Kalle Lasn, the author of the book Culture Jam and founder of the Adbusters Media Foundation, talks about the cultural war of a new age. In his opinion the only way to change the world is to engage the dysfunctional consumer culture. The goal of the anti-branding movement is to clean up the pollution of the mental environment caused by business and return the power to the people. Kalle Lasn predicts a great future for the mental environmental movement because its focus is social and real.
By Jacob Rosenkrands
The struggle to win the attention and sympathy of the consumers is tougher than ever before. But where management gurus and marketing chiefs speak in pleasant terms about "conquering mind space" through the use of branding, the Canadian activist Kalle Lasn is more brutally frank: "I call it mindfucking".
Kalle Lasn speaks in headlines and images like an advertising executive. That is no coincidence. The Estonian born Canadian worked as the director of a Japanese advertising agency during the sixties, but he got fed up with the trade's ethical neutrality and switched sides. Kalle Lasn is no longer creating ad campaigns for the business community. Today he - along with other so-called Culture Jammers - is creating campaigns against the big companies and their brands.
He is primarily known as the author of the book Culture Jam and the editor of Adbusters Magazine. See also the box below. These are publications that, along with Naomi Klein's widely renowned book, No Logo, have contributed to giving voice to a new generation of anti-business activists.
The movement really achieved visibility towards the end of the nineties. It happened, among other things, in connection with critical media campaigns against multinational companies that were accused of a lack of ethics, and with the violent demonstrations in 1999 in the streets of Seattle during the World Trade Organisation's summit meeting.
According to Kalle Lasn, this was just a foretaste of the cultural struggle of a new age, a struggle that will play out on the market between activists and the business community. The Culture Jammers' goal is to reduce the great symbolic power that the companies have in today's society - partly due to their massive marketing programs and use of branding aimed at the consumers.
"The interesting thing about branding, when compared to traditional advertising, is that for the first time in the history of advertising, emotions have been linked to commercial icons and brand names. It is the latest outgrowth of an incredible development where the business world's marketing efforts have turned more and more aspects of our life into commodities. With branding we have reached the absolute limit for how far it can go. It is the human spirit itself that now has become subject to marketing mechanisms," says Kalle Lasn.
But branding has also contributed to sharpening the business community's focus on values. Some companies even profess various ethical and social goals. Is this not a step in the right direction?
"Not really. I think it is fine that companies with ethical values that are a natural part of their history tell us about it. But in many cases the ethics and the values are added last, which is profoundly unethical. In most companies, branding unfortunately begins with a focus group or a brainstorming seminar where they say: Okay, what sort of emotions can we graft onto our brand to make the young consumers really want to buy it? This is a completely artificial process where you latch onto any emotion at all, as long as it is strong enough for the purpose, and then cynically proceed to exploit it in the marketing."
What effect does the business community's branding have on society?
"The downside is that mental pollution has reached new heights. Young people are subject to a massive bombardment of commercial cynicism. The upside is that a lot of young people have realised that their soul is being manipulated. That someone incessantly tries to stamp them in the back of the neck with a company brand. What started out as a bad feeling in the pit of the stomach is developing into a movement."
"I'm encountering more and more cool young people who are tired of being 'mindfucked'. They tell me that they're not feeling quite human any more because of the pressure from branding and TV. They have begun talking about creating a media democracy with room for all voices. And about cleaning up our poisonous psychic environment. The way they see it, the commercial media and the commercial brands are the main enemy that they intend to fight over the next ten to twenty years."
An anti-branding movement?
"You might call it that. At least branding has provoked a new realisation that it is necessary to deal with the business world's portrayal of reality. The greater discernment among the consumers means that the branding trend loses its effect. I expect a major reaction in the next few years. But the real goal of the activists is to cleanse the commercial pollution from the mental environment. Just as we did 20-30 years ago when people suddenly realised the physical environment was heavily strained. As you know, that changed the way the whole world thought. I prefer to call our movement a mental environmental movement. And I'm convinced that we will have the same crucial importance as the old environmental activists."
What results have this movement achieved so far?
"Our greatest victory is that we have become a global movement with our own independent media, like for instance Adbusters and Indymedia.org. A very extensive activity has grown on the internet, where more and more people spend their time. And all across the world we experience a lot of support for our campaigns "Buy Nothing Day" and "TV Turn-off Week". These are occasions where thousands of people in different countries show their dissatisfaction with a consumer culture that they consider ecologically and psychologically destructive."
But company brands are still to be found everywhere. Look at Nike, which Culture Jammers and other activists have been criticising for years. Has this influenced Nike to become a better company?
"Yes, I really think that time is running out for the big brands. Sure, Nike sells millions of sports shoes, and they still have fanatic adherents among high school students and other ordinary consumers. But there are also many people who - like me - have begun to see the big brands as dinosaurs. People have realised that these companies don't have any future with their similar organisations and their dreams of world domination," says Kalle Lasn.
He also believes that the last years' critical ethics campaigns against high profile multinational companies with questionable ethics have had a discouraging effect on the rest of the business world.
"As I said, branding was originally a top-down process where the companies just barged ahead with a new sales tactics and didn't care about what people thought or felt. But partly because of the criticism that has been levelled at the business world, more and more companies are trying to listen to people and become more genuine in what they say. That is a good thing."
Although Kalle Lasn and Adbusters are far from having reached their goal of creating a new media reality, one that is free from the fingerprints of the business community and the advertisers, they have made a strong impression with their messages. One of Culture Jammers' anti-advertisements has been shown on CNN. Adbusters Magazine stands side by side with trendy lifestyle magazines in Canadian stores. Adbusters' homepage has become a reference point to activists, media people, and even advertising agents with an interest in pushing the edges of communication and experimenting with form.
The image of Culture Jammers is actually rather cool, even by the standards of the fashion and lifestyle industry. And it is a coolness that one can easily buy a share in, for instance by ordering the kind of Culture Jammer merchandise that is sold from the homepage: An American flag where the stars have been replaced by company logos; a poster with the words "Toxic Culture". Or how about a postcard with a cute little baby who has one eye covered by a television set? "She has you eyes," is the inscription.
Some debaters have pointed out the irony in the fact that Culture Jammers has created a strong brand for itself by using the same kind of spin and marketing as their enemies in the business world use. To Kalle Lasn it is a question of communicating in a way that modern citizens can understand:
"We speak directly to people. Like when we use terms like 'mindfucking' or talk about 'uncooling' Nike or McDonald's. That is something people intuitively understand. Most people realise that a pair of Nike shoes or a cap only makes you feel good for a while. That you can't buy self-confidence like the company promises in its marketing."
Couldn't one call your communication and campaigns a form of branding?
"You could, but you should be careful not to see branding everywhere, just because it has become fashionable in the business world. It's plain to see that our most successful campaigns, like for instance Buy Nothing Day, use the same effects that the companies use. You have three magic words and emphasise them strongly. And our thirty second TV-spots, which we ourselves have dubbed 'mind bombs', are made using the same techniques that a commercial advertising agency would have used."
"The difference is that we are not doing product marketing, we are doing social marketing. And when you come right down to it, our goal is different from that of the companies. The goal of the businesses is that people come to like their products and go out and buy them the next day. Our goal is the long-term one of creating an alternative to our mainstream consumer culture. There is nothing businesslike about it."
Some would say that if you want to fight the marketing culture you should refrain from using its language and techniques?
"I disagree. My attitude is that we should use any technique that works here and now. I'm certainly not ashamed of having borrowed techniques and methods from the companies."
I have seen adverts from e.g. Diesel with models that pretend to be activists, apparently because it is considered stylish. Does it worry you that more and more your social movement is being regarded as cool?
"Not at all. Coolness has always been an attribute of social innovators. Not to mention that the branding phenomenon of the last ten years has created a pseudo-coolness where companies like Nike have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on celebrity sponsorships and ad campaigns. This has lead to a spurious coolness that is force-fed to us from on high. Whatever coolness is associated with Culture Jammers and activism is quite different. If there is any real coolness, then it is the one that comes from young people who consciously have chosen to live a different life."
Don't you think that there are many young people who buy your magazine or order a poster on your homepage for the same reasons that makes them go into a store and buy Nike clothes?
"Of course there are many people who buy Adbusters with the same attitude as when they buy Nike shoes and fatty food at McDonalds. I don't care - that's their problem. What's important is that 8 out of 10 people today live a life where they get their coolness from TV, from companies, and, come to that, from Adbusters. Few people can imagine another lifestyle. But naturally I hope that they learn something when they read the magazine and are faced with people who think in a more spontaneous and authentic manner."
How would you describe the relationship between the cultural struggle of the Culture Jammers and traditional political and democratic proceedings?
"The way I see it, our political democratic systems worked fine 30 or 40 years ago. Back then people actually discussed the issues that stirred society at the time. But today we live in a post-modern age where most mass media are controlled by commercial interests and where emotions have been turned into commodities. In such a system, traditional politics no longer work. The United States is a perfect example: here people can no longer be bothered to vote, since they have to choose between two parties that are distinguished only by their branding."
"If you want to make a difference on the political level today, you have to become a Culture Jammer. The only way you can change the world is to come to blows with the dysfunctional consumer culture that we are all forced to live in. The greatest challenge of the moment is that the people do not control the culture. When enough hundreds of thousands of world citizens some day have grasped the problem, there may again be a basis for politics. Perhaps a new political party will rise up from the ashes of the consumer culture. A party with a dash of green, a dash of media democracy, a dash of culture jamming, and so on. But right now the fight is about who controls the culture," says Kalle Lasn.
Jacob Rosenkrands is an analytical journalist with an MS in Political Science. He has examined the new anti-business activism closely and is, among other things, co-author of the books VŠlt dagsordenen (Topple the Agenda) (published by Informations Forlag 2002) and Cyberprotest (published by Routledge of London).
The Canadian Kalle Lasn is one of the most strongly marked profiles in the world-girdling movement of anti-business activists that lately have received more and more attention.
Kalle Lasn is the author of the book Culture Jam - The Uncooling of America(TM) from 1999. He is also the founder of Adbusters Media Foundation, which publishes the magazine Adbusters Magazine, he runs the website adbusters.org and the advertising agency PowerShift, which designs the movement's campaigns.
Kalle Lasn and his adherents call themselves Culture Jammers. Culture Jamming is a cultural struggle that aims at jamming the channels that companies and commercial media use to convey their view of existence. Among their methods are tampering with billboards and company adverts. A range of the world's leading brands has suffered, including Nike, McDonald's, Coca-Cola, and Microsoft. One example is Marlboro's icon from the cigarette packs, Joe the Camel, who in the activists' ad was changed to Joe Chemo - a bald, cancerous, and not very cool camel.
Adbusters Media Foundation fights a stubborn legal battle in America to be allowed to broadcast this sort of 'anti-adverts' on the commercial TV-stations. Kalle Lasn and his adherents are also behind the launching of two global events that have attracted a considerable amount of attention lately. One is "Buy Nothing Day" a one-day boycott of all commercial consumption on November 29th. The other is "TV Turn-off Week" on April 21st-27th, where media consumers are urged to go cold turkey from television viewing.
Adbusters Media Foundation describe themselves as "a global network of artists, activists, writers, pranksters, students, teachers, and innovators who want to promote the information society's new social activist movement. Our goal is to topple existing power structures and create a fundamental shift in the way we live it the 21st Century."