Last summer, as I walked along a tidy residential street in Vancouver’s upscale Fairview Slopes, I wondered whether I had been given the wrong address. As a young journalist whose interests are outside mainstream journalism, I had decided to volunteer for a few months at Adbusters, the subversive quarterly magazine dedicated to undermining the kind of material excess that this neighbourhood represents. Surprisingly, the office was located in a two-level basement of a brown clapboard house, one of the few remaining among the rows of tidy condominiums. A small sign perched on its lawn read: “The Media Foundation.” It’s an activist organization that is behind a variety of campaigns against consumerism such as “Buy Nothing Day” and “TV Turnoff Week.” It runs Powershift, a nonprofit ad agency that produces spoofs of well-known ads (called “uncommercials”), as well as legitimate ads for clients such as Greenpeace. The foundation also publishes Adbusters, its house organ.
The first thing I noticed when I walked into the office was a magazine rack, bulging with previous issues of Adbusters, as well as other magazines such as Utne Reader,Harper’s and Mother Jones. The smell of coffee from a continually brewing pot permeated the air, and there were cookies and fruit on a table for up to a dozen volunteers and four paid staff. The room (no bigger than 800 square feet) was divided in half: in the front, the general office, I saw volunteers preparing mail and answering the four phone lines; in the back, editors and designers sat in front of the three computers.
In the three-and-a-half months I spent at Adbusters, I met people like myself, who had gravitated west to worship at the magazine’s altar. Adbusters, which describes itself as a “journal of the mental environment” is dedicated to media activism. Within its glossy well-designed pages, its goal is no less than to revamp consumer culture. Short news stories critically evaluate mainstream advertisements and corporate sponsorship-with a focus on the tobacco, alcohol and fashion industries-or describe the innovative activities of university professors or grassroots community organizations. Features challenge neoclassical economics, analyze graffiti in North American cities, editorialize on American presidential politics or evaluate the quality of products in huge, corporate-owned supermarkets.
But reading about the issues is a passive act. According to the Adbusters’ view of the world, most people are prisoners of consumerism in need of liberation. Adbusters is their guerrilla manual.
Many publications are known for their service features-from restaurant guides to makeup and hair colouring tips-but Adbusters has carved out its own unique niche in this specialized branch of journalism. Encouraging readers to become actively involved, the magazine provides how-to guides for “culture jamming” (defined as subverting the big-budget mass media that keep a consumer culture going). The magazine has published instructions for making do-it-yourself TV commercials for less than $2,000 and for disrupting marketing focus groups; and it has provided ready-to-mail petitions to broadcast regulators in North America. In recognition of its crusading efforts, Adbusters won the 1992 Press Award for service journalism sponsored by Utne Reader, the bible of North American alternative media.
The best-known components are probably the spoof advertisements. For example, a Spring 1996 spread reads: “Welcome to Marlboro Country.” The Marlboro logo is mimicked, but instead of a cowboy on a horse riding through the West, a crowd of employees huddle in the cold outside an office building amid a cloud of smoke. In the bottom right-hand corner is a mock Surgeon General’s warning label: “Smoking causes hypothermia as well as premature death.”
The founder and driving force behind Adbusters is Kalle Lasn, a compact 55-year-old with a thatch of thinning silvery hair. When he was a small boy in 1944, Lasn’s family escaped from Estonia ahead of the Russian army’s invasion. He was raised in Australia and as an adult moved to Tokyo, where he met his wife and worked with an American-Japanese market research company. Researching what motivated people to buy opened Lasn’s eyes to the manipulative techniques that huge corporations use to convince consumers to buy products, while often ignoring the environmental or social consequences of these purchases. Disillusioned with advertising, Lasn began making documentaries about Japan.
In 1970, he and his wife emigrated to Vancouver-a decision based on the international reputation of Canada’s National Film Board. For several years he made serious documentaries explaining social issues, but eventually became frustrated with being at the mercy of television producers and viewers with a remote control. Lasn started feeling that the best way to affect the masses would be to use the techniques of TV advertising: making 30-second films and inserting them in a time slot where they would be seen.
In 1988 Lasn and his friend, wilderness photographer and filmmaker Bill Schmalz, decided to make their own commercial. This was to draw attention to what they believed was the inaccurate propaganda that the B.C. Council of Forest Industries was broadcasting in its “Forests Forever” TV ads. Lasn and Schmalz’s 30-second ad, “Mythical Forest,” argued that contrary to the council’s optimistic message, the province’s forest industries were clear-cutting old-growth forests. Even though Lasn and Schmalz tried to purchase airtime like any other advertiser, the CBC refused to air “Mythical Forest” on the grounds that it was too controversial.
Lasn and Schmalz felt they were facing a freedom-of-speech issue. They learned that the CBC, which claims to be a public informational service, was not any different from any other network wanting to protect its advertising revenue. The two videomakers envisioned future uncommercials to air to the public. But to do this they had to raise awareness of this new movement.
A few months later, in February 1989, Lasn and Schmalz launched Adbusters, Unlike the polished product of today, the early issues were published on newsprint with limited graphics, and the editorial content focussed on the environment-more of a newsletter than a magazine. Readers were encouraged to buy airtime at TV stations. The two men were determined to get their video work aired all over North America. Around the same time they created The Media Foundation, to contain the different elements of their vision. Two years later, Lasn used his film experience launching Powershift to produce television ads for advocacy groups.
In its early days Adbusters lacked a clear focus, says Rick Pollay, a marketing professor at the University of British Columbia. He has been involved with Adbusters from the beginning and still sits on the editorial board. The magazine was both a critique of advertising and an environmental magazine, and Pollay doesn’t think Lasn and Schmalz were able to find an editorial mix that accomplished both.
Schmalz stayed for the first few issues, but then-citing a lack of income from the unprofitable magazine-returned to wilderness filmmaking and photography. (He is still the co-publisher, and sometimes helps out with photography and video assignments.) Under Lasn’s guidance, throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s Adbusters covered underreported issues such as forestry in the Pacific Northwest. “We were saying things people hadn’t heard before,” recalls Lasn. “It was an exciting crest of a wave to ride on.” By 1990, however, the mainstream media had discovered the environment too and the movement peaked. So Lasn decided to move away from covering the natural environment and concentrate his focus on the “mental environment.”
It was all part of Lasn’s goal to influence a wider market instead of preaching to the converted. Adbusters was usually associated with the political left, but Lasn believed that the Left was a dead force holding back the activist tradition. “Nobody is listening to those buzz words and rants by Noam Chomsky and all those left-wingers,” he says. “It’s time to create a new activism that is appropriate for our information age.”
Lasn shifted Adbusters‘ editorial direction and also revamped its appearance. Its former crude, cut-and-paste layout on newsprint went glossy, with bright colours, jagged blocks of text and offbeat visuals.
Today, Adbusters focusses on advertising and claims to have an international circulation of 30,000-two-thirds of which is in the United States. The quarterly is read by political and environmental activists, university professors, students and teachers of media literacy, ad agency executives, journalists and others working in the communication industries. Financially, the nonprofit publication has been building momentum. After losing about $1,000 a week for several years, the Winter 1996 issue finally made money. Although paid advertising is rare, Adbusters generates revenue through subscriptions and newsstand sales (the magazine is priced at nearly $6 in Canada), as well as the sale of postcards, back issues, calendars, T-shirts and taped uncommercials. Adbusters also recently got an offer to do a culture jammer’s handbook, with the money to be invested back into the publication. The magazine receives donations from people who believe in Lasn’s philosophy: this year, an American academic (and occasional Adbusters contributor) donated $1,000.
Lasn’s Winter 1995 editorial reads like a manifesto for the Adbusters’ philosophy: “A new breed of ’90s activists-the culture jammers-are taking legal action to open up the airwaves. They want [to] practice social marketing; to use the public airwaves-not only to sell products and corporate images-but to sell ideas, stir public debate and empower people to set their own agendas.”
Last summer, sitting on a legless Japanese-style chair on the floor of the Adbusters’ office, Lasn explains “culture jamming” to me. He says “jamming” is CB radio slang for the practice of interrupting police signals. “Culture jamming,” then, is interfering with the messages produced by communication industries like advertising. “The culture-jamming technique is like a judo technique,” says Lasn, making martial-arts movements with his hands. “Instead of using your own power and meeting people head-on, you use their momentum. We’re using the momentum of the consumer society against itself.”
Besides being an example of culture jamming, uncommercials are also a kind of advocacy journalism: they try to present alternative versions of accepted truths. In 1993, Adbusters purchased a spot for an ad entitled “Autosaurus.” The uncommercial depicted a dinosaur made of cars, rising and then falling into a heap. A voice-over said ominously: “It’s coming…the end of the automotive age.” The final frame showed people walking, cycling and taking public transportation.
“Autosaurus” appeared only once, during CBC’s Driver’s Seat, a weekly national automotive show before CBC officials claimed the ad breached its prohibition on advocacy advertising during news and information shows. However, Driver’s Seat had not been classified as a news and information show before “Autosaurus” aired. Adbusters took the CBC to the British Columbia Supreme Court, arguing that the CBC had violated its contract. The court refused to rule on the Charter issue at the time, and the appeal, which has been postponed several times, is now scheduled for later this year.
The magazine’s most recent uncommercial features a model-reminiscent of the waiflike girls used in Calvin Klein advertisements-apparently doing strenuous exercises. As the camera pulls back, viewers realize the model is dry heaving into a toilet bowl. The voice-over reads: “The beauty industry is the beast.” Despite much perseverance, Adbusters has failed in its efforts to get the uncommercial aired on CBC’s Fashion File and CNN’s Style.
Spoof ads in the magazine are another form of culture jamming; most of them are imaginative parodies of well-known ads that appear in mainstream media. In the Fall 1991 issue, Adbusters ran what at first glance appeared to be a typical Absolut vodka ad-part of the company’s legendary campaign. The bottle picture, with the brand name making up a two-word headline such as “Absolut Hollywood,” was the talk of the advertising industry. But in the Adbusters version, the headline reads “Absolut Nonsense,” followed by this small-print message: “Any suggestion that our advertising campaigns have contributed to alcoholism, drunk driving or wife and child beating is absolute nonsense. No one pays attention to advertising.” In February 1992, Absolut threatened a lawsuit, demanding a retraction, an apology and the destruction of all tainted issues. Adbusters refused, then sent out press releases challenging Absolut to a debate about alcohol advertising. The lawsuit was dropped and Adbusters has kept spoofing Absolut ads.
Another form of culture jamming is altering a billboard with a written message. Last year a Toronto “culture jammer” drew skulls on the faces of every model in bus shelter ads located along a downtown stretch of Spadina Avenue. The message: death to advertising. Culture jammers are protesting advertising saturation, from highway billboards to washroom stalls-a response to what many see as a one-way flow of information.
Adbusters not only supports this kind of activism, its editorial content often provides step-by-step directions for executing it. In a Winter 1996 article entitled “Adding The Blemish of Truth: Making Little Changes to Billboards,” the author explained how to build a billboard-altering device using a copper pipe, wood dowel, trigger cord and a can of spray paint. “Answering a billboard by spraying on a written reply was effective when clever but too often weakened towards mere defacement,” the article read. “In any case, a blatantly modified billboard was quickly papered over by watchful crews of local outdoor advertising companies. But what if you made small changes to the advertising imagery? The results would be more articulate (and) would probably last longer…. Best of all, you could add something so quickly you could be gone before anyone could say ‘Billboard Busters!'”
Some would accuse Adbusters of encouraging criminal activity. Lasn argues that there is a difference between spray painting an obscenity on a billboard, and reacting to the manipulation of advertising-what Lasn calls “billboard liberation.” One is just vandalism; the other is media activism-responding to the brainwashing techniques of the dominant powers in a consumer society.
“Absolute End,” says a bemused Dan Baxter, reading from an issue of Adbusters. Baxter was the director of account planning for the Vancouver office of BBDO, Canada’s largest advertising agency. We’re sitting in his posh office with its picturesque view of the mountains, the railway, the ports and the ocean. Favourite ads are taped to a wall behind his desk-ads that, as Baxter puts it, really “know how to target their audience.” He is looking at one of Adbusters’ spoof ads for Absolut vodka, in which the distinctive bottle is shaped like a noose.
“What does [Lasn] want you to do?” asks Baxter, shaking his head. “Not drink? Not drink and drive? Why Absolut? I don’t understand.” Lasn wants people to think about the messages in advertising. With the exception of public service ads, consumers are inundated with messages to buy. Rarely are we able to make the connection that by purchasing over-packaged products we are contributing to overflowing landfill sites. Advertisers are primarily concerned with selling their products, not addressing social concerns. However, Lasn says that people working in ad agencies have told him that Adbusters has made them more cautious when designing an ad, asking themselves: What could Adbusters do with this?
“To understand the media world we live in requires a great deal of education,” says Mark Kingwell, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and TV critic for Saturday Night. “You can ingest it with no education at all; but you can only ingest it critically with a great deal of education, the kind that publications like Adbusters are trying to give us.”
But can what Adbusters does be called journalism? Some of the magazine’s stories editorialize, reading like opinion pieces rather than the news pieces they are presented as. “Millions of people are already prisoners of television technology,” writes Rick Crawford in the Summer 1994 issue. “Although they are allowed to leave their living rooms on ‘work furloughs,’ they have given up control of their time to the rhythms and dictates of institutional marketing strategies.” Making blanket statements-that all readers feel they are prisoners of technology-breaks the basic rules of good journalism. Still, Adbusters publishes some thought-provoking essays and investigations. The Winter 1995 issue contained an analytical article by Mark Crispin Miller, a leading left-wing media critic and professor at Johns Hopkins University, whose work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly,The New York Times Book Review,The New Republic and The Nation. Miller argued that in this media-bombarded world, advertisers sell more than just products. They sell the fantasy of power to the dispossessed.
Other strong journalistic stories include a 1995 investigation into the tobacco industry by George Gerbner, a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania; and Canadian reporter Bob Mackin’s story, published the same year, about citizens who create their own pirate radio and TV stations in defiance of government broadcast regulations. Jonathan Rowe-author, policy director of Redefining Progress and contributing editor to Washington Monthly, whose work appears in prominent U.S. publications like The Atlantic Monthly-argued persuasively in the Winter 1996 issue that economists are out of touch with society. But writers of the calibre of Rowe, Mackin, Gerbner and Miller are the exception, not the rule.
Adbusters gives writers the freedom to address complicated issues, sometimes taking a point of view that is hard to sell in the mainstream media. So why aren’t traditionally trained journalists flocking to its pages? Have journalism schools succeeded in brainwashing students into thinking that objective journalism means not questioning conventional social norms?
One of the reasons is financial. According to the writer’s guidelines, Adbusters pays $50 per printed page for features-a fraction of what major magazines pay. Despite Lasn’s efforts to change the perception of the magazine as a marginal endeavour, it remains a fringe publication. Adbusters isn’t so much a magazine as a crusade to revamp our consumer culture. Writers attracted to the magazine believe in this philosophy, and the majority of them are academics and activists, not journalists.
Take the example of Arthur Kroker, a professor of political science at Montreal’s Concordia University and a leading intellectual who has written several books on the effects of technology on people. In the February 1996 issue of Saturday Night, Mark Kingwell wrote a piece that attempted to explain Kroker’s theories to that magazine’s general audience. A few months earlier, the Summer 1995 Adbusters had contained Lasn’s lengthy interview with Kroker, which explored the academic’s complex ideas in considerably greater depth.
Complexity, however, doesn’t necessarily guarantee accessibility: Kroker discussed his notion of “virtualization”-which means “the shutting down of human sensorium, and putting in its place a kind of vacant process of virtualization, which really means the harvesting of flesh.” As the interview goes on, the technical jargon gets even more confusing to the reader.
Reading Adbusters may feel like being an outsider in a private club. Its pages are saturated with jargon. Some terms have been borrowed from deconstructionist theory (“downshifter,” “bionomics,” “meme”); others have been invented by Lasn and his colleagues (“subvertising,” “decycling,” “mental environment”). When I asked Lasn to define “mental environment,” he chuckled and said it was so obvious he couldn’t explain it.
Adbusters scarcely qualifies as traditional journalism, but it has perfected a unique brand of service journalism. Adbusters supplies starter kits to help people create “culture jamming” groups in their schools and communities. (At one time, it published an insert called “Big Noise,” aimed at high school students.) The magazine’s service component is more effective at making people media literate than the features it publishes.
It’s probably not possible for Adbusters to be both subversive and part of the mainstream. That is what makes it a significant publication, a small counterbalance to the prevailing consumer culture. Lasn doesn’t expect the profile and mass acceptance of a Saturday Night. His goal is to make people more conscious of the influence of marketing and advertising-and then foster activism out of that growing awareness.