Feature

Adbusters: tackling globalisation with ad subversion

By spoofing ads and producing anti-corporation TV campaigns, Adbusters offers creative resistance to global business. Kevin May reports

This week, Cancun in Mexico hosts the latest round of World Trade Organisation talks, which will inevitably mean demonstrations by the usual activists with the usual gripes: the climate is going irreversibly barmy; large corporations are more powerful than governments and not publicly accountable; the three richest men in America own more wealth than the entire populations of the 60 poorest countries combined, etc. But this time the authorities will be better prepared than they were in 1999 for the infamous "Battle of Seattle", when talks were brought to a halt by a massive tide of public demonstrations.

Among the most prominent of the many agitators in Seattle was the organisation known as Adbusters. It didn't merely ferment demonstrations, it ran a 60-second TV commercial, a three-execution poster campaign and a series of spots on local radio. For a movement with a ten-year history and an increasingly strained overdraft, Seattle moved it into the black. Now the Adbusters magazine enjoys a circulation of 120,000 in 60 countries around the world (including 15,000 in the UK thanks to a recently secured distribution deal with WH Smith), and the website, adbusters.org, can boast more than 80,000 unique users.

Adbusters is, as the name suggests, most renowned for its "subverts" (pictured), doctored versions of real advertisements designed to turn a brand story on its head. But its activities stretch beyond a few gratuitous pranks. It claims to represent a loose network of agitators stretching around the globe with the aim of catalysing not controlling activity.

And it doesn't see itself as a marginal interest group; it talks of itself as the natural successor to the 60s civil rights movement. The organisation's mentor is Kalle Lasn, the author of Culture Jam, a phrase coined in this context by Lasn long before Naomi Klein was out of braids. Lasn is an ex-adman turned film maker who gave up a good job to start Adbusters in 1989.

The thrust of the Adbuster ethos is not commercial so much as cultural.

Its main concern is that the modern world is on receive too much of the time. "Everything we used to experience directly," Lasn says, "has been turned into a show put on by someone else. Real living has been replaced by pre-packaged experiences." The ability to create individual spontaneous culture has been lost, and nowadays all we have is a homogenous corporately funded mush relentlessly fed down to us from on high. We are so overloaded with information that's it lost any real meaning.

Lasn acknowledges that the problem is most acute in the US, where punters can expect to have more than 3,000 commercial messages hit their brains daily but, like most things American, it's coming our way fast. The main weapon against this malaise for Adbusters is its "cultural jam", a sudden sensory surprise designed to make us sit up and take notice such as the "subverts" or internet campaigns.

Lasn points to the threefold increase in mental dysfunction in the West over the past two decades, and to the findings of numerous studies showing that the comforts of modern life haven't made us any happier. Prosperity seems to march hand-in-hand with emotional insecurity. We have more than we have ever had before, but see the glass as a tenth-empty rather than nine-tenths full.

Count your blessings? Fuck off, I want more. But more is never enough.

So not only have we lost the ability to create spontaneous culture for ourselves, but we no longer have the capacity to be satisfied. For Lasn this is down to more than just a profusion of choice. He is concerned about the spread of corporate influence into the media, sometimes to the point of exercising editorial influence or even censorship. He is worried about a world economy based on an expansionist model that is proving environmentally unsustainable. And together with the diversification of commercial messages (sometimes referred to as "ambient" media), it bothers him that disinformation is becoming the norm. We expect advertisers to exaggerate and governments to spin, and we filter accordingly at a subconscious level. The hardwiring of our minds has been tampered with.

Lasn is convinced that media clutter, with advertising at its vanguard, lies at the root of this mental dysfunction. It is not just the sheer volume of messages we receive, but also the form and the content. Commercials contain jolts to stimulate the viewer, dozens of fast cuts and loud sounds.

These jolts excite the brain with an intensity for which it is not designed. Sudden stimulation cues the instinctive reflex of fight or flee, a state of mental emergency. As for the content of advertising, it's no news that ads play on the emotions - especially fear, anxiety and the desire to belong and be right.

Lasn describes advertising as the biggest psychological experiment ever carried out on the human race, the consequences of which cannot be predicted.

We are being drowned in a profusion of messages that disturb our nervous systems and probe our emotions by playing to our insecurities - it's Clockwork Orange come to life. But the scam is about to be rumbled, by what Lasn describes as the "mental environmental movement". "The commercial world is blind to this," he says, "in the same way it was largely blind to the 'physical environment movement' 20 years ago, which has had a huge impact on how business is done."

This movement will be driven primarily by young people, according to Lasn, "the generation most acutely aware of the mindfuck that they have been exposed to". He dismisses the "slacker generation" born between 1965 and 1980, a group characterised by cynicism and dithering, where commitment to anything smacks too much of earnestness. This generation "spend days on end sharpening their sardonic edge on the whetstone of apathy". But their time is passing, and a new revolutionary energy will "take back our ability to be creative and decide what our future will be rather than have other people do that for you".

But the Adbuster movement isn't adverse to the principles of advertising. The operation was born of advertising and follows the same disciplines.

It uses TV commercials and press ads and puts campaigns together. It has calls-to-action and measures success by criteria such as awareness and website hits. Its strategies, as well as its executions, seek to surprise (so the tactics at Cancun this year won't be to send a delegation, but instead hit the establishment with a shock campaign). And although Lasn describes advertising as "the most prevalent and toxic of the mental pollutants", he is still sympathetic to the people working in the business. Lasn doesn't see them as devotees of some evil Spectre-like empire. If anything, he pities them for ironically being as much the victims of their own craft as everybody else.

Lasn feels advertising folk are broadly dissatisfied with their jobs, haunted by the notion that they were always going to make so much more of their lives and that employees of the largest conglomerates are the most unhappy. They're also obsessed with awards, parties, promotion and casual sex, but find every time these rewards materialise they are left feeling strangely empty. Only the next holiday offers momentary respite from the sheer hell of it all. "They're a cynical bunch of people who make a lot of money doing stuff they'd probably prefer not to be doing," Lasn says.

For many of these poor adlanders, Lasn believes that permanent relief will soon be at hand. He sees the proliferation of marketing messages akin to an arms race and, like all arms races, fast approaching a point of diminishing returns. Clients are spending more and more, and getting less and less in return. Media fragmentation has only made effective media weight more elusive. The industry is about to implode.

Lasn sees the current travails as "the beginning of a permanent decline that will result in advertising shrinking from a $450 billion worldwide business to something more like $200 billion". Lasn concedes that the industry will always exist but sees a future with a split between "nuts and bolts product-messaging and more idea-centric social marketing". It is this latter pursuit that will attract the best talent and "put it to better use than just promoting pointless consumerism".

To some extent, Lasn claims that this is already happening. Adbusters has an alternative guise as the Media Foundation, a collection of creative professionals who devote their services to the promotion of worthwhile causes. In 2000, this group issued the First Things First declaration committing themselves not to waste their talents on futile pursuits. At its core lies "a desire to be able to go home to the kids and explain proudly what they have spent the day doing". To date, just over two thousand signatures have been put to the declaration.

It is tempting to dismiss Lasn as a tree-hugging old fart who is faintly round the twist and his conspiracy theories over-egging the sickness of modern society. We may be more on receive than we might be and perhaps our art doesn't imitate life as much these days, but we're not all wan souls stumbling around in a trance hankering for our next serving of commercial soma.

People still read books, have conversations, make each other laugh, and sometimes even dance and sing. Perhaps not as frequently as they did in the days before TV, but even then the vast majority of people didn't exactly spend their free time happily discussing Wittgenstein, writing poetry and combing the forest floor for the ingredients for the evening meal. There is a sense that Lasn is yearning for a halcyon era of authenticity that never really existed or was nowhere near as wholesome as it appears through the rose-tinted specs of nostalgia.

The TV might have numbed our senses, but the washing machine has saved us from aching limbs.

That many of us belong to the generation of slacking cynics may explain our inclination to dither and scoff about what he says. Nevertheless, it's hard to contest many of his observations even if you don't agree with all his extrapolations. It may seem harsh to accuse advertising of being responsible for modern mental dysfunction. And we can't pretend advertising is not trying to worm its way into every nook and cranny of our lives and then wax lyrical when our smart slogans are so prevalent they enter playground or pub vernacular.

Adbusters sees an increasingly fabricated and branded world where everything is strangely scripted along the lines of The Truman Show. The aim of these activists is to break in and shake us from our complacency, show us the script and encourage us to take the drive over the water.

As Lasn concludes: "Dreams by definition are supposed to be unique and imaginative. Yet the bulk of the population is dreaming the same dream. It's a dream of wealth, power, fame, plenty of sex and exciting recreation. What does it mean when a whole culture dreams the same dream?" And there, at the very least, you have to concede he has a point.

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