When a Brand Buster Becomes a Brand

Kalle Lasn Hates What You Do. Here's the Thing: He Sort of Does It Too

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On a residential street on the outskirts of Vancouver, British Columbia, it's hard to spot the clear plastic sign tacked to the brown shingles of a three-story house identifying the unlikely headquarters of Adbusters Media Foundation.
Kalle Lasn: The Ad Buster in his Vancouver HQ -- what you can't see is that he's wearing New Balance shoes.
Kalle Lasn: The Ad Buster in his Vancouver HQ -- what you can't see is that he's wearing New Balance shoes. Credit: Lyle Stafford

Two tall pine trees shroud the yard. A narrow sidewalk curves around overgrown bushes to a wood staircase and a 13-step descent to the basement door. Pass by a carpenter building a shelf, and inside you'll find the man known for his dangerous ideas on advertising.

The man who calls advertising "brain damage" and says our time is "the age of the Manchurian Consumer" is inside a tiny glass-enclosed office, sitting at a beat-up old kitchen table. At first, it's hard to reconcile Kalle Lasn, advertising's angriest and most prolific heretic with this unimposing and exceedingly polite presence sipping coffee.

This is the man, after all, who in his 1999 book "Culture Jam: How to Reverse America's Suicidal Consumer Binge -- and Why We Must," offered this dedication: "To my mortal enemy, Philip Morris Inc., which I vow to take down." The man behind Blackspot shoes, which sport a red dot on the toe "for kicking Nike's ass." The man who wants to de-market Mother's Day, Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Mr. Lasn launched Adbusters in 1989 after picking a fight with the Candadian logging industry. He was enraged by the logging companies' use of the phrase "forest management" to describe what he believed was blatant clear-cutting. In what was then revolutionary consumer-generated content, Mr. Lasn shot his own spoof ad, but he couldn't get it on air.

Today Mr. Lasn leads a network of 100,660 "artists, activists, writers, pranksters, students, educators and entrepreneurs," who aim to "topple existing power structures and forge a major shift in the way we will live."

Yet he's also human, rejecting the "moral purity" standard put on those who dare challenge the system. He wears New Balance, not his Blackspot brand; it's kind of like Nike founder Phil Knight getting caught in a pair of Reeboks.

"I'm that post-modern contradiction," he said, pointing at his worn shoes. "We are all living in this crazy moment. We are all living in this squishy world."

Case in point: Adbusters itself sells stuff. Adbusters magazine ($8.95), calendars ($10), books, the many campaigns (TV Turnoff Week, Buy Nothing Day) and the Blackspot shoes ($75). "Somehow we've become a brand," he said. "I still yearn for those old wild days when we were just running on passion alone. Now it's become a little more like a mini-corporation here."

On the other foot
Superstars of the left such as Naomi Klein, author of "No Logo," likened the shoe venture to shilling for a "different 'anti-corporate' brand." Former Adbusters contributor Mark Dery, now a professor at New York University, said: "They've commodified the notion of anti-consumption -- a delicious irony that seems entirely lost on them."

But the most damning critique came in the 2004 book "Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture" by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter: "Adbusters did not sell out, because there was nothing to sell out in the first place. Adbusters never had a revolutionary doctrine. What they had was simply a warmed-over version of the countercultural thinking that has dominated leftist politics since the '60s. ... What we see on display in Adbusters magazine is, and always has been, the true spirit of capitalism."

The criticisms confound Mr. Lasn. "The first five or six years of Adbusters, the left loved us. Then all of a sudden there was this backlash -- lefties didn't like our shoes. I guess the bigger you are ..." he said, then paused. "I don't know what it is. I've gotten used to it."

Then the passionate Mr. Lasn re-emerges. "We haven't sold out," he said, slamming his fist against his armrest. "We're still Adbusters."

The critiques, at times, do come off as just a bit mean-spirited. After all, Mr. Lasn, 65, could easily retire with his wife, garden, cats and German shepherd. Instead, he makes the daily 30-mile commute to the Adbusters office in his Ford Focus ("It's not a hybrid, but it's a very small car that gets great mileage"). Instead, he's still fighting the good fight.

Buying time on MTV
The hubbub in the office today is over the latest battle with MTV. Mr. Lasn checks in with Lauren Bercovitch, media-relations director, who since Oct. 26 has been calling MTV about a Buy Nothing Day spot.

The spot in question is "North American Piggy," which was done in-house and urges consumers not to spend a dime on Black Friday.

It opens with a cartoon image of North America, an enormous pink pig plunging through the heartland. Burp. Cue the narrator: "The average North American consumes five times more than a Mexican, 10 times more than a Chinese person and 30 times more than a person from India." Louder burp. "We are the most voracious consumers in the world (images of garbage dumps, a decimated forest, fast-flowing highway traffic), a world that can die because of the way we North Americans live. ... Give it a rest."

Downstairs, Mark Rogers, media director, is decompressing sound files from Ms. Bercovitch's phone calls with MTV ad reps, prepping it for the "rejections" section of Adbusters.org.

The rep is apologetic about the late response; the spot must be sent for approval and there is the little thing of a cash deposit.

'Media Carta Manifesto'
The "rejections" make good theater. In connection with the section, Adbusters has convinced 30,692 journalists to sign a "Media Carta Manifesto" that asserts that the average American has the "right to buy radio and television airtime just like advertising agencies"; asks for two minutes of every broadcast hour for citizen-produced messages; and, among the most improbable, wants "the six largest media corporations in the world broken up."

By the next business day, MTV rejects the spot via an e-mail. Clearly the ad rep must have heard about Adbusters' gotcha phone calls. Others haven't been so smart. "Suck it up, it's the real world," an ABC executive is recorded angrily and loudly rejecting the pig spot a few years ago. "There's no law that says we have to sell you time."

Despite the sheer genius of posting rejections online, Mr. Lasn's stubborn insistence on running expensive TV spots seems a bit incongruous. After all, why would a group decrying the proliferation of advertising seek to communicate its message via advertising? "Advertising is one of the most powerful cultural forces in the world," he said. "You can do a lot of damage on the television mindscape."

Born in Tallinn, Estonia, in 1942, in the middle of World War II, Mr. Lasn spent his early childhood in a German "displaced-persons camp" before emigrating to Australia and earning a degree in applied mathematics.

He spent five years running his own market-research firm in Tokyo and "made big bucks" before immigrating to Canada in 1970. The philosophical underpinnings of his life's work include the French Situationists and the philosophy or idea of d├ętournement, which literally means "turning around," but more practically, as Mr. Lasn explains, the concept involves "rerouting spectacular images, environments, ambiences and events to reverse or subvert their meaning." It's an Adbusters Joe Chemo "ad" that portrays the famous Camel icon receiving chemo therapy.

Modern spectacle
Mr. Lasn has contemporized another Situationist idea, the concept of the spectacle, to apply to the 3,000 images the average consumer is assaulted with every day. He describes it crudely as "the mass-media mind fuck."

Yet, it's an assault the average American consumer is increasingly resisting without the direction of Adbusters -- zapping TV spots with DVRs, blogging about customer-service nightmares and, yes, creating ad parodies to post on YouTube.

And in perhaps one of the most unrecognized ironies of our industry, it is marketers -- today so often complaining constantly about ad clutter -- that sound a little bit more like Mr. Lasn every day.

Mr. Lasn and the advertisers he so loathes seem to be mired in the same morass, trying to stay relevant to an audience that doesn't seem to be buying it anymore. For Mr. Lasn, it's his fickle readership that ebbs and flows (current circ: 120,000), and the masses of rebels not buying his Blackspot shoes (only 25,000 have been sold since the 2004 launch, hardly a threat to Nike).

And as corporate America remakes itself green and takes on the shield of cause marketing, aren't the charges of hypocrisy against it something the car-driving, merchandise-selling Mr. Lasn might be able to relate to?

It's Friday, Nov. 17, one week before Buy Nothing Day. The carpenter is gone and the shelves he built, illuminated by office lights, hold Mr. Lasn's latest book, "Design Anarchy," and old issues of Adbusters. A pair of Blackspot sneakers rests in the top corner shelf, angled one against the other, just so. A lone shoe from a pair of Blackspot V2 unswhoosers, "for kicking Nike's ass" sits on a shelf below.

The Adbusters basement entry is now primed for window shopping. And maybe it's just a bit too simplistic to dismiss the display as ironic or evidence Mr. Lasn is a sellout.

Maybe he's just selling shoes.
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