As a young bright-eyed college student I fell in love with Adbusters magazine. Today I think it was one of the many factors that led to my pursuit of journalism. One of the editors at Wired News is also a fan, because every year they cover Buy Nothing Day. This year, I made sure to step up early to try and cover it. We decided to do a Q and A with Kalle Lasn the editor and founder of Adbusters Magazine. You can see the published interview at Wired here.
But that’s not the full interview, that was the edited interview for the website. Being a fan of Adbusters I made sure to keep Lasn on the phone as long as I could, just for my own personal enjoyment. I think it would be nice to make the un-edited interview available here.
Keep reading to see what Lasn has to say about issues beyond and including tech.
Me: Adbusters, the magazine, has done a lot to get the word out about BND, but it seems to have really taken off on the internet. How are you using the internet to spread the word about BND
Lasn: Well Buy nothing day was a relatively insignificant event back in its early days and it wasn’t until we put the campaign on the internet, a little after the mid 1990’s, it wasn’t until then that the campaign took off worldwide as people were able to download posters and check out what other people in other countries and cities were doing. And that synergy that we created on the internet, that was what really launched BND into the worldwide event that it is today that is celebrated in 65 countries around the world and it has all these shenanigans and pranks and personal commitments and shops closing and bartering days, its largely due to the internet.
Me: You guys recently started a message board system, how are you using this to organize.
Lasn: We have done this for two years in a row now and we found that a lot of the interest in the Internet’s for launching international campaigns like Buy nothing day is so people can see what other people are doing. We’ve managed to basically create to these buy nothing day headquarters in cities around the world. Last year we had 3,500 people who, through our website, were able to get in touch with likeminded people in their city and organize whatever they wanted to organize. And in a sense we are pushing the limits of how to organize activist groups around the world. And we have 85,000 culture jammers around the world who have signed up for our culture jammers network and who receive our listserves and who then decide if they want to go the extra step and join a jammer group and actually get physically involved in all kinds of pranks and shenanigans.
Me: Internet aside, there are other ways that Jammers use technology on Buy Nothing Day. I know in LA last year they were doing short wave Radio jamming. Podcasting?â?¦ General ways that tech is used in culture jamming or on BND
Lasn: Well I can tell you that many, perhaps even most of the people who get involved in Buy Nothing DAY, they are also media activists who realize that one of the reasons that why we are over-consuming at the rate that we are and why we are getting involved in the crazy Christmas’s, we max out on our credit cards and go overboard, its because the mass media is shooting roughly 3,000 marketing messages into our brain everyday. So if we want to tackle the problem of over-consumption and sustainability we have to look at the other side of the coin, the mental side of the coin and basically try to counteract, jam the commercial messages that are flowing into our brain whether we like it or not. So many people who celebrate BND are actually media jammers.
Me: Blogs in the last two years those have blown up and I was wondering.
Lasn: Buy nothing day has become this huge phenomenon around the world, it’s almost rivaling earth day now in its scope, its sort of like an edgy earth day and people are doing all sorts of things including blogs, but I have to tell you that there is also a down side to cyberspace, the internet and blogs. There are a growing number of people who think they are activists if they start a blog and talk sustainability or if they receive the BND message that we send out and forward it to a friend. I think there is more to it than that. The downside of the internet is that it has spawned a generation of activists who are actually very passive, who basically all they do is sit in front of their computer and fly around cyberspace, forward an email to a friend and they think they are being some kind of an activists and to me that is not the sort of activism that is effective.
Some people critics BND as teenage hiijinxs or bad for the country considering the war on terror, how do you respond?
Lasn: Well I mean, I think in large parts most people are caught up in a media consumer trance. They have bought into the 3,000 marketing messages a day that are flowing into their brain and they have become voracious consumers and they convince themselves that everything is fine in the world if they keep on consuming. But over-consumption in the developed part of the worlds is I think the mother of all our environmental problems and its something that we need to look into and fix because we cannot, the rich 20 percent of the people in the world, the rich 1 billion people in the world, we cannot keep on consuming 86 percent of all the goodies on the global market place and be the only 14 percent of the global pie to the rest of the five billion people on the planet and somehow convince ourselves that that is alright. My point is over-consumption in the so called first world has ecological implications, its one of the root causes of the ecological crisis we are in, I think it has psychological consequences because we have become drones, consumer drones who live lives of consumption convincing ourselves that things are alright but actually many of us are suffering from mood disorders and depression and anxiety attacks, so it has psychological dimension. And lately ever since September 11th and the war in Afghanistan and Iraq many people have realized that over-consumption also has political dimensions. So that the 5 billion people who are left with 14 percent of the global pie, these people often hate us, they are angry at us because of how we control the global economy and many poor parts of the world are breeding grounds for terrorism. So there is an ecological, psychological and political dimension to BND and people who don’t get it should look a little bit deeper.
A small known fact about you is that you started in the advertising business. How did you end up leaving that behind and starting Adbusters and BND?
Lans: When I was in my 20’s a few years after I graduated from a University, then I started my own company in Tokyo, Japan and it was a market research company. All my clients were the advertising agencies in Tokyo and for five years I basically lived in that world of advertising. But after five years even though I was making a hell of a lot of money I got sick of it because I got sick of those advertising guys. I mean they were fun guys who I enjoyed and so on, but they were sort of a political, ethically neutral type people. When I wanted to talk to them about the consequences of their advertising, like they were advertising cigarettes that actually harmed people, they would say oh that’s not my problem, that’s the clientâ??s problem. And whenever I wanted to talk to them about ecological or either dimension of what they are doing they would say, itâ??s not my problem. And after awhile I got sick of these small minded ethically neutral people who figured they were just in the business of selling things and the consequences of that selling is not my problem and eventually I said, that’s it, and I left that whole world of advertising and became a different kind of a person.
Me: When you started BND did you think it would be this big?
Lasn: No we were a bunch of people 15 years ago who were dissatisfied with all the old activisms and we were all people who lived through the black liberation movement and the feminist movement and we lived through the environmental movement that was peaking at that time and we figured that the next big activist movement would have to do with culture, it would have to do with consumer culture. And we launched BND in that spirit because we felt somebody had to talk back against consumer culture which around that time was starting to get out of hand and I think it was one of the greatest strategic move that we’ve ever pulled off because in a sense that’s exactly what happened. We are living in an age when more and more people are realizing that our consumer culture is veering off in very deadly directions ecologically, psychologically and politically. And somehow we have to reinvent our culture; we have to rethink our commercial television stations. I think down the road even cyberspace and the internet is now infected with commercialism to the point that I find it annoying to go there. And many of our information delivery systems are infected by this commercial virus and I think the next 10-20 years we will have to rethink our consumer culture. I think BND was one of the first and even today one of the powerful moments when we have a nice wholesome visceral debate about sustainability, mental health and the political implications of the kind of ultimate consumer culture that we have created.
Me: Shiftng gears. What about the corporate pig advertisement. This still hasnâ??t had any success, do you ever think you will tone it down or is it doomed to stay on the internet?
Lasne: They have been refusing it for 10 years except for CNN. The problem with the pig spot isn’t that it needs to be toned down, the problem is the broadcasters at CBS, NBC and ABC and other networks including MTV and FOX, they are scarred of upsetting their sponsors, their other clients. During the Christmas shopping season they get literally billions of dollars of revenue from corporations and basically people who are urging us to go out and buy stuff and so they don’t like the idea that somebody wants to come on and tell them not to buy stuff. So the big part about the rejection about that spot that’s been going on for 10 years now is that those airwaves, the big three networks, those are actually public airwaves owned by you and me and yet for some reason the FCC and many other people that control the license that we give out to these broadcasters, we have managed to turn our media culture into such a commercial affair that we have gotten to a point where an American citizens or a Canadian citizen no longer has the right to walk into a room, plunk some money on the table and buy 30 seconds of air time for a message that some other corporation may find threatening. So this is a very sad comment on the kind of democracy that we have created, which is a democracy where corporations can go out and buy as much time as they like for all kinds of messages, some of them pornographic some of them are violent and then there are all kinds of lying messages that the corporations put out and they can do it, add agencies can buy as much time as they want, whereas we the people, NGO’s individuals, we don’t have the right anymore to walk into our own stations and buy air time. So I think there is a very fundamental question of what sort of democracy we are living in when corporations have more rights and freedoms than the people.
Me: If you were to talk to people who planned on participating, how do you encourage them.
Lasn: What I say to people is this, this is a fascinating 24 hour experiment that you can conduct with yourself. You can make a personal pact with yourself not to buy anything for 24 hours and you can see what it feels like. I have talked to hundreds if not thousands of people over the years about how they have negotiated this consumer fast for 24 hours and its amazing how many people, a huge percentage, who go on this personal experiment, how they have a very profound day. How three or four hours into the day, they feel like having a cup of coffee or a Mars Bar or buying something else or walking into a store and then they find that going cold turkey on consumption is in some ways very similar to going cold turkey on smoking or other addictive things, like trying to give up television for a week for example. And then some of them start sweating and they get stressed out. Some go in and can’t go through the day. And some who do make it through, by the end of the day they say, wow what an incredible experience that was. I found out that consumption can be as addictive as anything else. And after that, that can then change their lives. Many people have had profound epiphanies on BND and then they eventually get together with their families and want to experience a different kind of Christmas, they start talking about a Buy Nothing Christmas, or a buy less Christmas and try to put a bit more spirituality in their Christmas season. And then they start looking around their house and start asking why they have all this stuff and why are we going to the supermarket three times a week and why do we go to the mall every Saturday. To cut a long story short, there are a number of ways that people have had very powerful experiences that have changed their lives.
Lots of people participate in BND by not participating, but what are some of the more active things people do?
Lasne: Sort of people how started off a few years ago and had a profound moment of truth and then they started to come back the next year and they start to, try to communicate that epiphany to their friends or their family. After a while many of them become activists, they decide they want to participate in a bicycle rally on BND or like many people do in SF, they congregate in Union Square and march around the city to some corporate headquarters and shops they don’t like. Many people like pull-off pranks, wear masks and go through malls. In past years we have unveiled huge banners in the malls of America. Some edgy activists who love walking that civil disobedience line they do weird things like walking into stores and fill up carts and leave lying around, or just keep on whirling around stores with BND messages on their backs and for some people itâ??s a lot of fun. Some people have done things like renting a space and its called a “no shop” and you walk into the store and there is nothing to buy but all the sudden there is a bunch of people who want to argue with you about over-consumption or the war. And many shops who donâ??t want to shut for BND, they actually turn their shops into bartering stations. So different people celebrate BND in different ways.
You mentioned advertising culture on the internet is getting worse, do you see yourselves having to engage with internet advertising culture too.
Lasne: We are brainstorming all the time on ways to get people to unplug, ways to get people to stop living in the virtual world and start living in the real world. Over the last three generations people who grew up with the internet or iPods, that whole digital revolution, these generations are the first generations that spend more time in the electronic environment than they do in the natural environment and this shift is one of the root causes of this epidemic of mental dysfunction that we are experiencing now where there has been a 300 percent increase in mood disorders and anxiety attacks and depressions over the last two or three generations. So we are definitely over the next few years going to try and launch social marketing campaigns that encourage people to just unplug, just to pull out of the virtual electronic environment and try to live more than half their lives in the real world.