Fighting Advertising With Advertising

One of the articles in What Is Enough? (IC#26)
Originally published in Summer 1990 on page 8
Copyright (c)1990, 1997 by Context Institute


In response to an idyllic B.C. forest industry ad in 1988 depicting B.C.’s forests as well-managed, filmmakers Kalle Lasn and Bill Schmalz proposed a paid TV message to present the other side of the forest management question. CBC refused, claiming it was too controversial. There followed a firestorm of criticism concerning freedom of speech and equal access. Suddenly the forest industry ad became too controversial as well, and it was pulled from me air.

Thus began ADBUSTERS and The Media Foundation. Located in Vancouver, B.C., the foundation believes that chronic TV watching has "become our number one hidden mental health problem. It’s like smoking was 20 years ago – very addictive, a huge percentage of society is hooked, and no one wants to talk about it." Not only that, but advertising sells through ideas and imagery which shape our culture, and TV viewers are subjected to torrents of advertising encouraging voracious consumption.

The Media Foundation, which publishes ADBUSTERS Quarterly, A Magazine of Media and Environmental Strategies, puts out a call for alternative ad ideas "that can be used to educate, raise issues and keep advertisers honest." Each issue runs scripts for ads needing support for the costs of production and airing. Their "Tubehead" campaign, showing a variety of people with their heads stuck in TV sets, has aired in Canada, but none of the three US broadcast networks has accepted any of their spots. The negative responses reveal a curious doublespeak. From CBS, for example: "We would not broadcast a commercial that denigrated television. We also don’t broadcast commercials that take controversial positions on important topics. If we did, companies with the finances at hand could control the national agenda." Precisely.

The low cost of production for the "Tubehead" spots (less than $4,000 for the series) reveals that producing commercial quality tapes can be within financial reach for ordinary citizens or groups. And the first two issues of ADBUSTERS contain "how-to" articles for producing your own TV spots on a budget.

Here are some things you can do to gain some control as a viewer – and sharpen your TV savvy:

  • Count the cuts: how often does the image jump between cameras in a minute? Are you bored with more? With less?
  • Widen the TV image in your head to bring in the cameras, lights, microphones, the whole crew. You’re not supposed to be aware of them. Why not?
  • Classify the commercials: what emotions are they trying to evoke? Who are they aimed at?
  • Spot the stereotype: how often are minority groups shown in hackneyed ways? Are Orientals inscrutable, strikers violent?
  • Think about something besides what’s on the screen: is it easier with sound off or picture off?
  • Describe the world on the basis of what you’re seeing on TV.

Current programming promotes non- sustainable consumption and behaviors, yet the medium offers the potential to promote anything, including a sustainable culture.

Ultimately, control rests with the viewer. We can choose to watch less television, we can watch critically, we can let me networks know what we will accept and what we won’t, we can select the programs and images we let into our awareness, and we can start thinking in terms of fighting advertising with advertising by making our own messages.

Transforming our relationship with television could become an empowering step toward sustainable and creative living.

For more information about ADBUSTERS QUARTERLY, and available video spots, contact The Media Foundation, 1243 W. 7th Avenue, Vancouver, BC V6H 1B7, Canada, 604/736-9401.

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