Active Culture

Culture Jammers

By Aaron Mathes

This article is from the November/December 1997 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

This article is from the November/December 1997 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

issue 214 cover

Who would have thought a pair of documentary filmmakers and wilderness devotees from the deep woods of British Columbia would launch a rowdy leftist rag that uses cutting-edge advertising techniques to get the better of glitzy ad agencies?

Founded by Kalle Lasn and Bill Schmalz in 1989, Adbusters slings its ad zaps as a jazzy, youth-oriented quarterly. Its mission: "to take on the archetypal mind polluters... and beat them at their own game; to uncool their billion-dollar images with uncommercials on television, subvertisements in magazines and anti-ads right next to theirs in the urban landscape; to take control over the role that the tobacco, alcohol, food, fashion, automobile and culture industries play in our lives, and to set new agendas in their industries."

Looking to increase publication soon to six times annually, the self-dubbed "Journal of the Mental Environment" has a circulation of roughly 37,000—10,000 in Canada, 20,000 in the U.S., and 7,000 abroad. Adbusters has built such a following not with its articles (which take up relatively little of the magazine's pages) but with its imitation ads. These parodies of prominent ad campaigns target specific corporations, the kind that mistreat the public the way bullets mistreat vital organs. Some spoofs are contributed by active amateurs while others are created by Adbusters' own ad agency, Powershift, which also works on campaigns for nonprofits like Greenpeace International. Perhaps the magazine's most popular creation is Joe Chemo: spots show Camel Cigarettes' mascot facing the consequences of chronic smoking.

This method of activist combat, called "culture jamming," is an aggressive, guerrilla-like project, one that relies ultimately on the independent efforts of committed individuals to badger the profit motive out of irresponsible corporations. "We're trying to make the jump from analysis to activism," says Lasn, the sole editor now that Schmalz has withdrawn once more into the forest primeval. "Activism is dead in North America. The Left is dead, campuses are dead."

"A thousand journals analyze—we try to go one step further," Lasn adds. Indeed, many parts of both the magazine and the Adbusters' website read like step-by-step, do-it-yourself handbooks on how to bring down the System single-handed. The web page, for example, provides instruction on how to make your own public service message for television, how to market it, and how to apply pressure when the networks refuse to air your shocking, irreverent assault against the consumer ethic.

But while Adbusters prescribes disruption, its vision of how to replace the consumer lifestyle is somewhat weak. If you're not sure that the ends justify the means, you might question Adbusters' tactic of adopting the manipulative strategies that it condemns in its enemies. And the attractiveness of their mock ads and of some of the models in them might backfire, reinforcing our association of glamor with the ads' subjects. For example, one ad's lampoon of Calvin Klein features a model skinny enough for a real CK spot—no matter how critical the message is, the image perpetuates our tendency to obsess about weight.

Adbusters' clearest triumph, on the other hand, may be its knack for showing how exciting activist life can be. Adbusters promotes organizing projects to encourage everyone to participate. In its summer '97 issue, an article on the G-7 economic summit ends with a list of tactics for students who want to "reinvent the American Dream," tactics which include hosting counter-summits during next year's G-7 conference. On the more immediate agenda, Adbusters is declaring November 28 Buy Nothing Day. To lend your support, simply buy nothing on that day, or go the extra step and promote the event like crazy. Contact: Adbusters, (604) 736-9401.

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