submission info
Adbusters -- Culture Jamming Headquarters

by Angela Pancella

ccorporations run our lives. They tell us what to think, how to act, what to eat and drink and wear. They do this by placing advertising everywhere, by swallowing other corporations whole, by restricting others' access to the airwaves and print media. The people at Adbusters say all this amounts to brainwashing. I write this as I eat Twinkies© and drink Diet Pepsi©, so I assume the brainwashing works fairly well.

This is their mission:

We will strike by smashing the postmodern hall of mirrors and redefining what it means to be alive. We will reframe the battle in the grandest terms. The old political battles that have consumed humankind during most of the 20th century - black vs. white, Left vs. Right, male vs. female - will fade into the background. The only battle still worth fighting and winning, the only one that can set us free, is The People vs. The Corporate Cool Machine.

To accomplish this, they invite participation in a number of "culture jamming" activities, ways to reject the nastiest bits of modern ethos. You can spread the word about Buy Nothing Day, a vacation from consumerism placed, for maximum symbolic value, in the heart of the Christmas shopping frenzy. You can sign the Media Carta petition ("We, the undersigned, put it to you, regulators of our airways, to set up a system of direct public access, or to let us know why you are unable to do so in a free and democratic society."). It's a bit late to take part in TV Turnoff Week (April 22-28), but there's always next year.

Unless, of course, by then the revolution is over. Here again (as with the Jubilee 2000 campaign—see last issue's review) we are on a millennial timetable: "In the early years of the new millennium, a worldwide media reform movement will rise"—though why this should all occur so soon after the Great Odometer hits 2000 is never adequately explained.

Actually, there is much that could use a little more explaining. Adbusters frequently employs the term "meme," as in "Meme warfare…will drive the next revolution"--when it's a bit of jargon of such recent coinage it's not yet in the average dictionary. (For the curious: "Memes are the basic building blocks of our minds and culture, in the same way that genes are the basic building blocks of biological life."—From Meme Central) I was also, while reading the site, never quite sure how the various "culture jamming" and educational activities of this organization would accomplish its lofty goals. The lofty goals are spelled out on the Information page about the site's sponsor, Adbusters Media Foundation:

"We are a global network of artists, writers, students, educators and entrepreneurs who want to launch the new social activist movement of the Information Age. Our goal is to galvanize resistance against those who would destroy the environment, pollute our minds and diminish our lives." A key point: they call this a "new" social activist movement, but according to sources the Adbusters Media Foundation cite themselves, the roots may go back a good 30-40 years.

"Vivez sans temps mort!" ("Live without dead time!") proclaims the opening page, attributing the quote to "Situationist International." Out of curiosity, and because the word kept popping up in my reading of the site, I searched for "situationist" on Adbusters' search engine. It came up three times, but it was never defined. Using the awesome powers of the Information Age (, I found what I was looking for elsewhere:

[An] important libertarian group which came to prominence during the May-June events in France in 1968 were the Situationists…The Situationists…wanted a different kind of revolution: they wanted the imagination, not a group of men, to seize power, and poetry and art to be made by all. Enough! they declared. To hell with work, to hell with boredom! Create and construct an eternal festival.

We're talking revolution here, a large and potentially scary concept. It's important to ask who is leading said revolution--and to what end.

Does Adbusters consider itself an extension of the Situationists? Not sure; the website never aligns itself with any organization besides the Adbusters Media Foundation. Which is the difficulty. We're talking revolution here, a large and potentially scary concept. It's important to ask who is leading said revolution--and to what end.

The status of one of Adbusters' most high-profile "culture jammings" speaks volumes about the unforeseen difficulties encountered in a revolt of this magnitude. The organiztion publishes a glossy-style print magazine which showcases spoof ads, or "subvertisements," for cigarettes, alcohol, fashion wear, etc. These are clever, high-end spoofs, like the fake Marlboro ad where the cowboy's cigarette hangs limp from his mouth and the banner proclaims "SMOKING CAUSES IMPOTENCE." Lately there haven't been as many subvertisements in the magazine. A possible reason why can be found in an article called "Soul Shock," published in the magazine and reprinted on the site:

"Thirty-five years after the birth of irony in advertising…we may be seeing the dawn of a new core form--beyond irony, closer to a kind of hyper-calculated faux-naïvete. Yes, advertisers seem to be saying, the jig's up, you're on to our game.

"Call them anti-ads: actually commercials that look very much like the kind of parodic "subvertisements" magazines like the one you're holding pioneered. Ads that not only undersell the product, but often send up advertising itself."

(It appears, by the way, that any article printed in the magazine ends up in the website's archives. Go to to read past issues.)

So this is Adbusters' problem in a nutshell. If advertisers start mocking their own ads, what are subvertisers to do? The problem may challenge the whole revolution, our media- and corporation-driven culture is that powerful. Trying to stand up to Them, to corporate culture, may very well be hyped as the next big trend, with appropriate clothing marketed to the hip liberator.

Angela Pancella was Canadian in a previous life. Now she is a freelance writer living in St. Louis, Missouri.
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