Beyond Poseur Politics: An Open Letter to Adbusters

logo Adbusters is impressive in many ways. It has made some waves, and its founder and CEO Kalle Lasn has some smart things to say, such as calling advertising “brain damage” and “one of the most powerful cultural forces in the world.”

Many of Adbusters’ “spoof ads” have also been indisputably brilliant.

And, as reported in this week’s Advertising Age magazine, Adbusters has also pulled some clever pranks that underscore the purpose and workings of the commercial media. Whenever Adbusters tries to buy airtime on corporate TV for its “anti-consumption” ads, for example, it draws and then publicizes telling (if entirely predictable) replies such as this:

“Suck it up, it’s the real world,” an ABC executive is recorded angrily and loudly rejecting the pig spot a few years ago. “There’s no law that says we have to sell you time.” (Advertising Age, November 27, 2007)

100,000Finally, subscriptions to Adbusters have also now surpassed 100,000, a very substantial feat for a non-capitalist publishing effort.

Analysis

Does all this mean that Adbusters is making progress toward its stated goal, which is “to topple existing power structures and forge a major shift in the way we will live in the 21st century”?

Alas, it definitely does not, and here are the major reasons why not:

1. Adbusters refuses to name the system. Although it says it wants to “topple existing powers structures,” it consistently fails to explain the nature and logic of those structures. The word “capitalism” is conspicuously all but absent from Adbusters’ large and varied output of supposedly liberating work. Advertising comes in for harsh and sometimes penetrating criticism, but the motives and methods behind advertising remain entirely unexplained. Corporate capitalism, meanwhile, remains a complete mystery in Adbusters’ hands.

2. Adbusters never explains marketing. As I demonstrate in my book, The Consumer Trap, advertising is merely one end result of the much larger, more expensive, and (if it were ever widely tracked and understood) highly scandalous managerial discipline of marketing. Instead of showing its readers how advertising flows from the larger marketing process, Adbusters authors simply take advertising as a thing unto itself, as if we are simply engaged in some huge but simple shouting match with “existing power structures.”

The truth, of course, is that the large corporations that dominate the economy are using marketing to apply the principles of scientific management to manipulate the off-the-job behaviors of ordinary citizens, for the benefit of the corporate overclass. Adbusters’ consistent failure to elucidate any of this underlying process is particularly surprising, since its founder, Kalle Lasn, made a personal fortune “running his own market-research firm in Tokyo.” (Ad Age, November 27, 2007) Lasn ought to know better.

3. Adbusters uses the word “consumer” as if it were a neutral, adequate concept. “Consumer” is a rank capitalist bias. At the level of linguistic logic, using it to denote product-users and citizens is not much different than trading in the long train of racial epithets that has served slavemasters and racists (and corporate capitalists) over recent centuries. Just as “nigger” entered upon its murderous public coinage from the heads of the primary beneficiaries of U.S. racial slavery, so does “consumer” have an equally clear and biased etymology.

If you bother to look, it turns out that “consumer” did not jump from the realm of early bourgeois economics and business planning into public usage until 1898. When it did so, the point of origin was revealing — the Sears & Roebuck Catalog!

Despite its nearly universal cachet, the trouble with calling people “consumers” is that it wrongly validates capitalists’ self-interested reductionism as a full and fair depiction of product-users. “Product-users” clearly have interests that clash with those of capital: i.e., interests in the economy, durability, healthfulness, and ecological optimality and energy efficiency of goods and services, among many others. “Consumers,” meanwhile, just want to party and use stuff up, to hell with their own interests (and unaccounted-for actions). Heedless destruction is in their (read: “our”) nature, after all.

It’s no surprise that the system has encouraged this rotten label. Exploiting the admitted (if declining) wonder of the sheer output corporate capitalism has managed to conjure in its core selling zones, business boosters have long argued that “consumer” is somehow a term of empowerment, a label that people should be grateful to have and accept as their own. If you’re a “consumer,” it means you get to have lots of goodies! It also means the capitalist’s-eye view is fair-and-balanced.

Among the many problems with all this, though, is the little noticed fact that adoption of the word “consumer” is insidiously devastating to the careful sociological accounting and explanation that it takes to make realistic sense of the interplay between institutional power and personal choices. By treating people as mere “consumers,” would-be liberators unwittingly suppress awareness of the intractable conflicts of interest that exist between ordinary product-users and corporate investors.

In a world where calling off-the-job life “consumption” and using concepts like “consumer culture” and “consumer society” to try to explain reality are the stock-in-trade throughout liberal and leftist thought, this bit of linguistic analysis may seem like mere carping. Perhaps it is.

But try thinking about it for a while. If you do, I am convinced you will begin to notice a pattern: Wherever it appears, capitalism’s “consumer” vocabulary turns political analysis into over-generalized, power-obscuring pablum.

One excellent place to test this hypothesis is in the realm of Adbusters itself. Consider, for instance, the “counter-ad” it has tried to place on corporate TV. Advertising Age conveys the basic story, along with the complete script of the 30-second spot:

The spot in question is “North American Piggy,” which was done in-house and urges consumers not to spend a dime on Black Friday.

It opens with a cartoon image of North America, an enormous pink pig plunging through the heartland. Burp. Cue the narrator: “The average North American consumes five times more than a Mexican, 10 times more than a Chinese person and 30 times more than a person from India.” Louder burp. “We are the most voracious consumers in the world (images of garbage dumps, a decimated forest, fast-flowing highway traffic), a world that can die because of the way we North Americans live. … Give it a rest.”

Notice how this supposedly radical message, titled “North American Piggy” parses the problem: the only villain is us — “the average North American,” “we,” “consumers.” There is no mention or depiction of anything whatsoever about corporations, to say nothing of capitalist investors! Worse yet, if you watch the ad via the above link, you see that, despite a long-running left/progressive tradition of cartooning capitalists as top-hatted hogs, the culprit “piggy” the Adbusters spot is none other than the North American land mass itself, all of us co-equally together!

4. Adbusters is made for middle-class poseurs. Perhaps the secret to all of this ersatz “radicalism” is that, upon close inspection, Adbusters looks and smells like a vehicle designed to target and flatter middle class folks who enjoy feeling rebellious for lifestyle, rather than political, reasons. The evidence of this suspicion abounds: The price of a single issue of the super-glossy Adbusters magazine? $8.50! The website issues “urgent appeals “to ‘designers'” (“I’m a designer!”) to “re-engage with the world.” Adbusters also often attempts to imply that sophomoric “post-modern” tactics like “situationism,” — “which literally means ‘turning around,’ but more practically, as Mr. Lasn explains, the concept involves ‘rerouting spectacular images, environments, ambiences and events to reverse or subvert their meaning” (Ad Age) — are somehow adequate and important new social theories.

But, in my view, the most telling and important sign of its poseur essence is the character of the actions Adbusters tries to fob off as serious politics. Does Adbusters really believe its “Buy Nothing Day” and “TV Turn-Off Week” could ever put a dent in the system? While it undoubtedly makes Adbusters’ 100,000+ subscribers feel high-and-mighty to strike these poses, how in the world could anybody ever imagine they will impact the wealthiest and most powerful ruling class in human history? How does “TV Turn-Off Week” either alter the corporate media or teach our allies about how and for whom it works? Doesn’t “Buy Nothing Day” simply mean “Buy More Tomorrow”? Adbusters is utterly silent about such obvious problems.

Simply put, Adbusters encourages its readers to believe that self-conscious and self-congratulating gestures are radical politics. In the process, Adbusters undermines knowledge of the hard work — the real political analysis, organizing, and action — it will take to save the world from the priorities of our overclass.

5. Adbusters promotes an unrealistic strategy for fostering resistance and rebellion. Despite its genuinely laudable aim, Adbusters appears to be utterly ignorant and/or disdainful of what we know (or at least should know), about how, when, and why ordinary people undertake “to topple existing power structures and change they way we live.” We now know, for example, that, as explained by U.S. Civil Rights Movement historian Harvard Sitkoff, social movements only congeal when people are simultaneously and roughly equally ANGRY and HOPEFUL about the chances of changing reigning institutions. Anger without hope causes despair and apathy, not political mobilization. Hope without anger causes Republican Party registration.

Adbusters seems never to have thought about any of this, despite the urgency of the times. While its work certainly raises some anger, it always leaves that anger parked at remarkably superficial — hence, mystifying and impractical — levels. How and why do you fight mere “advertising?”

Likewise, by indulging so uncritically in its own poseurdom, Adbusters undermines its ability to reach working class audiences. If you are struggling to run your household under all the disadvantages of ordinary, non-elite life, how and why are you ever going to feel comfortable sympathizing with the preachy “culture-jammers” to whom Adbusters addresses itself? Those people can run around dressing in their alternative $122 sneakers and buying nothing for a day, then return to their day jobs as “designers” and “entrepreneurs.” Why, though, should I sacrifice my time and energies to help them sneer at “North American piggies” like me?

Conclusion

I do not oppose Adbusters. I merely wish it wasn’t so damned complacent. To my eye, for every good thing about Adbusters, there is something equal that is dreadfully wrong and unhelpful. Despite its successes and its haughty airs, Adbusters has a great deal of thinking, explaining, and self-reforming to do. Toppling corporate capitalism is not a game or a trope. It is very serious and very urgent business.

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