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Exploring Occupy Wall Street's 'Adbuster' Origins

Oct 19, 2011
Originally published on October 20, 2011 10:50 am

The protests go by a variety of names: "Occupy Wall Street," "American Autumn," "The 99 Percent." And the lack of a unified message is matched by a lack of centralized control. But the protests share a common spark: a disillusioned Canadian adman.

The Occupy protests seemed to come out of nowhere. But the early participants, like John Garcia in downtown Seattle, point to a very specific catalyst.

"I get Adbusters, so that's how I heard about it," he says.

Adbusters is an anti-consumerism magazine based in Vancouver, British Columbia. This summer, it proposed a Sept. 17 "occupation" of Wall Street, and the idea caught fire.

Adbusters doesn't claim any control over the protests. It wouldn't give NPR an interview, for instance, for fear of overshadowing the movement. It sees itself more as an idea shop, sort of an "anti-advertising firm" that takes special glee in creating fake ads to subvert the message of real products.

Some of them became quite well-known, such as the magazine ads for a moribund-looking camel named Joe Chemo, and the iPhone commercial parody that cheerfully promises, "If you want to track the whereabouts of your mate 24 hours a day, every day — there's an app for that!"

The man behind all this is Kalle Lasn, a puckish, Estonian-born former adman who still considers himself to be, in the language of the industry, a "creative."

In a 2006 speech, Lasn said, "I have a feeling that right now, this human experiment on planet Earth is hitting the wall!"

He was speaking to an audience of fellow "creatives" — graphic designers, in this case — at a conference in Berlin. Lasn lamented the environmental and psychological cost of modern capitalism, and he laid special responsibility on the shoulders of advertising professionals.

"We are the cool-makers and the cool-breakers," he said. "We are the people who create the look of the magazine. We are the people who create the feeling and the tone of television or the give and take of the Internet. More than any other profession, I think that we have the power to change the world."

Former advertising art director Matt Soar, who is now a professor of communications at Montreal's Concordia University, agrees — to a point.

"I think it's a relatively constrained kind of power," he says. "I don't think it's an unbridled power."

Soar says Lasn can get a little carried away with his vision of graphic designers as the vanguard of a revolution. But Lasn has been influential, he says, especially on younger people.

"For some people who may be in, for instance, high school, it seems very, very daring to take one of these hallowed brands and either put it on the computer and Photoshop," he says, "or to print it out and start cutting it up on the table. To talk back, to subvert it — it's a profoundly important first step."

And as the continuing scene in lower Manhattan attests, Lasn certainly knows how to launch a campaign.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Occupy Wall Street protests lack more than just a unified message. They have no centralized control, either. But the protests do share a common spark, one that seems to have originated with a disillusioned adman. NPR's Martin Kaste has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The Occupy protests seemed to have come out of nowhere. But the early participants, like John Garcia in Seattle, point to a very specific catalyst.

JOHN GARCIA: I get Adbusters. So that's how I heard about it.

KASTE: Adbusters is an anti-consumerism magazine based in Vancouver, British Columbia. This summer, it proposed a September 17th occupation of Wall Street, and the idea caught on. Adbusters doesn't claim any control over the protests, and it wouldn't give NPR an interview because it doesn't want to overshadow the movement. It sees itself more as an idea shop. It's sort of an anti-advertising firm, which takes special glee in creating fake ads.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

KASTE: This is what Adbusters calls culture-jamming, turning slogans and logos against the advertisers. So, Joe Camel becomes Joe Chemo, and the McDonalds logo dances around as a guy takes a squeamish sniff of his burger. Matt Soar is an associate professor of communications at Montreal's Concordia University, and he says this is an effective way to get people - especially young people - thinking about how the economy really works.

MATT SOAR: For some people who may be in, for instance, high school, it seems very, very daring to take one of these hallowed brands and either put it on the computer and Photoshop or to, you know, print it out and start cutting it up on the table. To talk back, to subvert it, it's like a profoundly important first step.

KASTE: Soar has been following Adbusters since the mid-'90s, when he ran across the group on a trip to Vancouver and briefly volunteered on the magazine. Adbusters leader then, as now, was an Estonian named Kalle Lasn, a puckish, former advertising executive with a heavy conscience.

KALLE LASN: I have a feeling that right now, this human experiment on planet Earth is hitting the wall in many, many ways.

KASTE: This is Lasn in 2006, speaking to an audience of fellow advertising professionals - graphic designers, in this case. Lamenting the environmental and psychological cost of modern capitalism, he laid special responsibility on the shoulders of advertising professionals.

LASN: We are the cool-makers and the cool-breakers. We are the people who create the look of a magazine. We are the people who create the feeling and the tone of television, or the give and take of the Internet. More than any other profession, I think that we have the power to change the world.

SOAR: I think it's a relatively constrained kind of power. I don't think it's an unbridled power.

KASTE: Again, Matt Soar at Concordia University.

SOAR: I think this is where I disagree with Kalle when he talks about graphic designers and art directors being, you know, the avant-garde and the culture-jamming revolution. I think we can get a little bit carried away with hyperbole around this stuff, just as we encounter, every day, the hyperbole of the market.

KASTE: Still, Soar says, there is a history of advertising skills coming to the aid of politics. He points to the effective slogans and symbols of the Act Up campaign for government action on AIDS in the late-'80s. And, as evidenced by the continued scene in lower Manhattan, Kalle Lasn and Adbusters have certainly shown that they know how to launch a campaign. Martin Kaste, NPR News.

SHAPIRO: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.