Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.

More info ×

Media empowerment

Siobhan McGuirk talks to the Adbusters Media Foundation

September 27, 2010
5 min read


Siobhan McGuirkSiobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.


  share     tweet  

On newsstands across North America, the UK, Australia and now even India, Adbusters cuts quite a niche. The thick, glossy magazine places lengthy philosophical musings alongside succinct polemics and activist briefings, combined with striking and occasionally shocking images. Concerned with the ‘erosion of our physical and cultural environments by commercial forces’, it is refreshingly devoid of advertisements.

The fiercely independent magazine has its roots in environmental activism. In 1989, co-founding editor Kalle Lasn was involved in campaigns in British Columbia. ‘We went head to head with the forest industry on television with our own adverts. TV stations refused to sell us air time so there was this big battle between the industry, the stations, the public and Adbusters,’ he recalls. ‘Out of this campaign we started our newsletter which then grew into a magazine.’

The aesthetics of activism are central to their outlook, and wordless sections are devoted to unusual and everyday images, from the mundane to the sublime, carefully arranged for poignant effect. Spoof ads are another vital element for the magazine’s popularity and political outlook. ‘Taking adverts and altering or answering them escalates the dialogue. Having an article about how terrible the media is is one thing, but to give people a really provocative, empowering subvert that makes them laugh and hits against the powers that be is something that the left really needs right now.’

Kick-starting a movement

Unifying and inspiring the left is what the Adbusters Media Foundation, the not-for-profit producers of the magazine, was set up for. ‘One of the things that came up really early, twenty years ago, was the realisation that the political left was [using] old style, knee-jerk politics and the same old slogans at protests. Something was fundamentally wrong, we were running out of big ideas,’ explains Lasn. ‘We want to build a movement.’

Big ideas define the Foundation, which describes itself as ‘a global network of artists, activists, writers, pranksters, students, educators and entrepreneurs who want to advance the new social activist movement of the information age’. It is the root of international campaigns like Buy Nothing Week and Blackspot open-source branding.

Media literacy is high on their agenda, making Media Empowerment Kits available to schools since its inception. ‘We see it one of our mandates to create a media literacy lesson – not just for high school students but for the whole world,’ says Lasn. ‘We sent complimentary issues to every high school in Canada, and a huge percentage started subscribing and using the magazine in the classroom.

‘A good spoof ad or TV spot that speaks back at the advertisers is the kind of provocative thing that teachers like to use and students love to see. It gets people into subvertising – even if that’s just tearing pages out of magazines or writing stuff with a big black pen on top of it.’

Another of the Foundation’s education-based campaigns is ‘Neoliberal Economics – Kick it Over!’ aiming to remind students, teachers and institutions that another economics is possible. For Lasn, the approach is vital for the movement. ‘We are trying to create a paradigm shift, from neo-classical economics to a new, biologically, ecologically driven approach. It is the sort of new vision for the political left around the world that makes a lot of sense.’

A black spot?

With their ideology posted front and centre, Adbusters has come in for criticism in one area: its own product range of shoes, books and flags. For Lasn, the true message and worth of their Blackspot anti-brand has been overlooked. ‘A lot of people don’t understand that Blackspot was an attempt to launch something new and to go head to head with a big bad company like Nike; start taking their market share, stealing their logo and doing some brand damage.’

For a non-profit, anti-corporate entity, the approach to merchandising is novel. ‘You can either look for money from big funders or you can launch your own entrepreneurial venture that’s a new way to look at capitalism, like grassroots capitalism,’ reasons Lasn. Ever keen to stress the importance of building alternatives, he is clearly frustrated by the

‘sell-out’ accusations.

‘We’ve had advertising agencies offer to pay us $15,000 for our back cover and we always tell them to go to hell. Once you start selling out and having that kind of advertising feel, it just takes the piss out of activism.’

Their latest campaign idea is Seven Days of Carnivalesque Rebellion, a grassroots-led week of international, coordinated civil disobedience set for 22-28 November. Lasn sees it as an opportunity to rejuvenate the movement.

‘We started up around the time that the Soviet Union fell and through the Iraq wars and the Bush years and even now, with Obama, it feels like the left still doesn’t have its act together; doesn’t have a vision. Some really kooky right wing people, like the Tea Party, seem to have more verve and more passion than we do.’

Throwing down the gauntlet to groups across the world, he concludes: ‘We have to come up with the big ideas that would rejuvenate the political left and put the magic back into our activism.’ n

www.adbusters.org

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Siobhan McGuirkSiobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.


Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency


3