Consumer retorts

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It's not like the organizers of International Buy Nothing Day have ever had a particularly easy sell. Since 1993, when activists in the Pacific Northwest hatched the annual anti-consumerism protest, Buy Nothing backers have staked out the fronts of U.S. malls and department stores on the day after Thanksgiving (the day after that in the rest of the world), to bend shoppers' ears, staging events and street theater aimed at convincing folks to go cold turkey.

Exhortations to take a day off from consumerism--not just any day, but one that is virtually a shopping holiday--may seem futile. But to those disaffected with the seasonal consumer onslaught--in a December 2000 Gallup poll of 1,000 adults who celebrate Christmas 85 percent found it too commercial, and 57 percent said they did not enjoy gift shopping--the message might resonate: We already spend too much. We consume more than our share, fritter away more than we save. So take the day off; buy nothing.

The event also gives activists a focal point to talk about Western overconsumption, Americans' excessive debt, and poverty and substandard working conditions the world over in a more easygoing manner than the strident mass gatherings that greet World Trade Organization meetings. Buy Nothing events are relaxed and often prankish, small-group actions aimed at a cynical and exhausted audience. Carolers in New York who twist "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" to "Uh Oh, We're in the Red, Dear," or the Akron, Ohio guy in a Santa Claus suit covered with corporate logos, have been ignored or mocked by passersby, organizers report, but they have also been welcomed with knowing laughter.

But this year, amid a deepening recession and official calls to consume, it's a message many shoppers may shrug off or aggressively reject. President Bush, the Canadian and British prime ministers, and a steady drumbeat of commercials echo the mantra that purchasing is patriotic.

Organizers are taking into account the changed atmosphere, says Paul Dechene, campaigns manager for the Adbusters Media Foundation, the Vancouver, B.C.-based media-criticism group that provides Buy Nothing Day posters, tips, and organizing material via its magazine, Adbusters, and its Web site, This year's "culture jams," in the Adbusters parlance, are shaping up to be more low-key, and practitioners are mindful that a jittery post-Sept. 11 public may be less tolerant of overt dissent. "I suspect we'll receive vocal criticism," Dechene says. "It's too bad, as Buy Nothing Day has always been a lot of fun."

World affairs notwithstanding, Adbusters estimates that 150 groups in 55 countries are planning events this year. Planned activities are as varied as organizers' nationalities and personalities. In years past, participants have defaced or altered billboards (sometimes with Buy Nothing posters downloaded from the Adbusters Web site); scribbled anti-consumer messages on the sidewalks in front of stores; hung banners in shopping malls; and passed out "gift exemption certificates," urging shoppers to give "love" and "time" instead of presents. Last year in Belgium, radicals slipped matchsticks into keyholes, keeping banks and stores from opening on schedule. And in San Francisco, protesters ran through the streets a 200-foot-long clothesline festooned with Gap, Banana Republic, and Old Navy tags painted over with slogans.

One new tactic getting a try this year in the United Kingdom is "fanclubbing"--heading to department stores in groups to buy gifts, return them, then buy and return them again, over and over, until they frustrate managers and mire the store in confusion.

Michael Smith, a U.K. Buy Nothing Day organizer, says he and his colleagues hope fanclubbing spreads to the States and beyond, to be adapted to particular situations and brands. Jammers can use fanclubbing to protest Nike's use of sweatshop labor or the preponderance of bad TV programming by repeatedly buying and returning sneakers or televisions.

"Fanclubbing is one of the new events which has taken center stage," he says via e-mail from London. "This year our approach is far softer, because we feel humor is better received than waving banners and hard-core campaigning."

Another new prank: Nonperforming clowns. "A group of clowns just sitting around enjoying themselves, while everyone else is too busy shopping to take notice of the 'nonperformance,'" Smith says. "People would be anticipating a show, and we'll be stalling them from shopping. This style of campaigning oozes curiosity and interest. Most people will simply see us as daft clowns, however, we've been liberated from shopping and they are the fools."

The general tenor of this year's jams won't become clear until after the festivities, when reports on events start trickling in to Adbusters. Buy Nothing Day is thoroughly local, free of any kind of centralized planning; jammers do what they want. The anarchy of the event is expressed in its slogan: "Participate by not participating." But if planners are being less confrontational this year, they argue that in the current climate their message is more relevant than ever.

"For the first time in history, we have a strange phenomenon of our leaders coming out during wartime and saying, 'Go out and consume, it's the patriotic thing to do.' This is blatant disinformation," Adbusters director Kalle Lasn says. "In the short term, it solves problems if everyone goes out and maxes out their credit cards. The economy would improve. But what is being lost is the long-term effects of overconsumption, which in the G-7 countries includes climate change, ozone depletion, and biodiversity loss. Short-term overconsumption is the cause of long-term grief."

Lasn, who left a career in advertising to start the Adbusters Media Foundation in 1990, draws his views from experience. A native-born Estonian, he spent six years of his childhood in displaced-person camps in World War II-torn Europe. "It was taken for granted that you conserve, recycle, and give your energy to the war effort," he says.

An editorial on the Adbusters Web site echoes the argument: "Frugality rather than spending may, in the long run, be the only rational response to [Sept. 11]." The site initiated a debate, asking readers whether the foundation should shelve the Buy Nothing Day campaign.

The discussion is purely theoretical; Adbusters clearly has no intention of doing so. "This is our moment when we have something really important to say," Lasn says. In general contributors to the discussion agree, arguing that Buy Nothing Day provides a street-level forum for people to talk about whether short-term consumption will strengthen America's economy and what effect industrialized countries' consumption has on the rest of the world.

The message may have new relevance this year, but it's been consistent through the event's history. It's also been just as debated. In 1997, Adbusters produced a Buy Nothing Day TV spot that describes the worldwide effects of Americans' excessive consumption. The "uncommercial" opens with a sniffing, corpulent pig protruding from a U.S.-shaped mass. A narrator drearily intones, "The average North American consumes five times more than a Mexican, 10 times more than a Chinese person, and 10 times more than a person from India."

ABC, CBS, and NBC all refused to air the spot. CBS dismissed it, saying that persuading viewers not to buy anything the day after Thanksgiving, "in direct opposition to the current economic policy in the United States," conflicts with the network's policy of not accepting advertising that "takes an advocacy position on one side of a controversial issue(s) of public importance." CNN Headline News did take Adbusters' cash and has aired the commercial after its financial-news program Dollars and Sense.

Lasn says CNN will air the spot this year as well. Given the foundation's limited budget for media buys, however, it will probably air far from prime time--meaning relatively few viewers will see it, leaving the message to its traditional forum: the streets and sidewalks in front of stores.

"We're not telling people to stop buying stuff altogether," Dechene says. "We're only talking about one day here. We want people to take the day off, spend time with their families, stop thinking about the economy collapsing."

And as national leaders pursuing terrorist targets invoke World War II as a time of American unity and resolve, Dechene, like Lasn, evokes the same era--as a time when doing one's national duty meant saving and shepherding resources. He remembers his grandparents talking about the home front, how people tended "victory gardens," recycled, and were encouraged to limit spending and consumption.

"It was a time to conserve," he says. "Now we have this incredible, backward belief that the country's strength depends on us spending as much money as we can."

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Tim Hill writes for City Paper, where this feature originally appeared. Send comments to [email protected]
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