Kalle Lasn, founder of Adbusters, on the coming revolution
This is an interview I did way back in 2002, with Kalle Lasn, the founder of Adbusters, which is a Vancouver-based collective of ‘culture jammers’, the inventors of Buy Nothing Day, and the trouble-makers behind the Occupy Wall Street movement. You can read my account of Occupy London here.
What was your first foray into culture jamming?
My family left Estonia when the Russians invaded. We lived in some deported persons camps in Germany for a few years, then moved to Australia, where I grew up. When I was 23, I moved to Japan for five years, and worked in the advertizing industry. This was the late 1960s. It was a very thriving time, business-wise. And I got a taste of what the advertizing industry is all about. I found they were ethically neutral people, it was an ethically neutral business, where people didn’t really give a damn whether they were selling cigarettes, or alcohol, or Pepsi-Cola. For them it was all one big interesting game, and the social repercussions were somehow irrelevant. That made an impression on me.
Then, in 1970, I moved to Canada. In 1990, I was in an environmentalist group campaigning against foresting, and we wanted to buy TV airtime to run a campaign advert. We were told we couldn’t. The $6bn forestry industry could, but we couldn’t. Some of us were so angry with that, we started a newsletter, which grew into Adbusters magazine. And we started a little non-profit group which grew into the AdBusters media foundation. Everything we’ve done since has grown out of that outrage, from realizing that one side gets on TV and the other side doesn’t. We want to have our say. Democracy doesn’t really work unless everyone can have a say.
Where did the idea of doing spoof ads come from?
The idea came from the Situationist movement, which was such a powerful intellectual force in the 1960s, and especially around 1968, when there was almost a world revolution. One of the big things the Situationists talked about was detournement - it’s a French word that means taking an existing situation, and in a deft, Judo-like move, creating a feedback loop that destroys it. So you’re a culture jammer and you're facing Nike, which is a massive corporation that has all kinds of power on its side. But because you’re fleet of foot, and nimble, you grab them and throw them on the mat with a beautiful, aesthetic, intellectual tour de force that somehow outwits them. Many other activist movements before the Situationists have used that, like Dada for example. They don't have the money, they don’t have the power, but they use their wits, and they find ways for making people laugh, and think about the paradigm shift just through the power of their wits.
Did you ever have legal problems?
Yeah, we had a legal tussle once with Absolut Vodka, who didn’t like our spoofs. They scared us initially because they had this international law firm which threatened to put us out of business if we didn’t do what they asked, which was apologize, and promise not to do this sort of stuff again, and throw away all the copies of our magazine. But as soon as we put out a press release about this battle we were having with them and got a bit of publicity, they basically ran away with their tail between their legs.
And our second tussle - we’ve only had two tussles - was with McDonalds here in Canada, when we started putting Grease stickers all over Canada. And then one of the jammers was caught red-handed putting a huge big sticker on a sandwich board outside of a McDonalds restaurant. Then it went to court. And eventually the jammer actually won the court case, because it wasn’t actually on the restaurant, it was on public space outside the restaurant. So he was OK, and it got a lot of publicity, and then McDonalds was absolutely shamed on national television.
So how did you get the idea for Buy Nothing Day?
Back in 1992, we were looking for a campaign that talked back against consumerism. And we kept on brain-storming about what would be a good campaign, and then one day a young Vancouver artist called Ted Dave walked into the office and said: “I’ve got a brilliant idea! Buy Nothing Day!” And we never looked back. It was a huge success right away. As soon as we put it on the internet it became very quickly a world-wide phenomena. Last year  65 countries around the world had Buy Nothing Day. We want to be the world wide co-ordinators to encourage people to go on a ‘consumer fast’.
It’s interesting that you talk of a ‘consumer fast’.
Many people who decide to take the personal plunge for 24 hours, they suffer - it’s as hard as giving up smoking for some people. The resistance to the urge to having a coffee or a Mars bar - people go through a cold turkey experience. They sweat, and they realize to what extent this impulse to buy is a bit of an addiction.
What is the simplicity movement?
The simplicity movement is people who have been stung by consumer culture. Either they stressed out, or they got some kind of mood disorder, or they lost their job - people who have really suffered because of the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism that we live in, and some people have said: “You know, I don’t need a car, and I don’t need a big house with a TV in every room, I don’t need to max out on my credit card every Christmas. Im just going to downshift, I’m going to live a simpler life, and I can get by on the money I have, and get a job that I really love instead of a job that pays a huge amount of money. These are people who radically changed their personal and working lives.
In an interview of yours I read, you said you liked the book Fight Club.
In the book, what begins as an emancipatory movement turns into an authoritarian movement, whose members end up chanting slogans just as mindlessly as they once did the slogans of consumerism. Is that a danger - that movements designed to free people from mass conditioning simply replace the old systems with new systems of mass conditioning?
Of course it’s a danger. I’ve been a student of revolution all my life, and every revolution faces that danger. In the early stages it’s full of idealism and truth and sincere authentic people doing the right thing. But as soon as they win, like in Russia, it turns into a monster. Likewise, I believe we are at the beginning of a huge cultural revolution right now, in the early stages. And then years down the road from now, when we’ve won, I’m sure that some of us will turn into monsters. That’s just the way the human spirit works. But nonetheless I believe it’s very important for us to win, and worry about how badly we behave later - right now we need to pull the current monster down.
But do you think the new monster will be better?
I’m sure it will.
AdBusters is a great critic of advertizing, but it’s also a movement that itself uses adverts. Is your arguments against adverts as a medium, as something manipulative or simplistic, or is it more against the message it carries?
I love advertizing, I have nothing against advertizing, it’s just that I don’t like the fact that of those 3,000 marketing messages that seep into my brain, 2,999 of them are commercial messages. So what we’re trying to do is change 100 of them, or perhaps 500 of them, into other kinds of messages. Advertizing has two sides to it - the product-marketing side, but also the social marketing side. One side sells products, the other sells ideas. What our movement is trying to do is to turn some of those 3,000 marketing messages a day into social marketing messages that push society in another direction, rather than selling them some damn product that they don’t need.
Do you think there’s a danger that advertizers will see there’s this great anti-consumerist movement, and they’ll try and tap into it?
They’ve been doing that for 10 years. Ever since we came up with this culture jamming aesthetic, that looked a little anarchic and organic - they’ve been stealing that aesthetic for ten years, sometimes to the point of actually jamming themselves, so they look they like been jammed. That’s nothing new - this cat and mouse game between the culture jammers and the advertizing people is a game that’s going to continue. The only difference is that after a hundred years of phenomenal growth the advertizing industry is just about ready to get its comeuppance. We’re at the early stages of a mental / environmental movement that will wipe the advertizing industry out as we know it.
People are feeling mind-fucked. There’s good scientific evidence, a study by Myra Whiteman at Columbia University for example, and another study by the World Health Organization - young people are 300% more likely to suffer from depression, or mood disorders, or panic attacks than my generation. there’s been a terrible degradation of our mental environment, and almost an epidemic of mental disease, and this epidemic is I think what is fuelling the mental / environmental movement. People are making this connection between their own stress levels and their own weird feelings, or this mood disorder that your wife or girlfriend is going through, and the media cartel and the ads, and they’re saying “Jesus, maybe I should clean up on the mental pollution that I’m subjected to - cut back on the 3,000 messages, and stop watching so much TV.”
We’re at the beginning of a mental / environmental movement, and once people make that connection between advertizing and the media cartel and their own mental well-being, then the advertizing industry will be in deep shit. It will be a situation very similar to 30 years ago, when people started making connections between dirty air and dirty food and dirty water and their own physical well-being. That changed the world, and the mental / environmental movement will also change the world.
So the mental / environmental movement implies two ills of consumerism. One is that it fucks up the world and the other is it fucks up our selves as individuals.
Exactly. That’s my basic position. If I had to say what I have to say in a nutshell I would say our present system basically is ecologically unsustainable - it’s killing the planet - and it’s psychologically corrosive - it’s making us crazy. That one-two punch, that eco-psycho punch, is what is going to bring the current system down.
And at the heart of both of them is that the system is unable to say ‘enough’, that we have enough.
On the eco side, I would say that’s the heart of the eco system, but on the psycho side I would say it’s do with media concentration, that commercial systems have taken over society’s information delivery system and are now basically brainwashing us.
But on the psychological side, isn’t that basically telling people that at the moment, they don’t know what’s good for them?
But mightn’t people say, perhaps a bit like an addict: “I’m fine, I know exactly what’s good for me, and I want to go shopping”?
Yeah, they’re saying that all the time. I’d say at least 75% of the population is caught in a consumer trance, and they believe in the American Dream. I experience that every Buy Nothing Day when I go on radio talk shows, and these outraged Americans call up and can’t believe that somebody’s talking back against the American dream and telling people to consume less. The mainstream population literally doesn’t care, and that’s what cultural revolutions are all about.
But how do you avoid the accusation of elitism, that you are middle class people telling working class people how to live?
I don’t want to avoid that charge. People are throwing that at me all the time, and I just throw it back in their faces. I tell them ‘You’ve been brainwashed’. I’m accusing them as well, I’m accusing them of being brainwashed.
And politicians will probably say, a less consumer society will mean less production, less growth, less employment, less money for welfare. I’m sure that’s what they would say. What would you say to them?
I would say our system at the moment is a destructive system. We’re using up the natural capital of the planet in pursuit of the short-term growth that we believe in now. I would also point out that at the moment we don’t know how to measure progress, like GDP, which tell us that we’ve grown, and other measures of progress that show the good as well as the bad show we haven’t been making any progress since the 1970s, we’re going down. If you start putting a value on climate change, or the fact that the salmon runs in the Pacific North West are drying up, and the cod fish in the Atlantic has disappeared - once you start putting a money value on the negative aspects of our economic system, then you’ll find we’ve been making negative progress since the 1970s. So I would say to the politicians and the economic policy-makers, I would say ‘Learn how to measure progress properly, then we can talk about how to make progress.’
One of consumerism’s practical uses is as a distraction, as an opiate. We’ve always had opiates of one kind or another - whether it’s religion, Stalinism or consumerism. If we limit consumerism as a distraction, what would you replace it with, an an alternate system of distraction.
I’ve been asked that question many times and I can never answer it. I say something like: “God knows what will happen after the next paradigm shift or after this next cultural revolution. We will be left with a grim situation where climate change is out of control, and we may be in a situation like the 1930s where our economic system is in tatters. And then from the bottom up we’ll have to build a new system, and at the moment, I have no idea how that system will look. I have a few ideas, but basically I’d rather live that. I hope that before I die I can live that rather than predict what it will be. To me that prediction is kind of facile.
Do you think it will be like waking up from a dream?
Yeah, I think so. All of a sudden people will wake up one day, after the Dow Jones has gone down by 7,000 points, and say: ”What the fuck is going on?” They’ll just see their life as they know it collapse around them. And then they’ll have to pick up the pieces and learn to live again.
[Here's a recent interview Kalle did with the Washington Post about the Occupy Wall Street movement.]