Does It Pay to Subvertise?

The critics of corporate propaganda co-opt its best weapon

Have you ever wondered how to "eliminate logos from your clothing without having to sacrifice good quality and funky-fresh styles"? A letter to the editor in the Winter 1999 issue of Adbusters, a Canadian magazine devoted to advertising criticism, contains a solution. All it takes to subvert corporate brands, writes Amira Eskenazi, is some electrical tape: The resourceful clotheshorse uses it to place large black X's over offending logos, which apparently do not exude the "funky-fresh style" that Eskenazi aspires to. And if some unenlightened logo serf should ridicule such rebellion? "You can then smilingly declare," Eskenazi writes, "'What kind of moron would willingly be a walking billboard?'"

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As one who falls squarely in the moronic walking-billboard camp, I am perhaps uncharitably biased, but it seems to me that Eskenazi's fervor is simply the intellectual inverse of getting a tattoo of the Nike swoosh, minus the rash commitment that gives the latter act a sense of lunkheaded romanticism. Is this sort of knee-jerk logocide really the desired effect of the anti-advertising movement?

In fact, its goals are generally more ambitious and complex than that. "We've reached a point where people accept advertising as a natural part of the environment," says Larry Adelman, one of the founders of the Schmio Awards, an annual ceremony that parodies the advertising industry's Clio Awards by "honoring" dubious achievements such as enticing children to give out personal information over the Web. "The goal of the Schmios," he says, "is to make issues regarding advertising more visible, in the hope of starting a national debate: How much is too much? Should there be spaces that are free from advertising? What happens when advertising shapes our identities and our perceptions of the world to the extent that it does?"

Advertising criticism has been around for almost as long as advertising itself, though it's been markedly less successful. In 1905, Collier's magazine published an exposé of how snake-oil salesmen had "seduced [the press] into captivity" by making it so dependent on their advertising. In the early 1900s, Broadway shows such as It Pays to Advertise and Nothing But Lies, and magazines like Ballyhoo, lampooned advertising's penchant for deceit. Despite these efforts, advertising remains relatively underanalyzed -- outside of industry trade magazines and academic circles, it rarely gets more than passing consideration. "Our biggest challenge is showing people that advertising's not just a nuisance, and that if they ignore it, it will just get worse," says Carrie McLaren, editor of Stay Free!, a zine about commercialism and pop culture.

For an increasing number of advertising critics, the preferred method for getting people to think about advertising is that sexy, attention-getting, pathologically glib bane of contemporary discourse: advertising itself. Adbusters, which bills itself as the "Journal of the Mental Environment," has popularized the concept with slick parodies of popular print campaigns. Joe Camel becomes Joe Chemo; Tommy Hilfiger aficionados are depicted as sheep. And in such videos as Dreamworlds and Advertising and the End of the World, Sut Jhally, a professor of communication at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, uses imagery from music videos and TV commercials to dramatize consumer culture's faults. He also uses commercials in his classes. "When I show an ad in the lectures," he says, "people's attention is right there.

"It's like martial arts," explains Jhally, who is also the executive director of the Media Education Foundation. "The only language that operates in the modern world is the language of advertising culture. And if you want to fight, you've got to use that language. You've got to turn the power of your opponent back on itself."

The virtues of this approach -- called variously "anti-advertising," "culture jamming," and "subvertising" -- are obvious. "Ads talk about what people really want," Jhally says. "Love. Desire. Friendship. There's a reason why people like ads. They're the best things on television and in the media."

Adbusters editor Kalle Lasn has an even greater regard for the power of advertising. "We're not anti-advertising," he says. "We see ourselves as being part of advertising. But we're not product marketers. We're social marketers who think that advertising has the power to set new agendas and create mass reversals of perspective."

In addition to its print ad parodies, Adbusters has produced a series of "uncommercials" -- television spots that predict the "end of the automotive age" and publicize anticonsumerist events such as Buy Nothing Day. So far, however, Lasn has had little success in testing the power of these spots. All the major American networks, as well as the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., have declined to air them, under the shaky pretext that their policies prohibit any kind of advocacy advertising. In other words, an anti-automobile commercial is an example of advocacy advertising, but a pitch for the new Honda Accord, which implicitly advocates automobile usage, is just a good old-fashioned ad.

To Lasn, the networks' refusal broadcasts their fear of his message. He believes that if Adbusters and other advocacy advertisers had the same access to the airwaves as General Motors and Calvin Klein, product marketers would end up substantially reducing their own TV advertising. To validate his vision, Lasn refers to the showdown that occurred between antismoking ads and cigarette commercials in the late '60s after the FCC ordered broadcasters who aired cigarette commercials to run opposing viewpoints for free. "Those antismoking ads were so potent that, ultimately, the industry couldn't compete," recounts Lasn. "Every time you were watching one of those pro-smoking ads, you just started snickering because they just didn't make sense anymore."

Actually, it was an act of Congress, rather than the antismoking ads, that forced cigarette commercials off television. And ultimately, that move did little to hinder the tobacco industry's advertising efforts; it just spent more on other media. Ironically, cigarette sales increased dramatically in 1971, the first year of the cigarette-ad ban, probably because antismoking commercials, which had indeed caused a decline in cigarette consumption, could no longer be aired for free.

Still, if we are to learn anything from the cigarette-ad battle, it's that the most likely industry response to uncommercials would be to simply air more commercials -- in the realm of political advertising, has one attack ad ever failed to spawn a rebuttal? To be sure, escalation is a poor excuse for censorship; Lasn has as much a right to the airwaves as do his counterparts at Honda and GM. But how excited are we supposed to get about the notion that anticonsumerist arguments can be trivialized with the same smug, soundbitten language that graces Bud Light and Camel ads?

Lasn's paradigmatic cigarette ads are again a case in point. Taking for granted that kids start smoking because tobacco companies have convinced them that smoking is "cool," modern antismoking ads simply promote not smoking as being even cooler. What gets lost in the exchange is that being "cool" is a pretty flimsy reason to do anything.

In short, advertising may indeed be the operative language of the modern world, but it's a fairly limited idiom, designed to make you feel rather than think. For those whose message is simple -- Buy me! -- the language of advertising works beautifully. For those trying to express a more complicated idea, it's less effective.

Of course, parodies and publicity stunts (such as the soundbite-ready flacktivism of Buy Nothing Day) are effective as bait-and-switch tactics: You hook them with punch lines and eye candy, then educate them after you have their attention. But are the Absolut vodka ad collectors who call up Adbusters in search of its parodies of the well-known ad campaign sticking around for such schooling? And wouldn't it be just as effective if the funky-fresh brandinistas of the world simply applied black electrical tape to their eyes instead of their logos? In the end, is virtuous mindlessness better than materialistic mindlessness?

Tough question. When my copywriters hammer out a billboard-compatible answer, I'll let you know.