Kalle Lasn was working as an award-winning maker of short films and documentaries when he made a 30-second TV spot on behalf of protecting the Pacific Northwest’s old-growth forests. When no television station would sell him airtime to broadcast the spot, Lasn committed himself to the project of transforming the communications media and taking back our lives and culture from the corporations and broadcasters. He is the creator and publisher of Adbusters magazine, “a journal of the mental environment,” and founder of Adbusters Media Foundation, Powershift Advertising Agency and Culture Jammers Network. Lasn has launched several well-known social campaigns, such as Buy Nothing Day and TV Turnoff Week. He spoke to Inquiring Mind from his home in Vancouver, and began by telling us of his involvement with Buddhism.
Kalle Lasn: Back in 1985 I was working on a documentary film series about Japanese aesthetics and religion for PBS and the National Film Board of Canada. In order to gain permission to film in one particular Zen monastery in Kamakura, I was told that I would have to meditate for one day before I could start filming. Well, you can imagine. I suffered terribly. Physically and psychologically, that day was one of the most difficult and painful of my life. But I emerged feeling strangely alive, and ever since I’ve been very interested in Buddhism. By the way, the film I was working on was called Satori in the Right Cortex.
Inquiring Mind: Along with the magazine Adbusters, you have launched many projects to fight against consumerism. You seem to be doing the same work in the outer world that the Buddha prescribed for us to do in the inner world—to eliminate unnecessary desire.
KL: Well, right now our culture is manufacturing desire at an unprecedented rate, and I would guess that well over half of us have already been recruited into the consumer cult. Our lives are centered on TV, which then hypes us to want cars, foods, fashions and spectacle. We have embraced consumerism as a religion, and our salvation now lies in how much we own and consume. I think it is very important to challenge this religion. After meditating to calm our inner selves, some of the rougher souls among us should venture out into the world and try to change the external circumstances that are creating so much chaos and suffering.
IM: You dedicate Adbusters to the overturning, or “busting,” of advertising images and messages that prey on the public mind.
KL: Someone has to do it. From the time we are little babies crawling around the TV set, through adulthood and into old age, we are bombarded by commercial messages. Three thousand marketing messages a day now flow into the average North American brain, and marketers use focus groups and pay huge fees to psychologists, survey teams and researchers to discover the most effective ways to reach us emotionally. We are guinea pigs in one of the biggest psychological experiments in history.
A Columbia University study by Professor Myra Weissman found that young people growing up in North America today are three times—300%—more likely to suffer from a depression or mood disorder compared to previous generations. A 1999 World Health Organization study predicted that if mental dysfunction keeps growing at this rate, mental disease will be more prevalent than heart disease by the year 2020. What is causing this epidemic of mental dysfunction? I think media clutter, advertising and our polluted mental environment are partly to blame. Meanwhile, our diminishing mental clarity makes us unable to see the damage we are inflicting in the physical realm. So our ecological and psychological dysfunctions keep feeding off each other.
IM: Of all your projects and campaigns, what do you feel has been the most effective way to break people out of their mental trance and consumption habits?
KL: By far the most powerful way to break people out of their media-consumer trance is to air “anti-ads” on TV. If you broadcast a message that deliberately goes against the grain of commercial television, it can grab the public imagination and have a profound effect. For example, an anticar ad today has all the potency an antismoking ad did twenty-five years ago. If a few brilliant anticar messages started popping up every now and again, that would rile up the global automakers—and get people thinking. If an ad came on pointing out that over 50% of the calories from a Big Mac come from fat, well, that would be the perfect curve ball to throw into our increasingly obese society.
Such thirty- and sixty-second “mind bombs,” as I call them, can trump corporate power, prod lethargic governments into action, and catalyze cultural mindshifts. I think it’s important to have dissenting voices popping up on TV; otherwise it becomes just one long twenty-four-hour-a-day advertisement for a lifestyle of consumption. One of my favorite mind bombs shows a young man intently watching TV while a voice intones,
“Your living room is the factory; the product being manufactured is you.”
IM: This method of ad-busting must be very expensive. Don’t you have to buy the advertising time on television?
KL: Yes, and we’ve had a lot of difficulty doing that, not due just to the expense. In fact, Adbusters Media Foundation was born as a result of commercial television stations refusing to sell us airtime, even though we were willing to pay the standard rates. For over ten years now, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the big three networks in the U.S.—ABC, NBC and CBS—have routinely refused to sell us airtime for any of the dozens of campaigns we have tried to broadcast. Just one station, CNN, started selling us airtime three years ago, and that was only after a persistent Wall Street Journal reporter began grilling them about why they were refusing to deal with us. Thirty-second spots on CNN Headline News cost at least $1,500 each. This year we plan to air our Buy Nothing Day message on Larry King Live. That will cost us around $15,000.
IM: Isn’t it illegal for the networks to refuse your ads? Couldn’t you sue to force them to sell you airtime?
KL: In Canada we had a five-year-long legal action against the CBC network. We fought it through the Supreme Court of British Columbia, to the B.C. Court of Appeals, and eventually to the Supreme Court of Canada. We thought that we would be able to win under the Canadian Charter of Rights, which guarantees freedom of speech to all Canadian citizens. But the Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear our case. Now we’re trying to launch a legal action against ABC, NBC and CBS in the U.S.
IM: What do you suggest that individuals might do to protect themselves and their families from the assault of the corporate media, and beyond that, to help change the existing system?
KL: Each one of us has to decide for ourselves what to do. Some people might participate in Buy Nothing Day, just for starters, and then begin thinking about consumerism and our unsustainable economic system. What aspects of our culture really feel wrong in your gut? Do you feel upset when you see your son or daughter zoned out in front of the TV, absorbing that desire-creating fare? Do you feel sad and angry when you’re walking or bicycling through your city and suddenly realize that you have no alternative to breathing poisoned air? You have to look inside and let the rage build naturally. After that you’ll find lots of others who feel the same way.
IM: You say in your book, Culture Jam, that we need a new kind of activism that has nothing to do with traditional politics, or the political Left or Right.
KL: I grew up in the Left tradition, and in my youth I passionately fought all the battles. I was part of the antiwar movement, the Black liberation movement, the feminist movement, the environmental movement. Somewhere along the line, I started feeling uncomfortable with the jargon and the style and the failures of the Left. Then, about ten years ago, I suddenly jumped ship. I decided that if I was going to be part of a social movement that could actually create a better world, I would have to leap over the dead body of the Left. The big issues of our time—environmental destruction, media concentration, car culture and climate change, the brainwashing of our kids, the taking over of education by commercial interests—all of these issues really have nothing to do with the Left or the Right. They are about fighting against ecological and psychological degradation and creating a viable future on our planet. So I’ve opted out of that tired old Left-Right debate and now call myself a culture jammer.
IM: That’s a rousing statement of purpose, but it seems as though your movement contains an inherent critique of capitalism and would classically be considered leftist, or at least politically liberal.
KL: I agree that our current brand of capitalism is dysfunctional in many ways, but I don’t believe there is anything fundamentally wrong with free markets. Instead, I argue that capitalism would work much better if we had “true-cost” markets. For instance, right now you can walk into an automobile showroom and buy a car for $20,000, but that price reflects only the manufacturing costs and the automaker’s profit. It doesn’t include the cost of the damage you will do over the next few years—pumping carbon into the atmosphere through your tailpipe and causing climate change, creating urban congestion, and all the other kinds of problems associated with cars.
If we added these environmental and social costs to the price tag, then experts estimate that your car would cost you $50,000 instead of $20,000. That extra $30,000 could be used to clean up the pollution you create, build public transit systems, and so on. If we could convert our current market system into a true-cost system, in which the price of every product told the ecological truth, I would have much less of a problem with capitalism. Then it might be workable. The problem with the political Left is that they hate markets and capitalism so much they can no longer imagine solutions like true-cost.
IM: So this true-cost market would preserve freedom of choice and competition but also recognize the commonly shared resources of the planet and help to protect the overall quality of life for all.
KL: I think so. And I believe that there is a growing momentum for this kind of change. There is a movement of people who are neither from the political Left nor the Right, who have different but somewhat related concerns. I saw their glorious diversity in the “Battle of Seattle” during the World Trade Organization meetings.
IM: What role might the new Buddhist community in the West have to play in this movement for change?
KL: I am not happy with the kind of Buddhism that has appeared here in the West. It has been watered down into simplistic notions of inner calm and easy platitudes about love and peace. In the Japanese Zen tradition there is a rough soul and a gentle soul, and the universe is seen as an essential intermingling of both. I think Western Buddhism needs a bit more of that rough soul. I would like to see a few of us challenge the status quo a little more and confront this runaway consumer culture of ours that’s creating so many ecological and psychological nightmares. We should be striving to catalyze a new, less materialistic, less psychologically corrosive and more sustainable culture to hand down to future generations. It’s time for some of us to create a ruckus in the tradition of the Buddhist warrior, cutting through delusion for the sake of all. In this planetary endgame we’re in, the rampaging cultural warrior is just as important as the deep meditator.
IM: You seem to have gotten one of those rough souls.
KL: Yeah, I think I got me a rough one. But it feels authentic and grounded. I feel that I am still part of the tradition that I admired so much when I was a young man living and studying Zen in Japan. There’s a time in everybody’s life when you have to take a journey inward and confront the demons inside. That is a journey we all have to take. But after awhile, especially if you have some success within your own heart and mind, then the time comes to take another kind of journey—a journey outward. That journey is a journey into culture, into the heart of the speed and the greed, to confront the external demons. That’s what culture jamming is all about.