Culture jamming isn't anti-consumption, it's marketing
This week America celebrates not one holiday but two. The first is Thanksgiving, the official holiday of the family dinner. For most Americans, the second is the Day After Thanksgiving, the official opening of the Christmas shopping season, when offices and schools stand empty and stores fill up. But for a few people, the Friday of Thanksgiving week is also Buy Nothing Day, the official protest holiday of anti-consumers.
Kalle Lasn, the architect of Buy Nothing Day and its springtime counterpart, Turn Off TV Week, complains that he can't get his promos for Buy Nothing Day on network TV. He has, however, gotten his anti-consumer crusade into Time. An enemy of the empire of brands, dedicated to the "unswooshing of America," he is something of a cult brand himself, boasting several product lines for the consumer niche he serves.
Most familiar to the advertising world is Adbusters, the magazine that Lasn edits and publishes through his Vancouver-based nonprofit Media Foundation. Slickly produced, the visually powerful magazine shows up on the desks of ad creatives looking for the latest in subversive image making. In addition, Lasn produces TV documentaries and runs an agency, Powershift, which creates "de-marketing" campaigns like Buy Nothing Day.
Now Lasn extends the brand with a new de-marketing manifesto, Culture Jam, the Uncooling of America. In a neat bit of synergy, the book's publication has been timed to coincide with Buy Nothing Day. Lasn's career shows that good de-marketing works just like good marketing does. Adbusters, named Canadian magazine of the year, has gone from a quarterly to a bimonthly, and it expects to break even for the second time in 1999. Buy Nothing Day is an event any marketer would be proud to have invented, not to mention last year's stunt: "Culture jammers" hung a 600-square-foot banner decrying consumption from the rafters of the Mall of America.
Adbusters fans will find the "just do it" spirit of Lasn's call for "revolution" inspiring. To those who don't, he comes across as an elitist, self-righteous blowhard filled with contempt for the people he champions.
Like all creeds against the Consumer Republic, Lasn has faith in marketers' ability to bend consumer-zombies to their will. "A long time ago, without even realizing it ... all of us were recruited into a cult," says Lasn in his book. "We have been recruited into roles or behavior patterns we did not consciously choose." Critics of consumer culture have more faith in the power of marketing than brand managers do.
Like Adbusters, this book will get passed around agency creative departments. First, people in the ad business hate advertising even more than the famous "cynical consumer." Second, it is a source of that much-valued currency, "consumer insights." If Culture Jam is to be believed, the people who "celebrate" Buy Nothing Day are motivated by the same values as those who crowd the stores on the Day After. Anti-consumers aren't the enemies of consumerism; they're its cutting edge.
So what do culture jammers want? Authenticity. ("An authentic life is no longer possible in America.") Also, individuality and freedom of expression. Culture jammers rebel at the notion that their identity can be dictated from above. They value experiences above possessions.
A recent edition of Adbusters opens with a photo of a slim, shining-faced woman--the kind you see in facial cleanser ads--sitting in a yoga position. The body copy reads: "Being can take the place of having." In essence, culture jammers long for an existence that is more spontaneous, less structured and cluttered.
Who doesn't? The desires and demands Lasn articulates match the attitudes of two groups closest to the marketer's heart: young people and affluent, educated adults.
In Culture Jam, Lasn accuses marketers of co-opting these values and slapping a brand name on them. It's also possible revolutionaries get their values from the marketplace. Perhaps demands for authenticity and insistence on freedom are just the cries of a perpetually dissatisfied consumer who, like every other consumer, always wants more.
Like any marketer, Lasn wants to convince us that culture jamming is the Next Big Thing. He may be right. He's tapped into the yearnings from which brand identities of the future--including Lasa's own--will be made.