The Branding of the Occupy Movement, William Yardley
This piece originally appeared in the New York Times on November 27, 2011. VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Kalle Lasn, the longtime editor of the anticonsumerist magazine Adbusters, did not invent the anger that has been feeding the Occupy Wall Streetdemonstrations across the United States.But he did brand it.
Last summer, as uprisings shook the Middle East and much of the world economy struggled, Mr. Lasn and several colleagues at the small magazine felt the moment was ripe to tap simmering frustration on the American political left.
On July 13, he and his colleagues created a new hash tag on Twitter: #OCCUPYWALLSTREET. They made a poster showing a ballerina dancing on the back of the muscular sculptured bull near Wall Street in Manhattan.
For some people they were just words and images. For Mr. Lasn, they were tools to begin remodeling the “mental environment,” to create a new “meme,” the term coined by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins for a kind of transcendent cultural message.
“There’s a number of ways to wage a meme war,” Mr. Lasn, whose name is pronounced KAL-luh LAS-en, said in an interview. “I believe that one of the most powerful things of all is aesthetics.”
Mr. Lasn, who helped found Adbusters in 1989, had spent much of his career skewering corporate America, creating “subvertising” campaigns like “Joe Chemo,” which deftly mocked the Joe Camel cigarette ads of the 1990s.
But the spread of the Occupy protests signals a substantial step up for the magazine and Mr. Lasn, who is 69. The protests, he hopes, will “somehow change the power balance and make the world into a much more grass-roots, bottom-up kind of a place rather than the top-down Wall Street mega-corporate-driven system we now have.”
“This,” he added, “is the kind of dream many Occupiers have.”
Mr. Lasn was born in Estonia but his family fled near the end of World War II, when he was 2. His family lived in refugee camps in Europe before moving to Australia. He worked for several years for the Australian defense department, before moving to Japan and shifting to advertising.
By the 1970s, he had landed in Vancouver, disenchanted with what he felt was the moral detachment of the advertising industry. After working as a documentary filmmaker — and butting heads with the Canadian government and media over logging practices in old-growth forests — he founded Adbusters in 1989.
The magazine, which is owned by the nonprofit Adbusters Media Foundation, is published out of the basement of a house south of downtown and claims a circulation of about 70,000, mostly from newsstand sales outside of Canada. It has had prominent writers, among them Christopher Hedges and Bill McKibben.
But with its vivid artwork and photography, snippets of poetry and glossy fake ads with slogans like “Everything is fine, keep shopping,” Adbusters feels less like a manifesto than an evocative brochure, for $8.95 an issue.
“It’s an art object,” said Deborah Campbell, a former associate editor. “When you look at art it speaks to you in different ways, and some of it is intellectual and some of it is provocative and some of it is a sense or a feeling.”
Before Occupy Wall Street, Adbusters had many smaller campaigns, including “Buy Nothing Day.” For years it has sold Blackspot shoes, made in an “antisweatshop’ facility in Pakistan. Mr. Lasn has written books, including “Culture Jam: How to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer Binge — and Why We Must.”
It has struck some people as strange that a Canadian magazine helped start the Occupy movement, but Adbusters is only based in Canada, not focused on it.
“Everybody knows it’s here but it’s not a local magazine,” said David Beers, the editor of The Tyee, an online news Web site based here. “He isn’t a local figure. It’s not like he’s on the morning radio. You never hear about the guy unless he’s in a fight with someone.”
Mr. Lasn has a lot of fights. The attention brought by the Occupy protests has revived questions about his views on Jews and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 2004, Adbusters published an article claiming that a large percentage of neoconservatives behind American foreign policy were Jewish.
As a result, Mr. Lasn was called anti-Semitic, a charge he denies. He remains incensed that the incident was mentioned in a recent column by David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, and he has been involved in a discussion with the paper’s letters page about how he can address it.
“There’s not an anti-Semitic bone in my body,” he said, adding, “If we’re going to start wars based on the power of neocons’ influence in foreign policy, I think people should know who they are.”
He has also been accused of playing off the image-oriented culture that dominates advertising, instead of rejecting it outright. But Mr. Lasn said he believed in the power of media to subvert traditional power structures.
“If you’re able to come up with a very sexy sounding hash tag like we did for Occupy Wall Street, and you come up with a very magical looking poster that seems to have something very profound about it, these devices push these memes, these meta memes, into the public imagination in a very powerful way,” he said.
Some critics contend that Mr. Lasn believes his work is more influential than it is.
“There’s nothing wrong with making fun of ads, but it’s not revolutionary,” said Joseph Heath, a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, who wrote critically of Adbusters in a 2004 book, “Nation of Rebels.” “I don’t think that has revolutionary political implications, whereas Adbusters thinks it has revolutionary implications.”
“If you want to do politics,” Professor Heath added, “you have to do good old-fashioned politics.”
Now, surprisingly, Professor Heath said Adbusters is actually doing politics.
“This is all a positive development, in that Adbusters is doing more of what it should be doing,” he said. “They’re doing something that has obvious political value.”
Not everyone is certain of that. Besides the right to pitch their tents in public parks for as long as they wish, some people ask, precisely what do the protesters want? An early version of the poster with the bull and the ballerina even asks the question: “What is our one demand?”
Mr. Lasn has long believed that Wall Street and vast corporate wealth have sent the United States into what he calls “terminal decline.” But unlike many people involved in the protests, he also has specific goals he would like to see reached. He wants to see, among other things, “a Robin Hood tax” on all financial transactions, a restoration of the Glass-Steagall Act that erected barriers between banking and investing, a ban on certain types of high-frequency trading and the overturning of the Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case.
Mr. Lasn said that he and Micah White, a senior editor who helped start Occupy Wall Street, are in regular contact with some prominent protesters but insists they have no interest in a continuing leadership role, nor is it their job to speak for the movement, even if Adbusters would like some credit for starting it.
“This is what Adbusters has done for the past 20 years, to come up with these memes and to propagate them,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about: may the best memes win.”