles in a plywood bar,” reads the text. The picture’s caption: “Environmental [sic] Liberation Front, Ski Resort Arson, Vail, Colorado, 1998.” Those fires destroyed several buildings and caused over $12 million in damage. In justifying this attack, the terrorist Earth Liberation Front (ELF) said the purpose was to protest the resort’s defiling of what it considered “sacred” wildlife.
Adbusters may try to discourage buying, but obviously not when it comes to its own wares. Lasn has claimed that the magazine “is trying to sell ideas rather than products.” A look at its order form tells another story.
The slick glossy has a cover price of $7.95 — more than twice the price of People, Vogue, or GQ. The Adbusters website features a plethora of products for sale, including videos, posters, calendars, postcards, books, and even a 3×5-foot “corporate” flag — the American flag with the stars replaced by corporate logos. In 2002, Adbusters suggested substituting its version for the real Stars and Stripes on July 4 in front of stores, schools, and embassies.
Adbusters can’t seem to help biting even the hip, corporate hands that feed it. One issue featured a fashion layout, for which the magazine thanked such retailers as Banana Republic for providing clothes. Another issue, however, mocked The Gap, Banana Republic’s sister corporation, on its the back cover.
Even supporters of the magazine have noticed its incongruities. Early issues contained angry letters from readers who wanted to know why the magazine was not published on recycled paper.
Lasn plans to publish another book. Design Anarchy will be a large, graphic tome that should be out in time for Christmas 2005. “I want to sell as many copies of this as possible,” he gushed to DiSCORDER magazine. “It may also cost a lot of money. We may actually sell it for $100.”
Adbusters is even getting into the shoe business. It will start flogging the Black Spot sneaker next year. The retro black canvas shoe’s logo is, as the name suggests, a black spot. The marketing for the shoe is well under way, even though Adbusters has no prototype, manufacturer, distributor, business plan, designer or suggested price. The first shoe will be manufactured after 5,000 orders have been received. The group plans to spend $250,000 on the campaign.
Lasn himself is a tangle of contradictions. His book is filled with references to and metaphors of the popular culture he decries. He mines what he claims is a “soulless” culture to express his most important thoughts and feelings.
He has called the automobile “arguably the most destructive product we humans have ever produced.” Yet he cheerfully drives a Toyota, as he writes in Culture Jam: “The love of convenience, the time I save, the speed and the power, and the lack of viable alternatives trump my hate more often than not.” In typically elitist fashion, what is “convenience” for Lasn is brainwashing for the masses.
A reporter from the Sydney Sun Herald asked Lasn whether he ever eats at McDonald’s. He admitted he did and explained, “People ask me this all the time — it’s very embarrassing — but I’m just a walking, talking contradiction. I’m not pure, and I don’t feel like I want to be all that pure.” Why Americans must be purer than Kalle Lasn is something he has refused to explain.
Adbusters often quotes Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (although they frequently spell his name wrong). It is fitting that the magazine gives space to America’s food police. The Adbusters gang believes that ordinary people have not made the right choices and cannot be trusted to do so — at least not without smart people like them to tell the rest of us what to do.
Reading Adbusters, one learns that the authors do not like people very much, particularly Americans. “About a third of Americans today are certifiably fascist,” declares Anis Shivani in the September/October 2003 issue. “Another 20 percent or so can be swayed around to particular causes with smart propaganda.”
“Gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson spews contempt for ordinary Americans in the Jul/Aug 2003 issue: “Who does vote for these dishonest skinheads? Who among us can be happy and proud of having all this innocent blood on our hands? Who are these swine? These flag-sucking half-wits who get fleeced and fooled by stupid little rich kids like George Bush? … I piss down the throats of these Nazis.”
Adbusters is an elitist cabal of the would-be ultracool. It even has its own language, words which pop up on almost every page: “culture jammer,” “mental environment,” “subvertisement.” This, of course, makes Adbusters’ consumers feel just as hip as the conventional marketing Adbusters derides for supposedly being coercive.
Back to the Middle Ages
Why do Adbusters writers and editors hate personal choice so much? Because their utopia would be a nightmare for most Americans. “What makes you think you have the right to drive around with a ton of metal wrapped around you,” asks the September/October 2003 issue, “the right to twist a tap and get hot water, the right to flick a switch and get your house warmed up?” Were the Adbusters group to get its way, hundreds of years of progress would vanish.
“Plentitude is American culture’s perverse burden,” Kalle Lasn writes in Culture Jam. The twenty-first century’s increasing food supply, labor-saving technologies, improved life expectancy — he and his organization would like to remove those “burdens.”
Judging from its magazine, Adbusters wants us to make do with fewer of the conveniences and technological advances we take for granted.
Food? “[E]very meat eater is responsible for the death of 2000 animals in his or her lifetime,” the November/December 2002 issue tells us. That issue, featuring a photograph of pigs juxtaposed with Nazi death camp prisoners, may have inspired People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ outrageous “Holocaust on Your Plate” exhibit.
The car? “[A]rguably the most destructive product we humans have ever produced,” Lasn writes. Even refrigerators contribute “noise pollution,” so he suggests their total elimination.
For Lasn, the postwar period was the height of American happiness and things have only gotten worse since then. The simpler time he urges us back to, however, seems more like the 1550s than the 1950s. Lasn’s vision “means turning away from fast foods and superstores and embracing farmers’ markets and the family kitchen; away from hothouse tomatoes and toward your own local supplier, and eventually, perhaps, your own garden plot.” It seems that he wants a return to subsistence living or even hunter-gathering — although eating meat may also be forbidden in his “paradise.”
The cost of this brave new world? Lasn recommends: “Not just a carbon tax, but a global across-the-board pricing system.” The price he gives of an “ethical” car? One hundred thousand dollars. An “ethical” tank of gas? A bargain at $250. The rich would certainly enjoy the lack of traffic.
And Adbusters casually dismisses arguments for personal freedom as mere “infotoxins.” Consumers, in Lasn’s world, are nothing but cult members, conditioned by greedy advertisers.
Even Adbusters’ allies sometimes tire of the organization’s paternalism. “At times, Adbusters magazine feels like an only slightly hipper version of a Public Service Announcement about saying no to peer pressure or remembering to Reduce, Reuse and Recycle,” Naomi Klein complains in No Logo. Klein also recounts the story of Mark Dery, who authored the original culture-jammers’ manifesto. He now says that “the anti-booze, -smoking and -fast-food emphasis reads as just plain patronizing — as if ‘the masses’ cannot be trusted to ‘police their own desires’.”