By Donella Meadows
–November 21, 1996–
Is there any kind of ad that CBS, NBC, and ABC won’t run?
Presumably yes — obscene ads, violent ads, ads for cigarettes and other lethal drugs. And, Kalle Lasn discovered when he tried to buy 30 seconds of air time, there’s another kind of unacceptable ad.
Open on a pink plastic pig, wiggling, grinning, and belching. The voice-over says, “The average North American consumes five times more than a Mexican, ten times more than a Chinese person and thirty times more than a person from India.”
Cut to a bulldozer, piling up a mountain of trash in a landfill. “We are the most voracious consumers in the world.”
The blue view of Earth from space. “A world that could die because of the way we North Americans live.”
“Give it a rest. November 29 is Buy Nothing Day.” Big capital letters: BUY NOTHING DAY.
CNN, it turns out, will run the ad just before Thanksgiving. No other network will touch it, and Lasn is talking legal action to claim his free speech rights.
Kalle Lasn (it’s pronounced like “Larsen” but with a disappearing R) is a Canadian of Estonian descent, who lives in Vancouver. He has been promoting Buy Nothing Day for five years now. This year he irreverently scheduled it for the day after Thanksgiving, the biggest shopping day of the year.
“A 24-hour moratorium on consumer spending,” says the Buy Nothing Day poster. “Participate by not participating! The American Dream — It Can’t Be Bought.”
Lasn runs a busy organization called The Media Foundation. It turns out what Lasn calls “uncommercials and subvertisements” for print as well as broadcast media. Lasn and some of his staff have been or still are marketers themselves, so their creations are as slick and cool as real ads.
“Joe Chemo,” announces one of them, with the infamous Joe Camel, bald and nauseous in a hospital bed while tubes pour cancer-fighting chemotherapy drugs into him. The little notice in the corner says: “The Surgeon General warns that smoking is a frequent cause of wasted potential and fatal regret.”
Another ad shows a thick, juicy hamburger on a fluffy bun, with layers of crisp lettuce and tomato. Above it the label says: “Advertising.” Just below is a smushed, soggy bun, a thin brown patty, and a wisp of wilted iceberg lettuce, under the label “Reality.”
The Media Foundation especially likes to target tobacco and alcohol ads. One of its creations says “Malboro Country” (the mis-spelling is deliberate to avoid lawsuits). It shows a bunch of shivering smokers, huddled outside a workplace door, dragging on their weeds.
Absolut Vodka’s distinctive ads provide an endless opportunity for spoofs. “Absolute End,” says one, with a bottle-shaped chalk line around a blood smear, police and photographers closing in on the accident scene. In small print: “Nearly 50% of automobile fatalities are linked to alcohol. Ten percent of North Americans are alcoholics. A teenager sees 100,000 alcohol ads before reaching the legal drinking age.”
“Absolute Impotence” reads another spoof with an empty, crumpled, drooping vodka bottle. The legend quotes Shakespeare: “Drink provokes the desire but takes away the performance.”
Since the commercial market is rarely open to Media Foundation ads, they mostly run in Lasn’s magazine, “Adbusters.” “Our mandate is to criticize individual ad campaigns, but also to expose, and in many ways oppose, the current values of our consumer culture,” say the editors. “We have an economic system that’s unsustainable,” says Lasn, “and nobody wants to talk about it. We want to get a discussion going.”
Buy Nothing Day does strike one as a deeply subversive idea. Why go along with it?
Maybe because you want to demonstrate your independence from the marketers who manipulate you every day. Because you know life is not about consumption. Because you don’t need the stress of traffic jams and crowded stores and garish holiday glitter. Because you don’t want to burden the planet or your credit card by buying stuff that no one really needs.
Or, the best reason of all, because you want to return the holiday season to its original meaning. The Buy Nothing Day poster suggests some alternative ways to spend the day after Thanksgiving:
“Talk about the meaning of the holidays with family and friends: plan your celebrations together.
“Have a “Great Give-Away” party and pass on everything you don’t use.
“Pay off a credit card. Then burn it.
“Be a grassroots guerrilla against obsessive spending. Buying Nothing can be a gift that keeps on giving.”
(You can find more ideas at www.adbusters.org)
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1996