Kalle Lasn: Clearing the Mindscape

Adbusters' founder and editor-in-chief weighs in on subvertising, marketing and the role of the media in the most recent edition of Lurzer's International Archive. 

Kalle Lasn: Clearing the Mindscape

Advertising is going to need a hell of a lot more Al Gores to navigate the next ten years.

Kalle Lasn is one of the founders of the Vancouver-based not-for-profit, anti-consumerist Adbusters Media Foundation. The organization’s most important publication, which first appeared in 1989, is Adbusters, a 120,000-circulation, reader-supported activist magazine devoted to numerous political and social causes. Lasn has produced a number of commercials and TV documentaries, and is the author of many books such as “Culture Jam: How to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer Binge – And Why We Must,” and “Design Anarchy.” In his books and magazines, Lasn writes about the mechanics of corporate control of the mass media and capitalism. He discusses modern society and western culture’s origins, also outlining what a different approach beyond the current capitalistic scheme might look like. Lasn is famous for his concept of “un-commercials,” a means of critiquing and attacking the messages of consumer capitalism. Adbusters Magazine is widely read and can be found on the desks of many creatives in ad agencies all over the world. Hermann Vaske met Kalle Lasn, the inventor of “subvertising,” in Vancouver, British Columbia.

L.A.: Kalle Lasn, with Adbusters you have created something called “subvertising.” What exactly is it?

Kalle Lasn: There are two kinds of advertising, two kinds of marketing. There is product marketing, and there is advocacy marketing. You can sell products or you can sell ideas. And when you are selling products, then I think you can call that advertising. And when you are selling ideas that try to subvert advertising, we call it “subvertising.” Because usually, when we are selling an idea we are trying to undermine the system. So, “subvertising” is a good word for the sort of stuff that we do.

L.A.: Malcolm McLaren, the inventor of the Sex Pistols, talks about the three “Ss” of success: sex, subversion, and style.

Kalle Lasn: Well, you know, I agree with him. I think that what really rules the world is, of course, who controls the information and who controls the information flows. But, ultimately, I think a culture is created by the style. For me a better word than style is “the cool.” I think the cool is a word that describes what permeates up from the bottom of culture and ultimately helps us decide what we are going to wear, and what music we are going to be listening to, and what kind of ideas we will have about things like climate change, or about the war in Iraq. So I think that, for me, “subvertising,” or “culture jamming,” as I call it, is the art of creating a new kind of cool.

L.A.: Could you give some examples of subvertising campaigns you have created?

Kalle Lasn: One of the most successful social marketing campaigns that we have ever had here at Adbusters was “Buy Nothing Day.” It was an idea that we thought up back in 1993, so it is 15 years old now. We came up with a number of posters, and placards and stickers, and television spots. And for that campaign, one of the spots shows a pig cavorting on … coming out of a map of North America and other western countries and burping. The message of this pig is basically that the one billion rich people in this world are consuming too much. We were pointing out that a tiny 20% of the people in the world are consuming 80% of the world’s resources, and they are producing three quarters of the world’s toxic waste, and it is time for us to ask, “How much is enough?”

L.A.: A campaign to change people’s viewpoint, right?

Kalle Lasn: Yeah, it tried to change people’s viewpoint but, you know, there are many ways to change people’s viewpoint. You can change it by talking them into it, by having an argument with them, and winning the argument. Or you do those un-commercials, or anti-ads as we called them, like the one with the pig. I think they are radical not so much because of what they’re saying, not because the content is so radical, but because they are radical in a sort of Marshall McLuhan sense of “the medium is the message.” We are actually digging around with the actual tone and the feeling of television. We are saying that this aesthetic which we have come up with on commercial television, that this is a mind-fuck aesthetic. And to change it we have to start putting in all kinds of strange, weirdo messages that change the whole feeling. When you switch on a TV, you sort of zone out and start absorbing it all like a mindless consumer. But all of a sudden somebody is saying something to you that makes you stand up, and after a while you start turning on your TV set because you are having epiphanies, not because you are being put to sleep. That is our goal.

L.A.: What about the “TV Turnoff Week”?

Kalle Lasn: Yeah, TV Turnoff Week, that was another thing we did: to go on commercial television and announce a “TV Turnoff Week.” That’s the one spot where they absolutely refused to sell us airtime. I understand why. But there are all kinds of other messages as well. You can put a message on TV that is just fifteen seconds of black. Or you could put up a message that says “TV violence warning!” You could try to buy on a very violent television program and you can interact with that program during the commercial break and say, “Warning – this violent program may be hazardous to your mental health!” Or you can go into some really sort of pornographic kind of show, of which there are many in North America, and point out in some message that this kind of program may not be good for your children’s identity growth or something. So I think there is a lot of really radical stuff that you can achieve with the techniques of advertising, the very powerful techniques of advertising. But they are not being used very much. We are simply not allowed to be that radical on commercial television. They are very, very scared of anything that speaks back against television, or speaks out against consumption, or speaks out against cars, or speaks out against Big Macs. We once made a spot that said, “Did you know that 53% of the calories from a Big Mac come from fat?” Fifteen seconds. A very simple, matter-of-fact ad. No way could we buy airtime for it. Because we only have $25,000 to spend and McDonald’s has millions – in fact half a billion dollars a year to spend. So, in a sense, the problem with this kind of subvertising isn’t that it doesn’t exist, the problem is that it’s hard to get it seen.

L.A.: Everybody’s talking about digital these days. How important is digital for the future of the kind of subversive communication you are attempting?

Kalle Lasn: Well, no doubt, the internet is the information delivery system of the future. Perhaps that future has already arrived. For a lot of young people it has. And cyberspace is the cultural ground in which the battle for the new cool will be won and lost. But, you know, that for sixty, seventy, maybe even as much as eighty per cent of the people in the world, television is still a much more powerful force. So I think for the next five, maybe even the next ten years, if you want to create the new cool, if you want to go after a government, if you want to “uncool” a corporate logo, if you want to boycott some corporation, I think you still have to use television. Because the mainstream still watches television.

L.A.: But what about the good ideas? Do they really come from cyber these days, as some people are saying?

Kalle Lasn: I don’t know, I’m from the old school. I don’t see it yet. I see a lot of frenetic activity in cyberspace, but a lot of it is like the postmodern hall of mirrors. It’s just people sending email messages to each other, hand on the mouse, and you think that you’ve done something great if you get some big idea here and send an email to your friend, and pass it on, and you think you have made some sort of a big thing for the day. I don’t actually see too many really new ideas coming out of cyberspace yet. I see a lot of new ideas still coming out of philosophers, musicians, thinkers, sociologists, a few economists. I think that the big ideas are still coming out in the traditional way, and then they start to reverberate within cyberspace. They are amplified there in cyberspace.

L.A.: How do you view the activist community, the people who are trying to speak out against what goes on with the big brands and their communications?

Kalle Lasn: I think that the political left, and activists in general over the last few years, we have been quite ineffective. We haven’t really come up with any really radical ideas, or cutting- edge advertising. We’ve been on the defensive, and ever since President Bush got elected, quite a few years ago now, and got elected a second time, the activist community has become a bunch of whiners and complainers. We have created a kind of complaint-based activism. Where we point a finger and say, “Oh, look how terrible, look what the neo-cons are doing here, look what they are doing in Iraq!” and, “Look at what they are doing to our privacy” and, “Look how horrible the situation is here, and there and everywhere!” So we have become kind of politically ineffective, and not at all radical any more. And I think now there may be some kind of new politics coming up again, and I think a lot of young people are sort of starting to jump over the dead body of the old political left and starting to get radicalized again. We are at the very early stages of that movement. And I notice on a few websites lately, and on … in some little pockets of cyberspace, I notice some pretty cutting radicals that are coming up. It hasn’t really added up to a movement yet, but I think there is some promise there.

L.A.: Here’s a quote from you: “Marketing messages which tell young people wearing sneakers is cool give them a feeling that we are in a society of consumer capitalism, and decadence, and not of ethical values.” What would your ideal sneaker message, your marketing message for sneakers be like?

Kalle Lasn: The political left has never really liked business. The political left has never liked logos, it has never really liked branding. Somehow, it is those dirty capitalists that have to play that game, while we, you know, we leftists, we are idealists, we are creating some sort of a utopia. But a few years ago, here at Adbusters, we got tired of that kind of a stuck-up way of thinking. Because we weren’t getting anywhere anyway. For example, our campaign against Nike, for using sweatshop labor, and doing all kinds of dirty deeds – you know, Phil Knight was laughing at us. And this “No Sweatshop Movement,” people had heard about it, sure – but it hadn’t taken away even one percentage point from his market share. So one day, in one of our brainstorming sessions here at Adbusters, we said, “Okay, instead of complaining and whining about Phil Knight and Nike, why don’t we just create our own logo? We create our own sneaker. We create our own bottom-up cool, and we come up with some cutting edge ideas, like kick-ass marketing, and we go after Nike. And we try to take some market share away from them. Instead of complaining about him, let’s beat him at his own game.” And this experiment in grassroots capitalism has been quite successful. We have launched two kinds of shoes, the one classic, sort of knock-off shoe, and then another, very cool-looking boot, called V2 – “Unswoosher,” we call it. And we have sold over 25,000 pairs of shoes to people all over the world. We have a few hundred independent stores around the world – I think there’s a couple in Germany as well – who are selling the Blackspot sneaker. And we are trying to sort of popularize this idea that what’s really wrong with capitalism isn’t really capitalism itself. It’s not really branding, or capitalism or any of the things that the old left always used to complain about. What’s really wrong is that capitalism is in the hands of very large mega-corporations. And if you look at sneakers or music or food or broadcasting, or any of the areas of our life, any of the big industries, there’s always three or four big companies that are controlling sixty, seventy, eighty per cent of the market share. And sneakers is a perfect example, where you have Nike and Adidas and Reebok – those companies, I think, are the three biggest ones – and they control seventy, eighty per cent of the global market in sneakers and shoes. So instead of complaining and asking mega-corporations to be very nice and not to use sweatshop labor, and please do the right thing … instead of playing this humble kind of activism, we should just try to take market share away from those big guys. Try to discover some techniques where we can take the swoosh, you know, this very famous logo, that all kids like to wear on their hats and on their T-shirts; we should “uncool” this logo. Let’s say instead of it being like a stiff penis, we should just make it droop a little bit. We should just find a way to “uncool” the logo, or to unswoosh the swoosh. And this is a more radical kind of subvertising than anything that the old left can think of.

L.A.: What’s more radical: the concept, the marketing, or the execution?

Kalle Lasn: Good question! It took us three years to build the business to the point where we had solved all the money flows. We had three big depots, in three different parts of the world, that are working efficiently and sending our shoes out whenever we get orders. It took us three years to get a few hundred small stores to agree to carry our shoes. So we have solved many of the business problems. We haven’t yet quite solved the problem of how to create a television spot that unswooshes the swoosh. We are still working on that. That is the hardest part. If we do solve that problem, and start airing our unswooshing TV spots on MTV and other stations and putting ads in magazines and so on, you know, then I think the real radical marketing will begin. And I hope we can pull that off in the next year or two, and demonstrate that it can be done, and that a small company like Blackspot does have the power – in a kind of jujitsu-way – to take all the power of a big company like Nike and to throw them on the mat with the power of their own cool. Because, if you think about the Nike swoosh, on the surface it is very, very cool. It is almost invulnerable. Billions of kids all over the world like to wear the Nike swoosh because it feels that it gives them some power. And yet if you scratch the surface of the swoosh just a little bit like that, then underneath you get a lot of dirty business. You hear about sweatshop labor, and how cheaply they produce it. You hear about the fact that it is not really authentic cool; it is actually a kind of top-down corporate cool, where Nike is paying hundreds of millions of dollars to celebrity sportspeople to give people this kind of illusion of cool. It’s like a topdown corporate cool that us poor people suddenly mistake for being the real, authentic, bottom-up cool. So there is a lot of power there that we should be able to take away from Nike and, using the power of Nike, we should be able to create our own logo, our own company, our own cool from the bottom up. And this is, I think, a big, big job, and if we could solve that problem, than I think the people in other industries will want to copy what we have done. We will do it in the sneaker industry, and other people will suddenly come up with a really cool coffee shop that’s a lot cooler than Starbuck’s. And other people will come up with cool restaurants that sell only local food that can beat McDonald’s. So I think this project can come up with a kind of cutting edge marketing that can beat the big mega-corporations at their own game. I think this is one of the big projects of the early part of this century. I think once we have got the concept straight, it is just a question of execution. We have a TV spot that is on the drawing board right now that we are starting production on. We are negotiating with MTV to air that spot. And they are resisting, they don’t want to sell us any airtime. But, this time, we are not selling an idea. In the past they were always able to say, “Ah, we don’t want to sell you airtime, because you are advocacy advertising, you are selling crazy ideas, and that is not real advertising. Real advertising is selling a product.” Now we have a product. We have the Blackspot sneaker. And they cannot deny us the airspace anymore. It would be against the law for them to sell time to Nike but not to sell time to the Blackspot. So it’s going to be a very interesting tussle, and we will see what happens over the next few years.

L.A.: Right. You’ve also compared advertising to the coal mining industry, in the sense that it is a dead industry which should be shut down.

Kalle Lasn: I never thought that there is something fundamentally wrong with advertising. I have always loved advertising, and I was in the advertising business myself when I was a young man. I did a lot of work for advertising agencies in Tokyo when I was in my twenties. But what happened was that the advertising industry had a meteoric, exponential rise. It went from being a one-billion-dollar-a-year industry to two, to three, to five. Now, today, in 2008, the advertising industry is a five-hundred-billion-dollar industry worldwide. Half a trillion dollars a year.

L.A.: And it got massively out of hand?

Kalle Lasn: It just got massively out of hand at a time when we’re experiencing climate change, at a time when we’re experiencing mental dysfunction, and at a time that we’re in a war against terror. We’ve got three big things wrong with our global situation right now. One is that we’re using up too much energy. We’re consuming too much. And secondly, we’re in an epidemic of mental illness: mood disorders, anxiety attacks, and depressions are going up exponentially. The World Health Organization is warning us that, in a few years, mental disease is going to be bigger than heart disease. And then we’re in this never-ending war against terror, which is partly fuelled by the fact that there’s such a huge gap between the rich and the poor people of the world. And advertising has something to do with all those three things. If we, the rich one billion people on the planet, are already consuming too much, then why do we need a five-hundred-billion-dollar-a-year industry telling us every day, three thousand times a day, to consume even more? It’s oxymoronic. There’s something crazy about that kind of an industry. I predict that the advertising industry will collapse down to something much more like a bread-and-butter kind of industry over the next ten years. Right now, it’s five hundred billion dollars a year. I think that in the year 2010 it’s only going to be more like, maybe, a hundred billion dollars. It’s just going to start going down; after going up for a hundred years, it’s now reached a kind of a rupture point.

L.A.: And you are acting like a Trojan horse in all of this.

Kalle Lasn: Trojan horse is good, yeah. I think advertising is good, but we who live in the rich countries on this planet … our brains, on the average, absorb between three and five thousand marketing messages a day. That’s if you add up a few dozen ads on TV and the logos on our Tshirts and on our shoes and on our appliances. And if you’re driving around, the billboards, and everything on the bill … If you add it all up over a 24-hour period, it comes to about three thousand marketing messages a day. Why do we need three thousand marketing messages a day coming into our brain, whether we like it or not? It’s creating mental illness. People’s brains are not able to absorb that much.

L.A.: And it’s also creating visual pollution, isn’t it? Because of the standards. It’s crap.

Kalle Lasn: Not just visual pollution but also mental pollution. And it is one of the root causes of this epidemic, this wave of mental illness that we’re in. So it isn’t just that we’re consuming too much, and we don’t need any more advertising telling us to consume more. But that same advertising has got so noisy now. It’s so heavy. There are now so many thousands of marketing messages a day coming into our brain that it’s driving us crazy. And at the same time, while it’s driving us crazy and getting us to get on this sort of treadmill to buy more and more and more, that rich life that we want to protect, that we don’t want anybody to take away from us, that is what is one of the root causes of the war on terror. So I think that there are three strikes against advertising right now: the ecological crisis, the psychological crisis, and the political crisis that we’re in.

L.A.: Guy Seese, a friend of mine who used to work in Seattle at Cole & Weber, described Al Gore’s film as a radical idea. Do you agree?

Kalle Lasn: It wasn’t radical for me. It was not radical for anybody in our office. But I think it was radical for millions of other people who had never realized that we actually do have an ecological crisis. But I think that it’s a long way from being an edgy film from my perspective.

L.A.: Two years ago, Young & Rubicam brought Al Gore to Cannes to discuss social marketing. Now, is that good or is that like Elvis Presley coming to Las Vegas?

Kalle Lasn: Well, I think it’s good. I think the advertising industry is finally waking up to the fact that the industry is now in crisis. In the past, it has always been able to overcome any crisis. The last crisis that they had was cyberspace, the digital revolution. And in the early days of the revolution, they didn’t quite know how to maintain their grip on the world, you know. But they solved that problem. So this attempt to “green” the industry … you know, they talk about “green advertising.” They say that, somehow, they can convince young people not just to consume but to consume more responsibly; that’s the latest idea that the advertising industry has come up with to save themselves. And then they invite Al Gore, and Al Gore somehow gives them a little bit of cool. So it’s a very smart move by the advertising industry. But advertising is going to need a hell of a lot more Al Gores to be able to navigate the next ten years. There is a fundamental contradiction that they still haven’t come to grips with. And that fundamental contradiction is that we don’t need to consume any more, we don’t need a five-hundred billion- dollar-a-year industry telling us to consume more. We already consume enough.

L.A.: Apart from Nike, what are some of your aims and targets for the future?

Kalle Lasn: Lately, I like to think about advertising that questions the very axioms of our way of life, of western civilization. When I was a young man in Germany – when I was seven years old, my family was living in Germany for five years, when we escaped from Estonia when the Russians were coming in – I heard about a book, Oswald Spengler’s “Untergang des Abendlandes” (“The Decline of the West”). And, for some reason, that has always stuck in my mind. Spengler was one of the first guys who realized that there are some fundamental flaws in western civilization. And I would like to see some TV spots and some internet viral messages and so on that start to question this whole kind of western civilization that we have built up over the last few thousand years, that has culminated in this most dangerous moment in human history.

L.A.: What Oliviero Toscani did for Benetton was, at the time, pretty radical. Yet you don’t completely agree with his approach, do you?

Kalle Lasn: Yeah, well, I don’t mind. The argument was, that, okay, you came up with an interesting spot or interesting billboard. You made people think about racism or you made people think about AIDS, or you made people think about whatever. But why do you have to put that logo on there for Benetton? I don’t like the idea that corporations are telling civil society what the big issues are. I think that we, civil society, have to have the power to create our own issues, and to come up with our own spots. Why the hell do we need Benetton to point to us that we have a racist problem? If we, civil society, don’t have the dynamism and the energy to come up with those kind of ideas ourselves, then we are lost. And once you allow corporations to start doing that kind of culture jamming, then I think you are just giving more power to the people that already have too much power. I don’t like it when corporations are doing the talking on behalf of civil society. I think civil society has to take that goal on itself, and that’s why I don’t like a lot of the stuff that Toscani has done, even though the campaigns themselves, without the logo, were very nice. But maybe I’m judging him too harshly. I like what some other people have done, like there’s that guy that started the magazine Colors, that famous designer, the late Tibor Kalman. I like what he did much better, in a way, because he took money from the same people that Toscani took money from, and he came up with a very interesting magazine that was very inspirational in the early days of Adbusters. I met Tibor Kalman. He was a very inspirational man, who somehow was able to play that game better than Toscani, I think.

L.A.: Why are you creative?

Kalle Lasn: Because I am angry! And I continue to be angry.

L.A.: Could you tell us about the legal side of Adbusters?

Kalle Lasn: At the moment, we have a very high-profile legal action against the two biggest television networks in Canada, and also the Canadian government because these networks refuse to sell us airtime. And we are trying to win the legal right for any Canadian citizen to walk into the local TV station and put some money on the table and say, “Okay, give me thirty seconds, I’ve got something to say!” And if we could win this legal action, if we could win this what is called, I guess, the right to communicate, that every citizen, every Canadian citizen has the right to communicate on television … if we can win that legal right, then I think this is the beginning of the changing of the television mindscape. Up to now they have the game all sewn up, you know, it’s all a nice mass-merchandising kind of a game that they are playing. And they don’t want any dissenters like us coming along. They still remember many, many years ago, when there were lots of tobacco ads on television. This was twenty, thirty years ago. And then, suddenly, a few brilliant anti-smoking ads suddenly started coming on, and telling you what smoking was really all about. And those few very small brilliant antismoking ads finally had the power to knock big tobacco right off the television channels. The television stations have never forgotten that. They are scared that, now, we are going to do the same thing with fast food and with cars, and we are going, bit by bit by bit, we are going to sort of start anti-advertising, and anti-advertising is just going to start neutralizing mainstream advertising, and do to these other industries what, a long time ago, we did to the tobacco industry.

L.A.: Fast food nation ...

Kalle Lasn: Yeah, yeah! We live in a time of obesity and yet you can’t go on commercial television and buy a spot that speaks out against fast food or McDonald’s. My lawyers tell me it’s going to take a few years, and even if we win the first round, there’s going to be a second round, and a third round, and a fourth round. Canada’s biggest station, the CanWest and also the CBC and the Canadian government, they are going to fight this one tooth and nail.

L.A.: Who and what is killing your ideas?

Kalle Lasn: What is killing ideas, I think, is the fact that we have half a dozen huge media mega-corporations, like AOL Time- Warner and News Corporation, and I think Bertelsmann is one of the big six. And those six corporations right now, they control about half of the news and entertainment flows around the planet. And they like some ideas, and some other ideas they don’t like. So I think the biggest inhibiting factor on good ideas propagating throughout global culture is this stranglehold that these six mega-corporations have on the global public mind. And if we can break that stranglehold with anti-trust actions and all kind of other ways, or if we can create alternative systems, then we would be much better off. They are like filters. They have a monopoly on the production of meaning, and they don’t want to let go of that monopoly.

L.A.: But isn’t broadband television on the internet changing that quite a bit? Aren’t they shitting their pants a bit?

Kalle Lasn: A little bit, a little bit, I think so, yeah. But I don’t know, I have a feeling ...

L.A.: ... that they will find ways to control the internet?

Kalle Lasn: Yeah, bit by bit I see they are making progress. I mean, when television first came out – I am young enough to remember that – it was an incredible moment when we thought that we would really have a democratic information system in the world, with television teaching the whole world how to be one big global village. I still remember how my high school teachers were waxing poetic about the potential of television. And, bit by bit by bit, in the next 30, 40, 50 years, I watched television become a mass-merchandising tool, and now it is completely in the grip of these commercial interests. And maybe the same thing is going to happen to cyberspace. We have to be careful.