On July 13, Vancouver-based activist group AdBusters tweeted a call to Occupy Wall Street, and allegedly sparked the movement that has occupied global attention and public spaces.
After the mass influence of the Occupy Movement, the group went further this Christmas, by discouraging Consumerism during this holiday season, by advertising its OccupyChristmas campaign—which is its annual BuyNothing Christmas campaign with a name change for increased relevance.
Considering the mass influence of this activist group, this article looks at the organization’s structures, philosophies, and analyses its tactics from a theoretical approach to radical media.
A Horizontal Activist Network
AdBusters describes itself as “a global network of artists, activists, writers, students, educators and entrepreneurs who aim to advance the new social activist movement of the information age through media.”
The network is multi-vocal, but is united by an anti-corporation, anti-consumerist outlook that challenges the Neoliberal consumerism prevalent in contemporary Western society.
The organization publishes an activist journal with alternative textual and visual content aimed at providing social commentary, and has led mass resistance campaigns.
AdBusters has created a participatory activist network, using its magazine and website for global political debate and mass engagement and mobilization against Consumerism.
Adbusters publishes one of the world’s most well known activist magazines, which creates a network of people based on a shared discontent with corporation control and consumerism of Western Neoliberal society.
The magazine contains both visual and textual formats, ranging from philosophical articles to activist commentary and artwork., which challenge prevalent media images promoting consumerism, and encourages its readers to do the same.
Globalization has allowed a greater ease in diffusing ideas, linking like-minded groups in different parts of the world. In this globalized environment, AdBusters has overcome geographic boundaries, reaching an audience of 120 000 individuals worldwide. It provides a platform where geographically dispersed subscribers and readers of its magazine and website can realize the existence of other individuals and communities with similar political and social views.
Tackling Political Apathy
The content largely focuses on rethinking people’s status as passive consumers, by considering the possibilities for participating in cultural production through culture jamming.
Adbusters has become a network for activists, as the publication not only exposes readers to new ideas and ways of thinking, but also asserts the prevalence of existing ones, in an attempt to create solidarity between activists.
AdBusters breaks down the modern dichotomy between personal and public issues, by providing a platform where social issues may be discussed. Challenging contemporary capitalist society and the rigid dichotomies that operate within in is one of tactical media’s main concerns.
AdBusters questions the Neoliberal philosophy that failure, poverty and misery are personal problems unconnected to broader social or political conditions, and do not warrant collective action.
The organization clearly opposes this distinction between the personal and social, as evident on its website, which states that the magazine is “dedicated to examining the relationship between humans and their physical and mental environment.” To this end, the organization’s website allows activists to discuss issues and share strategies for creating social awareness.
For the AdBusters group, engagement and dialogue with one’s environment is possible only by making apparent mass manipulation by corporations, which is the root cause of many social issues. Thus, the group challenges Neoliberal individualism and the isolation that results from it, by creating a space for social analysis.
While AdBusters magazine’s editors and producers are united through a joint distaste for corporations, the magazine breaks down the modernist distinction between authors and audience, allowing a plurality of debates to circulate. The magazine can be seen as providing a “staging ground for an experimental public sphere,” where a diversity of content and viewpoints co-exist.
The magazine content comprises readers’ unsolicited textual and art submissions that remain largely unchanged by the small staff of editors. While the magazine follows alternative media’s concern for allowing a plurality of voices to circulate, it does not follow its concern with structural and editorial transparency.
Although the content that the editors publish is largely not tampered with, it cannot be determined to what extent contributions are censored, or what the selection process is. Indeed, on the group’s website the only submission guidelines provided are to “read the magazine before submitting any ideas” and that “the perfect submission offers a fresh angle on our world.”
There is no hint provided as to whether submissions can be too radical, too left wing, or even too experimental. Thus, while AdBusters blurs the distinction between producers and consumers, it does not completely eradicate it.
AdBusters follows tactical media’s affinity for culture jamming as a resistance tactic to resist consumerism and to re-create commercial culture. It actively encourages its readers to engage in cultural jams and to submit relevant evidence for publication in the magazine, thereby promoting community participation in creative acts.
Tactical media engages in culture jams to convert easily identifiable images into questions regarding corporate responsibility and the “true” environmental and human costs of consumption.
Tactical media’s typical heroes include pranksters and activists such as culture jammers who challenge contemporary power structures in innovative ways. Thus, AdBusters honours culture jams and the magazine often features images of politically motivated billboard or advertisement vandalism submitted by readers.
Further, the organization website provides performance scripts that activists can borrow change and enact in their communities. Examples of culture jams are found in AdBusters’ advertisement parodies called “spoofs” and “subvertizements.” These identify the central conceit of mainstream advertisement campaigns for consumer goods and re-articulate them to reflect more pressing social concerns.
One such piece in the magazine showcases alcohol and its side effects together with the caption “Absolute Impotence” under the image of a wilting bottle of vodka. By appropriating media images and challenging what is signified, culture jamming rejects the idea that marketing must be passively accepted as a one-way information flow. Instead, the process of consumption can be seen as a rebellious act, where the tactical consumer engages in a creative re-appropriation of the media messages it is presented with.
Thus, culture jamming becomes not only a means of asserting one’s active reception of media, but also a means of community participation in the expression of mass discontent with the current system.
Culture jamming can also be seen as one of the ways in which tactical media focuses on the role of entertainment and the politics imbedded in everyday actions. Indeed, cultural studies scholars have found AdBusters as providing evidence that consumers are not just passive receivers and reproducers of corporate culture, but rather create and resist consumerism in innovate ways and spaces.
Just as culture jamming rejects the distinction between producer and consumer in this way, cultural re-appropriation is also an aspect of tactical media’s reevaluation of modern dichotomization between alternative and mainstream. Culture jammers attempt to appropriate and re-create mainstream media content to challenge the power of mainstream media messages through community participation.
AdBusters broadens the boundaries of political acts, using culture jamming as a means for society to subtlely challenge hegemonic power, during times of hegemonic consensus. Tactical media is a media of criticism and opposition, and culture jamming is an active expression of this criticism.
John Downing, author of Radical Media, postulates that there exists within society a “middle ground” where resistance avoids all-or-nothing confrontations with hegemonic power, yet constantly tests limits set by it. This middle ground includes arson, sabotage, anonymous threats and malicious rumours, and anarchist groups such as AdBusters are participants within this sphere. He argues that radical media are essential to building counter-hegemony, which is only “truly powerful at times of political upsurge.”
In this scenario, AdBusters can be seen as being a counterhegemonic force, publishing “stories that provoke,” and engaging in culture jams to build counter hegemony. The group is arguably engaged in an extended attempt to galvanize a hegemonic revolution “to make corporations extinct.”
Similarly, AdBusters’ “Blackspot” sneakers can be seen as attempts to create mass-resistance to corporate hegemony by promoting grassroots capitalism as an alternative. While culture jamming has been criticized as being merely reactive and not providing an alternative to what it challenges, AdBusters’ culture jams extend beyond reaction, as evidenced by their line of ethically produced sneakers.
The organization refigures brand logos and product images to challenge assumptions about the personal freedoms of consumerism, in an attempt to capture audience attention and to question the continuing social prevalence of brands. The sneakers aim to question the power of brands, by contrasting Nike’s sneakers with their own, the “most earth-friendly shoes in the world.”
AdBusters’ sneakers are made of sustainable materials (hemp, recycled tires and vegan leather and are hand-painted), in “ethical” factories in Portugal and Pakistan that aim to give the local economies a chance to grow.
The sneaker brand itself is open-source, meaning that it can be used by anyone for any purpose, at no cost. The group hopes to inspire people with similar philosophies through their experiment in grassroots capitalism.
Such culture jamming moves away from being only reactive, and towards providing an envisioned and achievable ideal as a viable alternative that challenges corporate hegemony.
AdBusters’ opposition to consumerism is evident in its mass resistance campaigns, which it organizes and promotes as a means of collective action. The campaigns encourage individuals to continue challenging their roles as passive spectators, to become active participants in society through mass resistance instead.
AdBusters’ annual social marketing campaigns include “Digital detox day” and “Buy Nothing Day.” Digital detox day encourages people to cut back on digital stimulation, and provides advice on how to do so, while “Buy Nothing Day” promotes anti-consumerism.
The organization calls for reduced purchasing, as “consumer minimalism is one of the many strategic operations in our continued fight for real democracy and life without dead time.”
The website also encourages an extension of this philosophy to Christmas, with the “Buy Nothing Christmas” campaign (more recently, “Occupy Christmas), and provides a list of actions and “inactions” to take during the holidays.
Such mass resistance to the consumerist frenzy that is especially common during holiday seasons challenges prevalent norms and attempts to create a mass alteration in society. Further, the campaigns create a realization of the potential of mass mobilization in participants, while being a gateway to other political actions.
Rather than just challenging prevalent views of what is politically relevant, AdBusters extends its resistance to established political actions for social change. Unlike tactical media, which focuses on cultural rather than political change, AdBusters aims for both.
Their website contains cyber-petitions to challenge legislation that allows the continued existence of corporate disinformation and other injustices in our global economy. Such petitions give community members a platform to engage in decisive political action. Thus, AdBusters provides an outlet where voices of dissent combine mass change in consciousness to change speech into action: AdBusters not only challenges contemporary power structures, it also operates within them for positive social change.
Harnessing Mainstream Media
AdBusters’ use of mainstream media for campaign promotion demonstrates the interaction of mainstream and alternative media in society, thereby challenging the contemporaneous dichotomization of mainstream and alternative media. AdBusters promoted its “TV turnoff” campaign by purchasing 30 seconds of dead air time on CNN.
With the use of mainstream media, AdBusters was able to reach a larger audience, and to increase the number of people devoted to its cause, by tapping into the large audience of broadcast systems.
Increasing global interconnectedness in the digital age has eroded the boundaries of civil society, ultimately allowing “islands of civic engagement” to emerge. Activists around the world are now able to demonstrate solidarity to a common cause—such as AdBusters’ call for recognizing the massive impact of technology. Such mass involvement can hold revolutionary potential.
As demonstrated by the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, mass engagement is significantly amplified when mainstream media takes up minority media, since existing social networks can be operationalized, with the potential for revolution and the drastic alteration of existing power structures.
As mass media networks typically reach wider audiences, tactical media’s use of mainstream media networks can prove beneficial in its attempts to challenge contemporary power structures.
AdBusters campaign promotion through broadcast media demonstrates how alternative media co-exists and interacts with mainstream media and can profit from harnessing it.
It must be noted that the efficacy of mass resistance campaigns is challenged by corporate control of the public airwaves. While AdBusters publishes textual and image subvertizements in its magazine and posts videos on its website, it uses mainstream media to promote its campaigns and culture jams.
Television and radio stations have refused to air AdBusters subvertizements multiple times in the past, stating that such content would “contaminate the purity of media environments designed exclusively for communicating commercial messages.”
This denial of access to airwaves led to the group’s “Media Carta,” a charter challenging corporate control of public airwaves and means of communication. Corporate refusal to allow airtime for thought-provoking, non commercial subvertisements alludes to a recognition of the power of popular revolt, and an attempt to suffocate it, as the diffusion of such content into the mainstream media holds inflammatory and revolutionary potential.
As it breaks into the mainstream, AdBusters has been criticized for employing the same tactics as the corporations it challenges, namely in its marketing and distribution. The publication is distributed by both small-scale bookshops and large mainstream outlets, such as Barnes and Noble and Borders.
Critics have even moved beyond focusing on the company’s marketing and distribution tactics to admonishing founder Kalle Lasn for hypocritical engagement with corporations, citing his admission to a Sun Herald reporter that he sometimes eats at McDonalds.
This tendency to focus on hypocrisy can be seen as an attempt to dismiss AdBusters’ resistance by accusing its founder of being moral inconsistent and the organization as culturally redundant as a result. Yet, since even modes of resistance hold some tie to the social power they oppose, it is rare—if not impossible—that they are “pure” of ties to capitalism. Tactical media are never perfect, but are based on questioning the channels they work with.
Similarly, AdBusters challenges mainstream corporations, even as it engages with them regularly. Arguably, the reason for AdBusters success is this engagement with the mainstream. While most alternative media are challenged by financial concerns, AdBusters manages to retain fiscal autonomy from influential state and corporate powers.
AdBusters is a non-profit organization and is non-reliant on advertising, being funded entirely on sales and donations by readers. Thus, the organization manages to engage with mainstream corporations to tap into their audience, and maximize its own influence, while escaping reliance on them.
AdBusters can be seen as a form of tactical media with an affinity for engaging in culture jamming in attempts to challenge and deflate the consumerism of contemporary Neoliberal society.
The magazine exists as a visual and textual platform where readers engage in, and are exposed to, media analysis and critique. Like most tactical media, AdBusters extends its challenge to the modern dichotomies of private vs. public, political vs. non-political, producer vs. consumer and mainstream vs. alternative.
By promoting community culture jamming and resistance campaigns, AdBusters attempts to challenge power structure and aims for social and structural change through social awakening and mass mobilization.