Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

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.


Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones