Subvertising

The power of advertising, the lust to buy. Can anything fight it? Adbusters are trying their damnedest. By Judy Jones
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Scene 1: A shaven-headed young man stares blankly at a flickering TV screen. As the camera pans slowly around his dimly-lit, seated figure, a sinister voice-over delivers the message: "The living room is the factory. The product being manufactured is you." Then the camera closes in on what looks like a tattoo on the back of his neck. It's actually a bar code.

Scene 2: Moody, black-and white shot of writhing, naked woman. Soft focus. "Obsession ... fascination ... fetish ..." says the voice over. Then a question: "Why are nine out of 10 women dissatisfied by their own bodies?" The camera angle broadens and we see that the woman is actually vomiting into a washbasin. Then the denouement: "The beauty industry is the beast," the voice concludes.

Scene 3: A little girl sits alone, cuddling her toy rabbit in front of a violent TV programme. "Whose child is she?"asks the voice-over, "Yours - or the network's? Take back your children. Turn off your TV."

They're known as "uncommercials", and once or twice a year they are slipped in among the real adverts shown by American network television. These are some of the weapons in the growing armoury being amassed by a new breed of dedicated direct-action agitator - the anti-shopping protestor. Their aim? To shock till you drop.

The television "uncommercial", and its equivalent in the printed media, the "subvertisement" is fast becoming one of North America's most admired art forms. The name of the game is anti-consumerism. Its mission is to persuade us of the ultimate futility, waste and inequality wrought by over-consumption in Western countries at the expense of the developing world. Advertising, especially television advertising, is both the conduit and the culprit, constantly creating new "wants" rather than serving real "needs".

This weekend, as the Christmas shopping season shifts into top gear, the movement's advocates take to the streets to try to get that message over.

In North America, Friday 29 November is International Buy Nothing Day. It is the day after Thanksgiving and traditionally the day Americans go on their biggest shopping blow-out of the year. For the first time, anti- consumption campaigning activities are being synchronised around a single weekend. And in Britain, the big day for campaigners is this Saturday, 30 November, which they have dubbed rather more succinctly, No Shop Day.

Shopaholics need not fear for their safety. They will not find their path into Harvey Nichols blocked by makeshift barricades, or placard-wielding pickets. Displays of surrealism laced with irony and wit are the tactics chosen by today's postmaterialist activists. Mancunians, for example, should watch out for a family of silver-suited aliens wandering the city's shopping malls - observing what campaigners would like to persuade us is the curious and illogical behaviour of the average consumer.

Shopping-free zones and variations on the theme of non-consumption are planned for precincts in London, Glasgow, Bristol, Birmingham, Sheffield, Norwich, Liverpool, Fife, Leeds, Lancaster, Cambridge, Newcastle and Stowmarket. If you come across a group of people sitting in armchairs and sofas in the middle of your local mall or high street - conspicuously not indulging in consumption - it is likely that they are anti-shopping campaigners. You might call it a stunt. They call it street theatre. There's a good chance that they will offer you a walk-on part by politely inviting you to sit down and have a cup of tea with them.

In the beginning was an Estonian-born documentary film-maker called Kalle Lasn who started up a quarterly satirical magazine in the late 1980s in Vancouver, called Adbusters, sub-titled "The Journal of the Mental Environment".

Its parent organisation, The Media Foundation, makes short videos of animated "subvertisements" which CNN has broadcast. Most recently, it agreed to show a 30-second Adbusters curtain-raiser to International Buy Nothing Day depicting a belching, bloated pig rising out of a map of North America. Typically, the commentary pulls no punches. "The average north American consumes five times more than a Mexican, 10 times more than a Chinese person and 30 times more than a person in India. We are the most voracious consumers in the world, a world that could die because of the way that north Americans live. Give it a rest."

The magazine's readership has grown steadily each year to about 30,000. Two-thirds of these are in the United States. Typical articles are headlined: "Does our culture need lies to live?"and "The death of discourse". It is packed with spoof ads and spoof ad competitions. There is nothing quite like it in Britain, though there are echoes and elements of the sort of material you might see in Private Eye, Prospect and Mad magazine. But it's far more subversive: its philosophy is that American excess, the endless quest for affluence, bigger and better houses and cars keeps the developing world poor and slowly sucks the planet dry of its natural resources.

In Britain, the banner of anti-consumerism is held aloft by the Manchester- based group Enough, whose mailing list of supporters has grown tenfold over the last year - to 100. Co-ordinator Paul Fitzgerald says the point of No Shop Day is to encourage people to think about their own consumption patterns and, if necessary, to rein in their spending. "We don't draw a line above which we regard individuals as guilty," he says. "What we suggest is that people try to define what are their personal economic ambitions, and decide themselves what is a sustainable and responsible level of spending."

Kalle Lasn, the 54-year-old publisher of Adbusters, says his brand of anti-consumerism, which he calls culture jamming, is emerging as a distinct movement out of the broad sweep of green politics: "The mainstream green movement is concerned principally with pollution of the physical environment. What particularly concerns us is pollution of the mental environment from advertising. They are two sides of the same coin. Every year in north America, we get a flurry of calls after Buy Nothing Day; half are from red-neck Americans telling us to eff off; the other half are from people who say: `Thank goodness someone is talking sense.' But deep down I think most people in the West are uneasy about over-consumption, and the relentless commercialisation of modern life. When you in Britain have the same number of television channels, that we have in north America - all of them pumping out commercials by the hour - you'll perhaps understand better"

Judy Jones is the co-author, with Polly Ghazi, of `Getting A Life: A Downshifter's Guide to Simpler Happier Living', to be published by Hodder & Stoughton, February 1997.

Adbusters can be ordered from Central Books, 99 Wallis Road, London E9 5LN.

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