Kalle Lasn recalls the moment in 1989 that as an environmental campaigner he first realised that all brands carry a political message – or to paraphrase the 1970s radical feminist slogan: "The commercial is political."
"The forestry industry was worried about how people were reacting to its policy of clear-cutting forests [felling all the trees in an area]. It launched a multimillion-dollar campaign assuring people of the Pacific North West that they had nothing to worry about. Its slogan was ‘Forests Forever’. That pissed us off so much that we decided to go head to head on TV. We came up with a 30-second spot of our own but, lo and behold, the TV station refused to sell us any airtime."
It was absurd and unfair, he says, because even the most innocuous product ad is laden with unspoken and unquestioned political assumptions. "Our ad was as much about the forest as theirs. The rules were always that product and adv-ocacy ads should be separate. But we think that line doesn’t really exist. All ads are political. If you are trying to sell a car you are being political. Just about every ad you see everywhere is political."
This explains why corporations that generally regard themselves as law-abiding, socially useful organisations have become such objects of hatred to the radical left, he says. "Corporations are now responsible for 99 per cent of messages you see. They have this incredible power and it needs to be challenged."
Lasn was so incensed by what he saw as the lack of democracy in access to all-powerful media that he founded Adbusters, the radical campaigning magazine that has established itself as one of the leading voices in the global environmentalist, anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist movement.
You might expect it to be a series of dreary manifestos and revolutionary exhortations printed on recycled toilet paper. But despite his radical leanings, Lasn is an instinctive marketer and a brilliant communicator. Having worked in market research in Japan in the 1950s, he fully understands the power of images. "I’m still convinced that the 30-second TV spot is one of the most powerful commercial tools ever invented," he says. He draws on his experience to produce publications and campaigns that employ the tools and techniques of conventional marcoms such as powerful imagery, stunts, slick graphics and vibrant language to promote his cause.
In the non-radical world the bimonthly magazine is best known for what it calls ‘culture jamming’, or ‘subvertising’, in which it creates parodies of brand advertising. So golfer Tiger Woods is pictured with a Nike swoosh smile, the stars on the American flag are replaced with 50 corporate logos and a droopy Absolut Vodka bottle is pictured above the slogan ‘Absolut impotence’. In Adbusters’ rich, in-your-face parlance they are ‘meme fucks’ or disruptions of established images that form a front in the wider ‘meme war’.
The images are playful and funny but Lasn is keen to dispel the idea that culture jamming is simply a matter of passing sarky comments on ads: "Culture jamming is a way of getting the existing consumer culture to bite its own tail. It’s a very PR term and we do use humour but it also has a radical edge to it. Breaking a window at McDonald’s is culture jamming. A stink bomb in Goldman Sachs is culture jamming. There’s a whole spectrum of different takes on it."
But culture jamming does illustrate just how adept Lasn and his supporters are at taking conventional marcoms techniques and applying them to anti-consumerist messages. Take the way Adbusters has created a powerful global movement. The organisation at its HQ in Vancouver is tiny – just ten people – yet the magazine is distributed throughout the English-speaking world including India and is currently planning Chinese and Spanish editions. There are 40,000 paper subscribers and 30,000 online subscribers. In addition it has a global following of 100,000 people signed up online to the Culture Jammers network. "We are much more than a magazine; we are the flagship, the hub of the global activist movement," says Lasn. "I’m getting articles and proposals from all over the world. It’s the [communication] model of the future."
The ‘model of the future’ turns out to be a surprising combination of a very traditional strong editorial stance or point of view with social media: "The internet means you can be an incredibly powerful voice in the world just by having followers, by knowing how to play the Facebook and Twitter games and by having a website."
But to make this work he argues that you have to revert to a very early media principle: that of providing something people value so highly that they will part with cash for it: "People used to pay for magazines and newspapers because they got something out of them that they really valued and ads were a tiny proportion of revenue. But over the past 50 years I have seen the model turned upside down and now advertising is the big revenue thing. Adbusters was launched on the basis of making its subject so interesting that people will pay for it."
The magazine contains a rich diet of radical political thought but its energy and humour is closer to the anarchic tradition of the Dadaists and 1960s counter-cultural group the Yippies than the traditional left. So the July edition contained articles on the Israel-Palestine conflict (‘Fuck Israel, Fuck Hamas’), a series called ‘Blueprint for a new world, an open letter to corporations’ (standfirst: ‘Your time is up’), and a piece about the politics of food headlined ‘Eat Bugs. The anxiety behind your hedonism’.
The content provides the platform for the magazine’s campaigns. These include the annual Buy Nothing Day (slogan: Participate by not participating) and TV Turnoff Week, lately rebranded Screen Turnoff Week (slogan: Turn on life). Adbusters claims that more than 300 million people have participated since its inception in 1994. Of course, the promotional day or week is an absolutely bog-standard PR technique.
One of the shrewdest aspects of Adbusters’ all-purpose radicalism is the way it links our psychological state with the physical condition of the world. Lasn calls it "the mental and the environmental", and they are inextricably intertwined, he argues. This approach encourages young radicals to interpret their personal difficulties – unemployment, depression and alienation – as personal manifestations of global problems such as overbearing corporations, unresponsive governments, a corrupt financial system and global warming.
"People are waking up to the fact that consumer culture is pushing us towards a dead end, that the human experiment is actually heading for some sort of catastrophe," he says. "So now our PR objective is to try to instigate some sort of global uprising to get all these disparate youth groups throughout the world who have been fighting their own national battles to somehow get together and start forming a global revolutionary movement."
But for all his revolutionary fervour, Lasn is not a conventional left-winger. "I’ve always had a problem with Marxism, it’s boring. I’m tired of that old opposition between left and right," he says. Rather, he is a libertarian leftist who does not even think that capitalism is intrinsically evil. "I don’t say it is bad, I say that the current form of capitalism is wrong," he explains.
Having nearly as much in common with the libertarian right as the authoritarian left, he certainly does not want a command economy. "Actually, I do believe in markets. They are magical phenomena where thousands of people can interact in ways that leave a plus for society and the human race," he says. His problem is that markets do not currently reflect the true cost of products, because of what economists call ‘externalities’ or untraded economic effects. "You buy a car for £20,000 and drive it for five years. In that time you create environmental damage to the planet and future generations worth £100,000. That is the true cost of your car. I would believe in capitalism if we had a true-cost marketplace. Hell, I would even be celebrating it," he laughs.
Meanwhile, he is deeply concerned that the environmental message may have been buried, largely by the longest economic downturn in memory. "The human beast is a strange animal," he explains. "When times are good it can think about the long term and what sort of world we are leaving our children. But when the shit hits the fan and people lose their jobs, then all of a sudden worrying about what is going to happen in 50 years’ time doesn’t matter any more. The environmental movement depends on long-term thinking and everybody is into short-term thinking right now."
Corporations in the crosshairs
As you might expect he lays the blame not at the door of governments too cowardly to act or greedy consumers unwilling to give up their third flatscreen, but corporations. "Corporations have this incredible power. If you grow up in a culture where from the year dot to middle age you have seen hundreds of thousands of pro-consumption messages telling you that you will be happy if you consume more, then of course you are going to be recruited as a fully fledged member of the consumer society."
For him there is no such thing as a good corporation. Even a company such as Unilever, which wants governments to curb climate change and wants to build a new world economic order to facilitate sustainable development, is swatted aside as doing too little too late. "I don’t think it is anywhere close to what we need to make the breakthroughs we have been talking about," says Lasn.
"The very basis of capitalism and corporate power has to change in addition to the little changes Unilever is making. We have to talk about true-cost markets, Robin Hood taxes on the banks and corporate responsibility.
"When people point out that there are a few good guys out there like Unilever, frankly it pisses me off. It’s like you have a monkey on your back and he’s heavy and he smells, but your ear is itching and he scratches it for you. That is what Unilever is doing. Scratching my ear without getting off my back."
For all that he remains optimistic, if only because he believes the same comms tools that have made business so powerful can be mobilised in the interests of the environment. In fact, he thinks the marketing services industry has the potential to be the saviour that the environment needs: "It is possible that we are facing a 1,000-year dark age. But the PR industry has a lot of smart people. If just a fraction, ten per cent, of them swing around to doing something different with their energy and skills, then we have a fighting chance."