January 2004

Randy Schaub

magazine whore

Jam This

Ah, Adbusters… How does a magazine with such pretty pictures make so many people so angry? In the extremely hip and culturally savvy world in which writers like myself spend our free-thinking days, opinions divide sharply over anything remotely political (at least among liberals -- it is our infighting, largely, which keeps the world such a crappy, pointless little mud hole). Adbusters has been tagged with a wide range of spat-out anathemas and accusations, for example: Too political, not political enough, too extreme, too timid, too adversarial, too pandering, too attractive to be credible, too marginal to be influential, etc… There is agreement only in that the poor magazine is too much of something. Is that good or bad? Do we need less controversy and more vanilla on the magazine rack?

Adbusters, for those of you not informed, is a gaudy and gorgeous bimonthly that explores the negative effects of advertising, brand obsession, and over-spending in modern culture. Each issue includes essays, manifestoes, excerpts from books, interviews with culture critics -- a wealth of writing, in small chunks. The magazine’s real punch, however, is in its visual presentation. The people behind Adbusters are "reformed" advertising men, designers, artists, and engineers -- graphic specialists who seek to use their powers for sharing their philosophy rather than gilding corporate sales pitches. Each issue will be a cleverly arranged series of artsy photos, angry graffiti, and anti-advertising -- often featuring hilarious or disturbing abuse of our nation’s beloved corporate mascots (by now you’ve seen stuff like "Joe Chemo," a send up of a familiar dromedary cigarette shill, wasting away in his hospital bed).

It is the magazine’s concentration on design related issues that confuses or angers most people. Adbusters encourages an activity called "Culture Jamming" -- wherein the activist uses art, or graffiti, or general attention getting in a public space to try and make observers aware of the anti-branding movement. Anyone in a large city with a lot of college-aged residents has seen the culture jammer’s handiwork: “kill your television,” “You are a brand,” “Buy Nothing Day” -- ideas spread via decals, scrawls, stencils and posters anywhere a passing motorist might notice it and be jerked from their daze. A particularly annoying example from a past issue: a fake parking ticket, designed to be photocopied and filled out and attached to the windshields of SUVs, explaining to the driver that their vehicle uses too much gas and emits too much pollution -- this is the sort of preachy mischief that serves to polarize anyone exposed to Adbusters’ cause. Sure, it may seem pointless to some (even irritating to those who would rather see the quiet stateliness of our highway overpasses and telephone poles go unmolested), but what do you expect from designers? A militia?

Adbusters is a design magazine. It’s meant to grab your attention (or scorn), like a big blue mohawk. Adbusters is an art magazine. It is an artist’s duty to get in the craw of the status quo. Well, not really -- but since there are woefully few Medici’s nowadays handing stacks of gold coin out to have their ceilings adorned, the graphic community might as well do as it pleases. And if that includes spreading a message of more cautious consumption, then so much the better. Or would you rather they stick to Absolut ads? Of course Adbusters doesn’t have all the answers. No magazine does.