New Internationalist Issue 278
The material that follows has been provided by New Internationalist
Ross Crockford visits Adbusters, a Vancouver-based campaigning group that combines parody with politics.
The viewers of CNN Headline News were in for a bit of a shock.
One afternoon last September, amid the channel's standard fare of news bites and ads for cars and mutual funds, this appeared : an animated pig, smacking its lips, rising out of a map of North America. 'The average North American consumes five times more than a Mexican, ten times more than a Chinese person and thirty times more than a person from India,' said an announcer. Cut to a bulldozer, plowing garbage into a landfill. 'We are the most voracious consumers in the world - a world that could die because of how we North Americans live.' Cut to an image of Earth, receding in space. 'Give it a rest. September 24th is Buy Nothing Day.'
Score another small victory for the Adbusters Media Foundation. Since 1989 this group of activists based in Vancouver, on Canada's Pacific coast, has generated dozens of similarly cheeky and provocative messages. And fought to get them onto television screens. As they see it, most TV ads are propaganda for an unsustainable way of life and our media is more interested in selling that way of life than in discussing ways we can change it. Adbusters tries to beat the big advertisers at their own game - by promoting ideas instead of products.
'We're trying to develop a new language of protest,' says Kalle Lasn, one of the group's founders. 'Corporations are defining our culture for us. It's time for us to take it back.' With that goal in mind the Estonian-born Lasn, 53, publishes Adbusters magazine, a quarterly 'journal of the mental environment' exposing advertising practices and offering oddball 'culture jamming' strategies. (One recent issue contained a counterfeit coupon for a free hamburger and invited readers to persuade McDonald's employees to accept it.)
Between the articles are ad parodies. And even these have created a stir. The makers of Absolut Vodka once threatened to sue Adbusters over a series of spoof ads - one showed the familiar vodka bottle, drooping from over-indulgence, with the slogan 'Absolut Impotence'. But they eventually backed off, realizing that a lawsuit would only give the magazine more publicity.
Lasn also makes 30-second, broadcast-quality 'subvertisements' like the Buy Nothing Day message but he has trouble convincing TV stations to run them. Last year he sent a dozen of the 'uncommercials' he's produced (blasting such things as television addiction and industrial forestry) to the three biggest stations in New York City. Though the messages were professionally slick and their claims backed by statistics all three stations turned him down.
'Television is the most powerful medium of our time but the average citizen does not have access to it,' claims Lasn. 'This pandering to the commercial interest has gone so far that our basic freedom of speech is being violated.'
The powers that be will find it more difficult to stop the message of Buy Nothing Day. Last September 24, Buy Nothing Day went international. In Manchester, England, a group called Enough celebrated the date by launching a fake new soft drink called Happiness. In the Netherlands activists occupied a shopping mall dressed in rat costumes and urged people to leave the race. It may sound loony but Lasn has even bigger plans in 1996, including a full-page ad in the New York Times and the broadcast of another animated pig message in the capitals of all of the G-7 countries.
'Western culture has gone berzerk with shopping,' says Lasn. 'Buy Nothing Day is the consumer equivalent of meditation. It teaches you something about the impulse to buy that has been so carefully conditioned into us by advertizing.'
Breaking the consumer habit won't be easy. At the end of last year's Buy Nothing Day spot on CNN a toll-free telephone number appeared on-screen and dozens of viewers called to express their opinions. Three-quarters of them were hostile. 'You're a bunch of tree-hugging freaks,' said one. 'Advertizing is the American way.'
Says Kalle Lasn: 'Our message goes against the grain of what North Americans have been brought up to believe. But let's face it, neither our consumer culture nor our economic system are sustainable. We're at the beginning of a revolution which is fuelled by a quest for sustainability - a quest to give our children and our children's children the same kinds of opportunities that we have. It requires incredibly hard choices. Now is the time to make them.'
For more information contact:
The Media Foundation, 1243 West 7th Avenue, Vancouver BC, Canada V6H 1B7. Tel: 604 736 9401, Fax: 604 737 6021
Enough Anticonsumerism Campaign, World Centre, 6 Mount St., Manchester, Britain M2 5NS.
Tel: 0161 237-1630, Fax: 0161 228 2347.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996
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