Ad Report Card: A Pitch for Nothing

There’s activism, and then there’s what you might call inactivism. For years now, the Adbusters Media Foundation (Candian publisher of the anti-consumer-culture magazine Adbusters) has beat the drum for Buy Nothing Day, encouraging everyone to take a self-imposed break from shopping for 24 hours on the day after Thanksgiving—the busiest shopping date of the year. Adbusters has even purchased TV time to advertise the last several Buy Nothing Days with an “uncommercial.” According to the Adbusters site, the spot is scheduled to run tomorrow evening on CNN Headline News and possibly other venues as well. At a time when the president has unabashedly equated exuberant personal spending with patriotism, this sort of inactivism is of course a particularly tough sell. You can view the commercial here via the Adbusters site.

The ad: A massive, squeaking, squirming pig juts out from a map of North America. “The average North American,” the narrator intones, “consumes five times more than a Mexican, 10 times more than a Chinese person, and 30 times more than a person from India.” The image shifts to a sprawling dump. “We are the most voracious consumers in the world.” (The words “voracious consumers” are superimposed over the dump imagery.) “A world that could die because of the way we North Americans live.” There’s a shot here of a huge and crowded freeway. “Give it a rest,” the narrator implores, as we get a view of Earth. “November 23 is Buy Nothing Day.”

What’s new?Adbusters has been putting this spot on CNN Headline News annually for quite some time now, but apparently has never succeeded in getting the big networks to accept it. (The Wall Street Journal in 1997 said that CBS objected that the Buy Nothing Day concept is “in opposition to the current economic policy in the United States.” I like that “current” caveat—CBS must be keeping the door open for some future policy that involves the end of consumer spending.) Anyway, what makes the same old ad interesting this year is that the context around it has changed. It was one thing to rail against wasteful consumption in the overheated economy of the 1990s—but now? Even Adbusters  says the issue has “utterly polarized” its readers and solicits their opinions as to whether the campaign should be put on hold this year or “shout[ed] from the highest rooftop.”

I think that’s the wrong framework. There’s no reason for those who agree with the spirit of Buy Nothing Day to suddenly change their convictions. But what they should change is their sales job. The Adbusters crowd is at its best when it steals moves from the real advertising world’s playbook—in this case making its point with exactly the sort of overly simplified pitch and cooked-up publicity stunt its foes might use. But somewhere near the beginning of that playbook, I suspect, it says, “Don’t run the same commercial year after year.” Freshen the message! Keep up with the Zeitgeist!

That would be true even if the Sept. 11 attacks hadn’t occurred. But in light of those awful events, shouldn’t the spot’s voice-over, with its invocation of  “a world that could die,” at least be reworked? Instead of rebutting the “shop for freedom” argument, which is a legitimate thing for anti-consumers to do, this pitch now has a head-in-the-sand quality to it. And I doubt that’s the message the inactivists want to send.