The backlash starts here. Activist media organisation Adbusters says the Advertising Industry has to take responsibility for the corrupting influence of brand culture on society. Nick Carson examines the subversion of ‘cool’.
“If anyone here is in advertising or marketing, kill yourself…”
Trust Bill Hicks to hit the crucifix in the spot that’s too close for comfort. There’s no escaping the ‘swoosh’ sign, those golden arches or interlocked Cs – Nike, McDonalds and Chanel. So hands up those responsible for this sorry state of affairs?
Oi you! Yes you, the Advertising Industry: don’t try and slip away. There’s no point trying to sterilise your guilty conscience. Your hands may be glossy but they’re certainly not clean. That dirty bottom dollar embedded itself right in your nails. But you can cope with that as it’s all about ‘the sell’. Money talks.
But a career in Advertising doesn’t have to be this way. In this glitzy, soundbite world of big-brand business, the price of success doesn’t necessarily mean that morality has to be sacrificed. If the industry starts taking responsibility for its actions, then a third way can be found.
Optimistic? Well nothing was achieved without hope. Without it Kalle Lasn (founder and director) wouldn’t have conceived Vancouver-based operation Adbusters in 1989. At the vanguard of the self-dubbed ‘counter-force’ to the corporate world, he advocates wriggling free of the brand-building convention and getting back to our cultural roots.
“Mind-fuck. Yeah, that’s the word they use. It’s a mind-fuck.”
A Matrix-like epiphany, halfway through a conversation about the ethics of advertising: we have no control over our lives. Multinational businesses fronted by shiny, big-name brands shape our world. They have, Kalle argues, ‘more control than civil society’.
Not so cool
One of Adbusters’ central concerns, Kalle explains, is that the culture many of us swear by is “spoon-fed to us” – filtered down from the top echelons of the multinationals as they scrabble over each other in a “quest to put a glow around brands. To create cool.”
In a world that is gradually fabricated around us, fashion and social acceptability are handed down ready-made. As Kalle opines: “Culture no longer grows from the bottom-up. We should be able to decide for ourselves what we like.”
Almost from birth, we’re told what is fashionable to eat, drink and wear – and it’s only through the ever-expanding mouthpiece of the media that this is made possible. So in a world so firmly under the control of the ‘creators of cool’, is the brand-polishing bandwagon the only way to stay afloat in the advertising industry?
Hang on to your principles
Over the last century, Advertising has sprouted from something that offered simple factual information about a product and its price into a $350 billion “worldwide juggernaut” that sets the official agenda for the population. In the industry today, Kalle insists, companies that break away from that are the true creators of cool.
“There’s more and more talk about ethics in advertising,” he explains. “There’s a new breed of small businesses in North America run by people who do things their way, as a labour of love. I believe this is the future.”
I put it to Kalle that if the ‘corporate glow’ marks the path to success, aren’t advertisers just doing their job? Surely to deny advertising its power to sell is to deny its very purpose?
“It’s the job of every human being to be proud of what they’re doing, and do it wholeheartedly,” he admits. “But visual communicators have become part of the marketing arm of corporations. It’s not the job of designers to give clients everything they want, but to try to be ethical while making the world a better place. They should have the courage and ethical guts to say no.”
Declaration of intent
For the torrent of students looking to enter the industry, it’s a choice between the well-trodden path to financial success and recognition – or something different.
When Adbusters set out their individualist principles in a design manifesto entitled First Things First in 2000, it stated: “Too much design energy is being spent to promote pointless consumerism, and too little to helping people understand an increasingly complex and fragile world.”
It created “quite a ruckus,” Kalle recalls, with many ‘old-school’ designers protesting that client satisfaction must always be top of the list of priorities.
Their argument boiled down to the scale of success: two hundred employees polishing the corporate crown are better than twenty who subvert it. But the ruckus was there, and many young design and advertising students signed up. The man behind it boils this down to ideology: “They want to join a profession that actually means something – it put the wind in the sails of many young people.”
Too ideological, or could small-scale be the face of the future?
Yes it could. Size, Kalle assures me, is not everything.
In the business of bringing corporate cool down to earth, Adbusters’ global campaigns consist of subversive parodies of top businesses’advertising strategies. With an operating budget of $2 million against a $350 billion industry, the imbalance is clear, but Kalle insists: “If you’re smart about it, culture jamming does work. At the moment we’re just nibbling at the edges, but we’ve begun to flex our muscles and are learning how to use our power.”
Depicting ‘culture jamming’ on the Adbusters’ website as a movement that will define this zeitgeist like civil rights did in the Sixties, feminism in the Seventies and environmental activism in the Eighties, Adbusters believes this strategy will alter the way we live and think:
“It will change the way information flows, the way institutions wield power, the way TV stations are run, the way the food, fashion, automobile, sports, music and culture industries set their agendas. Above all, it will change the way meaning is produced in our society.”
One of their biggest successes is Buy Nothing Day, a global boycott that has reportedly had an impact on 60 countries worldwide. A ‘support the underdog’ mentality could be at the root of the organisation’s successes against the Goliath-like world of fabricated coolness, but it must be in the minority: it cannot explain the widespread readiness to accept what we are told is cool. The power of advertising is enormous.
What marks Adbusters out from other anti-globalisation movements is that it turns the brand-building industry on its head – aiming its own rhetoric against it. The impact of graphic design is used for the opposite purpose: undermining reputations and stripping off the coolness that makes the big brands glow.
“Activism has become cool again,” Kalle informs me, reaching for that ubiquitous buzzword without a hint of irony. “And people have begun to question multinationals’ right to shape the world we live in.”
That fact that organisations such as Adbusters exist proves that things are already changing. Kalle predicts that in 5-10 years, the advertising industry will be dramatically different:
“There’s a new breed of ‘mental environmentalists’ who argue that our minds are being polluted as well as the environment. The language they use is that ‘our souls have been sucked out’; ‘we’ve been mind-fucked’. These people are the pioneers of the future. They’ve shown that there is more to advertising than a catchy slogan and a memorable logo.”
© Nick Carson 2003. First published on Channel 4’s IDEASFACTORY