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May 2005
Ad Busting and Culture Jamming
The Satya Interview with Kalle Lasn

 

Adbusters
Brand Baby Poster. Photo courtesy of Adbusters

Born in 1942 in Estonia, a former Soviet republic, Kalle Lasn fled the country in 1944 with his family, relocating to Australia. In the 1960s, he worked as an advertising executive in Japan, until he got fed up with the corruption hidden behind the industry’s claims of “ethical neutrality.” Today, Kalle Lasn, founder of Adbusters Magazine, the Media Foundation and the Powershift Ad Agency, lives on five acres of land outside Vancouver, British Columbia, with his family, animals, and gardens.

Adbusters, a not-for-profit, reader-supported, 120,000-circulation magazine battles the attrition of physical and cultural environments. Through ad parodies and activities like TV Turnoff Week and Buy Nothing Day, Kalle’s ventures are focused on getting consumer culture to “bite its own tail.” His dedication lies in getting people to reject TV-fed ideas of what life and happiness are, and ultimately change the way worth is viewed in this society. He does this all in a new movement he has dubbed “culture jamming.”

Over a cup of strong black coffee and a phone connection that stretched more than 3,000 miles, Kalle Lasn took time out from producing “subvertisements” and TV “uncommercials,” to talk with Kymberlie Adams Matthews about culture jamming, feel-good consumerism and playing footsie with the enemy.

I have been a fan of Adbusters for years. Can you tell us a little bit about when and why you founded it?
It was a bunch of us, kind of disillusioned activists. Some of us were burnt out feminists, others environmentalists who had lost our steam, etc. We all felt that these movements had peaked and passed. In our brainstorming sessions we felt that culture was going to be the next big battleground. That it wouldn’t be gender or race or your usual kind of environment issues, but that somehow culture would be it. We thought, who controls culture? And are we the people going to continue to sing the songs and tell the stories—generate our culture from the bottom-up? Or will culture somehow be stolen from us, and spoon-fed to us top-down by advertising agencies, TV stations, corporations and so on? It was out of those sessions we decided to launch this culture jamming movement to reclaim and take back our culture from those corporations who have hijacked and taken our culture away from us. That’s pretty much everything we have been doing for the last 15 years.

I know all about activism burnout and I think brainstorming around it is really a thought-provoking way to make the changes you need.
Yeah, it all really came out of that despair, we were all idealistic types who wanted to change the world but felt we weren’t getting anywhere. In fact, it is very similar to the feeling most of us have right now with Bush getting elected. And the idealistic—whatever you want to call them—liberal lefties, are almost in total disarray at the moment.

Yeah, most of our jaws are still dropped.
I even think the situation now may be worse than it was 15 years ago. There seems to be a huge cultural divide between country folks and us urban folks. President Bush and his neo-conservatives politically hijacked us and we are now forced to fight this never-ending war. But politically, ecologically, and psychologically we are very driven, passionate people and our magazine, our website and everything else we do is all driven by those central forces of needed change. So culture jamming is about the ultimate goal of toppling existing power structures and changing the way we’ll live in the 21st century. Because the way we live has become intolerable.

I know. It really makes you wonder if there is something in the water.
I have been a student of social revolutions all my life. The same thing happened in the Soviet Union. Estonia was under the thumb of the Soviets for 50 years—that’s half a century. I got to the point where I thought, “Oh my country will never be free; it is just going to be there in the back waters of the soviet empire.” And low and behold, around 1989 there was suddenly a tipping point and the Soviet empire collapsed. It absolutely took me by surprise. And I think that moments like this—when it looks like the neo-conservatives seem to be in total control and strutting over the planet telling everyone else what to do and so many people feeling in despair—these are moments where tipping points can happen.

Right. When you hit bottom there is nowhere to go but up.
I think with the election of President Bush we have literally hit bottom. But this could well be a moment of truth. It is especially good because a lot of us have been living these strange lives. We are these idealistic people trying to do the right thing; yet simultaneously fallen into stupid ways, where we whine too much, complain too much and don’t do enough. I think this has been an incredible wake up call for people like you and me. To really look at our methods, at our lives; look at our magazines, at what we are actually doing in this world and to boldly find a common ground. Not be afraid. One of the reasons the neo-conservatives have become such a powerful force is because they are unafraid. They are not scared to piss off people. They are not scared to tell the other side to go to hell or to make stupid jokes about us. They have a certain sort of panache—a certain confidence. Although I think their ideas are by and large wrong, it is their style that has gotten them where they are today. I really think this is a lesson we have to learn from. Maybe we should stop being so damn good all the time, and start believing more viscerally in what we are doing.

Speaking of being bad—in a very good way—can you talk about some of your favorite campaigns that have sprung out of Adbusters?
The biggest and most successful social marketing campaign we ever launched was Buy Nothing Day, which falls on the biggest shopping day of the year, the day after Thanksgiving. It started back in 1992 as a tiny little buzz here in the Pacific Northwest. But it grew very quickly, and by 1995 it was happening all over North America. Around that time we also put it up on the Internet and it suddenly took off all over the world. Over the last couple of years, Buy Nothing Day has been celebrated in over 65 countries. It has almost become sort of an edgy Earth Day. It’s a time when millions of people around the world challenge consumerism and this consumer culture that has engulfed us.

It is incredible how many people observe it—almost like the first collective international holiday.
One of the reasons that Buy Nothing Day has taken off is because in some sense it is almost non-political. Not really left or right—we have fundamentalist Christians who don’t like what has happened to our culture and we have punk rockers that don’t like it. All these different people celebrate Buy Nothing Day in different ways. Some of them just make it a very personal thing, deciding on their own not to buy anything for 24 hours and see what it feels like. It is quite a powerful personal experience if you try to suppress the impulse to buy for a whole day—it is very difficult to do, and you really learn something. Then on the other side of the spectrum, bunches of people get into pranks and shenanigans of all kinds and others do things that border on civil disobedience.

On that same note, do you feel there is such a thing as feel-good consumerism—buying good or less bad as opposed to not buying at all?
I don’t think one can be absolutist about something like this. Ever since the Second World War we have gotten more and more into this consumer culture and our consumption has gone up by 300 percent—in half a century or so. And now it is going to take a whole movement to somehow take back our culture. I believe there are all kinds of ways of doing it. Some people want to be very harsh and lead incredibly frugal lives—not even use hot water when shaving. And I respect those people a hell of a lot. But that isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Some people just stop going to supermarkets and start buying more locally. Others grow their vegetable gardens. And some people go into this feel-good consumerism—rewarding the good companies and punishing the bad. I think all of these things are fair game. Bit-by-bit, every little act makes a difference.

But at the same time there is this incredibly bad news coming out on the environmental front. Ecologically speaking we really are up against a war now. The ecosystems of the planet are crashing, the fish in the ocean are disappearing, the salmon runs are drying up, species are disappearing, water tables are falling—we are living in a very, very critical state. Future generations are in jeopardy—their chance for living a halfway decent life is less and less probable. They are going to suffer mightily because of the way we are living right now. And I think that those people who go into feel-good consumerism haven’t quite grasped all that yet. But nonetheless, I respect what they are trying to do.

Why do you think advertising has such a strong effect on the public? I mean there is more to life than consumerism, right?
Advertising is a $450 billion–a year worldwide industry. Advertising is the single most powerful psychological experiment ever carried out on the human race [laughter]. From little babies crawling around the TV set in the living room all the way through to the TV old people are watching in old folks homes, it influences them. And I think there are very, very few people who can actually escape its power or ignore the 40,000 TV commercials you see every year. Or the thousands of little marketing messages that are all over, whether they are little logos on our T-shirts or bubbles that pop up in your face when surfing the Internet. Our mental environment is absolutely saturated, polluted with commercial messages and none of us can escape that. Mothers are going to be watching the mental diet of their children the same way they watch the physical diet.

I have to say that I love Adbusters’ TV-B-Gone—the universal remote control that turns off almost any television. I could seriously have a lot of fun with that.
I do! I took my mother-in-law to the airport yesterday and I had some great fun switching off a few TVs right there in the airport. It’s amazing how people react…the TV goes off and they look a bit dazed for about 10 seconds and then heads go down and they start reading the newspaper. [Laughter.]

Switching gears a bit, would you consider your ads to be a form of political art?
Absolutely. I think there are very few ways we can counter this wave of death washing upon us. One of the ways is to win the right to get the messages onto the information delivery systems of our time, especially TV. Instead of allowing television to be this mass merchandising tool used only by corporations, I think ‘we the people’ have to realize these are our public airways, our way of speaking to each other. And we have to get our kind of messages onto television, into magazines and onto radio. If we allow the commercial forces and the corporations to do all the talking then there is no chance in hell we will reverse this process. So I think artists, designers and visual communicators are extremely important. They use their skills to give people epiphanies and wake them up from this media consumer nightmare that most of us are caught in.

There seems to be a trend of creative people using art to fight back against over-consumption and corporate expansion.
That’s right. I don’t think any amount of whining, especially using the 26 letters of the alphabet—writing stories that whine about our culture and complaining about corporations—will do much. It has been proven to be totally ineffective. I think to a large degree we need these artists and visual communicators to break through and wake people up—especially young people.

Back in 1989 when Adbusters first started, we were all some sort of film maker, designer, illustrator or cartoonist and right from the start we decided that if we were going to launch this culture jamming movement then it would have to be driven by TV, posters, postcards, art, statues, performance art and all those tricks of the trade. I think there’s a big opportunity for young people who are now graduating from design, business and advertising schools to start thinking about their profession and doing a lot more than just hyping products and creating nuclear glows around brands.

So, I know you are not referring to Satya when you talk about the 26-letters of the alphabet being a tool to whine [laughter]…
[Laughs] No, I actually enjoy Satya—it’s one of the half dozen magazines I still enjoy. You have soul.

Ha, thanks. Well, besides a good laugh and to point out the hypocrisy, what is the purpose of “parody” ads? Do they have an effect on the targeted corporations?
Well, we have not really been able to get on TV as much as we would like. We have produced dozens and dozens of subvertisements and 15- and 30-second TV ‘mind bombs’. But when we try to buy airtime, we can’t. You would think that an American citizen would have the same right to walk into his or her TV station and plunk some money on the table and buy some airtime under the same rules and conditions as corporations do.

Quite apart from getting free airtime on the public airwaves—which you would think would be allowed in a democracy like ours—the FCC leases the airwaves out to corporations. They make millions and millions of dollars from car manufacturers and fast food people like McDonald’s. Their business depends on keeping those sponsors happy. So when we come along with a TV mind bomb that explains that SUVs are bad for future generations because they create climate change, or a message that points out that 52 percent of the calories in a Big Mac come from fat, the TV stations refuse to sell us airtime. I am unable to buy it because I’m selling ideas, and they only believe in selling products.

Can you talk about your legal actions?
We are filing legal actions against MTV and Fox. At the moment we have a very high profile action happening in Canada that is trying to win the basic right to buy airtime. Adbusters filed a lawsuit against six major Canadian television broadcasters for refusing to air Adbusters videos in the commercial spot we tried to purchase. Our lawsuit is saying that our freedom of expression was unjustly limited by the refusals.

Tell us about BlackSpot, and do you think the anti-corporation has a viable future?
Well after President Bush got elected, there was a very powerful moment of truth for a lot of us, and many of us felt that all this whining and complaint-based activism we have been involved in for the past many years hasn’t really helped. Out of a feeling of disillusionment Adbusters decided to poke its head outside the old lefty box and come up with new strategies. One of these was this BlackSpot anti-corporation. We decided to launch our own brand. People like [No Logo author] Naomi Klein and other lefties immediately threw cold water on it. They don’t like brands or the marketplace, capitalism or business. But we decided that business is one way to help change the world for the better so we launched this logo and manufactured a pair of sneakers in Portugal at a really excellent factory. And we have now got this second prototype, the V2, which is one step better than the original classic sneaker because it has soles made form recycled tires. So not only does it have 100 percent organic hemp on the upper part of the shoe, but we actually buy up used car tires and make soles—our shoes are about as ethical a shoe as you could possibly get. We are charging a really hefty price for them but we are hoping to make some money to launch other ventures like BlackSpot culture shops and to help finance antiprenuers—people who have a business sense, who want to use their skills to make this world a better place.

What do you think is the biggest threat our world faces right now?
Well, there are many ways to answer that question. But I think the biggest threat the world faces right now is ecological collapse. There is one study that just came out that basically showed that we have already destroyed a huge number of ecosystems and that in many ways the planet is dying. I think this loss of natural capital is ultimately going to do us in—not necessarily that the human race will die out but we may be forced to live very poor lives in the future. The global economy will collapse and I think we will be in this sort of apocalyptic mode. I think that is the biggest danger we face and that very few people are taking it seriously.

What are some things we as consumers can do to push corporations to ‘do the right thing’?
I actually think the biggest thing we can do is to realize that corporations are created by us, the people. In various states we give corporations a corporate charter, which must be legally installed. We are the reason in some sense that corporations exist. We the people control them. We support them. The biggest thing we can do is to stop relinquishing that control: launch movements to review corporate charters every few years. Every five years we look should look at McDonald’s: “Okay McDonald’s, have you been doing a good job? We allow you to make foods and open restaurants and sell foods to our children and so on. Are you benefiting society or are you hurting us?” And then if we say, “Oh my god, half of us are overweight and a third are obese; maybe McDonald’s, with your ads and foods, you have actually been hurting society. You have to clean up your act. You have to stop making really bad foods. Stop hooking young kids on these bad diets.” And watch them.

We need a reassertion of civil society’s control over corporations. That is the only way we can solve the problems in food, transportation, broadcasting, the environment, and in every area of our life. We have to learn to take back control.

For more information on Kalle Lasn and the culture jamming revolution visit www.adbusters.org.

 

 


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