Kalle Lasn

The Adbusters Media Foundation is a Canadian-based not-for-profit, anti-consumerist, pro-environment organization founded in 1989 by Kalle Lasn and Bill Schmalz in Vancouver. Adbusters describes itself as ‘a global network of artists, activists, writers, pranksters, students, educators and entrepreneurs who want to advance the new social activist movement of the information age.’

Characterized by some as anti-capitalist or opposed to capitalism, it publishes the reader-supported, advertising-free ‘Adbusters,’ an activist magazine with an international circulation of 120,000 devoted to challenging consumerism. Adbusters has launched numerous international campaigns, including ‘Buy Nothing Day,’ ‘TV Turnoff Week,’ and ‘Occupy Wall Street,’ and is known for their ‘subvertisements’ that spoof popular advertisements.

In 1988, the British Columbia Council of Forest Industries, the ‘voice’ of the logging industry, was facing tremendous public pressure from a growing environmentalist movement. The logging industry fought back with a television ad campaign called ‘Forests Forever.’ It was an early example of greenwashing: shots of happy children, workers and animals with a kindly, trustworthy sounding narrator who assured the public that the logging industry was protecting the forest. Lasn and Shmalz were outraged by the use of the public airwaves to deliver what they felt was deceptive anti-environmentalist propaganda. And they responded by producing the ‘Talking Rainforest’ anti-ad in which an old-growth tree explains to a sapling that ‘a tree farm is not a forest.’ But the duo wasn’t able to buy airtime on the same stations that had aired the forest-industry ad. According to a former Adbusters employee, ‘The CBC’s reaction to the proposed television commercial created the real flash point for the Media Foundation. It seemed that Lasn and Schmaltz’s commercial was too controversial to air on the CBC. An environmental message that challenged the large forestry companies was considered ‘advocacy advertising’ and was disallowed, even though the ‘informational’ messages that glorified clearcutting were OK.’

The foundation was born out of their realization that citizens do not have the same access to the information flows as corporations. One of the foundation’s key campaigns continues to be the ‘Media Carta,’ a ‘movement to enshrine ‘The Right to Communicate’ in the constitutions of all free nations, and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.’ For the foundation, concern over the flow of information goes beyond the desire to protect democratic transparency, freedom of speech or the public’s access to the airwaves. Although it supports these causes, the foundation instead situates the battle of the mind at the center of its political agenda. Fighting to counter pro-consumerist advertising is done not as a means to an end, but as the end in itself. This shift in emphasis is a crucial element of mental environmentalism. In a 1996 interview, Kalle Lasn explained the foundation’s goal: ‘What we’re trying to do is pioneer a new form of social activism using all the power of the mass media to sell ideas, rather than products. We’re motivated by a kind of ‘greenthink’ that comes from the environmental movement and isn’t mired in the old ideology of the left and right. Instead, we take the environmental ethic into the mental ethic, trying to clean up the toxic areas of our minds. You can’t recycle and be a good environmental citizen, then watch four hours of television and get consumption messages pumped at you.’

Adbusters is anti-advertising: it blames advertising for playing a central role in creating, and maintaining, consumer culture. This argument is based on the fact that the advertising industry goes to great effort and expense to associate desire and identity with commodities. Adbusters believes that advertising has unjustly ‘colonized’ public, discursive and psychic spaces, by appearing in movies, sports and even schools, so as to permeate modern cultures. Adbusters’ goals include combating the negative effects of advertising and empowering its readers to regain control of culture, encouraging them to ask ‘Are we consumers and citizens?’ To counter the belief that advertising focuses on looking toward external rewards for a sense of self, Adbusters recognizes a ‘natural and authentic self apart from the consumer society.’ The magazine aims to provoke anti-consumerist epiphanies. By juxtaposing text and images, the magazine creates a means of raising awareness and getting its message out to people that is both aesthetically pleasing and entertaining.

Activism also takes many other forms such as corporate boycotts and ‘art as protest,’ often incorporating humor. This includes clever billboard modifications, google bombing, flash mobs, and fake parking tickets for SUVs. A popular example of cultural jamming is the distortion of Tiger Woods’ smile in to the form of the Nike swoosh, calling viewers to question how they view Woods’ persona as a product. Adbusters calls it ‘trickle up’ activism, and encourages its readers to do these activities by honoring culture jamming work in the magazine. In the 2001 ‘Graphic Anarchy’ issue, Adbusters were culture jammed themselves in a manner of speaking: they hailed the work of Swiss graphic designer Ernst Bettler as ‘one of the greatest design interventions on record,’ unaware that Bettler’s story was an elaborate hoax.

‘Media Carta’ is a charter challenging the corporate control of the public airwaves and means of communication. The goal is to ‘make the public airwaves truly public, and not just a corporate domain.’ Over 30,000 people have signed the document voicing their desire to reclaim the public space. In 2004, Adbusters filed a lawsuit against six major Canadian television broadcasters for refusing to air Adbusters videos in the television commercial spots that Adbusters attempted to purchase. Most broadcasters refused the commercials fearing the ads would upset other advertisers as well as violated business principles by ‘contaminating the purity of media environments designed exclusively for communicating commercial messages.’ The lawsuit claims that Adbusters’ freedom of expression was unjustly limited by the refusals. Adbusters believes the public deserves a right to be presented with viewpoints that differ from the standard. Under the Broadcasting Act, television is a public space allowing ordinary citizens to possess the same rights as advertising agencies and corporations to purchase 30 seconds of airtime from major broadcasters.

In 2009, the British Columbia Court of Appeal unanimously overturned a BC Supreme Court ruling that had dismissed the case in 2008. The court granted Adbusters the ability to sue the Canadian Broadcasting Company and CanWest Global, the corporations that originally refused to air the anti-car ad ‘Autosaurus.’ The ruling represents a victory for Adbusters, but it is the first step of their intended goal, essentially opening the door for future legal action against the media conglomerates. Kalle Lasn declared the ruling a success and said, ‘After twenty years of legal struggle, the courts have finally given us permission to take on the media corporations and hold them up to public scrutiny.’

‘Culture jamming’ is the primary means through which Adbusters challenges consumerism. The magazine was described by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter in their book ‘The Rebel Sell’ as ‘the flagship publication of the culture jamming movement.’ Culture jamming is heavily influenced by the Situationist International and the tactic of détournement (a variation on a previous media work, in which the newly created one has a meaning that is antagonistic or antithetical to the original). The goal is to interrupt the normal consumerist experience in order to reveal the underlying ideology of an advertisement, media message, or consumer artifact. Culture jamming aims to challenge the large, influential corporations that control mainstream media and the flow of information. It is a form of protest. The term ‘jam’ contains more than one meaning, including improvising, by re-situating an image or idea already in existence, and interrupting, by attempting to stop the workings of a machine.

As already noted, the foundation’s approach to culture jamming has its roots in the activities of the situationists and in particular their concept of détournement. This involves the ‘turning around’ of received messages so that they communicate meanings at variance with their original intention. Situationists argue that consumerism creates “a limitless artificiality,’ blurring the lines of reality and detracting from the essence of human experience. In the ‘culture jamming’ context, détournement means taking symbols, logos and slogans that are considered to be the vehicles upon which the ‘dominant discourse’ of ‘late capitalism’ is communicated and changing them – frequently in significant but minor ways – to subvert the ‘monologue of the ruling order.’ The foundation’s activism links grassroots efforts with environmental and social concerns, hoping followers will ‘reconstruct [their] self through nonconsumption strategies.’ The foundation is particularly well known for its culture jamming campaigns, and the magazine often features photographs of politically motivated billboard or advertisement vandalism sent in by readers. The campaigns attempt to remove people from the ‘isolated reality of consumer comforts.’

In 2004, the foundation began selling vegan, indy shoes. The name and logo are ‘open-source’; in other words, unencumbered by private trademarks. Attached to each pair was a leaflet – ‘Rethink the Cool’ inviting wearers to join a movement, and two spots – one for drawing their own logos and another on the toe for ‘kicking corporate ass.’ There are three versions of the Blackspot Sneaker. The V1 is designed to resemble the Nike-owned Chuck Taylor All-Stars. The V2 is designed by Canadian shoe designer John Fluevog. It is made from organic hemp and recycled car tires. After an extensive search for anti-sweatshop manufacturers around the world, Adbusters found a small union shop in Portugal. The sale of more than twenty-five thousand pairs through an alternative distribution network is an example of Western consumer activism marketing. Adbusters describes its goals vis-à-vis Blackspot as follows: ‘Blackspot shoes is our experiment with grassroots capitalism. After spending many years railing against the practices of megacorporations like McDonalds, Starbucks and Nike, we wanted to prove that running an ethical, environmentally responsible business is possible … and that taking market share away from megacorporations is better than whining about them.’

In mid-2011, Adbusters Foundation proposed a peaceful occupation of Wall Street to protest corporate influence on democracy, a growing disparity in wealth, and the absence of legal repercussions behind the recent global financial crisis. They sought to combine the symbolic location of the 2011 protests in Tahrir Square with the consensus decision making of the 2011 Spanish protests. Adbusters’ senior editor Micah White said they had suggested the protest via their email list and it ‘was spontaneously taken up by all the people of the world.’ Adbusters’ website said that from their ‘one simple demand—a presidential commission to separate money from politics’ they would ‘start setting the agenda for a new America.’ They promoted the protest with a poster featuring a dancer atop Wall Street’s iconic Charging Bull. While the movement was started by Adbusters, the group does not control the movement, and it has since grown worldwide.

The foundation has been criticized for having a style and form that are similar to the media and commercial product that it attacks, that its high gloss design makes the magazine too expensive, and that a style over substance approach is used to mask sub-par content. Heath and Potter posit that the more alternative or subversive the foundation feels, the more appealing the Blackspot sneaker will become to the mainstream market. They believe consumers seek exclusivity and social distinction and have argued that the mainstream market seeks the very same brand of individuality that the foundation promotes; thus they see the foundation as promoting capitalist values. The Blackspot Shoes campaign has stirred heated debate, as Adbusters admits to using the same marketing techniques which it denounces other companies for using.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.