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Media : Just Say 'No!' to TV Addiction, Activists Urge : Canadian foundation buys air time to tell people to unplug their sets and stop conspicuous consumption.

June 23, 1992|MARY WILLIAMS WALSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VANCOUVER, Canada — Political songster Gil Scott-Heron got it right in 1974: The revolution will not be televised. Not, at least, on the ABC and NBC affiliates in Los Angeles. Nor will it appear on any of the network affiliates in Boston, or, most likely, in any other major American media market.

But the revolution has made its television debut in such Canadian crossroads as Thunder Bay, Ontario, 100 Mile House, British Columbia and Red Deer, Alberta.

We're talking about Kalle Lasn's media revolution, an environmentally oriented uprising against rampant consumerism and the print and television commercials that abet it up and down North America.

Lasn, director of the Vancouver-based Media Foundation--also known as Adbusters--is trying not to rein in broadcasters and advertisers but to produce professional advertisements of his own, then raise money for TV time or magazine space to get them before the public.

The twist is that Adbusters urges against conspicuous consumption--and urges viewers to unplug the TV set as well.

So far, the approach is working better in Canada than in the United States. But it has already won respect on both sides of the border from a variety of public interest groups concerned about the content of TV broadcasts.

"I think their work is urgent," says Olof Sundin, who runs an addictions program at Bellevue Community College near Seattle. Sundin thinks many North Americans are addicted to TV, and he sees parallels between chemical addiction and compulsive shopping. He has mounted a campaign to get one of the Adbusters spots on Seattle television.

Which is just what Lasn had hoped people would do when he launched the Media Foundation three years ago. He envisions a time when environmental, political and religious groups will walk into their local TV stations, pull out their checkbooks and buy time to get onto the air ideas about something besides the purported joys of buying and owning.

"The commercial media can be seen, in a way, as our biggest environmental problem," he suggests. "Every 12 minutes, it's saying, 'Buy! Buy! Buy!' " Lasn goes so far as to call TV addiction the continent's No. 1 mental-health problem.

Indeed, statistics now show that the average American is bombarded with 3,000 ads a day, when everything from TV commercials to billboards is counted. By age 20, the typical American has seen 800,000 ads on television alone, at a clip of 800 per week. And thanks to the global proliferation of cable offerings and satellite dishes, American ad-meisters are now free to taunt the world's hundreds of millions of poor with impossible, perhaps dangerous longings.

But in the very face of our commercial logorrhea, Lasn sees reason for hope: The consumer culture, he reasons, has become so pervasive, so grating and so out of touch with common-sense economic and environmental realities that growing numbers of North Americans are getting fed up and ready to join the resistance.

"We feel there's going to be a media movement in the 1990s," says Lasn, whose Fall/Winter 1991 issue of Adbusters Quarterly is illustrated with etchings of the Boston Tea Party.

Lasn, an emigre Estonian, used to work in the advertising business himself, as a young professional in Japan in the 1960s. But he became interested in filmmaking and moved to Canada, where the government patronizes the domestic film industry.

Lasn and his Japanese wife settled in Vancouver, which happens to be the home of a potent environmental movement. It was here that Lasn came to his belief--accorded ample ground at the recent Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro--that unnecessary consumption and the resulting pressure on the world's resources is the central burden of our age.

Lasn is far from the first person to connect the commercial culture with social and environmental decay, of course. Many media critics, parent-teacher associations and public-interest groups before him have stood up before the omnipresence and offensiveness of advertising and junk TV.

There have been petitions filed with the Federal Communications Commission to keep cartoon shills out of kids' shows; legislation linking improved children's programming to broadcasters' license renewals; a law banning children's commercials outright in the Canadian province of Quebec; preacher-driven boycotts; dire academic laments and woe-is-us books on the perils of too much television.

But media watchdog groups in the United States say they know of no one else using the Adbusters' approach.

Adbusters has so far produced about a dozen anti-consumption spots. One is a clay animation, starring a happy, smiling pig emerging from a map of North America. In the background, a narrator reminds viewers that North Americans constitute 5% of the world's population but consume a third of its resources. "Nothing is destroying this planet faster than the way we North Americans live," intones the voice-over. At the end of the spot, the pig burps resoundingly, contentedly.

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