The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that Americans are exposed to 3,000 advertising messages a day. No one wants to believe that those messages have an effect on them, as we’re much too savvy for that. Such assertions are part of the reason ads work so well, and also the reason Adbusters is still around after 20 years.
Adbusters Media Foundation was formed in 1989 in British Columbia, Canada by Kalle Lasn and Bill Schmalz as a non-profit organization questioning the wisdom of a culture based on consumerism. They publish three versions of their ad-free magazine, Adbusters, every two months. The group also supports or runs a large number of campaigns, from Buy Nothing Day to spoof ads to Digital Detox Week (formerly known as TV Turnoff Week).
Just think of them as Greenpeace for your brain.
“Just like a physical environment can be polluted, so can the mental environment,” Adbusters contributing editor Micah White (no relation) told me. “The mental environment can be polluted by advertising.”
Adbusters is credited as leading the “culture jamming movement,” one that seeks to expose modern consumerism as unnatural and damaging. They have educational programs contesting the wisdom of established economic and design principles. They even, somewhat paradoxically, have their own brand of shoe.
The Blackspot Shoe is made of “hemp, recycled tires and vegan leather and produced in fair-trade or unionized factories.” It’s only available through Adbusters and independent retailers.
Starting at $75, the shoes represent a buy-in diametrically opposed to Nike; Adbusters says they give members a chance to “unswoosh.” Yet, is this not a form of branding in and of itself? Do promotions for the shoe in their magazine count as advertising?
“It’s complicated,” White said with a sigh when I asked him about the apparent contradiction of Blackspot Shoes. Speaking to the him over the phone, it was clear that White had been asked this question before.
He had two arguments against such thinking. First of all, he said that since corporations have co-opted the process of creating shoes, magazines and just about everything else, it was time that we begin “returning to an authentic culture that predated corporate culture.”
“The corporations have done a great job convincing everyone that everything that is good they invented,” White said, with the Blackspot Shoe presenting the notion that a non-corporation could make a “good” shoe even better.
The second reason is one of self-preservation (though White termed it “sustainability”), reasoning that reflected a pragmatism I wasn’t sure I’d get from a member of Adbusters‘ staff.
“If you don’t have money, you can’t do anything,” White said. “You have to try to make money in a way that doesn’t compromise your ideals… We have to get down and dirty and contest the ownership of the marketplace.”
Not only does Adbusters make products, but they also make ads, of a sort. I recently wrote about Adbusters’ attempts to get major networks to air their “subvertisements” in a piece that includes a selection of their video work, if you want to see what the anti-ads look like.
Adbusters is routinely denied access to the airwaves for its anti-consumerism spots, which lead to a lawsuit against the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the Global Television Network. The case saw a measure of success last year when an appeals court overturned a previous ruling from the Supreme Court of British Columbia, basically granting the organization permission to take on media corporations refusing to air their spots.
“[The ruling gives Adbusters] the right to start over from the beginning,” White explained, adding that starting over in this new media climate is a positive thing. “I think that we’re going to win… the Internet is changing the way people think about advertising.”
The Internet is also changing the way people advertise. White is concerned about the way online advertisers target consumers with ads based on online behavior, such as a user’s search history or previous susceptibility to advertising.
“It’s even more insidious because it appeals to you in a personal way,” White said.
Just as no conversation about shoe branding would be complete without a mention of Nike, Google is the omnipresent force in Internet marketing. White said that when Google was starting out, one of the first research papers they put out was on the necessity of providing an ad-free search engine, reasoning that ads would bias searches. Nowadays, White calls Google the “number one mental polluter on the Internet,” regardless of their stated goal to do no evil.
“Google has for too long surfed on this idea that they’re a benevolent company,” said White.
Despite Adbusters’ concern over Google’s ownership of the “synergy between knowledge and advertising,” the company is still widely seen as a benevolent dictator over the Internet. Though not as popular as Yahoo and Hotmail, Google’s ad-supported e-mail service is growing.
Here’s how it works: Ads popping up on the sides of an e-mail thread are generated by Google’s “reading” the content of the conversation. Write an e-mail asking your Arizonian friend about how the weather is in Tuscon might bring up ads from travel sites for cheap airfare to the southwestern U.S., for example.
Gmail users may say they ignore such advertising, but White doesn’t buy it.
“I think that’s really funny,” White said. He referenced a scientific study wherein participants who were subconsciously exposed to images of Dasani Water later showed a significant preference for it. “Advertising is a billion dollar industry for a reason.”
In BuzzFlash’s pursuit to maintain itself as an ad-free blog, many have suggested we should take ads because, by accepting ad money from a megacorporation, it’s just like taking the corporation’s money away due to the perception that the ads have no effect on our readers. I tried that one on White, and it didn’t pass the smell test either.
“That argument is kind of absurd,” White said. “The question we have to ask is who funds our culture… If culture is only able to survive because of advertising, what is it worth?”
The fact that smaller companies have the ability to buy ad space on the Internet might be seen as a positive effect Google (as teamed up with DoubleClick) has had on advertising. But White told me he sees the democratization of advertising as “a negative development.”
“Before Google, the major corporations relied on advertising,” White said. “But on the local, small level… it didn’t necessarily have to be funded [that way]. It’s completely unsustainable.”
Unsurprisingly, White envisions a world where small businesses could function much the way that Adbusters (or dare I suggest, BuzzFlash?) does. Of course, that’s not to say it’ll be easy to reclaim the territory our culture has already ceded to corporations. But it appears White feels up to the challenge:
“The next big struggle of our era is going to be about the mental environment.”