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Unswooshing’ Nike, Becoming ‘Antipreneurs’ and Fighting for Media Democracy: Interview with Adbusters’ Kalle Lans

by anna battista

In a recent letter addressed by Subcomandante Marcos to the people of Chile and celebrating Miguel Enríquez Espinosa, one of the founders of the Revolutionary Left Movement, the Zapatista spokesperson wrote “…and today, those who are in power, show us the images of the geography they have imposed on some of our lands: Where there was a flag, now there is a shopping centre. Where there was history, now there is fast food … Where there was memory, now there is forgetfulness. In place of justice, begging. In place of our homeland, a heap of scrap. Instead of memory, immediacy … In place of democracy, an ad. Instead of reality, figures. Those who are in power, tell us: ‘This is the future we have promised you, now enjoy it.’”

Marcos’ words can be applied to Chile and Chiapas, but also to the rest of the world. We live indeed in a world which has been turned into a market, where corporations seem to regulate everything and to govern whatever we buy and whatever we do in our lives. Democracy and freedom are slowly becoming two relative ideas, two concepts lost in the mist of time. How do we contrast the power of the big companies, how do we fight against them? Some of us go to demonstrations, others read books, watch or shoot documentaries, boycott particular products, write for or buy independent magazines, in this way supporting free and independent information. Yet there are those who actually think that acting in this way is not enough, at least not anymore. This is the case for the Vancouver-based advocacy group Adbusters Media Foundation and for culture jamming magazine Adbusters, which have decided to attack capitalism, using its same weapons. The Foundation recently launched a specific product on the market, the Blackspot Sneaker, to get in competition with Nike and disrupt its market.

Designed by John Fluevog and sold on the Blackspot site, the Blackspot Sneaker looks very similar to a Converse (brand now owned by Nike), but it is made of organic hemp, its sole and toe cap are biodegradable and, instead of the Converse logo, the shoes have a white hand-painted “anti-logo”. All the people who buy a pair of Blackspot Sneakers automatically become shareholders in The Blackspot Anticorporation (the shareholder certificate is included in the shoe box) and receive a password that allows them to vote on how the Blackspot business will be run. Wonder how the Blackspot Sneakers started? Just ask Kalle Lans, Adbusters editor and CEO of the Media Foundation. “We started designing the shoe about a year ago; the idea was born because we were constantly trying to figure out ways to keep some of the large corporations honest and Nike was one of those,“ Lans explains. “We kept on marvelling at the fact that, somehow, even after ten years of boycotting, Nike was still cool, it was still selling and teenagers were still wearing the Nike swoosh. We realised that what we had been doing wasn’t enough, we realised that as activist community we had been complaining and whining too much, and that we had to start thinking outside the box. We did it and one of the ideas we got was to go into direct competition with Nike by creating a shoe that is cooler than its shoes and by trying to cut into its market share.”

The Blackspot Sneaker is manufactured by a factory based in Portugal, a very special factory which has been owned and operated by the same family for three generations. The workplace is good and safe and the equipment is new and updated. A doctor visits the factory once a week and the workers can have unlimited free consultations. The employees work from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. with a one hour and a half lunch break. Overtime is not compulsory, but it is generously paid. The average wage in this factory is between 420 and 700 Euros per month and only 40% of the workers are registered with a union, since no workers have ever had any problems or have ever been unfairly dismissed in this factory. “It was a nightmare to find the right factory for our sneakers,” Lans remembers. “First of all we thought we had found one somewhere in South Korea, then we thought we had found it in Indonesia. Later on we went to China and we found a fantastic factory which produced fantastic shoes, but it didn’t have a good management structure, it didn’t have a good union, so we kept on looking in Eastern Europe, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Spain and finally Portugal. It was like a wild goose chase. We found the Portugal factory because one of our consultants, Robin Webb, has an outlet in the UK called Vegetarian Shoes and had been using this Portuguese factory for a few years. He told me it was a fantastic factory, so we decided to go and check it out. It turned out it definitely was the best factory we had seen in nine months of searching. Our creative director Mike Simons visited the factory and told us that the workers seemed very happy, the place looked very bright and airy and was located in an area of Portugal which has been making shoes for hundreds of years. To get those fantastic working conditions we had to pay 500% more: if we were producing our shoes in an Indonesian factory, we could do it for $5 a pair and it would be even cheaper in China, it would cost around $4.50. We are very happy we found those special working conditions and very proud to get a chance to collaborate with this fantastic factory.”

The Blackspot Sneakers also have a very special (and quite ironic) feature, a red dot, hand painted on the nose of the shoe, “for kicking Nike CEO Phil Knight’s ass”, the sneakers’ site explains, urging jammers to keep painting symbolic red dots on their shoes. “I think Nike is really scared of us,” Lans claims, “We tried to put up a billboard saying ‘Rethink The Cool’ just half a kilometre away from their headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, but the Nike lawyers were so scared that they phoned up the billboard company and told them not to sell us the space. They subsequently started using the legal power to try to stop us. Of course, they’re not going to be able to stop us, but it shows to me that they are really scared about the fact that we are going to start to ‘uncool’ Nike and ‘unwoosh’ the Nike swoosh. They are really scared of a small company like ours, which is a fly compared to their elephant, they are scared that this little fly will jump into their eyes or bite them…well, that’s exactly what we’re going to do!”

Despite selling 5,000 pairs of shoes, and having now ordered a second shipment of 10,000 sneakers, not everybody seems to support the Adbusters idea. Apart from critics or sceptics, many fans worried that Adbusters will, in this way, sell out. “We had a lot of backlash from lots of people, Naomi Klein included, who feel that somehow to start a logo, or rather, an anti-logo, to go into business and have your own brand, means to sell out," Lans reveals. “But I think it is very important for us activists to act and think outside the box, after all, we have not been so successful in many ways. People saying ‘Oh, Adbusters is going to sell out,’ probably don’t have any confidence or trust in us, whereas I believe we must start thinking big and have confidence. The activists and the old political left keep on saying ‘another world is possible’ but if you ask them ‘how can you create this new world’, they won’t have any answers. It is very important to move from talking to acting. It’s not enough to write a book, to go to a conference, to talk, talk, talk, we have to move from talk to action and Blackspot Sneaker is one small way to do it. There are a lot of people out there who are caught inside their box: they read a book like No Logo and they say ‘all logos are bad’; then they read more books about brands and logos and they say ‘all branding is bad’; then they read more books about the issue and they say ‘all capitalism is bad’. But instead of complaining about logos, why not creating your own logo? Instead of complaining about branding, why not starting an anti-branding movement? Instead of complaining about corporate capitalism, why not trying to create a more bottom-up marketplace and capitalism? I don’t think people will ever stop wearing sneakers and even if you boycott Nike, well, what alternative do you have? You just have to worry about buying Adidas or Puma, there hasn’t been any really fantastic alternative in the sneaker industry up to now. So why not creating it?”

The Blackspot Anticorporation Shareholder Certificate that comes with each pair of shoes claims this is an “ongoing experiment in democratic capitalism” and Lans seems to be very interested in finding new ways to transform capitalism into a positive force. “There has been a kind of evolution of capitalism and also of the anti-capitalist sentiment,” he states, “capitalism has moved towards a kind of very top-heavy mega-corporate driven capitalism. In every area of our lives there are two or three companies running the show, dominating the music industry, the fast food industry and basically everything else. In the anti-capitalist movement, we have had shopping for a better world, fair trade and social entrepreneurs, people who are trying to create products that actually do good in the world. All these things are very nice and wonderful, but the time has come now to be nasty and to move from a social entrepreneur to an ‘antipreneur’, this is a very important new step in the evolution of the anti-capitalism movement. What we are doing with the Blackspot Sneaker is an ‘antipreneur’, and it can also be seen as the next step in the evolution of the backlash against corporate capitalism. We’re actually going head to head with corporations, rather than being too goody and nice. The Slow Food movement that started in Italy a while back was for us a big inspiration. Years and years ago we heard a rumour about this movement growing up in Italy and spreading a little bit to other parts of Europe, and now it is happening all over the world. This shows that a really good idea, even if it’s a kind of anti-consumer idea, even if it’s a counter-idea, an opposition idea, can catch on, can make a big difference and inspire people.”

The battle against corporate capitalism started with the Blackspot Sneakers is just at the beginning: at present Adbusters is in touch with a few independent stores all around the world, 200 of them have already said they are interested in selling the shoe. “The future of the Blackspot Sneaker is in retail stores, maybe only 25% of our future is actually in selling it on the Internet,” Lans reveals, “Once the stores that are at present in touch with us will decide to sell our sneakers, we’ll put their address on our website and people will be able to visit those shops and buy the shoes there. We hope that in the next few months we will have over a thousand small independent stores all around the world, selling the Blackspot Sneaker.”

There are also bigger plans for the Blackspot logo, among the others also Blackspot biodiesel outlets. “Our first step is to set a precedent, to show the world that a small group of people like us can come up with our own shoe, our own design, our own organic hemp, our own factories and cut into the market share of huge companies like Nike,“ Lans says, “ Once we have demonstrated that this can be done, then we will be able to extend our project. We are already talking to some people who are interested in opening a Blackspot independent music label and to a group of people in Germany who would open a chain of Blackspot restaurants that would only sell locally-produced food. The basic idea behind the Blackspot is that we want to find some way to get capitalism to bite its own tail. Our ultimate aim is to create a more bottom-up capitalism, this is also why we have no copyright on the Blackspot logo. We hope that many people will start taking the Blackspot anti-logo and create a kind of grassroots capitalism in every area of their lives.”

The Blackspot Sneaker is only one of the projects the Adbusters Media Foundation is involved in. Among the other projects there is the battle for media democracy. For many years, Adbusters tried to buy airtime for its TV ads, "social marketing" spots tackling issues from obesity to environmental destruction and consumer consumption. The ads were never broadcast, because most Canadian broadcasters refused to show them. In September 2004, Adbusters launched a legal action against four of Canada's biggest television broadcasters, CTV, CanWest Global, CBC and CHUM, the networks that rejected the Adbusters spots. “Our lawyers told us that it could take anything from one year to five years for this legal action to wend its way through the courts. So, there’s not going to be any immediate big victory, but the legal action represents a big moment in the media democracy movement of a country,” Lans explains, “Indeed, I hope that over the next two or three years we will have a legal victory and we will show in this way that you can open up the commercial airways to citizen produced advocacy messages. We are going to launch a similar kind of legal action next year in the United States. I hope Canada will be the first country where we can show you can use legal action to create more media democracy. I also hope that this movement will spread in every country around the world.”

Adbusters is fighting for media democracy also by asking people to sign an on line manifesto, the Media Carta, which states, “We imagine a different system – a media democracy. We see great promise in the open communications of the internet and want that openness expanded into every form of media. We envision a global system of communications that has as its foundation the direct, democratic participation of citizens … What we ultimately seek is a new human right for our information age, one that empowers freedom of speech with the right to access the media. This new human right is: The Right to Communicate.” Media democracy is considered by Lans as “the issue of issues“ and particular recent events such as the FBI seizing the servers of Indymedia and Italian democracy and media freedom being in danger every day more because of the conflict of interests of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who, among the other things, owns private TV channels and publishing houses, have proved it really is.

“There are about three or four really bad countries in the world where the media situation is almost, I would say, semi-fascist,” Lans says, ”Italy is one of those countries and a nation where the media power is in the hands of one man or of a small number of people, is not a democracy anymore. I hope people in Italy can get more angry about this and can understand that they have to claim back their voices. People there and all around the world have to understand that to have a voice in a media democracy is the most important thing: once you have a voice you can talk about all the problems we have in the world, from global warming to sneakers. But if we, the people, don’t have a voice, then we will not be able to win any of our battles because the co-operations will be doing all the talking.”

There is another issue that worries Lans, and that’s American elections. “This is a critical moment, I’m very scared at the moment about what’s going to happen,” he states, “I don’t like Kerry that much, but I hate Bush even more. If Bush wins again, then the whole world is in for a very rough ride for the next four years. I think the next few years will be a critical moment for global democracy and also for the activist movements because we are living in a time in which, for the first time in human history, global culture is jellying. At the moment the commercial cooperate forces are trying to control this global culture and it’s up to the civil society, to non-profit groups and activists to make sure that we control this global culture and this global democracy. If we lose the power over the next few years, then we are going to create a situation in the world that is going to be very bad for many generations to come. We have to be effective rather than keep on fighting, because we have been fighting for generations, but I must admit that I felt very optimistic only for a short while after the Battle of Seattle, let’s say for one or two years after it. It felt then that young people were becoming activists again and the world was really changing, but in the last year or two I had a feeling that we’ve hit the wall again and that, somehow, the political lefties are not doing the job anymore. I think this is the time for bold new moves and I hope that there will be enough bold moves in the next few years to make a difference.”

Corporate capitalism is slowly swallowing our lives. Either we react to it and find new ways to build a “democratic” capitalism or we will be consumed by it. The Adbusters Media Foundation has already found a way to react and to fight against a huge company like Nike with its very own marketing strategies. If we disagree with what Adbusters is doing, we might as well find our own ways to react, bearing in mind what Lans says in his book Culture Jam (HarperCollins) “The only battle still worth fighting and winning, the only one that can set us free, is The People versus The Corporate Cool Machine."


Issue 27, October 2004

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