Marketing, May 24, 1996

You will be shocked to learn that smoking cigarettes is not the healthiest thing you could be doing. Fast food will not provide all of your recommended daily nutritional allowance, and apparently its fat content is pretty high, too. Guess what else? It turns out not everything on TV is 100 percent real; some of it is — gasp — made up. And apparently there’s not a direct, causal connection between advertising and real life, either. As you can imagine, I was underwhelmed by these revelations. They’re in Adbusters, a quarterly magazine that calls itself the “Journal of the Mental Environment.”

 

Boss adbuster Kalle Lasn justifies its existence: “According to The Wall Street Journal, there’s 3,000 marketing messages seeping into the typical North American person’s brain every day. We have a lot of pollution of our mental environment. And this media activism or culture jamming that I talk about is a sort of mental environmental movement, if you like — a way of cleaning up the toxic areas of our mental environment. One way that the media activist movement tries to clean up this kind of thing is to try to get on television with our own ‘uncommercials,’ as we call them, and basically fight those people, go head-to-head with those people who are in our brains.

 

The human brain and the forest primeval are not analogous; their central fallacy is unworkable, but that doesn’t daunt Adbusters. Nobody asked them to clean up the “mental environment,” either; knowing better, they fight on. Their principal means of washing our brains? Lame parody ads. If too many ads are a problem, making more of them would seem to make it worse. But that’s just the kind of nutty thing “culture jamming” is all about.

 

Adbusters is trying to buy space for one such ad — a Kool cigarettes parody wherein the ‘K’ is replaced by an ‘F’ — in Harper’s magazine. Harper’s won’t sell them the space. Adbusters is pestering editor Lewis Lapham by mail about that. Lapham is an unapologetic smoker, which makes him an ill-considered target for such a campaign. But that kind of naiveté is a key ingredient of the Adbusters approach. Pick an unwinnable fight. Ensure failure by making unreasonable demands. Keep losing. Repeating the same behavior and expecting different results usually indicates insanity. For Adbusters, failure seems to be the point; it guarantees the opportunity to congratulate itself for being so groovily rebellious in resisting the whole plastic-fantastic Madison Avenue trip, man. What year is this?

 

On page 48 of the Spring 1996 issue, former lawyer Ross Crockford bleats, “Aren’t we entitled to govern our own mental environment?” Crockford never explains who’s forcing him to watch television, or why he has no capacity for critical thought. Maybe that’s too harsh an assessment; perhaps his media literacy stops short of knowing how to turn off a TV set. Later, on page 62, we’re told that Crockford is “quite smug about the fact he owns neither a car nor a television set,” That same whiff comes rolling off every page like a stinky fog: the patchouli-like stench of galling self-righteousness.

 

Lasn says 20 percent of people in advertising hate their day jobs. He’s particularly proud of the fact that some of the magazine’s contributors work in advertising, clandestinely helping Adbusters turn out its self-described “subvertisements” during their off hours. Wouldn’t that make them contemptible hypocrites, guilty of worse sins than those they purport to excoriate?

 

No matter — Lasn knows he and his Adbusters are making an impact because they can’t place their ad parodies. In other words, failure is a sure sign of success. “I tried to buy 30 seconds on CBC Newsworld’s Fashion File for a message,” he says. “They’re rejecting our spot because they think that it’ll piss off their sponsors.” That spot features a nude woman vomiting into a toilet and ends with the tagline, “The beauty industry is the beast.” Lasn says the people at Newsworld didn’t tell him they thought the ad would anger their sponsors, but he knows that’s the reason.

 

Or maybe they just figured it was too dumb.

 

What about the notion of “caveat emptor” — that if people believe all the advertising they see, they deserve whatever disappointments they get? “Oh, the claims that are made by advertising don’t count for anything,” Lasn says breezily. Huh? Then: “You don’t quite understand what we do here, I don’t think.”

 

You’re right, Kalle. I don’t understand how lousy parody ads that harangue the naïve and browbeat the converted are supposed to be a good thing. I don’t understand why, if commercials are so awful, more — worse — commercials are better. I don’t understand how you could have grown up on this planet and missed reading Mad magazine. I don’t understand how smugness and hypocrisy and not having a sense of humor are supposed to save the world.

 

But somehow, Adbusters assures us, the continuing crisis will reverse itself here on Spaceship Earth if we all start gumming tofu bricks, wearing socks with our Birkenstocks and trading in the car for a mule.

 

I just don’t get it.