Grant Rosenberg interviews
the founder of Adbusters

As the publisher and founder of Adbusters Media Foundation (and its magazine), Kalle Lasn is at the forefront of media skeptics. A gadfly in his own right, he also created Culture Jammers (WWW.CULTUREJAMMERS.ORG), an organization that sees itself as "one of the most significant social movements of the next twenty years. Our aim is to topple existing power structures and forge a major rethinking of the way we will live in the 21st century... It 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 we interact with the mass media and the way in which meaning is produced in our society."

What is this movement all about? It's about reversing the obsessive, snowballing consumer culture we live in. Part of this is done through mindset and part is done by acts of non-violent resistance; culture jamming, as evidenced by manipulated billboards, the hacking of corporate websites to reveal the truth about their real goings-on and protesting it all with public service announcements. Lasn, angry at the plenitude of Americans and our spoiled sense of materialism, created a protest against our consumerism: "Buy Nothing Day," which falls on the biggest shopping day of the year, the day after Thanksgiving. Lasn writes of his movement as one that unites people on the left as well as the right; it isn't bound by any ideology besides its own. Atheists and Believers, Democrats and Republicans, rich and poor, alike—anyone who rejects the consumerism of today and does something about it is a culture jammer. It's about reclaiming democracy, returning this country to its citizens as citizens, not marketing targets or demographics. It's about being a skeptic and not letting advertising tell you what to think.

I’m assuming many of our readers haven’t read Culture Jam. Rather than my summarizing it, how would you describe it?

The book is a manifesto for the culture jamming movement. It’s saying, "Let’s go out there and start a cultural revolution." It’s a rabble-rousing book.

I think it’s really an optimistic book. You kind of have to be an idealist at heart to envision the changes you're seeking.

I don’t know about idealist. There certainly is a bit of idealism, but you have to be very practical and come up with strategic breakthroughs for how this cultural revolution can be propagated. I’ve talked to a lot of young people, and I feel that they are cynical. They phone me up and say, "You think we can have this cultural revolution? I don’t think so. It’s gone too far, we are trapped in a university here, etc." To me, they are cynical. And the book is exactly the opposite. I actually believe that over the next ten years, this revolution will happen. That, in fact, it has already started. Everyone who worked on that book, we tried to turn it into a hands-on manual for how to actually catalyze that revolution.

The book came out in November 1999, and the paperback one year later in November 2000. If you were going to do a revised edition, what would you add to it? Are there subsequent topics you would like to have addressed?

Things have progressed quite a bit since then. I sent the final version to the printer just a few weeks before I went to Seattle for the WTO, the battle in Seattle. And, of course, that started a whole chain of events around the world, which to some degree supports what’s being said in the book. If I was going to do a second version of the book, I would add a whole bunch of strategic advice that wasn’t possible to make one year ago.

You said that you already see this revolution underway; how do you think the Bush administration will affect the movement?

I think that, quite frankly, in a perverse way, it will energize it. Because looking at Bush…he doesn’t quite seem to understand the world. I think he will do a few crazy things that will allow the new activists and culture jammers to jam him and his policies. I think Clinton was a very hard guy to jam. He was a very media-savvy guy, fleet of foot. Even his speech when he came to Seattle was proof of how expert a guy he is in diffusing what’s happening and somehow enamoring himself to the people who are against him. Yes, I think Bush is a much easier opponent.

I think there is something to that, that such opposition will energize people. I think that’s true of Ralph Nader supporters, where having Bush in office would motivate the left further. I recall you saying in the book that it’s a "loose network" of people, not necessarily partisan.

The 35,000 people currently part of our network, who we communicate with through the Internet, these people are very hard-nosed activists. A huge percentage of them would vote for Nader rather than even consider voting for Gore. These are not people who pussy-foot around thinking about the next four years; these are people who think ten or twenty years ahead, who think of fomenting a culture revolution in the long term.

Over the course of the last few years, I’ve read books like White Noise by Don DeLillo, and watched films like The Insider and Fight Club…all these address truths behind and the effects of consumer culture. What are your thoughts on these fictional presentations of these issues?

When I saw Fight Club I said, "Wow, this is quite amazing." I thought only a few culture jammers and people in the simplicity movement were really outraged by consumerism. And here is suddenly a film that was overtly giving expression to it and millions of people were going to see it and could identify with this kind of rage against consumerism that it portrayed. To me, it was a signal that things are moving in the right direction, and some portions of mainstream society are now getting this anti-consumerist message.

Which is funny, because the film was released by 20th Century Fox.

In this post-modern age, there are lots of contradictions like that. Even my book Culture Jam started off being published by a small publishing group, William Morrow, and then one month before publication, it was bought up by Rupert Murdoch and his Harper Collins. So even my own book is published by one of my biggest enemies.

That was another thing I was curious about. In the book you talk about how it is unavoidable to interact in some way with corporations. You even drive a Toyota. You are right; there is no way to completely isolate yourself and still be a part of society enough to change it.

There are lots of people who confront me on this and say, "Why don’t you walk your talk?" Every one of us is an incredible contradiction. We are all caught in this post-modern hall of mirrors. But people who say, "No, you have to be pure. How can you do this? How can you do that?" I think they are not being effective. What is my choice? That I’m not going to publish my book because I refuse to give it to Rupert Murdoch? I think you have to get used to the fact that we are walking, talking contradictions, all of us. And this is what culture is right now, a very contradictory culture we live in right now.

They allow you to have the widest broadcast of your message.

Yes, but not only that. We all have to play footsie with the enemy. This has been true of every revolution. The revolutionaries have interacted in very profound ways with the enemy. And that may well be the only way to pull the enemy down, to play this sort of Trojan Horse game.

What are you most proud of about the movement?

The fact that over the last ten years we’ve built up a global network of jammers, which is now a part of this new activism which is sweeping around the world. And the fact that some of our campaigns like "Buy Nothing Day" were celebrated in over fifty countries around the world. And our magazine is now reaching a circulation of over a 100,000 people. The growth of this movement has been phenomenal.

I’ve read criticism of your use of the phrase, "Liberating a billboard." It’s obviously destruction of property, so why not call a spade a spade?

We do. To me, liberating a billboard or doing some of the other illegal things that we do, to me this is a legitimate part of civil disobedience. Every cultural revolution has had its lunatic fringes and civil disobedience. The anarchists in Seattle who broke windows…I think they were an essential part of the process. If they weren’t there, if everyone had totally walked the line and out of the 60,000 people there, if there weren’t fifty people who were so outraged that they broke a few windows, then I would have been disappointed.

Nor might it have gotten the attention that it did.

Not only that. I don’t think it’s possible to have that many people together without 0.1 percent of them being crazies and angry people who feel they have to lash out.

How would you say Adbusters the magazine has changed since it began?

Well, we started as a kind of volunteer rag, similar to many other lefty rags that were basically lashing out and being angry. And, bit by bit, I think we got better artists, writers and photographers. And now, instead of just talking to the converted, we’re sitting in newsstands, and I think we’re being picked up by corporate people, and lawyers, and advertising executives and all kinds of people. I think we are actually changing minds now telling people that there is a cultural revolution bubbling away, and you’d better get with the agenda or used to the fact that it will happen.

I can see a lot of influence of Adbusters in new advertising, like the Sprite ads that say "Image is Nothing." They are playing into the anti-advertising to sell their products.

We have hundreds of ad execs who secretly like us a little bit because we have a lot of fun and do the campaigns that some of them dream of doing. But they also subscribe to us and buy us to see what the enemy is up to.

How much would you say the Internet has helped bring your network of jammers together?

It’s been the key fact. We communicated as best we could for many years without the Internet. We had 300 organizers around the world for Buy Nothing Day. We had to send them expensive packages through the mail. It was quite a cumbersome and expensive system that actually stopped us from growing as fast as we could grow. And as soon as we started making our posters available through the Internet—just print from the website, look at Quicktime versions of our website, and order them if you want to—as soon as we went on the Internet, things really took off for us on many of our campaigns. And the 300 or 400 people we used to deal with…as I said, it’s grown to 35,000, and we are now a different kind of organization. And we are global. Before that, most of the action was in the Pacific Northwest, and, now, some of the most interesting BND jams have happened in Australia, Israel or Estonia.

The thing that most resonated with me in Culture Jam was the changing definition of cool. Going from unique and interesting to now meaning anything that is the latest trend. What sections of the book have gotten the most response? What have people picked up on the most?

It’s hard to say. What they seem to pick up on is that this book wasn’t couching its bets, wasn’t succumbing to cynicism, that it out front said, "We are going to change the world, and this is how we are going to do it." I think those that liked the book liked that sort of modernist belief that we can change the world. And many other people felt a personal resonance, that the book somehow described their own disillusionment and their own dissatisfaction with their lives, their own wrestling with their cynicism. They felt a resonance there.