The “We Told You So” cover in 2021 was our final hurrah. But it was pyrrhic. The type of battle you win but at too great of a cost. Yes, we got to have our righteous moment … a final “fuck-you” to all of our enemies, but we were just a bunch of editors, writers and designers on the nose of the Titanic. Turns out it wasn’t enough to see the problem – you also had to show people a way out ... a way to deal with the emotions that surface.
Our best swipe at the dominant culture was either Buy Nothing Day, which went viral in over sixty countries, or else our grandiose attempt to shift the theoretical foundations of economic science with our book Meme Wars. Our dream of getting it used as a textbook at Harvard never materialized, but we did have the pleasure of calling Professor Gregory Mankiw an “Old Goat” and got students to walk out of his class en masse. I know that gave some people at the Heritage Foundation some good giggles.
We also started selling Blackspot shoes in the early 2000s. But this pissed off as many people as it pleased. It wasn’t anarchist enough for the Black Bloc. It reeked of “green capitalism” to the Marxists. Professor-types said it was hypocritical, that you can’t critique capitalism out of one side of your mouth and make money out of the other. But the part that they never got was that it wasn’t about making money … it was about trying to get the world to recalibrate their tastes, to accept indie as cool instead of Nike and all the other big name megacorps who were colonizing every aspect of our lives. But Nike kept going strong till the bitter end. Pissed us right off.
As we got more political, things changed. Of course, the magazine was always political, but then we got really political – calling out popular presidents, going after the state of Israel for its arrogant brutality, dubbing economists “logic freaks,” accusing graphic designers of kissing corporate ass and jilting the consumer with increasingly ad hominem attacks – yeah, we lost a lot of readers then. Seeing Adbusters on the shelf at the grocery store became an invitation to a giant guilt trip, sandwiched in between some far-out philosophy, anarchist bravado, apocalyptic imagery and existential angst. Nobody wanted that anymore. They couldn’t handle it.
Looking back on it all now with the wisdom of hindsight, I think the reason we were never able to get any real traction and turn the world around was probably because we were just too negative. Everything we did had an anti feel to it … even our name, Adbusters – what does that actually convey? Pushing back against ads, busting ads as if advertising is this huge dominant force and we are the little army of ad-busters nipping at its heels? And “culture jamming,” what was that all about, really? Just jabbing against the mainstream consumer culture instead of using all of that angst to create a culture of our own.
Looking back … it’s so obvious now … it was that endless finger pointing at all the horrible things that the corporations and governments and mass media were doing … that stench of reactionary negativity about everything we lefties did is what made us so ineffective. We used to get calls and invitations almost daily, people asking to join this or that cause, partner with some campaign. Mostly we were spread too thin to jump. But some of it was our ego as well. We thought we had it all.
The dwindling faithful kept reading and subscribing of course, but I think they did this more out of loyalty and respect … nostalgia. Maybe for those last few subscribers, our dark side, even our apocalypticism, was a kind of soothing relief from all the lies and denial – you could always count on Adbusters to tell it how it is five years before anybody else.
We never sold out, even though some people say we did. We managed to stay ad-free and fiercely independent until the last run. It was only at the bitter end, when things were really starting to fall apart, that we finally woke up and launched some wildly successful memes into the noosphere like Occupy Wall Street, Kick It Over and the open-source, real world #KILLCAP game which at its peak got almost one billion people mobilized and into the streets … but by then, of course, it was too late. The center was already giving way.
And now we are here, with nothing left to say except “we told you so.”