A poster lies on the ground outside USF’s Student Services building. At first it appears to be a bunch of black lines of varied thickness. A closer look reveals that it’s a bar code. Closer still. Little stick figures are jumping out of the bar code. They are running from it. In big red letters at the bottom it says, “Buy Nothing Day.” On top of the paper is the dirt from a shoe print.
A Global Mindshift
The day after Thanksgiving was coined Buy Nothing Day 11 years ago by activist Kalle Lasn. Lasn is founder of The Media Foundation, a group of artists and activists, based in Vancouver, devoted to creating cultural change. His campaign proposes that one make a pact to refrain from shopping for 24 hours on the busiest shopping day of the year.
“I’m fighting for a cultural revolution,” Lasn said. “We’re working towards a global mindshift where the people take over the reins of corporate power.”
In his book Culture Jam: How to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer Binge — and why we must, Lasn refers to America as “a multi-trillion dollar brand.”
Buy Nothing Day is one of many campaigns Lasn and his foundation have devised. It’s what Lasn calls a “culture jam.” A culture jam is an act that makes others stop and think about their mental environment, according to Lasn.
For instance, one group of “culture jammers” put stickers that said “grease” all over McDonald’s tables. In the case of Buy Nothing Day, jammers host credit card cut-ups, post and hand out flyers, and/or perform street theater.
Lasn’s magazine, Adbusters, serves as a forum for these acts, featuring mock ads and stories about how advertising and television erode society.
Lasn said Buy Nothing Day is the most successful of his campaigns. He estimated that about one million people participated in Buy Nothing Day last year, and 10 million people heard about it. The campaign has participants in 65 countries, Lasn said.
His plight began, he said, when he could not buy airtime for an “uncommercial” he produced, which showed the problems with a British Columbia logging company. None of the major networks would air the ad.
“That absolutely enraged me. That’s the rage that’s running Adbusters now,” Lasn said.
He produced more “uncommercials,” but the networks subsequently refused all the anti-consumer messages, he said.
CNN alone airs Lasn’s Buy Nothing Day message each year. The “uncommerical” features a hefty pink pig rising out of North America. Lasn said the ad, referred to as “The Big Pig,” will run again this year.
Whenever the ad airs, Lasn said e-mails pour in and people call up angry and cursing.
“We swear back,” Lasn said.
Lasn said they are too immersed in the American Dream to understand his message.
“I have a lot of fun with those people,” Lasn said.
When asked if he’s ever been discouraged, Lasn said that about four years ago he was but that all the heartache and financial red ink was something his group had to go through.
“Ten years of struggle was worth every day of it,” Lasn said.
Though it’s his most successful campaign, Lasn said it isn’t his favorite. He said now that Buy Nothing Day has become more mainstream, he’s moved on to other projects.
“Buy Nothing Day is just the tip of the iceberg,” Lasn said.
Questioning the culture
In Tampa, Christopher Martinez, a 30-year-old network technician for USF, is working with two other local activists. He said they plan to arm themselves with only flyers and a message: “Think before you buy.”
He said he wants consumers to understand that they vote with their dollars. Martinez said he thinks things would be better if we lived in a world where Wal-Mart employees earned better wages and where people in sweatshops didn’t make many of the products, for example.
Martinez said he’s been familiar with Adbusters for about two years. He said he started questioning the culture he lives in after the 2000 presidential election. He said he became involved in part, because no matter how much he had it never felt like enough.
On Buy Nothing Day he and his small group plan to possibly go to local malls and hand out flyers. They have not made exact plans yet.
Though the group is starting small, Martinez said he already has plans for next year. He said for Buy Nothing Day 2003 he wants to have a no-shopping zone in or near the parking lot of a local mall. The zone would have couches set up where people could sit during their hectic shopping day. He said he hopes the area would also provide a place for dialogue about his conscious consumer message.
He points out that he doesn’t believe that shopping or advertising are, in themselves, wrong.
“There is nothing wrong with wanting things,” Martinez said.
He said he wants people to understand that the reason they are out standing in line at 5 a.m. for Christmas presents is due to cultural influences.
When people, as Martinez phrases it, get that one eye-opening experience, it lends itself to more thought on the matter.
“You see it in their faces,” Martinez said.
Martinez said he once approached a group of young people in a Wal-Mart parking lot. They were railing against Wal-Mart because they would not take a microwave back. He handed him one of his flyers. He explained his message to them. He could tell that one of the kids in the background was listening. The young person started asking questions about the theory behind the campaign.
“I hope he’s taking it seriously,” Martinez said, “I hope he hasn’t forgotten about it.”
In the Christmas Spirit
At the University Mall, they are building Santa’s Wonderland out of sand. The Disney Store has its shelves stocked with Mickeys and Minnies dressed as Mr. and Mrs. Claus. Bath and Body Works has a sparkling white Christmas tree.
Dawn Richter, marketing director for the University Mall, said she had never heard of Buy Nothing Day.
“I don’t have an opinion for it or against it,” Richter said.
She said the mall would be doing its typical holiday theme the day after Thanksgiving. The University Mall also opens at 7 a.m. on that day for a special event at Kay-Bee Toystore. The other stores open at 8 a.m.
“Our stores will be packed, and there will be people buying,” Richter said.
University Mall manager Tom Locke said he didn’t know about Buy Nothing Day, nor does he agree with it.
He said, however, “People are entitled to do whatever they would like to do.”
Locke said he knows there are people who say Christmas is too commercial. He said he thinks it’s a good thing because it’s the one time of year people stop and think about someone other than themselves.
“It’s a great thing spiritually,” Locke said.
The University Mall kicked off their holiday season Sunday with the Magical Night of Giving, a fundraising event for non-profit organizations from the area. People purchased tickets to be an exclusive shopper son Sunday evening when the mall is closed to the rest of the public. The night, according to Locke, was geared toward children, featuring characters dressed up in costumes and a children’s parade to bring in Santa Claus.
“Anything you can do to add to the magic of Christmas for kids is worthwhile,” Locke said.
He said there is never a greater Christmas than one watched through the eyes of a child.
Jose Hernandez, a manager at the Disney Store, said that shopping on Nov. 29 isn’t a bad idea.
“You can get a lot of good offers on that particular day,” Henandez said.
Ann Kalinowski, a senior at USF majoring in history, said she has a list of 14 people to buy Christmas presents for this year. She plans to shop on Buy Nothing Day.
“I’ll go shopping any day. That day just has the best sales,” Kalinowski said. “And there’s nothing that says I only have to buy presents.”
As for Buy Nothing Day, she doesn’t agree.
“I don’t see what the harm is. Why is that something that needs to change?” Kalinowski said.
She said she doesn’t mind the long lines and crowds of people.
“Shopping is the only sport I participate in,” Kalinowski said.
Contact Kristan Brightat firstname.lastname@example.org