Putting the shoe on the other foot
Jo Littler interviews Kalle Lasn about Adbuster's new anti-Nike 'Black Spot Sneaker'
20 January 2004

Adbusters is making a sneaker
We're putting it on our feet.
We're doing some kicking.
Our target - Phil Knight's ass.

Kalle Lasn is the founder of Adbusters Media Foundation and the author of Culture Jam: How to reverse America's suicidal consumer binge - and why we must (Harper Collins, 2000). One of the most well-known anti-corporate activist organisations, Adbusters is probably most famous for its spoof adverts of transnational corporations: its subvertisements of Nike, for example, come to foreground their use of sweatshop labour, whereas Calvin Klein's 'obsession' comes to denote not a fragrance but narcissistic anxieties about body size. Adbusters 'want folks to get mad about corporate disinformation, injustices in the global economy, and any industry that pollutes our physical or mental commons'. Based in Vancouver, Adbusters facilitates a worldwide network of some 80, 000 activists or 'culture jammers' who submit work to them, and publishes a not-for-profit magazine, Adbusters, which has a circulation of 120,000 across 60 different countries. It also campaigns for public access to the media and has been instrumental in publicizing Buy Nothing Day and TV Turnoff week.

Recently, Adbusters announced that it is creating an 'ethical' trainer: the Black Spot Sneaker. Similar in appearance to the Converse All-Star basketball sneaker - that iconic footwear of disaffected youth - its black canvas will have a big white blank spot where the logo usually is. Adbusters have said that this shoe is designed to kick 'Phil Knight's [the CEO of Nike's] ass'. Both the sentiment and the design represent not only Adbusters' longstanding hatred of Nike but also their more recent irritation at the fact that in July last year Nike bought out Converse. Adbuster's foray into trading and promoting a product (other than calendars, magazines and stickers) has created controversy amongst activists, with some considering it a sell-out and others welcoming it as a necessary step forward. I spoke to Kalle Lasn about what prompted Adbusters to plan the Black Spot Sneaker, what exactly was meant by an 'ethical' shoe, and how Adbusters positions its activities in relation to 'the left', the anti-globalisation movement, fair trade and the unions, as well as to other high-profile activist work such as that of Michael Moore and Naomi Klein.

Personally I think the Black Spot Sneaker is an exciting development because today anti-capitalist activists are often criticised for having a lack of concrete alternatives. Do you think that the idea of creating actually existing alternatives in practice is currently gathering more steam, becoming more popular?

Yes that's exactly right. Even though a lot of lefties still don't like it, I think it is one of the fresh, new ideas that could start making some waves in corporate circles. I think especially if we can prove that this works in one industry, the sneaker industry, then we can really create some waves in that industry and get under Phil Knight's skin, and cut into his market share, and launch an anti-logo that starts to have a powerful cool of its own. If we can do that in the sneaker industry then I think that we will have lots of imitators in other industries, and the Black Spot could become a generic anti-logo that is used on all kinds of products. It could eventually become a real force to be reckoned with. In some profound way I think it can tweak capitalism and create a more bottom-up type of system.

You have said that it's an alternative to the 'talking, whining and moaning' that can persist on the left.

Yes this is how the idea came about because in our brainstorming sessions we just started swearing and shouting and saying 'What the fuck has the left been doing for the last ten years? Nothing! Just whining!' and we were really getting sick of all the whining. It's like the activist left had just lost any balls that it ever had, and the neo-conservative forces of the right were just rampaging all over us. So there's a very powerful feeling among some culture jammers and amongst the more radical activists that we have to jump over the dead body of the left. We have to start jumping over the talkers like Naomi Klein and a lot of other people and start actually become walkers instead of talkers.

You say the black spot sneaker is different because it's ethical, because it's produced in fair and clean conditions. Can you tell us where, and what the conditions are, and what's your criteria of 'fair,' as I've read differing reports about this? For example, are the producers unionised? are they a co-operative?

The really radical thing about the Black Spot Sneaker is that it's the first ever attempt to launch an anti-logo that will go head to head with traditional corporate logos or brands. In launching this anti-logo, this anti-brand, we're going to find the very best sneaker factory in the world, a factory in which the workers have rights, and get paid a decent wage, and the design and construction of the shoe is going to be as ecologically benign as we can possibly make it. Eventually, in two or three years time, if we can successfully launch this brand, we hope to be able to put some investors together and to be able to come up with the very first co-operative sneaker factory in the world. We hope to do it right there in China, where that sort of factory can really have a very iconic effect.

.....so right in one of the heartlands of new global capitalism?

Exactly! Right at the heart of capitalism at this present time. So this idea of launching an anti-brand and making it cooler than a corporate brand, and then using it as a leverage against the capitalist system, I think it's a very powerful idea and all kinds of wonderful things can come out of it if we can create that cool, nuclear glow around our anti-logo.

So it is still very much at the planning stage - you don't have the factory yet, you don't have it in production yet - it's mainly at the design stage?

We're very close now to making our final decision about the factory. We've had a rough time because some leads we had there in South Korea didn't turn out, and then one lead we had in Indonesia turned out to be a bit of a dud, and then we went to China but that factory just didn't work out. Now we have a very high-powered consultant who has a few very hot leads, one in the U.S., one in Europe, and we think that we can clinch a deal in the next few weeks. So we plan to launch our marketing campaign in early spring and start selling the shoe in late spring.

So you'd seem not to be particularly promoting localisation, but rather an alternative form of globalisation, right?

Absolutely right. We're just looking for the best factory we can, we don't care too much where it is. Although we hope it can be in the third world, as we would rather be giving our money to workers in the third world, and promoting their rights, than give the money to some factory in Europe and America, as they already have rights that are way larger than those of third world workers. So we're hoping to find a factory in the third world but it's proving very difficult. Right now we're going to probably have to take the plunge and produce the thing in Europe, which is a little bit of a setback, but it won't stop us.

Does this mean you think that the left has been focusing too much on worker's rights in the West?

Yes. I'm totally disillusioned with, for example, the American steelworker's union which has convinced President Bush to keep foreign steel out of the United States. All they really care about is their own rights, all they're fighting for is their own self-interest. And when it comes to promoting worker's rights worldwide, that doesn't even seem to be on their horizon. I think the trade union movement in the rich countries of the world has become very decadent over the last ten, twenty years and so I no longer align myself very strongly with the trade union movement in the rich part of the world because I don't think they have the larger issues of capitalism at heart any more. They're now just self-serving people who worry about their own paycheck at the end of the week.

Do you see the Black Spot Sneaker as making alliances with the fair trade sector? Would you want it to try to carry an international fairtrade mark?

Well to some degree...of course it's an ethical sneaker and I think we're going to put some life into that whole effort. But we're not going to hop in bed with that side of things. I feel they're sort of do-goody types. When I look at a lot of work they've done it doesn't inspire me too much. think it's a step in the right direction but they don't have that kick-ass edge....they're not into kick-ass marketing, We're into kick-ass marketing and we're trying to put some life into that activist community, and we're trying to do something way bigger than just 'being fair' and 'being nice'. It's more abrasive but it's also a larger idea. It's great to be ethical and fair and of course I believe in all that, but at the moment we also need to be nasty.

The black spot sneaker has been critiqued because it is involved with selling, marketing and branding - all processes that Adbusters critiques. How would you counter such accusations?

You know, when the back page of our magazine had the first black spot sneaker ads, the very first story that was ever done about it was done by The Globe and Mail here in Canada, and they phoned up Naomi Klein and she immediately threw cold water on this idea. There's been a lot of other lefties who have done that since as well. And, you know, my reaction at the moment is, just, 'Well, fuck the left'. These people haven't been able to get it up in the last twenty years. There's a lot of talking, publishing books and conferences and talking. I also think one of the great things about the Black Spot Sneaker is that it allows the activist community to have a debate, to ask whether we are getting a little lame - and to start to having a few more new radical ideas instead of being caught up in our comfortable little talk box. So I think that one of the by-products of the Black Spot Sneaker will be to give the left a kick in the pants.

...do you consider yourself on the left?

Yes....I say 'yes', but I have been very uncomfortable in answering yes. All my life I have been a lefty, but over the last ten years I keep feeling like I want to jump over the dead body of the left. But then there seems to be nowhere else to jump! The world seems to be divided up into this stupid 'left-right' thing, and we culture jammers keep on talking about producing a new political movement which is beyond the left and beyond the right, but that is a very difficult proposition in a world which has automatically been divvied up into left and right for hundreds of years. Somehow we're caught in our own stupid boxes. If the wave of activism which is swirling around the planet now, the Battle of Seattle and so on, is going to be successful - if we're actually going to be able to change the world and create a better world - then I think to some degree we will have to think outside that lefty box. Maybe we will not so much have to jump over the dead body of the left but kick it hard enough to wake it up again.

Do you think that marketing and branding have to some extent been overly scapegoated when what's perhaps more important in ethical terms are the motives and organisation of production (i.e. whether these goods are being produced for profit or not, where the revenue goes, and the conditions under which they're made?) After all, both Adbusters and the Black Spot Sneaker are types of brand themselves, aren't they?

Yes. What many types of lefties find uncomfortable is branding. 'Brand' is a dirty word, and for many lefties even the marketplace is a dirty concept. Capitalism is a dirty concept. But more and more people like myself...I don't have a huge problem with capitalism, I just don't like the way it's currently being conducted, by the way the current global capitalist system is being run by these huge corporations. And I don't have a huge problem with the marketplace. I just think it should be a true-cost marketplace where the price tags of every product tell you their social and ecological truth. And I certainly don't have any problem with launching a brand, the Black Spot, which goes into competition with these corporate brands and tries to wipe them out! I think that we should rethink capitalism, we should rethink the marketplace, and we should rethink brands, instead of just pretending that we lefties have nothing to do with those things and leaving it for other people to do. I think we should get our hands dirty: start playing the capitalist game, get into the marketplace and start launching our own brands!

Doesn't that raise a key issue, though, of whether you're in fact replicating a capitalist marketplace or whether you're trying to fashion an alternative kind of market?

I think that lefties who think they can go back to some pre-Soviet era, and that we can build some Socialist utopia, are deluded. I think what we need now is some radical rethinking of the capitalist marketplace and of branding, rather than to pretend we can get rid of the marketplace, or capitalism, or brands. So why don't we just get in on the game and change it?

....in your book Culture Jam, you use the concept of 'demarketing', which you say is about 'turning the incredible power of marketing against itself' in order to try to build a new, non-commercial culture.

Yes and in a way the Black Spot Sneaker is some attempt to do that. I think that the creation of an anti-corporate cool, a nuclear glow around the Black Spot Sneaker, is a wonderful marketing strategy. Because ultimately with the Black Spot Sneaker you can say, 'we are selling a sneaker, we are selling a product' - but we're also selling an idea. And that's the wonderful thing about the Black Spot Sneaker, it's the idea that capitalism can be reformed, that good products can be sold on the marketplace, that activists can tweak capitalism and make it more benign.

After reading Culture Jam I started to think that I'd describe your activism as somewhere between Michael Moore and Guy Debord. Is this a good description?

I don't think it is, no...Michael Moore's book was written for a mainstream audience, it wasn't written for activists. It was written for mainstream people who have never even thought of being activists. There's a certain kind of even-handed tone to it. But I think culture jamming is one of the hubs of this wave of activism that's sweeping the planet right now - and this activism has got the soft, Michael Moore edge to it on one level, but it's also got a very hard-edged, radical edge to it as well. So that's what I like about culture jamming, that it's a full-spectrum thing, that if you're mainstream you can see it in one way, and if you're an anarchist you can see it in another way.

So what are the ideas or theories that have interested you the most?

I think the ideas that have influenced me the most is the Situationist idea that we are now living in a society of the spectacle, that we're being mindfucked and that we don't really know what's going on any more. That we're living in a kind of Huxleyian universe where things are not what they seem. I think that's the most powerful idea and I believe that culture jamming is a way to wake people up from their Huxleyian nightmare.

...and do you feel sympathetic to Michael Moore's type of activism?

Well...no...actually, at the moment we are coming up with an issue of Adbusters that bashes the left a little bit. And we have a very severe critique of people like Chomsky and people like Michael Moore as well. Even though I really admire a lot of the things he's done, we lefties have to have heroes and leaders that are way better than what Michael Moore is at the moment. He's written a few nice books and he's made a few nice waves, but, number one, he's not very credible, he's very careless with his facts, and secondly, he's very enamoured with his own ego. Some of the things he does I feel it's less for the sake of changing the world and more for the sake of his own ego. So I like Michael Moore but I have some problems with him as well.

So are you saying we need different types of public figures?

Yes, like when I was a young man there were all types of lefty heroes to look up to and be proud of. And lately, where are they?

...who were your heroes?

Well, when I was younger, Che Guevara! And more recently, Subcommandante Marcos...or people like Jose Bové, I like Bové, he's not a talker, he's a walker! He actually went there and put a bulldozer into McDonalds. He went out there and destroyed a few GM crops. He put his money where his mouth was. Whereas most of the other lefties like Naomi Klein, all they do is talk! Talk, and write books, and go to conferences...

So you're saying we need more 'action'....

Yes, I think the big job of the activist left is to jump from analysis to action. That's what we all have to do now if we're going to stop this neo-conservative rampage.

You can see images of the Black Spot Sneaker and pre-order it online at www.blackspotsneaker.org

By Jo Littler