AdBusters: The Inside Story


AdBusters has rapidly become emblematic of the liberal movement. But who are the people behind it? Do they ride bicycles to work and eat only raw vegetables? And are they winning?

AdBusters sign, Photo: Jelte Harnmeijer

There it was. A 3-story wooden house, only a couple of blocks from the water, on the south side of Vancouver, British Columbia. AdBusters Headquarters. To many, AdBusters represents nothing less than the soul of the anti-corporate, pro-environment, anti-war, anti-consumerism, pro-feminist, anti-television, anti-branding, anti-globalization world. Amongst other things. But who are the people behind it? What drives them, and why aren’t they giving up hope? I decided to investigate.

A small plexiglass sign outside, inscribed with humble white letters in the characteristic AdBusters font, is the only thing setting the wooden house apart from the adjoining family residences. Bicycles stand outside, leaning against the mossy wall, unlocked. AdBusters magazine started back in 1989, with a circulation of only 5,000 copies. Today it boasts a circulation of over 120,000, the majority of which (about 60%) are read in the U.S. Some people even feel the magazine has become too popular. “Adbusters [sic] has simply become too popular to have much cachet for the radicals who once dusted it off in their local secondhand bookstore like a precious stone”, writes Naomi Klein, author of the influential book ‘No Logo’.

AdBusters cover, copyright AdBusters 2005.

AdBusters is not Your Normal Everyday Magazine™. For one thing, there’s the price. At ten bucks a pop, the magazine is certainly not cheap. There’s a good reason for this, 19-year old Nicola, one of AdBusters many volunteers, explains: AdBusters has a strict no-advertising policy.

Asked whether the high price-tag restricts their readership to the upper (read: white) echelons of what already tends to be a well-endowed liberal populace evoked agitated responses. “Unlike other magazines, we don’t do market analysis”, the 28-year-old campaigns manager, Tim Walker, proudly told me. “So I really couldn’t tell you. But I don’t think it’s a very useful question to ask”. Several of the staff took evident offense at the question.

What really sets AdBusters apart, though, is imagination. The magazine is practically dripping with it in almost every aspect: style, content, layout. AdBusters is so much more than just an artsy mag, though: just lightly skimming through a copy makes one feel like a cork bobbing in a turbulent ocean of the senses, with ones emotions torn to opposite extremes with the turn of every page.

Tim Walker, AdBusters campaign manager, Photo: Beth! Orcutt

As campaigns manager, and with three years of AdBusters experience under his belt, Tim is the brains behind a plethora of imaginative schemes the likes of ‘TV turnoff week’ and ‘unbrand America’. Like AdBusters editor Kalle Lasn, Tim likes to think about the mental environment in much the same way that many environmentalists think about ecosystems. Like real ecosystems, Tim believes our mental environment is becoming increasingly polluted with toxins. He regards today’s pervasive consumerism as nothing short of a powerful and dangerous addiction, and aims for nothing short of “a complete rethink of our unsustainable course”. An unattainable goal? Not according to any of the AdBusters staff and volunteers I spoke to, all of whom were far from dejection and hopelessness. Tim’s cheerful optimism was particularly contagious: “I think we’re winning”, he said with a relaxed smile at the end of the interview.

Sharon Cohen, Photo: Beth! Orcutt

Sharon Cohen left South Africa as a speech pathologist in 1993, and is now one of the few non-Canadians on the AdBusters crew. Shanon heads AdBuster’s ‘Black Spot’ campaigns. The sale of posters, stickers, videos, postcards and purportedly guilt-free shade-grown sneakers has proven to be one of AdBusters more controversial moves, prompting many readers to cancel their subscriptions in the wake of what they regard as a ‘commercial sell-out’. With the recent release of a second model of shoe, however, that hurdle now appears largely overcome.

It’s hard for anyone not to leave AdBusters headquarters in good spirits (with the probable exception of multinational CEOs, and employees of the World Bank, IMF and WTO). The young, energetic core crew, the continuous flux of enthusiastic volunteers, the strong presence of art and imagery, and the increasingly global nature of the movement (whatever you want to brand it) remind one not only of the fact that there is a War being fought, but that there are many winnable battles remaining.

Adbusters photographer Juels Killam, Photo: Beth! Orcutt

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