Occupiers on Wall Street as Madison Avenue Parties on

Adbusters Was Behind the Protests, So Why Didn't It Target Advertising Week?

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At the same time that scores of sign-scrawling, chanting protesters were hanging out around Manhattan's Zuccotti Park last week plotting to turn American business inside out, waves of lanyard-wearing, jargon-dazed ad executives were wandering around Midtown trying to figure out how to best pry into the thin wallets of their countrymen.

Wall Street Occupiers
Wall Street Occupiers Credit: Neal Ungerleider

Only a 15-minute subway ride separated the panel discussions of Advertising Week from the hue and cry of Occupy Wall Street , but never did the twain meet. There was no noticeable picketing. The Michelin Man was not called upon to bow up on the ranks of angry 99-Percenters. It's sort of curious when you think about it. After all, it's tough to mount a full-on critique of the American business scene while ignoring the part of it that 's creating all the demand.

So why not occupy Madison Avenue?

I asked Kalle Lasn, founder of Adbusters, the organization that sparked the current wave of protestations back in July, whether he'd given any thought to bringing the street action to Advertising Week, then in its final full day. His response said it all: "When is that ?"

Back in July, Mr. Lasn's Adbusters got things going with a poster in its magazine that called for pretty much what's been going on in Lower Manhattan the past few weeks: a continuous peaceful demonstration. It's become commonplace to call the scene at Zuccotti Park carnival-like, but that sells short this strange brew of different classes and cultures, serious politics mixed with playfulness and some straight-up freakishness. On Friday at lunch hour, I was greeted by the David-Lynch-on-a-bad-day spectacle of a little person with no arms and hands coming pretty much out of his shoulders waving drumsticks while dancing to songs of his own making -- the choruses from "Livin' La Vida Loca" and "We Will Rock You" -- and wearing only a pair of filthy sweatpants.

Shaking that one off, I moved deeper into the camp. Sporadic chants rang out, but for the most part it was quiet. Protesters worked on signs and costumes and little art projects and mingled with visitors. In the middle of it all, hardhats and even some suits lunched, stomachs unturned by the detritus, the dirty tarps and sleeping bags piled high, the dog bowls and general grizzle of the participants.

The idea behind Occupy Wall Street was to crib from the Arab Spring and create what Mr. Lasn described as a "Tahrir moment," named after the Cairo square where the anti-Mubarak protests were focused.

Since it began, the always-there demonstration has grown in both humanity and credibility, gradually winning over national media, thanks to clashes with police and more attention from public figures, even a shout-out from President Barack Obama. All the while it's been sharpening its message. What began as an amorphous call for change has been shaped into a series of more specific calls for action.

Unsurprisingly, the choice to focus on Wall Street has a lot to do with the symbolic resonance of the place name and the sheer excesses and lack of accountability of the financial industry that 's been on display over the past several years. Mr. Lasn did, however, hold out the possibility for advertising-focused protest, just not right now.

"It's too early to do that ," he said, in a phone interview from Vancouver, where Adbusters is based. "The movement is pure and idealistic. Down the road, once the messiness is over and the movement fragments, there'll be myriad projects and ideas. That is the moment when the ad industry can redeem itself."

The surprising thing that comes through when talking to Mr. Lasn, whose Adbusters is built around critiques of consumer culture, is a grudging respect for the ad trade. Indeed, Adbusters borrows from that which it criticizes. It is not a "zine whose anticapitalist content mirrors a stripped-down form. Nor is it a blog like The Consumerist, obsessed with micro-mechanics of dealing with non-functioning and/or non-caring corporations. Adbusters is an expensive, glossy magazine with some pretty serious art direction and articles that ponder things like the revolutionary potential of the hipster.

"Advertising techniques are killer techniques," said Mr. Lasn, a former ad guy who once founded a market-research company and who gets branding. He very accurately points out that many ad people aren't terribly proud of what they do, and he holds out hope that they'll come around to his way of thinking. An example might be Alex Bogusky, who left his eponymous agency for social causes and who, incidentally, announced this week that he sent the protesters some nut butter, some T-shirts and a bullhorn branded with Fearless, the name of his new company.

"It seems to me the advertising industry is divided into two parts," Mr. Lasn said. "There's the selling of products, and there's the selling of ideas. The world will need these brilliant creative minds to sell great ideas like the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act or the banning of high-frequency trading."

Because we were speaking the day after Steve Jobs died, I asked Mr. Lasn about his reaction. Though there's no reason to think of the very wealthy Apple co-founder as particularly beneficent, Mr. Jobs, with his Zen cool and array of fantastic products, often got a free ride from people who are otherwise very critical of brands.

"I didn't burst out crying, but I had that pit-of -the-stomach feeling when news reaches you emotionally," Mr. Lasn said. "I wondered why I was having this. I don't care that much for Apple or Steve Jobs. Then it occurred to me: There aren't too many heroes or people you can look up to."

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