Kalle Lasn is the founder of Adbusters magazine and author of the books Culture Jam and Design Anarchy. He was born in Tallinn, Estonia, in 1942. In 1944, as the Russian army approached Tallinn, his family escaped to Germany.

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When he was seven he immigrated to Australia where he was educated. His first job was at the Australian Defense Department where he played computer-simulated war games in the Pacific Ocean. At the age of 23, Lasn headed for Europe, but his boat stopped in Yokohama where he then lived for a couple of years. During the ’60s he ran a market research company in Tokyo. He married Masako Tominaga and they immigrated to Canada. Lasn started a documentary film making company. Over the next 15 years, his documentaries were broadcast on PBS, CBC and around the world, winning over 15 international awards.

In 1989 he produced a 30-second TV spot about the disappearing old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, but none of the commercial TV stations were prepared to sell him any airtime. Thins incident led Lasn to found the Adbusters Media Foundation, Adbusters Magazine and Powershift Advertising Agency to fight for the access to public airwaves.
In 1989 he produced a 30-second TV spot about the disappearing old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, but none of the commercial TV stations were prepared to sell him any airtime. Thins incident led Lasn to found the Adbusters Media Foundation, Adbusters Magazine and Powershift Advertising Agency to fight for the access to public airwaves.

The Adbusters Media Foundation is a not-for-profit, anti-consumerist organization founded in 1989 by Kalle Lasn and Bill Schmalz in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The foundation publishes Adbusters, a 120,000-circulation, reader-supported activist magazine, devoted to numerous political and social causes, many of which are anti-consumerism in nature. Adbusters has also launched numerous international social marketing campaigns, including Buy Nothing Day and TV Turnoff Week.

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Brainwash: Evidence suggests that more and more people are in favour of Anti-brands- and the Anti-marketing-movement. Do you think this is true?

Kalle Lasn: Yes, I think it is kind of a slow awakening. 15 years ago, when we launched the “Buy-nothing-day” to think about consumption, nobody could imagine that consumption could be a problem. Consumers have been told for the last 20, 30, 40, 50 years that consumption is good: “The more you consume the better it is for the economy”. But recent reports on climate change and global warming are showing: the global eco system is getting out of control. And now 15 years later here in North America there is a growing number of people who are just not satisfied with recycling anymore. There is an increasing number of radical green people: people who are changing their whole philosophy of life. They are changing the places where they live because they don’t want to drive to work. They are changing their car to a hybrid car. They are consciously boycotting NIKE and other mega-corporations like McDonalds which use a huge amount of energy to transport goods back and forth across oceans. They are starting to support local businesses where the transportation costs are close to zero. Over the last 15 years I have seen the growth of a new type of human being which is not your classical consumer. I don’t have a scientific survey but I can tell you that this is a fast growing segment of the population and becoming more radical. They are realizing that all the solutions we had been talking about are not enough, that we now have to go to the ultimate taboo subject and that we now have to start questioning consumption.
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Brainwash: Adbusters say: “We want folks to get mad about corporate disinformation, injustices in the global economy, and any industry that pollutes our physical or mental commons.” How do you want to protect people against disinformation and too much influence of commerce?

Kalle Lasn: We are rather a philosophical than a political movement. We want people to think, to rethink their way of life. There is still a kind of denial going on among the classical consumer. Imagine, 3000 marketing messages per day, this is like pro-consumption brain washing for the last two generations. We want to force every company and industry to look to the future. The advertising industry has to think about: How can we feel about consumption, brands and industry. We have to rethink what our role is going to be.

Brainwash: What are the main reasons people support your movement?

Kalle Lasn: There are many reasons. There are some people who just feel morally outraged, people – maybe they are Buddhists, or they are Christians, or whatever – who look around at the decadence that has come about in our culture, the kind of television we have, the mental environment, how time has changed their lives, that there is something going terribly wrong with our consumer culture. These are the spiritual types that are somehow trying to change their lives and to live in a more spiritual way.
But one of the largest segments of people who are jumping on board is the radical green wave: actually people who are having some kind of a mental break-down, people who are suddenly stressed out, suddenly going through a crisis of their life. This is a very, very fast growing part of the population. And even really young kids here in North America are suffering from mood-disorder, like about 10% of them are taking Retalin, because they are hyper-active.

Now people are making a connection between the polluted mental environment, the commercialized life and an aggressive marketing. 3000 marketing massages coming into your brain every day, 24 hours, non-stop mass media influence. And many of these messages are very aggressive. People are realizing “I feel attacked. And that is part of my mood disorder problem.”

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This is a very challenging development for the advertising industry. Once you make that connection between advertising and your own mental health then you don’t want to see it anymore and parents don’t want their children to see it anymore.

Brainwash: How and where do they get in contact with your ideas and aims?

Kalle Lasn: One of the techniques that we have been using here at Adbusters and as culture jammers for many years is the idea of subvertising, where you try to place any consumption “Buy-nothing-messages” in the middle of a commercial. It is about selling ideas, putting guerrilla messages inside the mindscape. Social marketing is still a tiny part but a fast growing part of the total pie.
But now there is also the growth of a media activism, a media reform movement, a mental environmentalism. And these are people who not only dislike advertising, but they do not like the fact that all of our mindscape and mass media has been commercialized. They are trying to launch a mental environmental movement that will make people think different. People who want to clean up the toxic area of our mental environment, like they cleaned up the toxic area of the physical environment many years ago. I think that within the next 5-10 years the advertising industry and the television will be rethought. People will start to reject television and getting their information from specific information sources from the internet without having the advertising. People will think about a new kind of information delivery system.

Brainwash: If I understand your objectives correctly, you are against the intermingling of content, culture and commerce. Do you think this is realistic or is this phenomenon not ubiquitous in the Western culture already?

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Kalle Lasn: Oh yes, I agree. And most of the media reformer and environmental activists don’t want to get rid of advertising. They know that part of our life is about business, is about being entrepreneurs, is about having advertising. We realize that it is one of the very dynamic features of Western culture, which is a consumer culture. But none the less, these media reformers and environmental activists feel that the situation has gone too far in the wrong direction, that the television is too much like a mass merchandising tool.

Brainwash: My impression is that a lot of people are complaining about diminishing ethical values. In addition, more and more people are searching for alternative points of reference. Would you agree that nowadays brands give people security and points of reference in their day-to-day-life. Or in other words: Don´t you think that people are dependent on brands?

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Kalle Lasn: Yes, this is a very, very complicated problem. And I agree. I don’t remember a world where young people were so confused. The question is: Why did this happen to us? A part of this ethical erosion is a part of the consumer culture. Marketing messages which tell young people “Wearing sneakers is cool” give them the feeling that we are a society of consumer capitalism and not of ethical values. For instance, when I visited Germany recently I certainly felt a level of complacency and a level of decadence within the German culture. I didn’t feel that it had that sort of dynamism it used to have when I was a young man. Maybe there is the connection.

Brainwash: Is it your aim to disturb and make people rethink their conviction or would you like to trigger a fundamental change in attitude?

Kalle Lasn: We call ourselves cultural creatives and cultural jammers. One of the things we do is that we have created an anti-logo, we call it the blackspot. We have started manufacturing the Blackspot sneakers. The whole marketing philosophy is to steal the momentum of a mega brand, like with the Blackspot shoes, to unswoosh the momentum of the NIKE swoosh. We call this kind of a marketing technique “kick-ass-marketing”. We say “Let’s go there and change the sneaker industry. Let´s expose Nike for the real bad mega-corporation that it really is”. It is a powerful new technique which in the next few years will be used by people to also change the fast food industry. We have created a new kind of business dynamic which is still entrepreneurial. It still believes in market places, it still believes in capitalism. But it is taking market share and energy away from the mega-corporations and creating a more grassroots kind of capitalism.

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Brainwash: You are against “corporate disinformation”. Which requirements are to be fulfilled for advertising not to be unethical?”

Kalle Lasn: There are two ways to answer that question. The first one is: We all have to make up our own mind about the products we want to promote and about the industry or the account itself and about the ad. There are good ads and bad ads. Every advertising agency has to draw a line somewhere inside on what is ethical and what is not ethical. It is objectionable to use a social taboo like the idea of suicide to enhance the brand.
But there is a larger question that I think every advertising agency has to face. You have to face the fact that the whole advertising game has gotten out of your hand. That the whole advertising industry, like the coal industry doesn´t make sense any more in a world where consumption is increasingly becoming a major problem. Why do we need a five hundred billion a year industry telling us to consume even more? Ask yourself, what is the role of an advertising agency in a world where the rich western one million people world are already consuming 80% of the global pie. How much more do we want to tell the people to buy? It is a moral inner-contradiction in advertising that I think we all have to grapple with.

Brainwash: What is your take on marketing aimed at kids? How should we go about it?

Kalle Lasn: Well, this is the first step. This kind of marketing is the most objectionable form. Here in Canada we have a law that you can not advertise to children. My best advice to any advertising agency is to try to move some of your business more and more to the social marketing direction. Social marketing is a growing part of the advertising pie. The most satisfying feeling in the world is to sell a good idea. And maybe you should do social marketing for a law against marketing aimed at kids.

Brainwash: In Germany a number of companies have started to turn-around the structure and content of advertising. The objective is to achieve a sense of trust and honesty. Do you think with this “honest” advertising it will now be even more difficult for consumers to 1) understand the real commercial objectives of companies and 2) withstand the temptation to consume?

Kalle Lasn: No not at all. I think that just about everybody understands that the last 20, 30 years we have had a problem with fashion advertising, with models that are too thin and that this kind of a role model is not a good one for young children, especially for teenagers who are struggling with their identity. I don’t of course like too much fashion advertising anyway because I don’t want fashion designers to tell young children what is cool. But still, I think this is a welcome development within the industries, to have the movement against skinny models, to look at different sizes of people and say “Hey this is also beautiful”
You know, in the real world, change often happens in small, incremental steps.

Das Interview führte Henriette zu Dohna, Pressereferentin der Robert & Horst Agenturgruppe.

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