Circulation: 120,000
Date of Birth: 1989
Frequency: Bimonthly
Price: $8.95
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By Sarah Feightner


World War IV is happening right now, inside your head. That’s the philosophy and sales pitch behind Adbusters, a counter-culture movement disguised as a glossy mainstream magazine.

The Vancouver-based publication bills itself as the anti-magazine. Its message is anti-corporate and anti-consumer culture—in other words, anti the raisons d’être of most glossies on the newsstand. In the world according to Adbusters, the culture wars are a battle between a grassroots media by and for the people, and a top-down mainstream media controlled by greedy corporations and their advertising agency flunkies. It’s public access versus cable. The zine scene versus Condé Nast. You know, good versus evil.

Adbusters takes its case against the MSM a step further than most. The movies, magazines, and other entertainments offered to the public by corporate media aren’t just badly made. They have bad intentions, existing only to betray audiences into the hands of corporate advertisers. People don’t own SUVs or eat at McDonald’s because they want to, but because this constant flood of craftily-designed advertisements has duped them into it. The world’s been brainwashed by a cult of consumption, but Adbusters is here to deprogram us with a subversive mix of spoof ads, activism, and good-intentioned vandalism called “culture jamming.”

Ironically, one of the chief weapons Adbusters offers in its war against consumer culture is buying a subscription. Another, as some critics have pointed out, is an online “Culture Shop” that peddles Adbusters-related merchandise, such as calendars, posters, videos, even sneakers.

Branding itself as the anti-brand is a hard line to sell, but the magazine does it well. A recent issue on “toxic culture” includes short riffs on politics (an interview with New Left Review editor Tariq Ali), economics (a “true cost” analysis of the high price of Wal-Mart’s cheap goods for local businesses and the environment), and technology (how email and cell phones are actually making it harder for people to communicate). There are parody ads (“9 mm pistol: $79; picking the perfect casket for your son: priceless.”), a letter to Osama Bin Laden (“Thanks for electing/reelecting Dubbya. Do you really hate us that much?”), and photos pulled from Vogue Italia’s creepy 2006 photo spread of riot troops manhandling fashion models, all jumbled together as though the magazine were a 120-page photo collage.

For a magazine so down on the excesses of consumer culture, Adbusters is remarkably over-designed. While the art director’s job at most magazines is to guide the reader through articles and ads in a logical fashion, Adbusters readers are on their own. The magazine eschews reader-friendly signposts like page numbers and a distinction between art and editorial content as a matter of principle that editor-in-chief Kalle Lasn has dubbed “design anarchy.” Lasn puts his design theories into practice with the help of a rotating cast of art directors, leading to a stream-of-consciousness hodgepodge of words and pictures that changes from issue to issue.

“There’s something really exciting about not knowing what the next issue is going to look like,” says Lasn. But there’s something really frustrating about it too.  “The guest art director sure knows how to make flashy magazines,” writes one irritated reader. “But I doubt he ever reads them. Why else would he insist on making the text barely legible?”Lasn admits that some issues flow better than others, and he also claims that making the magazine visually ambiguous and difficult to understand is a way of respecting his readers. But do people want a magazine that respects them or a magazine they can read?

In the magazine industry, survival speaks for itself. Adbusters has managed to stay in business, though not always in the black, for more than fifteen years. That’s more impressive when you consider that an anti-advertising magazine has to make ends meet without an ad budget. Lasn estimates that 95 percent of Adbusters’s revenue comes from sales, three-fourths of which are to readers picking the magazine up on the newsstand rather than a band of hard-core subscribers. Adbusters must be doing something right. Maybe it’s the magazine’s refusal to underestimate its readers or the kind of content and design they can handle. Despite its faults, it’s refreshing to find a glossy on the newsstand that’s trying to sell its readers a philosophy instead of a Happy Meal.


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