Cultural Jammin’

The Media Foundation Uses Guerrilla Tactics Against Advertising Excess

Every year, the average American kid watches 40,000 TV commercials. Against that barrage of messages, the tiny but determined voice of The Media Foundation—otherwise known as the Culture Jammers—is struggling to be heard.

The Media Foundation, based in Vancouver, Canada, is best-known for publishing the Adbusters Quarterly, a highly irreverent journal of opinion whose primary purpose is skewering the culture of advertising. Its tools are some wicked ad parodies and pointed essays with titles like “Bringing the Nicotine Cartel to Justice.” A parody of a Calvin Klein spot shows the anorexic Kate Moss proclaiming “feed me,” while the Marlboro Man, depicted as a grinning skull, ropes in new converts. Needless to say, Adbusters, with a circulation of 35,000, refuses real advertising.

One of the foundation’s good ideas is the notion of “Culture Jamming”—a kind of guerrilla theater subversion aimed at the heart of wretched advertising excess. Anonymous culture jammers, for instance, bought up large quantities of Talking Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls, switched their sound chips, then returned them to the stores. A new empowered Barbie says, “Vengeance is mine,” while G.I. Joe intones, “Let’s go shopping!” Mattel and Hasbro were not amused, but the Barbie Liberation Organization is still out there somewhere. The foundation’s page on the World Wide Web is a virtual treasure house of such ideas, with complete “how to” instructions.

Estonia-born Kalle Lasn is a cofounder of the foundation as well as the magazine’s editor and publisher. “What we’re trying to do is pioneer a new form of social activism in the 90s,” he says, “using all the power of the mass media to sell ideas, rather than products. We’re motivated by a kind of `greenthink’ that comes from the environmental movement and isn’t mired in the old ideology of the left and right. Instead, we take the environmental ethic into the mental ethic, trying to clean up the toxic areas of our minds. You can’t recycle and be a good environmental citizen, then watch four hours of television and get consumption messages pumped at you.”

Lasn calls “the incredible barrage of messages that invite us to consume” our “number one environmental problem.” The foundation fights back with the increasingly popular Buy Nothing Day (November 29), a 24-hour respite from consumer culture. Buy Nothing Day is in its fifth year, with active participation in Great Britain, Holland, the U.S. and Canada. “For some people, resisting the impulse to walk into a store and buy something can be a very profound experience,” Lasn says.

Also in the foundation arsenal are “uncommercials,” pointed 30-second messages about, for instance, the end of the automobile age. The uncommercials are very popular with public access cable producers but, understandably, haven’t made much headway in the mainstream media—CBS, NBC and ABC all refused to air paid Buy Nothing Day spots (though they did make it onto CNN Headline News). The foundation is now in the Canadian courts, suing under freedom to broadcast laws. “We’re willing to pay for the airtime,” says Lasn. “We just want the same rights as the corporations to buy airtime. But on American television, you’re apparently not allowed to speak up against a sponsor.” Return to Marketing Madness