Magazine keeps up fight against overconsumption

Canada’s ‘Adbusters’ magazine has been trying to spark campaigns to combat the hyperconsumerism of modern society since the 1990s and, despite some critiques about its consistency, it inspired Occupy Wall Street, its anti-corporate ‘uncommercials’ attract thousands of readers and it continues to battle to spread social change

By Jeff Sommer  /  NY Times News Service, New York

Wed, Dec 26, 2012 - Page 9

If you have not finished your holiday shopping yet, do not bother. Skip the mall and the neighborhood store, resist the urge to shop online and, by all means, do not buy anything you do not truly need.

So says Kalle Lasn, 70, maestro of the proudly radical magazine Adbusters, published in Vancouver, British Columbia. Lasn takes gleeful pleasure in lobbing provocations at global corporations — and his latest salvo is “Buy Nothing Christmas.”

“As our planet gets warmer, as animals go extinct, as the humans get sicker, as our economies bail and our politicians grow ever more twisted,” Americans just go shopping, Adbusters says on its Web site.

Overconsumption is destroying us, yet shopping is “our solace, our sedative: Consumerism is the opiate of the masses,” it adds.

“We’ve got to break the habit,” Lasn said in a telephone interview. “It will be a shock, but we’ve got to shift to a new paradigm. Otherwise, I’m afraid we will be facing a new Dark Age.”

Of course, retailers will be facing a Dark Age if people really stop shopping. Since consumer spending accounts for about 70 percent of the US’ GDP, an abrupt shift to non-consumption would drive the already faltering economy to its knees.

There are no signs that consumers are heeding Lasn’s call, NPD Group chief retail analyst Marshal Cohen said.

“I find that people are shoppers or they’re not,” he said. “Shoppers keep shopping.”

It is easy to dismiss this latest campaign as yet another empty gesture from a figure on the radical fringe. Why take Lasn’s words seriously?

Well, last year, a campaign prompted by Lasn and his magazine improbably caught fire. It was Occupy Wall Street.

Adbusters gave Occupy its name, opening date and designed the poster with Occupy’s defining image: an elegant ballerina perched atop Wall Street’s raging bull while gas-masked figures loomed in the background. The poster contained the text: “What Is Our One Demand? #OccupyWallStreet. Sept. 17th. Bring Tent.” A digital version went viral.

However, Lasn’s main role in the Zuccotti Park occupation pretty much ended there: He remained in Vancouver, never visiting the Lower Manhattan encampment and participating in the local organizational work that made it possible. Yet his contribution began long before then.

Born in Estonia, Lasn lived for several years in German resettlement camps with his parents after they fled the advancing Soviet army toward the end of World War II. The family moved to Australia when he was 7. He graduated from the University of Adelaide, where he studied theoretical and applied mathematics and then worked for the Australian military for four years, writing computer code for war games.

Then he moved to Tokyo, Japan, where the skills he developed in Australia served him well. He started a market research company and did computer-based studies of ad campaigns for global corporations, he said. The work was lucrative and he used his money to see the world. It was 1968, and a left-wing student rebellion in Paris resonated worldwide. He says he imbibed the spirit of rebellion and it changed him.

“Until Occupy, the greatest political movement I’d ever seen was the uprising of ’68. It really inspired me and I’ve been running on that energy — and have been trying to recapture it — ever since,” he said.

Last year, he did recapture it, he said. Stirred by the uprisings in Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt — the Arab Spring — he and colleagues at Adbusters “began to consider the possibilities of achieving a soft regime change in the United States, of finding some way to tap into the revolutionary zeitgeist.”

Out of those discussions came the idea of Occupy Wall Street.


Max Haiven, a postdoctoral fellow in art and public policy at New York University, who has studied Adbusters for years, said: “That was a fantastic initiative for them. They’ve been in global anti-consumption battles for years and Adbusters has called for many big campaigns that never really happened. This one did. In a way, they got lucky.”

“What led to Occupy Wall Street taking off was not just the iconic image of the ballerina and the bull, but a number of factors — including on-the-ground activists building an organization through many, many meetings and relationships and hard work in New York and elsewhere. Adbusters didn’t do that. Other people did it,” he added.

Lasn says he is not a community organizer and certainly not a graceful politician.

“I’ve said some things that have pissed people off,” he said.

It is not just corporations like Nike, McDonald’s and Philip Morris that have been stung by him; Israel’s policies toward Palestinians are also an Adbusters target.

For examples, a blog post in February last year titled “Friends Don’t Let Friends Violate International Law” compared Israel to a drunk friend: “For over half a century, America has been Israel’s bartender and enabler: each year dumping billions of dollars in military aid that is used to oppress Palestinians.”

The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish advocacy organization, says the magazine’s provocative statements have occasionally contained anti-Semitic elements.

“While anti-Semitism is not part of their overarching message or mission, Adbusters makes no apologies for spreading Jewish conspiracy theories and promoting offensive analogies to the Holocaust,” Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman said. “Some people want to get attention to their cause, but unfortunately, Adbusters has found it convenient at times to play into age-old conspiracy theories about Jewish control of the government in an effort to get attention to themselves.”

In one instance, in 2004, Lasn published a list of 50 people he said were prominent US neoconservatives and influenced US policy in the Iraq war. Half of them appeared to be Jewish, he wrote, and affixed a mark next to those names.

He said that US Jews tended to vote Democratic and that many were opposed to former US president George W. Bush administration’s foreign policy and to at least some Israeli policies.

However, the “neocons seem to have a special affinity for Israel that influences their political thinking and consequently, American foreign policy in the Middle East,” he said.

In an interview, Lasn said he was “naive” in publishing that list.

“I had no idea of what the effect would be and if I could do it over again, I’d do it differently,” he said.

“I don’t have an anti-Semitic bone in my body,” he said, adding that: “When I was young, one of my dreams was to live on a kibbutz.”

He said he admired many of Israel’s founders, “who were lefties,” but says: “I must admit that lately I think Israel has been making a big mistake and I think it’s important to say it.”

One of Lasn’s favorite words is “meme,” as in: “Adbusters floated the meme of occupying the iconic heart of global capitalism.”

The biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term: A meme is a unit of cultural information spread among people like a gene. Spreading radically subversive memes is Lasn’s avowed mission.

He has written a new Adbusters book, Meme Wars: The Creative Destruction of Neoclassical Economics. It is a lavishly illustrated collection, with photographs, drawings and essays that exhort university students to become “meme warriors” and revolutionize the field of economics. Like the magazine, the book elaborates on an old theme: his belief that core economic values must shift from profit-making and GDP expansion toward the improvement of human health and protection of the planet.


Accomplishing that requires overturning economic orthodoxy and capitalism as we know it, he said.

“We have to do this. With climate change and the exhaustion of the planet’s resources. I believe the alternative is apocalypse,” Lasn said.

Despite these portents of doom, “the waves of global activism that we’ve been seeing — with Occupy and everything else — this fills me with more optimism than I’ve felt for many years,” he added.

The magazine is published by the nonprofit Adbusters Media Foundation, of which Lasn was a co-founder in 1989 with a close friend, Bill Schmalz, a wildlife cinematographer. As Schmalz recalls it, Adbusters arose from a battle over conservation that the two men were waging against a Canadian logging company.

“Basically, they were cutting too many trees for the forest to regenerate,” Schmalz, 71, said in a telephone interview. “We wanted that to stop.”

The men met at work. In those days, Lasn, like Schmalz, was a documentary filmmaker working on projects for the National Film Board of Canada. He had moved to Canada with his wife, Masako Tominaga, so that he could leave advertising behind and embark on a film career.

What influenced him to head in that direction? He said it was the politics of the 1960s, combined with the movies of the era, especially the social satire The Graduate. Lasn says he identified with its young star, Dustin Hoffman, who played a newly minted college graduate about to take up a career in what was then the hot new corporate field: “plastics.” He rebels instead.

“In his own way, he was a revolutionary,” Lasn said. “In his own way, he stumbled through life and had some epiphanies and seemed to come out OK at the end.”

Schmalz and Lasn collaborated on a 30-second television spot on the log-cutting controversy, but they were denied airtime. They started a long, inconclusive legal battle for the right to broadcast their “uncommercial” and decided to start a newsletter, Schmalz recalls. In 1992, it became Adbusters magazine.

Even then, the focus was on protecting the earth’s battered environment, fighting against overconsumption and jousting with corporate giants, Lasn said.

Lasn set the tone.

“Kalle’s a feisty guy and that comes across in the radical voice of the magazine,” said Schmalz, now semi-retired. “Some of what you’re seeing and hearing is really just attention-getting.”

Adbusters became a multimedia platform for barbed social and political critique. The ad industry has been a favorite target. A series of satirical print “subvertisements” uses what Lasn calls “jiujitsu” to turn a company’s own ad campaigns into a liability. He terms this approach “culture jamming.”

Consider Adbusters’ mordant “Joe Chemo” ads. They show Joe Camel, the tobacco mascot, receiving treatment for cancer.

Today, the Internet provides an outlet for the organization’s video “uncommercials.” They are discomfiting, especially if you are a target. In a spoof of McDonald’s, a juicy Big Mac is lifted toward a consumer’s face as an announcer officiously describes its fat content. The consumer drops the burger in disgust.

In another video, a young man on a couch watches television.

“Your living room is the factory,” a deep voice intones. “The product being manufactured is you.”

The camera swivels to the back of the man’s neck, revealing a tattooed bar code.

TV Turnoff Week, held in April, was perhaps the most successful Adbusters campaign before Occupy Wall Street.

It urged “addicted television watchers to just turn off the set and cleanse their minds,” Lasn said.

“Addictions have broadened,” he added, and that campaign has become Digital Detox Week, aimed at getting people to turn off all of their digital devices, meditate, enjoy the quiet and spend time with family and friends.

Then there’s the “Consumer Pig” video. It depicts North Americans as voracious despoilers who cannot bear to stop shopping.

“Give it a rest,” an announcer intones in a promotion for the Buy Nothing Day campaign.

That effort takes place on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, a time of intense bargain-hunting. Adbusters asks shoppers to cease and desist.

Buy Nothing Day is the older sibling of Buy Nothing Christmas — an effort to extend one day of abstention to the entire holiday season. Lasn said it was the idea of a former editor at Adbusters, Aiden Enns.

Enns now lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, from which he operates a separate Web site for the campaign, in tandem with the Adbusters’ effort based in Vancouver. He describes himself as a “progressive Mennonite” and says his approach is a “pretty mellow campaign not driven by high-energy organizers.”

Advocating a life of material simplicity and spiritual richness, Enns urges people to “make things for others themselves, not to just go out and buy.”

He said he and his wife make gifts like wooden figurines and animal dolls for children, and salsa and relish for adults.

“The point is that we make them ourselves,” he said. “They’re a gesture of love.”

Enns said he was in general agreement with Lasn and with Occupy Wall Street.

“I believe our economy isn’t sustainable,” he said. “I believe it needs to change.”

However, as a pacifist, he adds, he is at odds with elements of the global Occupy movement.

Lasn’s words and tactics are more combative. From his Vancouver base, Lasn says he is trying to “re-energize” the Christmas campaign.

Adbusters is asking demonstrators to storm Times Square — “the iconic center of global capitalism” — and march around with “#BuyNothingXmas” signs through New Year’s Day. There had not been much response as of Friday, but no matter: Sparks do not always catch fire.

Lasn freely acknowledges that he is inconsistent — enmeshed in the advertising-saturated material world he is battling. For example, he does not make gifts for friends and family, he buys them — usually, smoked salmon and vodka.

“They love it,” he said. “I love it. That’s why I do it.”

However, the vodka is usually Stolichnaya, not Absolut, whose stylish ads are skewered by Adbusters.

One such subversive ad is a poster reading: “Absolut on Ice.” Bathed in unearthly blue light, the sole of a foot is visible on a morgue gurney bearing the tag “D.O.A.”


Lasn said his lifestyle is not really sustainable. He commutes 30 minutes each way from the magazine to his home on 5 acres of countryside. He and his wife are occupying too much land and his little Toyota Echo burns too much fuel for the planet’s health.

“What can I do? Living there helps to keep me sane,” he said.

Despite all of those online campaigns, Lasn is an analog man in a digital world. He favors spoken conversations, not e-mail or text messages, and owns only a simple cellphone — no iPhone or iPad for him.

He does not use the cellphone often, it is locked in his car.

“It’s there for emergencies,” he said.

Lasn does the initial design and editing of Adbusters on paper. Digitally savvy colleagues transfer his work online. The magazine’s paid circulation, which Lasn says is between 60,000 and 70,000 worldwide, is overwhelmingly print, not digital. Digital subscriptions and downloads are cumbersome and must be improved, he said, although he does not understand the processes.

“We’ll be working on this,” he said. “It’s odd. We’re a print magazine, but already, most people come to Adbusters through our Web site and our Listserv and on Twitter.”

He is also trying to revitalize another Adbusters project, the sale of Blackspot Unswooshers — its own brand of “sustainable, fair trade” high-top sneakers.

The shoes pose a challenge of sorts to “that multi-billion-dollar brand, Nike,” he said.

“On a very limited budget, we are using Nike’s own brand power against them,” he added. “We’re unswooshing them.”

Yet he says the sneakers have not caught on the way they should. The original Blackspots, which bear a passing resemblance to Converse Chuck Taylors, will be discontinued.

“We haven’t really gotten the idea of our brand out there successfully yet — the idea that indie businesses can really combat global megacorporations,”

That message may be the problem. Adbusters has been criticized as confusing the issue: asking people not to go brand-name shopping, but asking them to buy its own brand.

As Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter put it in the book Nation of Rebels, when Blackspots went on sale in 2003, it became “obvious to everyone that cultural rebellion, of the type epitomized by Adbusters magazine, is not a threat to the system — it is the system.”

Such apparent inconsistencies, and the magazine’s incendiary tone, can be maddening and even offensive, yet this rambunctious approach is also deeply appealing, some critics say.

As Haiven puts it: “I’ve certainly been very critical of them, but I’m also very glad they exist. I think they do very important work sometimes, in their own way.”

“I think the answer is not so much that they should be doing something different, but that there should be more alternatives out there. There is nothing else quite like Adbusters,” Haiven added.