NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

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Neshan 39


Adbusters: The Culture Jammers

Roshanak Keyghobadi


Adbusters is a Canadian magazine, founded in 1989 by Kalle Lasn and Bill Schmalz in Vancouver. It has initiated movements such as Buy Nothing Day, TV Turnoff 
Week and Occupy Wall Street. They describe themselves as “culture jammers”, and with an anticapitalism and anti-consumerism mission the Adbusters team is “fighting back against the hostile takeover of our psychological, physical and cultural environments by commercial forces.1” As Rick Poynor states, “the 
techniques they advocate include “billboard liberation” (adding material to existing ads to subvert their 
meaning), parody ads or “subvertisements,” and social marketing TV spots (“uncommercials”) on such 
themes as fashion and ecological disaster…2” 

For example, Buy Nothing Day encourages people to buy nothing and take action against consumerism and 
the culture of shopping. It advocates making conscious choices when shopping, and supporting local and independent businesses rather than big corporations. Millions of people in over sixty countries have joined Buy Nothing Day since the early 1990s. Other examples 
are anti-ads and spoof ads, such as examples they created in opposition to Nike or McDonald’s. These ads draw attention to the true nature and intention of 
the advertisers in the “real” ads, and expose themselves through parody. The McDonald’s ads are about the unhealthy nature of their food and the culture of over indulgence. The Nike ads expose unfair global 
trade practices and politics of branding.

In their “subvertisements”, Adbusters digs deeper and asks viewers to “read” and deconstruct ads and 
pay attention to the visual politics of images and messages. For example, in one ad the viewer sees the back of a person’s shaved head with a barcode stamped on their neck. The text says, “The product is you…” 
The image is a black and white photograph with dramatic lighting aimed at the bar-coded neck. The short text is a direct address (similar to Barbra Kruger’s messages) to the viewer with an authoritative tone and coded context. At first glance the message seems straightforward yet, upon further reflection the viewer may ask, “How can I be a product? Am I not supposed to be the maker or consumer of the product?”

Since the face of the person in the ad cannot be seen, we cannot identify it or identify with it. Is this person 
a man or a woman, young or old? What are the nationality, race, and/or emotional or physical state of this person? Since the visual clues are hidden, this person is reduced to a generic figure that may be “anyone.” It seems that 
the only path for identification is to decode the barcode. In the commercial world, barcodes reveal detailed information about a product and are also used for documentation. If a barcode is attached to something 
it can be classified, tagged and tracked — as honeybees have been tagged with barcodes for research.  
But why should a person be bar-coded?  A person as a “product” is used as a tool for gaining profit and 
manipulating markets. Personal information can be used for gathering, buying and selling data, which will help in inventing new desires and more products. 

In addition, objectification of the body has been one of the devices in marketing. Bodies of women, men and children have been exploited and commoditized in numerous advertisements for selling products and services. As Anthony J. Cortese states, “Through advertising, the face becomes a mask (something you put on) and the body becomes an object.” 3 As a result individuals become detached from their identities and become a vessel to carry commercial messages.  

Adbusters uses art as a tool for awareness and resistance, with the hope to empower people as citizens and not consumers. They encourage people to avoid constructing their identities around brands and to be inquisitive about the fabricated desires that corporations manufacture through their advertising industry and 
mass media.

 2 Rick Poynor (1999) Manifesto for a New Millenium, Graphis Magazine, Issue 232 September/October 1999.
 3 Anthony J. Cortese (2007) Provocateur: Images of Women and Minorities in Advertising. p. 30

Roshanak Keyghobadi

holds a doctoral degree in Art and Art Education from Columbia University, New York and her MFA and BFA are both in Graphic Design. She teaches Visual Communications and History of Graphic Design at State University of New York and is also a research assistant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Roshanak writes about Iranian contemporary art and artists with special focus on design and typography. Her essays have appeared in a number of publications including AIGA’s VOICE as well as Design Observer and her artworks have been exhibited internationally.

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