Special: Interview: Kalle Lasn: Uncooling America TM

Kalle Lasn is the founder of Adbusters Magazine, The Media Foundation, and The Powershift Ad Agency. All of his projects are dedicated to getting consumer culture to “bite its own tail,” to getting people to turn away their TV-fed ideas of what life and happiness are, and ultimately to changing the way meaning is created in this society. He does this through ad parodies, activities like TV Turnoff Week and Buy Nothing Day, and in a myriad of other ways. It all adds up to a new movement that he has dubbed “culture jamming”. His new book is Culture Jam: The Uncooling of America TM. We spoke to Kalle from his home in British Columbia on December 22, right in the throes of the most commercialized time of the year.

Kalle Lasn is the founder of Adbusters Magazine, The Media Foundation, and The Powershift Ad Agency. All of his projects are dedicated to getting consumer culture to “bite its own tail,” to getting people to turn away their TV-fed ideas of what life and happiness are, and ultimately to changing the way meaning is created in this society. He does this through ad parodies, activities like TV Turnoff Week and Buy Nothing Day, and in a myriad of other ways. It all adds up to a new movement that he has dubbed “culture jamming”. His new book is Culture Jam: The Uncooling of America TM. We spoke to Kalle from his home in British Columbia on December 22, right in the throes of the most commercialized time of the year.

The Interview

Question: The first thing I’d like to ask you, given the date on which we’re speaking, I just wanted to know what you’re doing at this most commercialized time to resist the mandated urge to consume, and what do you recommend others do? In short, how do you demarket Christmas?

Kalle Lasn: Well, I’m laying low. I haven’t been to a single mall, I have done very little shopping, and I’m waiting for this whole storm to blow over. I remember last year when I did a bit of shopping in the malls, I had some really bad experiences. I remember standing at one of the really busy malls one Friday afternoon and I just started feeling nauseous. I stopped and closed my eyes and I started hearing all these people and the kids and the shouting and the loudspeakers and it just felt like some sort of a madhouse to me. So this year, I’m laying low.

But as far as advice to give to other people, this is a very, very hard thing to do, because if you’re somebody like me who’s already realized that this culture of ours is making us a little sick, then you’re already demarketing your own life and downshifting or celebrating Christmases in different ways and refusing to be sucked into the spectacles and so on. But if you’re not, if you’re still living the American Dream and celebrating Christmas and participating in this consumption binge that’s going on right now, then anything I say will just sound stupid! You know what I mean? You can’t point a finger at somebody who’s still living the Dream and say, you’re a fool. That’s something they have to find out for themselves.

In your book, I noticed that in the dedication, you called Philip Morris, Inc. your “mortal enemy,” and I was wondering why them as opposed to tons of corporations that have caused equal damage or done things that are as hideous.

Well, I agree, yes. There are many large trans-nationals who have done way more damage than Philip Morris. But for me, Philip Morris is personal. I smoked cigarettes for over 25 years of my life, and I remember when I was in my thirties, I kept on hearing these reports about tobacco actually being bad for your health and causing lung cancer and whatnot. Then I kept on hearing the tobacco industry people, and I specifically remember some people who were working for Philip Morris, saying, oh no, it hasn’t been proven yet, the figures aren’t in yet, and let’s not get alarmist. I remember this gave me the excuse not to give up. I said, well, if it hasn’t been proven yet, then it can’t be that bad, and hey, I’ll just continue smoking because I like it. Secondly, I remember the thing that got me smoking in the first place was the rugged individualism cowboy campaign, the Marlboro Country campaign that Philip Morris has always had.

Twenty-five years later, I did finally give up smoking, but I have never forgiven Philip Morris for this role that they played in keeping me smoking for so long and jeopardizing my health, which actually did suffer. Not too badly so far, but it did suffer because of what I did. So I have a personal vendetta against Philip Morris, and I have vowed to take them down any which way I can.

In the book, some of what I found the scariest passages to be, touch on the links between TV, advertising and mind control. You point out that one of the things that had been done in mind control experiments was to put tons and tons of messages at an almost subconscious level, and that had a lot of effect on behavior, and you compare this to how advertising permeates our lives today. Can you elaborate on that?

It’s not quite on the level you describe. It’s more if you are a person who’s growing up in this culture of ours, which bombards people with 3,000 marketing messages a day — 3,000 marketing messages seeping into your brain every day. If you grow up from the moment you’re a little baby crawling around the TV set and you get through the first 25 years, and you’re about 25 years old, then at that age, suddenly people are waking up to the fact that their culture has diminished them in some way.

To put it really crudely, they’ve been mindfucked by this culture. All the commercialism and all the gratuitous sex and violence has changed the way they experience their own sexuality. Their own way of eating has been influenced by this culture, and even the music that they think is cool has been influenced by this culture. Suddenly they wake up to the fact that their own spontaneity and their own authenticity — their own identity — has been dicked around with by this damn culture that is so relentless in pushing one kind of a framework onto us — the consumer framework. That, I think, is the scary part. This scary part is what will result in this new social activist movement that I call culture jamming. It’s that personal realization that you have been made less than human, or made less than what you could have been, by this culture of ours.

You said that people would notice this after about 25 years or so. That brings me to some of the stuff you wrote about what you called the “Malaise Generation” [Lasn calls the people born between 1965-1980 “the biggest waste of potential energy, passion, creativity and intellect in our time… they] understand that they-we-are all dupes of the consumer culture…They just aren’t willing to do anything about it.”]. Like many of our readers, I’m a member of that generation myself and I thought that your comments…

How old are you?

I’m almost 23. But I thought your comments on my kind had a lot to them. I guess you just described how that generation ended up with those traits.

There is one more trait that is even larger, which is more of a technological trait. That is that for thousands of generations of human history, we human beings always grew up in the natural environment. I’m 57 years old, and when I was a teenager, the natural environment was the only one around. It was the trees and the rivers and the beaches. I spent just about all my time in this natural environment, and all my cues for my personality and everything about me was formed by what I learned from that natural environment.

But in the last two generations or three generations, there has been this monumental shift from the natural environment to the electronic environment. So these last two generations are the first generations in human history to grow up suddenly in this strange new environment. It is a man-made environment. And people like yourself grew up spending more time in the electronic than they did in the natural environment. I think this is the cause, or one of the primary causes, of this malaise. We have not quite learned how to live in this electronic environment.

A few million years ago, we were panting on the beach, trying to get out of the sea onto the land and to learn how to live on the land, in the natural environment of the land. Now we are panting on this electronic beach. Our minds are learning how to live in this new electronic environment, and I think that this electronic environment isn’t diverse enough, it isn’t rich enough yet — it may never be rich enough to sustain us. Until we learn that lesson, we may be suffering from this incredible increase in mood disorders that has happened in your generation, but not in mine. Your generation suffers from ten times the mood disorders that my generation suffers from.

You mentioned earlier the natural environment you grew up in. Now, I know you were born in Estonia and grew up under Soviet rule, and lived a little later in Germany and then Australia. How did living in those different places effect your politics and goals, and also the way you see North America?

Well, I think that I would never have been able to write this book if I hadn’t been born in Estonia, lived in Germany for five years, grown up in Aussie, spent another five to six years in Japan, traveled around the world for three more years, visiting mostly Third World countries, all the way from Central and South America to India and that whole other part of the world, and then finally immigrated to North America when I was in my mid-thirties. So I’m a multi-cultural kind of a guy, and I’ve experienced many cultures and many religions and I don’t think that somebody who has spent all their life just cooking in the juices of North American culture quite understands what their culture is doing to them! You have to sometimes go outside your culture. The people who when they’re young go for one year into Korea or China or travel through Europe — as many students are doing these days — I think only those people have any hope of understanding what their culture’s really doing to them.

At the moment, we have perhaps a hundred million people or more in North America who sit down in front of their TV sets every night and then dutifully trop off to the malls every weekend to carry out those consumption commandments that the TV set gave them for the rest of the week. Then they go back home, switch on the TV set again, and they think they got a life. They think they understand the culture and they think they’re happy and they think they’ve got it all figured out, and they haven’t got anything figured out. They’re consumer drones.

One of the important things throughout your work has been the importance of acting authentically. I was wondering how you yourself, or people you know, or just anyone in an everyday situation, might attempt to act authentically on a day-to-day basis.

The big restricting part of the culture we live in is the fact that it’s got this kind of a politically correct kind of a thing going for it. This isn’t just true about the left or about feminism, but about our culture in general. It’s very hard, for example, when you’re suddenly standing in a bank line at your bank, and you’ve been there for five minutes, and you’re getting really pissed off, and everybody’s kind of shuffling around, but even though there may be as many as ten or twenty people in the line, nobody suddenly shouts out, “Hey, how about opening another teller? I’ve been waiting here for five minutes!” Nobody does that.

So many of our lives are full of these suppressions, where we suppress our impulses. We don’t really like what’s going on, and we suspect that things are actually possibly in quite bad shape, but somehow we go along with it. The big breakthrough for many culture jammers, including myself, has been picking up on that situation distinct that you’re not going to suppress your authentic, spontaneous impulses anymore. You’re going to act out. This is one of the great things that I got from the Situationists [a 1960’s French revolutionary movement which dealt with the then-immanent “society of spectacle” and greatly influenced Lasn], and that actually transformed my life, because I was one of those people who was being politically correct about everything for the first ten years when I arrived in North America, and I didn’t start really fully living until I stopped doing that.

A lot of your vision for what an economy might look like seems to involve markets. If that’s the case, how do you prevent advertising and consumer culture from rising up again?

I’m not trying to zap markets. I’m not trying to zap advertising. When it comes to markets, I have no problem with them, but I want true-cost markets. There’s a chapter in the book that actually explains true-cost markets. Not in detail, but there’s a few pages devoted to this idea that markets are wonderful, but we have to make sure that the price of every product in the marketplace has to tell the ecological truth. So for example, an automobile right now — you go into a showroom, you can buy a car for $20,000. But that $20,000 does not include the cost of you belching one ton of carbon out of the tailpipe for a year and causing global warming and creating cities that are smogged up and the asthma that produces and the health costs. So what I’m saying is that the social and environmental costs of every product have to be internalized into the cost of that product. And then, if we do that, then the market will finally be the sort of market that I agree with.

As far as advertising goes, there’s nothing wrong with advertising. I love advertising. At the moment, though, I am unable to buy airtime on most television networks, because I’m selling ideas, and they only believe in selling products. They can’t quite wake up to the fact that they are actually selling us not just products, but they’re also selling us a whole consumer culture.

My idea of the future is to have a free marketplace of ideas on television, where anybody — you, me, Greenpeace, some religious group, anybody — can walk into their local station, and if they feel passionate about something, they can buy 30 seconds or a minute of airtime and fight it out with those other people on TV.

So for example, McDonalds will come on and say, “Go out and buy a Big Mac. It’s the sexiest, coolest thing around, and it’s really tasty,” or whatever, and I can come on five minutes later and say, “Fifty-three percent of the calories in a Big Mac come from fat. Why don’t you change your diet?” In that kind of marketplace of ideas, let the best ideas win. So I have no problem with advertising, as long as I’m allowed to advertise, too.

I see that many of your ideas, albeit often in parodied or bastardized form, are making it into pop culture these days, particularly through movies like The Fight Club and The Truman Show. Why is that happening, and when that does happen, does it make it easier or harder for you to get your actual message across?

Well, to me it is a sign that this looking at our consumer culture and this message — that we have moved from citizens to being consumers and our whole culture has moved from being an authentic, bottom-up culture to a top-down consumer culture — is finally hitting its mark. When you get a movie like The Fight Club coming out — and I didn’t see some parts of it, but they did understand that this consumer culture can make us monsters, that consumer culture produces an incredible rage that can sometimes not be contained. The fact that more and more people are waking up to it, and now it’s actually turning up in movies is a realization that this culture jamming movement is starting to gain momentum. I think that some of the old weapons that we had, like ad parodies and some of the earlier detournements that we pulled off, we may now have to move beyond them and come up with some newer, better, more potent means of moving this movement forward.

You say when you saw the ecological destruction that the Communist era had caused, you disavowed yourself of the label “left”. But I know that many leftists, including myself, would say that Soviet Communism was nothing but state capitalism and had nothing whatever, except perhaps in the early days, to do with true left principles. Do you have a response to that?

I agree. Nonetheless, I don’t know whether you remember those times, but before the collapse of the Soviet system, people like myself who were born in places like Estonia knew what was going on there. We knew it was kind of a top-down, autocratic state. I wouldn’t call it state capitalism, but it was certainly a state-run system. So we knew what it was like. But most lefties didn’t. If you look at the history of the way the left operated and felt in the 70’s and 80’s, most lefties looked to Cuba and to some of the things that were happening in the Soviet Union as a vindication of the fact that there is a wonderful alternative to the kind of capitalism that we have in our own country. When the Soviet Union collapsed, many people just weren’t able to let go of that.

That is one of the big problems I have with the left — that they still to this day are still shouting the same old “Class warfare” sort of slogans, and they still cling to the old techniques of marching in the streets and calling for class warfare. They need to jump over that old baggage and come into this new era where everything has changed.


– A Brief Bio –

Kalle Lasn is editor of Adbusters magazine and author of Culture Jam: The Uncooling of America

This interview was conducted and provided by Shawn Setaro a journalist and contributor to Instant Magazine.

Instant has been one of the largest free entertainment publications in the Boston market for the past four years.

Author: Shawn Setaro

News Service: Instant Magazine

URL: http://www.instantmag.com/columns/polit_12.htm