Adbusters – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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Cover of Issue # 93 (Jan/Feb 2011) of Adbusters Magazine Founder Kalle Lasn and Bill Schmalz Frequency Bi-monthly First issue 1989 Country Canada Language English Website ISSN 0847-9097

Adbusters Media Foundation is a not-for-profit, anti-consumerist organization founded in 1989 by Kalle Lasn and Bill Schmalz in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The foundation describes itself as “a global network of artists, activists, writers, pranksters, students, educators and entrepreneurs who want to advance the new social activist movement of the information age.”[1]

The Adbusters Media Foundation publishes the reader-supported, advertising-free Adbusters, an activist magazine with an international circulation of 120,000[2] devoted to challenging consumerism. Adbusters is perhaps one of the best known activist magazines in the Western world. Notable past and present contributors to the magazine include Christopher Hedges, Matt Taibbi, Bill McKibben, Jim Munroe, Douglas Rushkoff, Jonathan Barnbrook and others.

Adbusters has launched numerous international campaigns, including Buy Nothing Day and TV Turnoff Week, and is known for their “subvertisements” that spoof popular advertisements.

In English, Adbusters has bi-monthly North American, Australian, and International editions of each issue. Adbusters’ sister organizations include Résistance à l’Aggression Publicitaire[3] and Casseurs de Pub[4] in France, Adbusters Norge in Norway, Adbusters Sverige in Sweden and Culture Jammers in Japan.[5][6]



[edit] History of Adbusters

Adbusters was founded in 1989 by Kalle Lasn and Bill Schmalz, a duo of award-winning documentary filmmakers living in Vancouver, British Columbia. Since the early 1980s, Lasn had been making films that explored the spiritual and cultural lessons the West could learn from the Japanese experience with capitalism.

In 1988, the British Columbia Council of Forest Industries, the “voice” of the logging industry, was facing tremendous public pressure from a growing environmentalist movement. The logging industry fought back with a television ad campaign called “Forests Forever”. It was an early example of greenwashing: shots of happy children, workers and animals with a kindly, trustworthy sounding narrator who assured the public that the logging industry was protecting the forest.

Adbusters’ first uncommercial

Lasn and Shmalz were outraged by the use of the public airwaves to deliver what they felt was deceptive anti-environmentalist propaganda. And they responded by producing the “Talking Rainforest” anti-ad in which an old-growth tree explains to a sapling that “a tree farm is not a forest”. But when the duo went to buy airtime on the same stations that had aired the forest industry ad, they were refused. According to a former Adbusters employee, “The CBC’s reaction to the proposed television commercial created the real flash point for the Media Foundation. It seemed that Lasn and Schmaltz’s commercial was too controversial to air on the CBC. An environmental message that challenged the large forestry companies was considered ‘advocacy advertising’ and was disallowed, even though the ‘informational’ messages that glorified clearcutting were OK.”[7]

Adbusters was born out of their realization that citizens do not have the same access to the information flows as corporations. One of Adbusters’ key campaigns continues to be the Media Carta, a “movement to enshrine The Right to Communicate in the constitutions of all free nations, and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.

For Adbusters, concern over the flow of information goes beyond the desire to protect democratic transparency, freedom of speech or the public’s access to the airwaves. Although Adbusters supports these causes, Adbusters instead situates the battle of the mind at the center of its political agenda. Fighting to counter pro-consumerist advertising is done not as a means to an end, but as the end in itself. This shift in emphasis is a crucial element of mental environmentalism.

[edit] Mental Environmentalism

The subtitle of Adbusters magazine is “The Journal of the Mental Environment”.

Their philosophy is that if a key insight of environmentalism was that external reality, nature, could be polluted by industrial toxins, the key insight of mental environmentalism is that internal reality, our minds, can be polluted by infotoxins. Mental environmentalism draws a connection between the pollution of our minds by commercial messaging and the social, environmental, financial and ethical catastrophes that loom before humanity. Mental environmentalists argue that a whole range of phenomenon from the BP oil spill to the emergence of crony-democracy to the mass extinction of animals to the significant increase in mental illnesses are directly caused by the three thousand advertisements that assault our minds each day.[citation needed]

In a 1996 interview, Kalle Lasn explained the goal of Adbusters: “What we’re trying to do is pioneer a new form of social activism using all the power of the mass media to sell ideas, rather than products. We’re motivated by a kind of `greenthink’ that comes from the environmental movement and isn’t mired in the old ideology of the left and right. Instead, we take the environmental ethic into the mental ethic, trying to clean up the toxic areas of our minds. You can’t recycle and be a good environmental citizen, then watch four hours of television and get consumption messages pumped at you.” [8]

[edit] Culture jamming

American Corporate Flag

Culture jamming is the primary means through which Adbusters challenges consumerism.[9] The magazine was described by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter in their book The Rebel Sell as “the flagship publication of the culture jamming movement”.[10] Culture jamming is heavily influenced by the Situationist International and the tactic of détournement. The goal is to interrupt the normal consumerist experience in order to reveal the underlying ideology of an advertisement, media message, or consumer artifact. Culture jamming aims to challenge the large, influential corporations that control mainstream media and the flow of information. It is a form of protest. The term ‘jam’ contains more than one meaning, including improvising, by re-situating an image or idea already in existence, and interrupting, by attempting to stop the workings of a machine.[11]

As already noted, Adbusters’ approach to culture jamming has its roots in the activities of the situationists and in particular their concept of détournement. This involves the “turning around” of received messages so that they communicate meanings at variance with their original intention. Situationists argue that consumerism creates “a limitless artificiality”, blurring the lines of reality and detracting from the essence of human experience.[12] In the ‘culture jamming’ context, détournement means taking symbols, logos and slogans that are considered to be the vehicles upon which the “dominant discourse” of “late capitalism” is communicated and changing them – frequently in significant but minor ways – to subvert the “monologue of the ruling order” [Debord].

The organization’s activism links grassroots efforts with environmental and social concerns, hoping followers will “reconstruct [their] self through nonconsumption strategies”.[12] Adbusters is particularly well-known for their culture jamming campaigns,[13] and the magazine often features photographs of politically-motivated billboard or advertisement vandalism sent in by readers. The campaigns attempt to remove people from the “isolated reality of consumer comforts”.[14]

[edit] Issues

[edit] Anti-advertising

Adbusters is anti-advertising: it blames advertising for playing a central role in creating, and maintaining, consumer culture. This argument is based on the fact that the advertising industry goes to great effort and expense to associate desire and identity with commodities. Adbusters believes that advertising has unjustly “colonized” public, discursive and psychic spaces, by appearing in movies, sports and even schools, so as to permeate modern cultures.[15] Adbusters’ goals include combating the negative effects of advertising and empowering its readers to regain control of culture, encouraging them to ask “Are we consumers and citizens?”.[16]

To counter the belief that advertising focuses on looking toward external rewards for a sense of self, Adbusters recognizes a “natural and authentic self apart from the consumer society”.[17] The magazine aims to provoke anti-consumerist epiphanies. By juxtaposing text and images, the magazine creates a means of raising awareness and getting its message out to people that is both aesthetically pleasing and entertaining.[14]

Activism also takes many other forms such as corporate boycotts and ‘art as protest’, often incorporating humor. This includes clever billboard modifications, google bombing, flash mobs and fake parking tickets for SUVs. A popular example of cultural jamming is the distortion of Tiger Woods’ smile in to the form of the Nike swoosh, calling viewers to question how they view Woods’ persona as a product. Adbusters calls it “trickle up” activism, and encourages its readers to do these activities by honoring culture jamming work in the magazine. In the September/October 2001 “Graphic Anarchy” issue, Adbusters were culture jammed themselves in a manner of speaking: they hailed the work of Swiss graphic designer Ernst Bettler as “one of the greatest design interventions on record”, unaware that Bettler’s story was an elaborate hoax.

[edit] Media Carta

“Media Carta” is a charter challenging the corporate control of the public airwaves and means of communication. The goal is to “make the public airwaves truly public, and not just a corporate domain”.[14] Over 30,000 people have signed the document[citation needed] voicing their desire to reclaim the public space. On September 13, 2004, Adbusters filed a lawsuit against six major Canadian television broadcasters (including CanWest Global, Bell Globemedia, CHUM Ltd., and the CBC) for refusing to air Adbusters videos in the television commercial spots that Adbusters attempted to purchase. Most broadcasters refused the commercials fearing the ads would upset other advertisers as well as violated business principles by “contaminating the purity of media environments designed exclusively for communicating commercial messages”.[14] The lawsuit claims that Adbusters’ freedom of expression was unjustly limited by the refusals.[18] Adbusters believes the public deserves a right to be presented with viewpoints that differ from the standard. Under Section 3 of the Broadcasting Act, television is a public space allowing ordinary citizens to possess the same rights as advertising agencies and corporations to purchase 30 seconds of airtime from major broadcasters.[19] There has been talk that if Adbusters wins in Canadian court, they will file similar lawsuits against major U.S. broadcasters that also refused the advertisements.[20] CNN in America is the only network that has allowed several of Adbusters’ commercials to run.

[edit] Legal action

On April 3, 2009, the British Columbia Court of Appeal unanimously overturned a BC Supreme Court ruling that previously dismissed the case in February 2008. The court granted Adbusters the ability to legally go after the major corporations that originally refused to air their anti-car ad “Autosaurus”, specifically the Canadian Broadcasting Company and CanWest Global. The ruling represents a big victory for Adbusters, but it is the first step of their intended goal, essentially opening the door for future legal action against the media conglomerates. Co-founder Lasn declared the ruling a success and said, “After 20 years of legal struggle, the courts have finally given us permission to take on the media corporations and hold them up to public scrutiny.”[21]

[edit] Digital Detox Week

Campaign logo for Digital Detox Week

In April 2009 Adbusters transformed TV Turnoff Week into Digital Detox Week, encouraging citizens to spend seven days “unplugged” without any of electronic devices such as video game systems and computers.

[edit] One Flag

The “One Flag” competition encouraged readers to create a flag that symbolized “global citizenship”, without using language or commonly known symbols.[22]

[edit] Blackspot Shoes campaign

In 2004, Adbusters began selling vegan, indy shoes. The name and logo are “open-source”;[23] in other words, unencumbered by private trademarks.[24]

There are three versions of the Blackspot Sneaker. The V1 is designed to resemble the Nike-owned Chuck Taylor All-Stars.[25] There is also a V1 in “fiery red”.

The V2 is designed by Canadian shoe designer John Fluevog. It is made from organic hemp and recycled car tires.

After an extensive search for anti-sweatshop manufacturers around the world, Adbusters found a small union shop in Portugal.[26] The successful sale of more than twenty-five thousand pairs[27] through an alternative distribution network—despite the much higher than average production costs—is a leading example of Western consumer activism/solidarity against competing third world labor.[27]

[edit] Reception

Heath and Potter’s The Rebel Sell, which is critical of Adbusters, claimed that the blackspot shoe’s existence proves that “no rational person could possibly believe that there is any tension between ‘mainstream’ and ‘alternative’ culture.”[10] The campaign is an ongoing experiment in alternative branding.[citation needed]

In the June 2008 cover story of BusinessWeek Small Business Magazine, the Blackspot campaign was among three profiled in a piece focusing on “antipreneurs.” Two advertising executives were asked to review the campaign for the article’s “Ask the Experts” sidebar. Brian Martin of Brand Connections and Dave Weaver of TM Advertising both gave the campaign favorable reviews.

Martin noted that Blackspot was effectively telling consumers, “We know we are marketing to you, and you are as good as we are at this, and your opinion matters,” while Weaver stated that “This is not a call to sales of the shoe so much as it is a call to participate in the community of Adbusters by buying the shoe.”[28]

[edit] Criticisms

[edit] Commercial style

Adbusters has been criticized for having a style and form that are similar to the media and commercial product that it attacks, that its high gloss design makes the magazine too expensive, and that a style over substance approach is used to mask sub-par content.[29]

Heath and Potter posit that the more alternative or subversive Adbusters feels, the more appealing the Blackspot sneaker will become to the mainstream market. They believe consumers seek exclusivity and social distinction and have argued that the mainstream market seeks the very same brand of individuality that Adbusters promotes; thus they see Adbusters as promoting capitalist values.[10]

The Blackspot Shoes campaign has stirred heated debate, as Adbusters admits to using the same marketing technique which it denounces other companies for using.[25]

[edit] Accusations of antisemitism

In March 2004, Adbusters was accused of antisemitism after running an article[30] that alleged many supporters of the Iraq War within the Bush Administration were Jewish. The article questioned why the political implications of this Jewish influence on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East were not a subject of debate.[31]

In October 2010, Shopper’s Drug Mart pulled Adbusters off of its shelves after a photo montage[32] comparing the Gaza Strip to the Warsaw ghetto was featured in an article critiquing Israel’s embargo of Gaza.[33] Two frequently pro-Israel Canadian organizations, the Canadian Jewish Congress and Honest Reporting Canada, rallied to have the magazine blacklisted from bookstores, accusing Adbusters of trivializing the Holocaust and of antisemitism.[34][35][36] “The argument is obscene, and continues the disgusting tradition of some supporters of the Palestinian cause to turn Jews into Nazis and Palestinians into Jews. In so doing, these propagandists not only demonize Israelis (i.e., Jews), but minimize the murderous extent and intent of [Nazism’s] genocidal project.”[37] Adbusters responded to the charges in an op-ed printed in the National Post, arguing that the charge of antisemitism was being used to silence legitimate criticism of Israeli policies, namely “Israel’s occupation of Palestine.”[38] Adbusters also pointed out that the Canadian Jewish Congress has itself been the target of complaints by Jewish Canadians, including Naomi Klein, who signed an open letter declaring, “We are appalled by recent attempts of prominent Jewish organizations and leading Canadian politicians to silence protest against the State of Israel. We are alarmed by the escalation of fear tactics.”[39] Others[who?] have pointed out that Adbusters was not the first to make the comparison. Some academics, including Norman Finkelstein, a Jewish anti-Zionist political scientist, have also compared Gaza to the Warsaw ghetto.

The pictures of the Warsaw ghetto were obtained from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum a year and a half before their use and were provided for a one-time use only.[35] When advised of the use, the museum sent Adbusters a cease and desist letter demanding that the photos be immediately removed from Adbusters’ website.[40] It was later discovered that the images used by Adbusters were in the public domain and/or not owned by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The confusion resulted from the fact that the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has pictures on file that they do not own the copyright to, but merely provide access to.

[edit] Ineffective activism

Some critics claim that culture jamming does little to incite real difference.[11] Others declare the movement an easy way for upper- and middle-class citizens to feel empowered by engaging in activism that bears no personal cost, such as the campaign “Buy Nothing Day”. These critics feel a need for “resistance against the causes of capitalist exploitation, not its symptoms”.[12]

[edit] Responses to criticism

Naomi Klein has argued that the current generation is different, being uncompromising and learning from (what she sees as) corporate tricks of the past, saying “Although this is what companies have always done — they’ve sought out the edge, they’ve marketed it and sold it back, they’ve done it with feminism and anti-establishment agendas — I think there’s something fundamentally different about an anti-corporate movement that’s reacting so strongly against that very impulse to co-opt.” [41]

Co-founder Kalle Lasn emphasizes the importance of daily gestures of resistance. He believes that sparking personal epiphanies, and life changing mind-shifts, is the path to revolution.

[edit] Awards

In 1999 Adbusters won the National Magazine of the Year in Canada.[42]

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^About Adbusters“. Retrieved December 19, 2010.
  2. ^ May, Kevin (September 11, 2003). “Adbusters: tackling globalisation with ad subversion”. Campaign (Haymarket Group). Retrieved April 29, 2010 [dead link]
  3. ^ Résistance à l’Aggression Publicitaire
  4. ^ Casseurs de Pub
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ Adbusters zine from 1993
  8. ^ “CULTURE JAMMIN’: The Media Foundation Uses Guerrilla Tactics Against Advertising Excess.” in E : the Environmental Magazine. Norwalk: May 1996. Vol. 7, Iss. 3; pg. 41
  9. ^ Lasn, Kalle (2000) Culture Jam, New York: Quill.
  10. ^ a b c Heath, Joseph and Potter, Andrew. The Rebel Sell. Harper Perennial, 2004.
  11. ^ a b Kari Pritchard, “Questioning Culture”,, April 1, 2009
  12. ^ a b c [ Joseph D. Rumbo, “Consumer Resistance in a World of Advertising Clutter: The Case of Adbusters”, Psychology and Marketing, Vol.19(2), February 2002]
  13. ^ Willan, Claude (2005-07-24). We’re All Borf In the End. Washington Post. Retrieved 2007-11-20 
  14. ^ a b c d “Culture Jams and Meme Warfare: Kalle Lasn, Adbusters, and media activism”, Wendi Pickerel, Helena Jorgensen, and Lance Bennett, April 19, 2002
  15. ^ [ Joseph D. Rumbo, “Consumer Resistance in a World of Advertising Clutter: The Case of Adbusters”, Psychology and Marketing, Vol.19(2), February 2002]
  16. ^ [Marnie W. Curry-Tash, “The Politics of Teleliteracy and Adbusting in the Classroom”, English Journal 87(1), 1998]
  17. ^ [ Joseph D. Rumbo, “Consumer Resistance in a World of Advertising Clutter: The Case of Adbusters”, Psychology and Marketing, Vol.19(2), February 2002]
  18. ^ “Adbusters takes Canadian TV networks to court”. CBC News. September 15, 2004. [dead link]
  19. ^ “Adbusters Wins Legal Victory in Ongoing Case Against the CBC and CanWest”,, April 6, 2009
  20. ^ Satya May 05: Interview with Kalle Lasn of Adbusters
  21. ^ Fiona Morrow, “Adbusters wins right to sue broadcasters over TV ads”,, April 6, 2009
  22. ^ [“About Adbusters.” Adbusters Culturejammer Headquarters | Journal of the mental environment . 4 Mar. 2009 <>.]
  23. ^ Blackspot – Blackspot Shoes
  24. ^ Blackspot – Blackspot Shoes
  25. ^ a b Aitch, Iain (2003-12-15). Kicking against the system. London: The Independent. Retrieved 2007-11-20 
  26. ^About the shoes“, Blackspot website. Retrieved June 2007.
  27. ^ a b Blackspot – Blackspot Shoes
  28. ^ “Meet the Antipreneurs”. BusinessWeek Small Business Magazine. June/July, 2008. Retrieved 2008-07-31. 
  29. ^ McLaren, Carrie. “Culture Jamming ™: Brought To You By Adbusters“. Stay Free!. Retrieved September 13, 2005.
  30. ^ Lasn, Kalle (March/April 2004). “Why won’t anyone say they are Jewish?”. Adbusters. “Here at Adbusters, we decided to tackle the issue head on and came up with a carefully researched list of who appear to be the 50 most influential neocons in the US (see above). Deciding who exactly is a neocon is difficult since some neocons reject the term while others embrace it. Some shape policy from within the White House, while others are more peripheral, exacting influence indirectly as journalists, academics and think tank policy wonks. What they all share is the view that the US is a benevolent hyper power that must protect itself by reshaping the rest of the world into its morally superior image. And half of them are Jewish.” 
  31. ^ Adbusters, Max Cleland, and more. The Weekly Standard. 8 March 2004. Retrieved 20 November 2007 
  32. ^ Mohammad, Saeed David (9 June 2009). “Never Again: A ghettoized Gaza bears striking resemblance to the Warsaw ghetto”. Adbusters. Retrieved 18 February 2011. 
  33. ^ Hoffer, Steven (4 November 2010). “Adbusters Yanked From Store Shelves; Anti-Semitic Photo to Blame?”. AolNews. Retrieved 5 March 2011. “The anti-consumerist, culture-jamming Adbusters magazine — recently known as the hipster publication that ragged on hipsters — is being taken off the shelves at Canadian drugstore chain Shoppers Drug Mart following a dispute over a “Truthbombs” photo spread juxtaposing images of Gaza and the Warsaw Ghetto, according to The Globe and Mail.” 
  34. ^ “Bernie Farber and Len Rudner: Selling anti-Semitism in the book stores”. 
  35. ^ a b Paul Lungen. “Magazine’s photo essay called anti-Semitic”. 
  36. ^ “Adbusters’ Spurious Gaza – Warsaw Ghetto Comparison”. HonestReporting. 4 June 2009. Retrieved 5 March 2011. “The reason the Warsaw Ghetto analogy is used is to trump up libelous claims that Jews who were once the victims of the Nazis during the Holocaust are now the victimizers carrying out the genocide of Palestinians. It should be noted that comparisons of Israeli policy and actions to Nazism fit the European Union’s and U.S. State Department’s working definition of anti-Semitism.” 
  37. ^ Farber, Bernie M.; Ludner, Len (23 October 2010). “Antisemitism on Your Magazine Rack – Courtesy of Adbusters”. Canadian Jewish Congress. National Post. Retrieved 5 March 2011. 
  38. ^ Lasn, Kalle (2 November 2010). “A tale of two ghettoes”. National Post. “In Canada, we should be free to choose from a diversity of viewpoints and decide for ourselves what is anti-Semitic and what is a legitimate critique of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.” 
  39. ^ Jewish Canadians Concerned About Suppression of Criticism of Israel
  40. ^ “Bernie Farber and Len Rudner: Selling anti-Semitism in the book stores”. 
  41. ^US: Nike Capitalizes on the Anti-Capitalists
  42. ^ “Adbusters: journal of the mental environment”. Counterpoise. Gainesville: Apr 30, 2000. Vol. 4, Iss. 1/2; pg. 71

[edit] External links

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