Put Your Money Where Your Mind Is
The day after Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping day of the year, is fast becoming known as a day of protest.
A growing subculture of activists now proclaims the date Buy Nothing Day, and its members challenge themselves and others not to consume on consumerism’s busiest day.
Founded 14 years ago by an ex-advertising executive, BND is now celebrated in more than 65 countries by millions of people — who participate by not participating in the shopping orgy.
Wired News caught up with Kalle Lasn, the anti-holiday’s founder, who acknowledged the internet’s role in making BND a global protest movement, but decried the laziness of many bloggers and the digital generation’s disengagement from the real world.
Wired News: How are you using the internet to spread the word about BND?
Kalle Lasn: BND was a relatively insignificant event in its early days. It wasn’t until we put the campaign on the internet that it took off worldwide…. That synergy that we created on the internet was what really launched BND into the worldwide event that it is today….
(Using a new message-board system) we’ve managed to basically create these BND headquarters in cities around the world…. We have 85,000 culture jammers around the world who have signed up for our culture-jammers network and who receive our listservs and who then decide if they want to go the extra step and join a JammerGroup.
WN: What about the use of blogs?
Lasn:: Buy Nothing Day has become this huge phenomenon around the world. It’s sort of like an edgy Earth Day and people are doing all sorts of things including blogs. But I have to tell you that there is also a downside to blogs. There are a number of people who think they are activists if they start a blog and talk sustainability.
I think there is more to it than that. The downside of the internet is that it has spawned a generation of activists who are actually very passive, who basically forward an e-mail to a friend and they think they are being some kind of an activist, and to me that is not the sort of activism that is effective.
WN: When you started BND, did you think it would be this big?
Lasn: No. We were a bunch of people 15 years ago who were dissatisfied with all the old activisms and we figured that the next big activist movement would have to do with consumer culture. And we launched BND in that spirit because we felt somebody had to talk back against consumer culture, which around that time was starting to get out of hand.
Even cyberspace and the internet is now infected with commercialism to the point that I find it annoying to go there. And many of our information-delivery systems are infected by this commercial virus.
I think BND is one of the powerful moments when we have a nice, wholesome, visceral debate about sustainability, mental health and the political implications of the kind of consumer culture that we have created.
WN: You mentioned advertising culture on the internet is getting worse. Do you see yourselves having to engage with internet advertising culture, too?
Lasn: We are brainstorming all the time on ways to get people to unplug, ways to get people to stop living in the virtual world and start living in the real world.
People who grew up with the internet or iPods, that whole digital revolution, are the first generation that spend more time in the electronic environment than they do in the natural environment. So we are definitely going to try and launch social-marketing campaigns that encourage people to just unplug, just to pull out of the virtual electronic environment and try to live more than half their lives in the real world.
WN: Some people criticize BND as teenage high jinks, or bad for the country considering we’re at war and shopping is patriotic. How do you respond?
Lasn: Over-consumption in the so-called First World has ecological implications. It’s one of the root causes of the ecological crisis we are in. I think it has psychological consequences because we have become consumer drones who live lives of consumption, suffering from mood disorders.
And since Sept. 11, many people have realized that over-consumption has political dimensions. Many people are angry at us because of how we control the global economy. So there is an ecological, psychological and political dimension to BND, and people who don’t get it should look a little bit deeper.
WN: A little-known fact about you is that you started in the advertising business. How did you end up leaving that behind and starting Adbusters and BND?
Lasn: When I was in my 20s, a few years after I graduated from a university, I started my own market-research company in Tokyo, Japan. For five years I lived in that world of advertising. Even though I was making a hell of a lot of money, I got sick of it because of those advertising guys. They were sort of apolitical, ethically neutral-type people. After a while I got sick of these small-minded, ethically neutral people who figured they were just in the business of selling, and eventually I said, “That’s it,” and became a different kind of a person.
WN: If you were to talk to people who planned on participating in Buy Nothing Day, how would you encourage them?
Lasn: This is a fascinating, 24-hour experiment that you can conduct with yourself. You can make a personal pact with yourself not to buy anything for 24 hours and you can see what it feels like.
I have talked to hundreds if not thousands of people over the years about how they have negotiated this consumer fast for 24 hours, and it’s amazing how many people, a huge percentage, who go on this personal experiment, how they have a very profound day. Some who do make it through, by the end of the day they say, “Wow, what an incredible experience that was.”
WN: What are some of the more active things people do?
Lasn: After a while, many participants become activists. They participate in a bicycle rally on BND or congregate in Union Square and march around the city to some corporate headquarters they don’t like. Many people like to pull off pranks — wear masks and go through malls.
In past years, we have unveiled huge banners in the malls of America. Some edgy activists who love walking that civil-disobedience line do weird things like walk into stores and fill up carts and leave them lying around, or just keep on whirling around stores with BND messages on their backs. And many shops who don’t want to shut for BND, they actually turn their shops into bartering stations. So different people celebrate BND in different ways. Autor: David Cohn