Busting Adbusters (again)

Once again I have to say that I am sadly disappointed with Adbusters. The above ad, which recycles a Situationist slogan, is a poor substitute for organizing. I think Adbusters is becoming its own worse enemy be reducing the causes they believe in into images and slogans. It’s a bit like Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” a song that I love dearly, but it’s a vague slogan that reduces the cause to a crafty sound bite with little meaning. Adbusters wants you to pay to have this ad on TV as part of their so-called “meme war,” but please don’t waste your money. Running ads on television is not social change. If you want to get down and dirty, this strategy just further props up the thing they are against by throwing money at it. My belief is that running an ad like this is like throwing a glass of water into Niagara Falls. This is a kind of pseudo activism that I have seen repeated over and over again as people see themselves as heros who merely have to show people the truth to set them free. As noble as it is, I think the online comic Shooting War also repeats the same trope.

This “great adventure” substitutes ideas with images. It glorifies people fighting the police. What good does that do except generate fear, anger and hatred between people? The Situationists were engaged in in real interventions, things that involved people contacting each other in dialog in the streets. Their bodies moved through space. This ad is just empty mental space. Moreover, it is a kind of passive, armchair activism that I liken to “riot porn.” The ad “others” the rioters by reducing their cause into hollow symbolism. As memes go, where’s the beef?

I don’t want to discount Adbusters entirely, because they have inspired many people and have created many insightful projects that brought important issues to the forefront. But when I was at a conference in Seattle and complained to the magazine’s founder and publisher Kalle Lasn that the publication was no longer useful as teaching tool because of its increasingly incomprehensible avant-garde design, he said it was worth the risk of alienating people such as myself to deconstruct the idea of a magazine. OK, great within the schema of museums and art history, but totally impractical.

You can read my other critiques here and here.

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  • Interesting point about Adbusters. Though I’d have to disagree. Saying that an ad is a poor substitute for organizing is like saying lifting weights is a poor substitute for jogging. They are different exercises with different goals. Adbusters, like my company GNN, are media creators. They are not organizers. They are trying to infiltrate the popular consciousness with alternative ideas about consumption. TV ads are our culture’s most ubiquitous forms of persuasion. They are extremely effective in shaping our needs and desires (see: http://gnn.tv/headlines/15038/Hooked_on_McDonald_s_at_Age_3). I think the Situationists would approve of using the medium to get people to open their minds as opposed to their wallets or their mouths.

    Also I’m not sure I get what you’re trying to say about Shooting War. As the author, I’m curious. It’s not meant to be an organizing tool. It’s a comic. It’s satire.

  • Antonio

    Dear Anthony,
    I realize in retrospect that my snarky tone wasn’t appropriate, nor was it fair to throw in Shooting War with my critique of Adbusters. I was going to include another comic as well, but couldn’t find a link for it and it was a last minute throw in— not so responsible on my part, so I apologize. My thoughts about your comic deserve its own post, and I would prefer to go back and reread it, but since you wrote, I’ll respond here. I find it difficult to critique those who I consider allies. I admire and appreciate the work you have done at GNN, and have also have spent time with Stephen and know that he has great compassion and conviction. Certainly there is no shortage of that at GNN. But what has been troubling me for a while about so-called progressive and alternative media is an energetic strain that I see more clearly manifest in the Adbusters package, but it pervades much of the media opposition coming from progressives. In essence I find the tone and quality a bit macho, aggressive and combative. I also see too much emphasis of coming from a place of negation. That is, being defined by what one is against. The comic struck me in this way because it seems to echo a theme that if we challenge network reporting that it will solve the problem of war. Shooting War – a pun- I get it’s satire, but it reemphasizes the camera as gun, which it can be, but doesn’t have. It depends if we want to perpetuate this concept or not. I understand the comic is satire, but it is also criticism and an argument. I also realize that it is not intended to be the entire argument concerning the war.

    I think the underlying mentality that got us in Iraq in the first place is the techno-militarstic-biophobic mind, or what one Native American poet calls “white think.” Mass media perpetuates this mentality, but is not the root of it. I’m an old punk media activist, so it’s hard for me to say that it doesn’t make sense to me anymore to attack the symptom. In this respect, I feel that even rehashing Situationism is barking up the wrong tree because the Society of the Spectacle is not a given reality, but a constructed belief about a condition of human beings. I no longer believe the media brainwash or control what we think.Yes, they influence us tremendously, but the human mind is not a passive receptacle of mediated ideology. It is a lot more complex than that and the fact that so many people can resist the dominant ideology is proof to me that the human brain is a very resilient instrument.

    It’s true that there are many studies that show advertising influences beliefs and perceptions. I do not deny this. What I do find suspect is to the attack the messenger’s symbolism without replacing it with something positive. Messages and ads only stick when there is a susceptibility (such as we are susceptible to craving sweets). In the same way that our bodies can process contaminating germs and viruses, our minds can navigate bullshit and misinformation, but we need a strong immune system. Being critical is part of that, but not a solution alone. I wonder if the kids surveyed in the article you linked to would have tested differently if in their households they were educated about food differently and were also exposed to alternative and counterbalancing ideas. This is anectodotal, but I remember a kid who was banned from media, playing war and from listening to sexist rock music. We all had progressive families with basically the same values, but the one kid who was prohibited became a very violent, angry young man. The point being that given good educations and family support, anyone can weather the messages of media. In my own experience as an educator, I can say that the most troublesome kids who were drawn to crude and violent media had problems at home. Usually their parents were alcoholics and the kids were not being properly taken care of; it wasn’t the media that was causing their problems, but life at home and in the community, poverty being one, but not the sole, cause. Economic support, organic food in schools, more money for teachers and smaller classrooms— these are the things that need working on, because they will produce tangible results. I find attacking the symbol system more and more dubious because it is like the people from flatland who only see eachother’s edges fighting each other for naming rights. We need to find ways to take a broader, deeper look at the paradigm we are actually operating in.

    Even with Situationists who ralied against the Spectacle seem to give it life with every critique and action against it. It is a clever monster, not unlike the anger monster of a Buddhist tale in which every time someone attacked it, it just got bigger. The media system thrives on conflict, and oppositional tactics like rioting are great fodder for it. Violence of this sort, even if it is in the form of art or video, gives it means for being. The beast grows and grows, eating its children and coopting the language of its critics over and over again. It is a losing battle. I don’t symbolic activism is getting us any closer to solutions.

    So what is the solution? I don’t have all the answers, but the first step is to understand that all of us are like film projectors making a collective movie. The solution is not to change the screen, view or content, but to change the film itself. Everyone has their own path, but I would certainly advocate for love, compassion, cooperation and mutual support, and diverge from fear, anger, violence and mental oppression. Because the one thing we have control over is our own hearts and minds, so we should avoid at all costs to let that which we hate destroy us. I believe very strongly that media and ecological education is the priority. Someone asked if I had one wish, what would it be, and I replied, dismantle the school system and start from scratch. This might come across as a little flakey, but the core issue for me is how does one learn to love a tree as much as one loves his or herself? Can it be taught? Cultivated? The person who hates the tree (or is indifferent) probably has the same attitude about his or her self. We need to go at the core of our techno-military mind and change this idea that “they” are the problem, when in our own lives we perpetuate the same kind of thinking through our output and tactics in the world. In this respect, I hope to see more alternative media promote solutions, such as DIY environmental remediation or community activism. In particular I am very fond of the kind of work that the Bioneers do.

    I don’t deny that the liars and cheats who wage illegal war need to be exposed, but I’m searching for a deeper solution than to be just critical. To quote PK Dick, “To fight the Empire is to be infected by its derangement. This is a paradox: whoever defeats a segment of the Empire becomes the Empire; it proliferates like a virus, imposing its form on its enemies. Thereby it becomes its enemies.” (from Valis, p.134)

  • Thanks for the response. Don’t have time to fully respond right now. But don’t judge Shooting War by the online preview. Wait for the hardcover book that’s coming out in November. What’s online is sort of a first draft.