The Evil Among Us

A new book fights the ubiquity of commodification, but it stops short of a knockout.

A FOUL MIASMA seeps into our heads on a daily basis. Piercing our brains like a knife through water, it takes over our systems and, like the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers or robotic Stepford Wives, we can’t resist. It’s corporate marketing that holds us in thrall, preventing us from thinking for ourselves. Brands aren’t just emblazoned across billboards and magazine, TV, and radio ads anymore; now they beckon unwary readers of textbooks, attendees of sporting and cultural events. We’ve allowed multinational conglomerates to indoctrinate us with the belief that it’s cool to consume.

Culture Jam: The Uncooling of America by Kalle Lasn Eagle Brook/William Morrow and Co., $25

Canadian writer and activist Kalle Lasn has long been concerned with reclaiming our lives from corporate control. A former documentary filmmaker, Lasn established the Adbusters Media Foundation, home of Adbusters magazine and organizer of annual campaigns like Buy Nothing Day and TV Turnoff Week. In his new book, Culture Jam, Lasn takes his cue from the Situationists (the cultural revolutionaries who inspired the Paris riots of 1968), who lamented the loss of authenticity in everyday life, as well as the simple-living movement, which aims “to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption.” Using many concepts familiar from previous Adbusters contributions, Lasn targets the culprits behind advertising’s ubiquity—global capitalism and expansionist economic theory—and applies a Brillo pad to the corporate-hype scuzz coating our brainpan. (Even the fact that I write Brillo instead of plain old “scouring pad” proves how insidious the takeover is—don’t cry, I’ll get you a Kleenex.)

Lasn sees the origins of our problems in the 1886 Supreme Court decision Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, which endowed corporations with the same Constitutional rights as individuals. His strategy for retaliation turns corporate tactics back on themselves in a gleeful d鴯urnement. Extolling the power of memes—biologist Richard Dawkins’ word for units of information (slogans, philosophical concepts, political notions) that “leap from brain to brain to brain”—Lasn posits meme warfare as the vessel for an anticonsumerist revolution. Lasn and his Adbusters Media Foundation excel at this kind of social marketing. They’re known for liberating billboards and creating “subverts,” anticonsumerist messages that “mimic the look and feel of the target ad.” AMF images like Ronald McDonald silenced by a strip of tape printed with the word “grease” or a woman vomiting into a toilet underneath the words “Obsession . . . for Women” fight fire with fire.

Aside from the power of images, Lasn believes in rebellious acts by individuals as a catalyst for change. He urges readers to become “culture jammers”—wrenches in the corporate works. (He borrowed this catchphrase from the musician/media activist collective Negativland, whose bold anticorporate art has caused legal wrangles with U2, Pepsi, and Geffen Records.) Lasn mentions a few examples of these—pointing to the antismoking crusade as a major culture-jamming victory—and it would be heartening to hear more of them.

Culture jamming depends on a critical mass of participants for its effectiveness, so it’s a shame that coalition-building isn’t Lasn’s strong suit. He can sound unbelievably arrogant, especially when he defines “the new activists” by what they’re not; his list of what not to be includes academic, feminist, and Lefty. Alienating these groups—natural allies in any anticorporate effort—is a grievous error, and Lasn does it so flippantly that he appears purposefully antagonistic. He also discounts the efforts of anyone “born between 1965 and 1980,” a generation that he says “represents the biggest waste of potential energy, passion, creativity and intellect in our time.” Apparently he believes what he reads in Time magazine and he never noticed the ’80s and ’90s youth activism that’s tackled numerous issues, from the corporate role in South African apartheid to Chinese labor camps. Can you blame kids for the sins of their parents? After all, it’s the Boomers who created—not to mention prospered from—our current system of corporate indoctrination. As for Lasn’s definition of feminism, it’s as misguided as the stereotypes promulgated by ultraconservative right-wingers.

Indeed, some of the social commentary in Culture Jam wouldn’t sound out of place coming from Jesse Helms. Sometimes it’s difficult to figure out exactly whom Lasn’s aiming to convert. One minute he sounds like an old-school adman coaxing the stereotypical suburban, two-car family to recognize that corporate control is bad; the next, he’s exhorting those who know the evil corporations do that they’re not fighting back hard enough. He posits that the increased incidence of mood disorders and drug and alcohol addiction since 1940 is due to the popularity of television, ignoring the fact that our society now has a healthier attitude toward these problems, allowing people to be more open about them. He doesn’t separate his disdain for the fashion industry from the fact that people have always adorned themselves beyond simple utility, long before designer jeans were even a gleam in Calvin Klein’s eye.

For the most part, however, Lasn hits his target. Corporations have usurped the power that used to belong to people. Americans do consume too much food, energy, and material goods. We also watch too much TV and read too much junk. We’ve devolved into what writer William H. Gass recently referred to as “thrill-seeking, gossip-mongering, and mindless masses who have been content to place their governing, as well as their values, faiths, and future plans in the hands of the crudest commercial interests.”

As the recent vehement response to the WTO conference in Seattle proved, people are slowly realizing that there has to be an alternative to unchecked global capitalism. In New York, for example, the “Rev. Billy” founded the Church of Stop Shopping, dedicated to bringing down the Disney Corporation. Seattle artist Shawn Wolfe created his own fake brand, Beatkit, “an advertisement for its own future uselessness.” While Lasn is near the top of a growing list of cultural revolutionaries, his witty, well-researched writing isn’t quite as convincing as Adbusters‘ images.