Adbusters’ Ads Busted

By James H. Ewert Jr.

Kalle Lasn is a fighter for the right to communicate. A privilege, says the founder of Adbusters magazine, that goes one step farther than the freedom of speech.

“You can stand on the corner and shout at people as they are going by,” Lasn says. “But if a handful of corporations have media in their pocket, they can totally hoodwink the public.”

From his home in Vancouver, Lasn himself communicates to the masses on the pages of Adbusters–a 10-year-old culture-jamming magazine published through the Adbusters Media Foundation.

On Feb. 18, the Supreme Court of British Columbia dismissed a case that Lasn brought forth, which argued that Canadian TV conglomerate CanWest Global was obligated, under the Canadian Broadcasting Act, to sell television advertising time to Adbusters.

The court’s dismissal reiterated the rulings of North American courts that have found private TV broadcasters under no obligation to allow the public access to public airwaves.

“This case goes right to the very heart of democracy–[about] who has a voice and who doesn’t,” Lasn says.

Of the major broadcasters, only CNN has aired Adbusters’ “Buy Nothing Day” commercials (or “subvertisements”) that tell people not to go shopping the Friday after Thanksgiving.

One of the subvertisements mocks Calvin Klein’s black-and-white underwear ads. This 30-second parody concludes with an ultra-slim model replaced by a more normally proportioned woman bent over a toilet as if giving into a bulimic impulse. “Why are nine out of 10 women dissatisfied with some aspect of their own bodies?” the narrator asks blankly. “The beauty industry is the beast.”

(The rejected ads, along with the tape-recorded refusals from major media organizations, are available at

Lasn first filed his suit in 1995, after the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) terminated an advertising contract when the automobile industry complained about an Adbusters anti-car ad. The Supreme Court of Canada, however, chose not to hear the case.

In 2004, following a string of CanWest refusals to air any of Adbusters’ 30-second TV parodies that ridiculed the forestry, fast food, pharmaceutical and high fashion industries, Lasn filed suit against the corporation, which owns three major daily newspapers and a majority of TV stations in Vancouver.

“We just want this high-minded, legal right to walk into a television station and buy airtime under the same rules and conditions as advertising agencies do,” Lasn says.

Adbusters is considering an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada–again.

“We’re not just trying to win a legal battle,” Lasn says. “We’re trying to create a sort of media literacy lesson for all the people in North America to show the fact that there is no democracy on the public airwaves.”

“It’s pretty ridiculous that a nonprofit, public interest group can’t buy advertising on the public airwaves,” says Steve Anderson, coordinator of the nonprofit Canadian Campaign for Democratic Media. “What’s interesting is that the CBC, specifically, wouldn’t allow this, because the CBC, unlike PBS [in the United States], runs advertisements.”

Lasn is optimistic about efforts to democratize the public airwaves, and says he may bring suit against U.S. broadcasters under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) rather than on constitutional grounds, where U.S. courts have consistently sided with broadcasters.

Currently in development is an ad for Adbusters’ Blackspot shoes, which are made at a union factory out of organic hemp and old tires. When the Blackspot ads are finished, Lasn plans to pitch them to MTV. Unlike previous ads, the Blackspot ad will promote a product, and therefore not be restricted by broadcasters’ advocacy ad guidelines.

“This actually happens fairly frequently [in the United States], that groups try to buy ad time and networks refuse to sell it,” says Angela Campbell, a law professor at Georgetown University and director of its Institute for Public Representation, a program at the school that specializes in Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issues. “The court almost always sides with the broadcasters,” she says.

Campbell points to the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision in CBS v. Democratic National Committee. Major news networks were pressured to air ads opposing the Vietnam War, and the high court ruled that broadcasters can control editorial content, and are thus free to choose what ads they want to run.

Campbell says the court cited the Fairness Doctrine, which obligated broadcasters to air different perspectives on an issue. And because the networks’ coverage of the Vietnam War was already in accordance with the statute, it was not necessary for the public to see ads against the war.

“Subsequently, our FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine,” she says, “and one could argue that today, when we don’t have the Fairness Doctrine as sort of that backstop, it’s questionable if the case would come out the same way.”

In theory, broadcasters are supposed to serve the public, and that is the standard the FCC uses for granting and renewing broadcast licenses for networks to use the airwaves.

“The majority of the FCC today takes the attitude that public interest means whatever the marketplace will bear,” Campbell says. “There are some public interests they are concerned about, but they don’t have very many enforceable standards. So the stations can do pretty much whatever they want.”

Ultimately, Lasn hopes to begin dismantling media conglomerates with antitrust lawsuits, demanding the media devote at least a minute of public airtime for every hour devoted to corporate interests, and establishing a new human right–the right to communicate.

“How come we the people don’t have access to one of the most powerful social communication mediums of our time, the television?” Lasn asks. “There is this new human right in the information age, this right to communicate, which goes farther than freedom of speech.”