You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Meet the Ad Men Behind Occupy Wall Street

On July 13, the Canadian anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters posted what they called “Memo One” on their site under the newly minted hash tag #OCCUPYWALLSTREET: “Are you ready for a Tahrir moment? / On Sept 17th flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street.” Shockingly, just over two months later, this is nearly exactly what happened.

Among the many reasons that made the feat surprising—the pitfalls of collective action, widespread anomie on the left, etc.—was the fact that Adbusters has been trying to pull this off, or something like it, for over 20 years. The magazine, founded on the premise that the advertising techniques of advanced capitalized societies could be employed to subvert the structures of capitalism itself, has long made a habit of churning out pithy rallying cries and calls for days of protest. But unlike all its other attempts, this one hit home; striking a raw nerve that ran throughout an American populace, it provided a unifying expression for a deep sense of frustration amidst a jobless recovery from the great recession. And while the movement has since grown much larger than Adbusters, it still bears the unique and quirky imprint of the Canadian zine—one that hints at both the strength and limitations of the Occupy Wall Street movement itself.

Adbusters was founded in Vancouver in 1989 by an impish Estonian, former ad man cum activist named Kalle Lasn. Lasn had spent his twenties working for an advertising firm in Japan before leaving the industry in disgust over its moral apathy. In an interview he gave in 2002, Lasn explained, “it was an ethically neutral business, where people didn’t really give a damn whether they were selling cigarettes, or alcohol, or Pepsi-Cola. For them it was all one big interesting game, and the social repercussions were somehow irrelevant.” Done with advertising, Lasn moved to Vancouver in the 1970s to make environmental documentaries, but soon got swept up in a heated confrontation with the logging industry that had begun brewing in the province. 

At the time, British Columbia was in the midst of opening its old growth forests to expanded logging, and the timber industry was running a preemptive ad campaign touting their own responsibility in an attempt to diffuse worries of environmental degradation. Environmentalists readied to fight back by producing their own TV spots, called “A Tree Farm is not a Forest,” which attacked the timber industry’s claims. However, no Canadian network would run the 30 second pieces, leading Lasn and his partner to file suit. In the meantime, they sought out alternative platforms to subvert the tide of corporate messaging—and the magazine Adbusters was born. 

The tactical theory behind the magazine was to use the methods and images of mainstream advertising to achieve the countercultural ends of Lasn and his compatriots. The actual term they use for this practice is “culture jamming” (readers and followers, in turn, are referred to as “jammers”), and the end goal, according to Lasn’s book Culture Jam: How to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumerist Binge, is to “change the way we interact with the mass media and the way in which meaning is produced in our society.” The methods range from parodying familiar ad campaigns (“Joe Chemo,” a cancer ridden Joe Camel, became an instant classic, and “Absolut Impotence,” with its image of a wilting Absolut vodka bottle, got the magazine sued), to hacking corporate websites, vandalism, and protests. But if the term culture jamming was new, the practice has a rich history, explains Matt Soar, Associate Professor of Communications at Concordia University in Montreal. “[I]t goes back to the Situationists, John Heartfield, Dada, Paris in the 60’s, Hannah Hoch.” The Yes Men and the street artist Banksy can be counted as modern iterations. All of these groups have made it their mission to fight back against dominant cultural modes by appropriating the language and imagery of corporate messaging and twisting it to reveal its absurdity and contradictions. 

“Early issues are almost a photocopied kind of zine,” says Soar, who volunteered for the project in its beginning stages. “[Then] they hired an art director, or a series, to up the stakes in terms of the production values … . A critic might now say that he’s one of them—he’s using the ideas of the marketplace.” That, seemingly, was exactly the idea behind the magazine—and one of the things that separated it from traditional activists. “They said that you can be super intelligent, funny, and please people visually, and still be subversive,” says Darin Barney, Associate Professor of Communications at McGill University in Montreal. “That was their appeal to a larger body [than traditional] activist media.” In an interview in 2002, Lasn explains that his issues with traditional advertising didn’t concern the medium, but rather the content. “Advertising has two sides to it—the product-marketing side, but also the social marketing side,” he says, “One side sells products, the other sells ideas.” 

The ideas that Lasn tried to pitch to the world over the past 20 years, with varying degrees of success, have carried a common theme. Buy Nothing Day (held on Black Friday), Digital Detox Week (which advocates minimizing electronic stimulation to reflect on how it impacts day-to-day life), and Blackspot shoes (a line of sustainable, sweatshop free sneakers) have all attempted to push back against the rampant and amoral consumerism of advanced capitalist societies. Clearly, none caught fire like OWS. This is at least in part because of the way the internet has changed how movements function; while the magazine sent out a call to arms in their print edition, the idea spread primarily through online social networks, starting with Adbusters’ own subscriber forum and eventually taking on a life of its own on Twitter. Moreover, the movement was designed to grow horizontally: Adbusters immediately ceded any leadership role, offering suggestions for potential goals but establishing OWS as an open-ended conversation that would grow organically. This naturally made it inclusive and directly interactive—both factors that were instrumental in its growth. 

As a result, Adbusters makes no claim of ownership over the movement that followed. Once the idea was beamed from Vancouver, it was picked up by the magazine’s activist community (including David Graeber, who is a regular contributor to the magazine), which began putting together the ground campaign, and the hacker collective Anonymous, which made their support known in August, to name a few. Since then, a host of other American leftist groups, including unions, Stop the Machine (an anti-war group), and have lent their support and attempted to reap the rewards of participation. 

But if Occupy Wall Street has grown far bigger than Adbusters, it’s not hard to still see the magazine’s continued imprint on the movement. Lasn, for instance, while fond of harping about revolution, gravitates more naturally towards impishness and whimsy. The thrust of his activism and that of Adbusters is more about freedom than order. In an interview in 2000, Lasn defended the utility of instability and extremity in movements, saying, “Every cultural revolution has had its lunatic fringes and civil disobedience. The anarchists in Seattle who broke windows … I think they were an essential part of the process … if there weren’t fifty people who were so outraged that they broke a few windows, then I would have been disappointed.” His version of cultural revolt pivots on subverting the dominant narrative rather than crafting methodical, institutional counter- visions to rival it. When I talked to Lasn on the phone about the criticisms levied against Occupy Wall Street for failing to devise a coherent program of action, he replied lightheartedly: “They have been successful in launching a heavy duty conversation in America about the state of America … . It doesn’t get any better than that.” 

Likewise, the phrase “Occupy Wall Street,” like any good advertising concept, has proven immensely catchy, providing an easily recognizable common thread to various discontents across causes and cities and inspiring such parodies as Occupy Main Street, or Occupy Sesame Street. But if pithy slogans are particularly good at rallying a broad base of support, they are less adept at instilling a coherent program of action among their adherents. It’s as if, having succeeded in planting the seed of desire in activists’ minds, Adbusters was always more interested in watching it take off than in fixing it to a particular program or cause. In the marketing world, the concept might be said to have gone “viral”—an achievement of which any of Lasn’s former adman colleagues would be exceptionally proud. 

Thomas Stackpole is an intern at The New Republic.