How to shake up the somnolent

Are the old leftist strategies of getting messages across -- rallies and placards and sloganeering -- dead in the '90s? Kalle Lasn, founder and director of the Vancouver-based Adbusters, which is shaking up the advertising world, believes that there is no fire left in the belly of these old methods. A much more effective way is culture-jamming, or the sneaky subversion of mainstream media messages

by David Edwards

"Circus dogs jump when the trainer cracks his whip, but the really well-trained dog is the one that turns his somersault when there is no whip"  -- George Orwell

Your car spits one pound of carbon out of its exhaust pipe every 25 miles. Happy motoring!One of the great problems with our modern situation is that it resembles a cheese-induced dream, a 1950s science fiction B-movie: we run past endless shelves of glossy magazines but they are always, in essence, the same magazine. We can wonder to ourselves whether we live in a truly free society, but we cannot discuss it because no-one ever discusses it, and so no-one understands what on earth we might be talking about, and so no-one ever discusses it... and so on, nightmare-like. We might run into the streets warning of the invasion of the `pod-people', but not if all of us have already, in a sense, been turned into `pod people' by a lifetime's exposure to corporate `fun' and corporate `common sense'.

It is interesting to see that there are now vast forces beginning to shake us from our slumber: global warming, ozone depletion, species depletion, the global corporate demolition of democracy, the globalization of poverty and authoritarian government...are all beginning to reach deep into our dream to shake us, to call to us in our corporate sleep.

Into this fray -- all but alone, tiny, but expowered by the truth -- comes: Adbusters!

Kalle Lasn, founder and director of Adbusters, began life in the corporate world from which he was to defect with such finality. He worked in advertising, of all things. "Initially I was pleased to be part of the advertising industry but I gradually realized that I couldn't stand it, that it was somehow rotten to the core; I couldn't stand the people," he says.

Adbusters specializes in `subvertisements' -- short, sharp, still and video `mind bombs' -- designed to twist advertising cliches around, judo-like, to shock consumers into critical thought. The familiarity of their apparently standard advertising imagery means a first glance grants them entry into a viewer's awareness. This is crucial.

In his book Vital Lies, Simple Truths -- The Psychology of Self-Deception, psychologist Daniel Goleman reveals how our minds automatically reject messages threatening to our version of reality before they have a chance to reach consciousness. In other words, the mind has the capacity to be aware, and yet unconscious, of what it does not want to deal with. Goleman concludes: "In order to avoid looking, some element of the mind must (know)... what to avoid. The mind somehow grasps what is going on and rushes a protective filter into place, thus steering awareness away from what threatens."

Notice, then, the sophistication of the Adbusters ads illustrated throughout this article, compared, say, with the standard, leftist sloganeering which crudely confronts the average viewer with statements like "Hands off the Gulf!" or "Ban the Bomb!"

Where these statements are immediately screened out and rejected from most people's consciousness, Adbusters' messages slip stealthily through. Having admitted them to awareness, the casual viewer then proceeds to take a stroll through what, in reality, is an Adbusters mental minefield: "What's this about? Impotence..?" Silence!

At first, Lasn and his team approached TV stations in Vancouver but later discovered that the lack of democracy on the airwaves "was true right across Canada, right across the United States and possibly throughout every First World country."

It was outrage at the total rejection  that started the range of Adbusters' non-profit activity: Adbusters' magazine, the website on the net and a small advocacy advertising agency called Power Shift that produces TV spots.

Adbusters have produced dozens of TV spots on issues such as over-consumption, Buy Nothing Day, TV addiction and TV Turn Off Week. Other ads mercilessly ridicule the car, fashion and food industries. I asked Lasn how long it took him to get a spot aired: "It took years -- our spots were systematically, routinely refused. In Canada they said, Oh, we have Article 3 of our advertising standards guidebook which says we can't air controversial messages -- advocacy messages are out of bounds. In the US, the reaction was much more in your face. Station managers said, `Why should I run ads that hurt my business? We decide what we run or not, we're trying to run a business. Why don't you just go away?' These station managers were acting as if they owned the airwaves, even though, legally, these are public airwaves owned by the people and leased to stations. Broadcasters are supposed to act in the public interest, not merely in their own commercial interest.

It is easy to understand the nervousness of station managers. In 1993, Adbusters ran an anti-car subvertisement during the commercial break of a Canadian  Top Gear-style car programme. Other advertisers, understandably unhappy at running their car ads alongside these anti-car spots, pulled their ads and the programme collapsed.

So what is the way forward for Adbusters?
"We know that the legal battle is the tip of the spear of our culture-jamming movement. If we can win the legal right to walk into stations and buy airtime and go head-to-head with all these industries, then we know we can repeat what happened 20 years ago when the anti-tobacco lobby zapped the tobacco cartel off the air, even though they were out-numbered and out-gunned. Our whole movement, in a sense, is an attempt to repeat that tobacco victory in a number of other industries."

"We will initiate more legal actions against the big three networks in New York. We are also planning to go to the World Court under Article 19 of the UN Charter of Rights which says that the people of the world should have the right of access to their own airwaves."

We always associate thought control with totalitarian societies, but there is a more subtle kind, the Adbusters believe. "Totalitarian thought control is very blatant," says Lasn, "it's Orwellian. It's the powerful basically saying, Look, you do as I say or I'll hit you over the head or put you in a mental hospital. But here in the First World countries it is Huxleyan, much more subtle. It's a system that feeds  us the tranquillizing Soma sleep drug that we willingly take: nobody forces us to watch TV every night, but we do it because we're cult members. We have been slowly, systematically indoctrinated since the day we were born. We develop a sense of belonging. For me American consumer `cool' is the Soma of our times; we all desperately need this Soma and we take it every day or our world collapses."

There is a story in the latest Adbusters magazine about Che Guevara cola, which is selling like hot cakes! It is a marketing triumph. Young people are much more media-savvy than in the past, but they have been blinded somehow. It is like breathing dirty air: after a while you just get used to it. They love talking about that Che Guevara cola, they understand how it works, how they are being manipulated, but they still drink it, they still think it's really cool! Even though they know Nike trainers are made by sweated labour in Indonesia, they still think the Nike `Swoosh' symbol is incredibly cool.

In part, Lasn blames this on the fact that young people no longer grow up in a natural environment, as he himself did. They grow up in an electronic environment, they think the natural environment is passe -- they have no other reference.
Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky's propaganda model proposes that advertisers, corporate owners and state influences working on a profit-seeking media dramatically limit media freedom, Lasn informs. But he thinks Chomsky is "too left, too inaccessible. I mean that he is too much stuck to the old slogans, to the old era when the Soviet Union still had something idealistic about it. My feeling is that for us to mount an effective social activist movement of the '90s and beyond we have to get beyond the left. The tactics of the left, the strategy, is bankrupt; there is no fire in the belly any more."

I agreed and asked him if he was thinking of the whole emphasis on `struggle' and protesting on the streets. "Yes, words like `class' and `struggle', and the running round the streets shouting slogans and holding placards," says Lasn. There is a better way. "I think that culture-jamming is a better way. We are now in the post-modern era and we have to deal with malaise and cynicism and culture, and we have to use the most powerful mass media tools of our time to communicate: we have to use television. It is meme warfare. Richard Dawkins coined the phrase and we use it to mean a war of ideas between the really big ideas of our time -- memes -- that we need either to combat or propagate. We need to break people's media and consumer  trances, and wake them up out of the cult they are in."

There is hope for the future. Says Lasn: "I have this feeling that we are reaching a millennial moment of truth and I believe that a very small number of passionate culture-jammers -- as few as 500 or even 100 -- can pull off a global mindshift in the next few years. I think it can happen in exactly the same way that the Soviet empire suddenly fell. It is something that can be catalysed. The big dynamic that hasn't shown itself yet is that of people denying that something really momentous is about to happen; the fact that the global economy is unsustainable, that it is a  kind of doomsday machine and that deep down we all know that: the climate is changing, and so on. So deep down just about everyone on the planet who knows what's going on can feel it, but we are denying it. It is waiting there in the background and as soon as it comes to the forefront, then that will be the catalytic moment when dramatic change will be possible."

David Edwards is a researcher/writer for the International Society for Ecology and Culture. His latest book The Compassionate Revolution is published by Green Books.