Organic Consumers Association

Commercial Alert--Fighting Corporate Colonization of the Mind

Commercial Alert, July 29, 2003

Following is an article in today¹s Washington Post profiling our work and the growing anti-commercialism movement.

The Ad Subtractors, Making a Difference
by Vincent P. Bzdek

Gary Ruskin is writing as fast as he can.

Every day in his home office in Portland, Ore., he types heartfelt pleas and blistering diatribes to politicians, news organizations, corporations and individuals. His mission: To stop advertisers from commandeering every last nook and cranny of American culture.

"Advertisers must understand that some places are sacred and therefore off-limits to peddling wares," he says. "Governments, schools and other civic institutions shouldn't be an auxiliary megaphone for corporate marketing."

The successes of Ruskin's five-year-old group, Commercial Alert, may represent the tip of a broad backlash against corporate incursions into health care, education, culture and government. Some believe such activism, known variously as ad-busting, culture-jamming, anti-corporatism and mental environmentalism, is the beginning of the next major social movement in America.

"We've won a lot of victories because we work on a popular cause with a lot of grass-roots work," Ruskin says.

Alcohol ads on NBC are dead because of Commercial Alert.

AOL Time Warner's plan to put ads on "CNN Student News," a program aired in 18,000 schools across the country, is dead.

A proposal to sell the naming rights for Boston subway stops is dead.

Commercial Alert was part of a campaign that led to new Smithsonian Institution guidelines on marketing sponsorships and business joint ventures. The effort was launched after Secretary Lawrence Small sold the naming rights to several exhibits for the first time in the museum's history.

In November 2000, Ruskin targeted N2H2, a Web filter that was tracking schoolkids' surfing. The market data that was extracted was sold to private companies and the Pentagon, which wanted the data for recruiting. By February 2001, N2H2 dropped out of schools.

Last summer Candlestick Park in San Francisco became the first ballpark to reclaim its popular title from a corporate sponsor after citizen pressure, including Ruskin's. San Francisco is now the first U.S. city to propose a complete ban on the sale of naming rights to public property.

Starting in 2004, California will ban the sale of all junk food and soda pop in its elementary schools, in part because of Ruskin's efforts.

Commercial Alert is not alone in this fight.

Allies include Toronto-based Adbusters magazine and its associated Media Foundation; the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy; the Lion & Lamb Project, headquartered in Bethesda; Washington-based Public Citizen Health Research Group; the Center for a New American Dream; and the Citizens' Campaign for Commercial-Free Schools. One anti-ad organization, Junkbusters, was instrumental in the Federal Trade Commission's decision to create a national do-not-call registry that allows consumers to block calls from telemarketers. The registry opened June 27.

Teaming up with these public-interest organizations are many religious groups pledged to reducing the damage caused by corporate promotion of alcohol, tobacco, junk food, fast food, drugs, violent entertainment and gambling.

Nor is the backlash confined to America.

Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Greece all have banned or severely restricted television advertising to children under the age of 12, and the World Health Organization is leading a charge to ban advertising of tobacco products worldwide.

"Anticorporatism is the brand of politics capturing the imagination of the next generation of troublemakers," writes Canadian journalist Naomi Klein in "No Logo." The book made a splash by predicting a worldwide youth rebellion against global brands when it was released three years ago, just after the anti-globalization protests in Seattle.

"This generation wants their brains back and mass media is their home turf," Klein says.

"I think what we're seeing is the beginning of a movement to clean up the toxic areas of the mental environment just like 30 years ago they started cleaning up the toxic areas of the physical environment," says Kalle Lasn, founder of Adbusters.

Others, however, say the anti-ad activists are tilting at windmills, making small dents perhaps but not appreciably slowing the turbine of American capitalism.

Dick O'Brien, director of the Washington branch of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, says he hasn't even heard of most of the anti-ad groups.

Patrick Jarvis, spokesman for General Electric's Patient Channel, which is the target of one of Ruskin's current campaigns, says Commercial Alert has actually helped his company gain business because of the added publicity.

Several legal experts say activists like Ruskin are a threat to free speech because they are trying to censor advertisers and corporations. "Commercial speech" generally has been protected by courts, they note.

"Activists are off-base and asking for too much if they are asking to ban this kind of information," says Bruce Sanford, a lawyer who specializes in First Amendment issues with the Washington office of Baker & Hostetler. "Courts have always had a preference for holding advertisers accountable for what they say rather than banning what they can say."

Whether they are having an overall effect on the juggernaut of privatization or not, Klein, Ruskin, Lasn and others have had an undeniable impact on public discourse, especially outside the United States. The Times of London, for instance, recently declared the 33-year-old Klein "probably the most influential person under the age of 35 in the world."

The primary target of all these groups has a name: "ad creep," which is described as the viral spread of marketing and advertising to more and more corners of culture.

"What advertisers have to come up with each week is the new new intrusive thing, so we have a steamroller of intrusiveness," says Robert W. McChesney, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and founder of Free Press, a national media reform organization. "We're locked in a death-spiral of intrusiveness."

Combine that with a cash-strapped public sector, and now ads are everywhere: on the sides of police cars, on school buses, on garbage trucks, on textbooks, on toilet seat covers, on national park benches, on a Russian space rocket, raked into beach sand in New Jersey.

In February, the Wall Street Journal reported that a London ad agency is selling ads on people's foreheads. The hosts are forbidden to rub the temporary tattoos too vigorously while on duty.

McChesney cites studies showing that Americans are exposed to as many as 2,000 commercial messages a day, and that children see 30,000 commercials a year. (The ad agency association argues that the number is more like 250 per day. A reporter trying to do an unscientific survey of his own lost count at 760, a number that spiked dramatically after entering a mall.) Yet most of these ads don't bring widespread complaints from those directly affected. Joint ventures between corporations and schools, for example, are generally welcomed by school officials and expected to grow in number, according to Daniel B. Fuller, director of federal programs for the National School Boards Association.

Is stopping ad creep a lost cause?

And even if you wanted to, how would you unplug from the great American advertainment matrix?

Ruskin, ever the pragmatic activist, keeps his TV in the closet.

Klein urges people to become global anti-consumer activists.

McChesney advocates regulation and legislation to limit the power of media conglomerates vs. the public interest, as well as a massive investment in public-service media that aren't beholden to advertisers.

Lasn recommends a "culture jam."

His book "Culture Jam" is a guide for ad-busting activists in the vein of Saul Alinsky's "Rules for Radicals." The term was coined in 1984 by a San Francisco band, Negativland, and refers to the defacing of billboards, the hijacking of commercial broadcasts and the creation of "uncommercials" or "subvertisements" that strive to invert the messages of mass marketing.

Lasn's most successful jam is "Buy Nothing Day," which started in the Pacific Northwest 11 years ago and has spread to 60 countries.

"It's almost rivaling Earth Day now," Lasn claims. "It's certainly a lot edgier."

Does this activism contain the seeds of a social movement, though?

McChesney says he doesn't think it's at that point yet.

"People definitely latch onto this issue," he says. "Mention children and everyone gets it. And it's definitely a movement in Europe." But the various groups working on commercialism issues will have to start working together before it can be called a movement, he says.

And it will have to evolve beyond ad-busting and culture jamming into a crusade for something as much as against commercialism, articulating a vision of how the country might separate business and state with the same constitutional vigor it once separated church and state.

"People who are living on the edges of the empire who are looking down at your country .. . . understand in a global sense much better what's happening in the world than you guys do," Lasn says.

"Quite frankly, most Americans are living inside a mass media bubble."

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Commercial Alert is a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to keep the commercial culture within its proper sphere, and to prevent it from exploiting children and subverting the higher values of family, community, environmental integrity and democracy.

Commercial Alert has more than 2000 members, representing all 50 states and the District of Columbia. For more information, or to become a member <|1236-0> , visit our website at

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Gary Ruskin | Executive Director | Commercial Alert |

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