Some weeks ago, at Mazda Space, something quite ironic happened. A lot of people, like me, went to this cultural space owned by a car brand in the heart of Barcelona to hear what Pedro Inoue, the creative director for Adbusters, had to say about the problems with big companies in a world that seems totally co-opted.
But, what is Adbusters exactly? Created in the ‘90s, it’s a pause in the over-advertised world we live in. It’s a magazine without those ads that keep bothering us when reading a story. But not only that, it’s also a way to use design to create a global consciousness about how big companies and those who fight the power are changing the battlefield in consumers’ minds, using more elaborated information such as memes and social media. Want to know more? Read below.
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For those who don’t know you, could you introduce yourself?
My name is Pedro Inoue. I am a graphic artist and designer from São Paulo (Brazil). I’ve been collaborating with the Adbusters foundation for more than eight years as the creative director. Adbusters magazine is a bi-monthly, reader-supported magazine with no ads. This may seem simplistic but ask yourself: when was the last time you walked in a city or browsed a magazine or watched a film without commercial interruptions? The simple fact that a magazine is ads free allows us to tell a single story. Perhaps it is the story of an individual living in these crazy times? Or maybe it is the story of humanity, of our species on planet Earth – what is our project, where are we heading?
You’re Adbuster’s Creative Director, but you had worked with them even before becoming part of the team. How did Adbusters change your life? Did you know and like their ideas before getting to work with them?
I knew Adbusters from the ‘90s, from their spoof ads and culture jamming. There was a specific issue that caused a lot of stir: the graphic agitation with the First Things First Manifesto of 2001. That issue discussed a lot of the ideas I deeply agree with in the design field, as well as featured a lot of my heroes such as Tibor Kalman and Jonathan Barnbrook.
During 2008 I became very close with Kalle Lasn, the founder and current Editor-in-Chief of the magazine, designing covers for a few issues, and ever since 2010, I have been working closely with him and the team as a creative director. I knew Kalle’s work and views mainly from his books, which influenced me a lot as a professional and human being: Culture Jam and Design Anarchy.
I am very honoured to work with Adbusters mainly because I work with people I admire and do what I love the most. Not everyone can work on the things that they love and also make money out of it, so I do understand the privileged position I am in. Then again, I’ve always fought for this: not to do only what I am paid to do, but to do what I want to do. There’s a big difference in that, especially in design, where the designer is always being paid to say things for other people – usually nice and pretty words even for things designers don’t find either nice or pretty.
Adbusters critiques consumerism and the cultural erosion that we, as consumers, must endure every single moment. However, the talk I attended and where I saw you a few days ago in Barcelona was held in Mazda Space. Do you find it funny or tragic? Is it a destiny’s ironic joke?
Yes, it was very ironic. I was aware that the event was in a place called Mazda Space but, in the end, it did look like a bloody car shop. I am not worried about this, especially in a time where cinemas have bank names and concert halls have booze company names. It seems that not only culture but our whole world has been co-opted and there is no escape from that. One of the biggest criticisms that Adbusters used to face was that we were a glossy magazine discussing anti-glossy issues. And our critique should be invalid because of the platform we are using. I don’t know where did we get this idea of purity that you can only discuss and critique from a place where you owe nothing to anyone. In today’s world, who doesn’t owe something to someone? Who is clean and who is dirty? Who can judge? Who can decide what is selling out or keeping it real?
“Five years ago, we thought Facebook and Twitter could revolutionize the way we lived, and look at the state of things now. Maybe this dream that the Internet could make us free was too naive? Maybe it’s time we moved over to the dark web?”
I see Adbusters’ use of humour, controversy and creativity as visual subversion. What is the creative process for all the images and projects?
It’s a mess, but that’s how it should be. We are definitely not a regular magazine, so the creative process reflects that. We are changing things all the time and I sometimes go to bed thinking we will never make it to the deadline, but next morning I go through the mock-up and, somehow, magically, things fall into place. I guess we are not rationally searching for a look but more after a mood, an emotion, a feeling. How do you find the borders and limits and map such emotions? Sometimes it amazes me that we are one of the only magazines hacking the visual flow of information to create a journey that reflects the times we are living in.
Creativity should be dangerous. It is something that we are not in full control of and I have no idea how inspiration comes in and comes out. We should leave room for the unknown, not everything has to be explained and rationally dissected. And to leave room for the unknown, you must learn how to let go. This is not easy. It’s like a muscle that needs to be flexed a bit every day. Just like a garden or a relationship, I guess.
Adbusters was born in 1989, as you explained, because the Canadian TV channel CBC didn’t air an ‘uncommercial’ from Kalle Lasn and Bill Schmalz, which showed discontent about deforestation. Do you think that even if the uncommercial had aired, Adbusters would have been born?
Yes, maybe it wouldn’t focus much on printed matter and more on videos. The magazine was a great platform mainly because it was discussing counterculture issues on a mainstream form in a time where the Internet was still crawling and tiny JPGs took ages to load on the screen. The fact that there wasn’t any advertising meant the team could create, develop and publish giving no fucks about brands backlash or political correctness.
Adbusters doesn’t have any kinds of advertisement. All the economic resources come from readers and users, has this always been the case? Has there ever happened that Adbusters promoted any kind of advertising campaign (such as one for a social cause or NGO, for example)?
Yes, we were always 100% purely independent. I guess this is one of the factors why people still believe in what we do. The world I grew up into was completely bought, repackaged and sold in its entirety. Heroes, artists, musicians: everyone fell into the arms of capitalism and it seems there was no escape from that – even Rage Against The Machine’s records have barcodes, you know? The magazine rejected all invitations in order to stay free, and I believe we have kind of accomplished that. There’s a story of a creative director of Condé Nast, the publishers of Vogue magazine. He was a big fan and wanted to do something together with Adbusters. He wrote to Kalle asking, politely, if he was keen to do something in Vogue magazine, and Kalle wrote back: “Thanks for the message and invitation, but I have to decline. Your magazine makes me want to puke. Best regards, Kalle”.
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Adbusters not only criticizes consumerism and great corporations through design, you also create physical and intellectual campaigns against them, such as the cases of Buy Nothing Day and A Billion People. Where do these campaigns come from? Do they aim to create a sense of community, or is it just to defy those in positions of power?
Campaigns are cooked within the editorial, creative team and the more than one hundred thousand collaborators that send material in and replies to our tactical briefing emails. Campaigns often act as triggers. Each country or city has a different trigger, a different timing. Occupy Wall Street was about corporations and financial capitalism. Occupy Central in Hong Kong was about China’s influence on their government. Occupy Gezi was about public space and Erdogan’s fascist actions. If the trigger is used at the right time, the movement explodes and you lose control. This is when the magic happens. It’s all about losing control. I’ve watched the 8-M marches across Spain with awe. What a fantastic moment that was, and maybe this is where it all begins again.
We live in a world where the Internet has no limits; we are not able to count all the webpages there are or how many of them can be created. Do you consider this another kind of toxic pollution, even if it’s mental? Can this pollution be harmful to our environment, or is it only bad for our health?
The Internet of today follows the same formula of old corporations. They are not worried about putting you in the first place, giving you what you seek and protecting your information. They are worried about quarterly profits and shareholders’ agendas. And remember that if it is in the cloud, it is in a server somewhere. And servers need shit tons of energy to keep running.
The Cambridge Analytica files case gives a completely different dimension to this. Not only they can have a deep understanding of who we are better than our neighbours and work colleagues can, but they also can make us work for them. The tech companies are actually tracking and monetizing pretty much everything from our attention to our eye movement and thumb scrolling.
“We are not users, we are workers” is a beautiful phrase I heard from Manuel Beltran recently. Remember that. They market themselves as the new vision of humanity, but in reality, they are an old concept of profit-making, just like all other old corporations – but with a new repackage job with flashy candy colours, rounded corners and a nice friendly font. Fuck that.
A few months ago, the movement to defend Net Neutrality from the hands of the powerful was born. Does the United States Government think it’s necessary to keep their civilians silent? Are they afraid of creativity? Or are they more afraid of anonymity?
They aren’t afraid, they are worried about the markets. Remember, governments do not govern anymore. They follow the rules of the markets, this is who we are all serving. Net neutrality is about making the Internet like cable television. The more you pay the better or bigger service you get. Isn’t this the same deal we have in pretty much all different services? Five years ago, we thought Facebook and Twitter could revolutionize the way we lived, and look at the state of things now. Maybe this dream that the Internet could make us free was too naive? Maybe it’s time we moved over to the dark web? Maybe we should all learn coding and Linux?
“The context is global, there are no borders anymore. We are all activists now, there are no innocent bystanders. This is the motherfucking battle of all battles.”
Also, a few years ago, some progressive and anti-system movements surged in Europe and in America, including 15-M in Spain and Occupy Wall Street in the United States. They all started through social media and the Internet. Considering the current social and political situation, do you think another movement like those (or bigger) could happen?
Yes, I believe something bigger and stronger will happen soon. Our consumerist culture works a bit like antibiotics, you know? Repeating patterns from the past just doesn’t work anymore, you need to step up the game. Think about it: Clinton created Bush, who created Obama, who created Trump. What will come after this?
Also, this ongoing hyper mode worldwide state of affairs is too critical. We’ve been in crisis mode for way too long, and the impression I have is that all we need is a trigger. We, at Adbusters, are always asking ourselves about a meta-meme, one worldwide meme that can create a space where we can all meet, all different forces and communities. Maybe it’s climate change, maybe it’s finance?
Recently, in Brazil, a congresswoman was executed in downtown Rio, most probably by police militia. She was a black woman from a poor background. She was also one of the top voted politicians one year ago and she represented a new face of politics. The old world wouldn’t accept that and shot her down. She became a symbol, a martyr, and a cause for people to fight for. This is still reverberating through culture and politics, and nobody knows what will come out of it, but maybe this is an example of something that can happen as ‘usual’ politics but people is not accepting it anymore. The one-drop that spills the whole thing over. Her name was Marielle Franco.
You also defended that the fight between indignant people and bigger corporations has changed the field, now it happens in consumers’ minds. How can Adbusters contribute to this fight? How do you think this fight will evolve with new technologies?
Yes. One possibility that new technologies bring – and this is not new – is one of people finding each other. We believe that we can cause a seismic shift by presenting the right idea at the right time. We are launching a new app this year and the main idea is exactly that. What if we can force corporations to be accountable for the pollution, both mentally and environmentally? What if we can tax finance markets to help bring about climate justice? Or force governments to be more transparent? There’s something magical about these possibilities.
It seems naive to leave corporations and governments to do their business as usual. That didn’t work very well in this last decade, right? A few remarkable products brought out by capitalism, to name just a few: The Deep Water Horizon spill, the 2008 Derivative markets crash and the Trump Presidency. Do you still believe we don’t have to intervene? How should we intervene and with which platform remains an open question. Facebook and Twitter helped a lot in 2011 during Occupy Wall Street. Maybe now it’s time for a different platform, still to be created?
In your talk, you were asked about companies prosecuting Adbusters, but you said that there’s one moment when brands stop suing. Why is it not interesting to them?
Absolut Vodka causes alcoholism and death. You are not lying about a brand in stating that. This is just something the brand doesn’t want to share, but it is common knowledge that alcohol beverages cause addiction. The real battle lies in the narratives that the corporation wants you to think and the reality behind that. So, on one side, you have their advertising: where all people look happy and cool and chic and white and rich. And on the other side, you have reality: people becoming alcoholics and losing their jobs and their lives.
The main difference between these two is that one is shown to you on the TV, on magazines, on the bus stop, on billboards. And the second is not glamorous and it’s usually seen on poor parts of the city, marginalized and forgotten. Which one is the real one? I am not saying that we should ban alcohol, but there is a huge power behind these corporations to craft their messages and images. Just because they have fuck loads of money to construct this image, it doesn’t mean it can control the way in which information flows in a society. Adbusters always fought to change this. Who said that these huge corporations are the only ones who should be creating meaning in today’s society? How can this be disputable?
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2018 is a year open to the future, anything could happen in politics, social campaigns, gender issues, etc. Are you up to make a little prediction on the outcome of this year?
The 2008 subprime crash created a hole so fucking big in the world’s economy, that when governments decided to pay for this fuckup they created an Austerity Inc. regime that threw a ton more people into poverty and hurt. This has helped and fomented fascist regimes narratives to rise. Environmental costs are piling up – there’s a garbage patch in the south Pacific the size of a fucking continent, and there are no signs of us backing down from this extractivist mindset model. Shadow banking and financial capitalism have become a drunk driving monster, leading us all into an abyss, and we are too busy watching the last Netflix series on our candy coloured shiny retina brand new iPhone 10X that lasts only three years. The context is global, there are no borders anymore. We are all activists now, there are no innocent bystanders. This is the motherfucking battle of all battles.
On a final note, what is Adbusters’ next step?
We are busy thinking about an app, a book and the next issues. Join us, we need all the help we can get
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