One slick advertisement features that hip veteran of tobacco commercials, Joe Camel, decked out in a hospital gown on a cancer ward and rechristened “Joe Chemo.” Another shows a snapshot of the typical suburban family, complete with cocker spaniel, by the driveway. “Spot the serial killer," invites the bold type above. “Is it the dog? Little Nancy? Wrong. It’s the little red roadster.” Both spoofs are the handiwork of Adbusters, a glossy Vancouver quarterly devoted to tackling hype and hypocrisy in the $170-billion continental advertising industry. While others in the downshifting movement dispense helpful hints on thrift, documentary film-maker Kalle Lasn, 54, and his tiny staff of Generation Xers are its shock troops, attacking what he calls “the command centre of the consumer culture” with sly wit and outright subversion. Ironically, that chutzpah has won them profiles in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and even a cult following on Madison Avenue. Says Lasn: “They want to see what the enemy is up to.”
In Adbusters1 s latest “de-marketing” campaign, he urges readers to celebrate the ultimate expression of voluntary simplicity: Buy Nothing Day, a 24-hour moratorium on consumerism. Scheduled for Nov. 29, the first shopping day after American Thanksgiving—and, historically, the biggest one-day buying binge of the year—it will kick off the Christmas spending season with the motto, “Participate by not participating.” Says Lasn: “If you look at what’s wrong in the world, it all starts with overconsumption.”
Born in Estonia during the Second World War, Lasn grew up in the enforced frugality of displaced person camps in Germany and Australia before moving to Japan as a marketing analyst. But after emigrating to British Columbia in 1970, he was galvanized by the symptoms of ecological devastation. “Consumerism,” he says, “is the mother of all environmental problems.”
In 1989, when Lasn and a small band of fellow greens attempted to undercut a lyrical TV campaign promoting logging by British Columbia’s Council of Forest Industries, they discovered no major station would allow them to buy time for their 30-second parody. “We were really upset by this lack of democracy on the airwaves,” he says. His solution: “a slick, subversive little magazine
dedicated to fighting the pollution of the mental environment.” Run by his nonprofit Media Foundation and financed largely by its $5.75 cover price, Adbusters now sells 30,000 copies an issue—20,000 of them in the United States.
Agency copywriters often moonlight to orchestrate Adbusters's satirical assaults on their trade. One issue dispensed red “Grease” stickers to plaster over McDonald’s outlets across the conti-
nent, sparking the arrest of a Toronto vegetarian activist, Chris Sartor. And Lasn is currently battling Harper’s magazine over its apparent reluctance to sell him a $15,000 page for the Joe Chemo “subvertisement,” as he calls it.
But as downshifting becomes the latest consumer trend, Lasn finds that he and his magazine have attained respectability. Last year, he was invited to a U.N. forum on sustainable consumption. “Everybody knows we’re living beyond our means, both individually and as a society,” he says. Still, he predicts that it will take at least a generation for the majority of continental consumers to seriously downshift. That, it turns out, is how long it took Lasn himself to quit smoking.
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