Are you ready for some "unswooshing"?

Adbusters founder Kalle Lasn aims to beat Nike at its own game, by selling "Black Spot" sneakers to consumers tired of shelling out for megabrands.

Published October 8, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

Kalle Lasn isn't scared of the U.S. PATRIOT Act. "America has become a bit of a monster," says the punchy, 60-something founder of Adbusters, the anti-consumption magazine based in Vancouver, B.C. "Some of the things the U.S. is doing, in Israel, in Cancún with the WTO, I just can't take it any longer. It's gotten to the point where I almost think I've become a terrorist."

But Lasn is no Osama bin Laden. The author of "Culture Jam: How to Reverse America's Suicidal Binge," Lasn is one of the leading figures in the "culture jamming" movement, an international grassroots effort that uses the logic of commercial images to critique corporate hegemony and rampant consumerism. Under his leadership, Adbusters' preferred method of culture jamming has been to publish ad parodies, such as "Absolute Impotence," a photo of the familiar bottle drifting in spilled vodka, or a Nike satire that morphs Tiger Woods' smile into a Swoosh.

Last month, Adbusters announced a new phase in state-of-the-art meme warfare. ("Memes" refer to the core images, slogans or ideas that culture jammers manipulate: e.g., a swoosh, or "Just Do It.") Although the campaign's targets, Nike and CEO Phil Knight, appear frequently in the magazine's culture jams, the latest strategy moves Adbusters out of the realm of parody and into the competitive world of global marketing and production.

More specifically, the Adbusters Media Foundation, the nonprofit that brought the world Buy Nothing Day and TV Turnoff Week, has decided to go into the sneaker manufacturing business. According to Lasn, the plan is to market a "Black Spot sneaker, a shoe that will resemble the retro-style Converse but with one crucial difference. In place of the ubiquitous Nike swoosh, the Adbusters shoe will display a prominent anti-logo "black spot," the magazine's anti-corporate trademark.

"Phil Knight had a dream," reads the, well, ad for the "Unswoosher," located on the back cover of Adbusters' October issue. "He'd sell shoes. He'd sell dreams. He'd get rich. He'd use sweatshops if he had to. Then along came a new shoe. Plain. Simple. Cheap. Fair. Designed for only one thing: kicking Phil's ass."

By January, the magazine plans to manufacture an initial line of 10,000 sneakers, which will retail globally for about $65 a pair. The release will follow a $500,000 marketing campaign, hyping the sneakers on CNN, in the New York Times, and on the major networks. "One of the many reasons I really love this campaign," said Lasn. "Is that we are selling a product, not an idea or advocacy. We are selling a sneaker. So those stations that have systematically refused to sell us air time over the past 10 years for our ideas will now have no choice but to sell us air time."

Since the nonprofit broke the news of the Black Spot late last August, Nike hasn't exactly been shaking in its shoes. "As a global leader, it doesn't surprise us that we occasionally get targeted by groups who use the strength of our brand to leverage their agenda," said Caitlin Morris, senior manager of Nike corporate communications.

Reaction on the anti-corporate-globalization front has been mixed. Some question the wisdom of an anti-advertising magazine going into the advertising business, while others think Lasn would be better off targeting clothing manufacturers that don't receive as much international scrutiny.

But for some heavy hitters in the no-sweatshop movement, the Black Spot couldn't have come at a more propitious time -- just days after the Converse brand sold out the "Chuck Taylor" shoe to Nike. For years, that was the sneaker of choice for millions opposed to megabrands churning out sneakers in Third World factories.

"The anti-sweatshop forces need a few alternatives in the marketplace," says Jeff Ballinger, author of the original Harper's Magazine 1993 exposé on Nike's labor practices, and now vice president for policy and sourcing at No Sweat. "Kalle's right to see that. I've given 'sweatshop' talks to a wide variety of groups for over a decade and one of the first questions is: 'What can we buy?'"

Lasn admits the "ethical sneaker" may not succeed. Still, employing what appears to be a signature combination of brashness and nostalgia, Lasn said the time has come for a change in how activists deal with "rogue companies."

"We got tired of all the lefty whining and the boycotting. It wasn't making any difference," he said. "Quite apart from how many percentage points in market share the Black Spot sneaker can take away from Phil Knight -- that's of course the ultimate goal but may be a long time coming -- in the meantime, we can go a long way toward uncooling the Swoosh, which is losing momentum fast."

"I have a grandiose plan," Lasn said. "My dream as a culture jammer is that a small group of people with a limited budget could have the power to choose a megabrand we don't like for valid reasons and uncool that brand, to show that we the people as a civil society have the power to keep a corporation honest. Now that would be something that would actually redefine capitalism."

Adbusters, which has a circulation of 120,000, bills itself as the "Journal of the Mental Environment." The magazine's philosophy is that advertising encourages people to see themselves primarily as consumers, and its parodies reveal the "truth" behind slick corporate logos: the environmental and human costs of consumption, the abuses of corporate power, and private monopolization of public airwaves.

Lasn, whose descriptions of Knight as "that mind-fucking bastard Philly boy" bear a certain resemblance to the "axis of evil" rhetoric coming out of Washington, D.C., is the former head of a market research company in Tokyo. As a culture critic, his diatribes against Nike don't focus on the athletic footwear corporation's labor practices per se, but on the notion of branding in general and the "pseudo-empowerment" brand that Nike attaches to its products in particular. Citing research on the 3000 marketing images most people consume every day, as well as studies linking advertising to an increase in mood disorders, Lasn said rage against the toxic cultural clutter epitomized by Nike ads is going to launch a new kind of revolution.

"Twenty-five years ago we woke up to the fact that the chemicals in our food, water and air, even a few parts of a billion, actually will give you cancer," he said. "That was when the modern environmental movement was born. Once people make that connection between advertising and their own mental health, that could be the birth of the modern mental health environmental movement."

When that moment happens, said Lasn, "we will suddenly see the $400 billion worldwide industry collapse to half its size."

But for some, Lasn's railing against the Orwellian force of advertising is exactly what makes his decision to market a Black Spot sneaker a bit curious. After all, we live in a world where AIDS, crime and all sorts of global unrest have been turned into fodder for Benetton ads. The medium, as they say, is the message.

This is why people like Naomi Klein, Canadian author of the landmark text "No Logo," aren't quite so enthusiastic about the revolutionary potential of the Unswoosher. "Publications that analyze the commercialization of our lives have a responsibility to work to protect spaces where we aren't constantly being pitched to," she told the Toronto Globe & Mail. "This can be undermined if they are seen as simply shilling for a different 'anti-corporate' brand." Lasn disagrees.

"Nike's empowerment is pseudo-empowerment," he says. "But if we are actually able to launch an anti-brand, then the empowerment around the black spot is actually a real kind of empowerment: the power of us the people to have a business climate that is to our liking. It's the most beautiful kind of empowerment I can think of."

Adbusters launched Buy Nothing Day, says Lasn. "But we never said it's bad to buy something, just bad to buy too much." What's more, promoting the Black Spot sneaker will not be Adbusters' first foray into "real" advertising. The magazine has been raising money to get a Black Spot ad, a series of anti-corporate, anti-U.S. phrases set to Jimi Hendrix's rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner," on television. Although all the major networks have rejected the ad, CNN has aired the Black Spot promo -- during the Crossfire political debate program.

At Adbusters' offices, located in a Vancouver residential district, the Unswoosher enterprise has something of a Mouse That Roared quality to it. A newly hired business manager is working on locating investors and distributors for the Black Spot. The magazine has already taken preorders for 1,000 pairs, and will use its nest egg of $250,000 to bankroll the initial 10,000 sneakers. According to Lasn, people are "coming out of the woodwork" to offer advice about where the Black Spot should be manufactured -- and what kind of labor to use.

Industry watchers are skeptical. "[Adbusters] has absolutely no idea how complicated global production and marketing is," says John Horan, publisher of Sporting Goods Intelligence. The magazine could save time and money, he suggested, by selling T-shirts emblazoned with "We want to kick Phil Knight's butt" for $10 each.

Ignoring the naysayers, Adbusters has generated a final list of three possible factories: a factory in Missouri, referred by a former Nike employee who has inspected more than 70 factories worldwide, and two union factories in Asia: one in South Korea, and another in Indonesia. The latter were recommended by Jeff Ballinger, VP for sourcing and policy at No Sweat Apparel, the company Lasn has retained to help Adbusters source a union factory for the Unswoosher.

Lasn obviously relishes the idea of manufacturing the sneaker in Missouri. But just as he rejects the argument that there is something problematic about Adbusters advertising shoes, so he has contrarian things to say about some of the anti-sweatshop rhetoric governing the international workers' rights debate. In particular, he says, the "go local" movement is overrated, propelled more by trade unions than activists.

"I have a huge amount of disdain for all those people who are trying to keep all the jobs in North America," he said. "Here we are, the richest part of the world, we're only 5 percent of people in the world, and all of a sudden we're losing a few jobs and having a few doldrums in our economy. Let's give the jobs to the Koreans and Indonesians. They need it more, and if we can find a good factory and if we could promote workers' rights worldwide, all the better."

The Estonian-born Lasn recalled a seminal trip he took around the Third World when he was in his 20s. "I know from personal experience that many of those factories that campus people dismiss as sweatshop labor are actually very good factories," he says, "and that the people who live near those factories are just yearning to work in those factories. A good part of those sweatshop people are seriously misguided."

If Lasn's idea of pulling Third World workers up by their bootstraps mimics the language of liberal capitalism -- not to mention Phil Knight -- it's also an idea that reverberates across segments of the no-sweatshop apparel movement.

"Globalization is an opportunity to globalize the labor movement," says Ballinger. "Today, the only way to protect a worker's job anywhere is to defend worker's rights everywhere." The Black Spot sneaker represents a clear step forward in the anti-sweatshop movement, says Ballinger. "If the union-made Black Spot sneaker can kick Phil Knight where he feels it -- in the pocketbook, we won't get more window dressing from Nike and Reebok; we'll get a real change in policy."

But Marsha Dickson, director of Educators for Socially Responsible Apparel Business, says the Black Spot campaign is naive in light of efforts that have been made by Nike and other members of the Fair Labor Association, a coalition of industry, university and nongovernmental organizations that issued its first public report in June.

"While the tracking charts clearly show that much work remains to be done," said Dickson via e-mail, "the bottom line is that Nike, Reebok and Adidas are really acting as leaders. If a campaign such as [the Black Spot sneaker] is needed, it should focus attention to the thousands of clothing manufacturers and retailers that are not participating in the FLA. We know nothing or very little about how these companies treat the workers that make their products."

The FLA was the recipient of the $1.5 million Kasky vs. Nike settlement in June. In 1998, Marc Kasky, a California anti-globalization activist, sued Nike for allegedly stretching the truth in its statements regarding contract factory labor practices in Asia. The California Supreme Court agreed with Kasky in a 4-3 ruling. Nike then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Corporate interests had paid close attention to the case, in which Nike claimed that what it said -- whether or not it was true -- was noncommercial speech protected under the First Amendment.

At its Sept. 22 shareholders' meeting in Portland, Ore., Nike stockholders celebrated their first protester-free gathering in several years. The footwear company registered a record $10.7 billion in revenue in its 2003 fiscal year, and its stock price increased 40 percent, to a high of $62.50 in late September.

Lasn, about to fly off to Indonesia in his newly minted role as factory inspector, is undeterred. The Black Spot sneaker, he says, is part of a larger goal to "tweak the genetic code of corporations": an anti-corporate-globalization process that ranges from rewriting the rules under which corporate charters are reviewed and revoked, to a general "crusade against bigness."

"I grew up in a time when cynicism didn't exist," says Lasn, "that hidden assumption that nothing can change, that you better get used to capitalism, and that cultural revolution is not even possible."

"I don't quite see it that way. I am old enough to have seen a number of cultural revolutions. I believe another one is coming up."

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

By Linda Baker

Linda Baker is a journalist in Portland, Oregon.

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