Adbusters' Buy Nothing Day campaign poster, November 2015

Preserving the sparks of global revolution in the Adbusters Media Foundation fonds

November 25, 2021
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By Richard Dancy and Melanie Hardbattle

“Buy Nothing Day was a realization that we could actually play, not just have some sort of influence on what’s happening in Canada, but that we could actually have global impact…Nothing really matched Buy Nothing Day until many, many years later when…the biggest curve ball we ever threw into the planet was Occupy Wall Street.” – Kalle Lasn, founder, Adbusters Media Foundation1

Many of us are familiar with Black Friday, the day after American Thanksgiving that marks the beginning of the unofficial Christmas shopping season and deep discounts on merchandise. But did you know that the same day (November 26 in 2021) is also recognized in many countries around the world as Buy Nothing Day, a “day of protest in which participants pledge to buy nothing for 24 hours to raise awareness of the negative environmental, social, and political consequences of overconsumption?”2

An early Buy Nothing Day poster from 1997

Conceived by artist Ted Dave in 1992, Buy Nothing Day was the first of several campaigns launched by the Vancouver-based Adbusters Media Foundation (Adbusters) that have had impact internationally. The most famous is the Occupy Wall Street movement, the tenth anniversary of which was marked on September 17.

The publisher of Adbusters magazine, Adbusters Media Foundation is a pro-environment non-profit society that is anti-consumerism and anti-advertising. It describes itself as an “activist hub” and an ”international collective of artists, designers, writers, musicians, poets, punks, philosophers and wild hearts…smashing ads, fighting corruption and speaking truth to power.”3 Adbusters was born in 1989 when co-founders Kalle Lasn and Bill Shmalz’s bid to buy air time to run an anti-ad against a BC forestry industry commercial promising “Forests Forever” was denied by the major networks. They sued the networks, resulting in a lengthy lawsuit. In order to drum up support for the battle, they created a newsletter, which  evolved into Adbusters magazine (now on Issue 157). Adbusters uses culture jamming to protest what they see as corporate control of the media and consumerism. 

The poster and hash tag that launched Occupy Wall Street

On July 13, 2011, Adbusters started an international movement when they proposed via their blog a peaceful occupation of Wall Street on September 17 to protest social and economic inequality and corporate influence in politics. Adbusters staff created the #OCCUPYWALLSTREET hashtag on Twitter and promoted the protest with a poster featuring a dancer standing on top of Wall Street's charging bull scuplture. 

In addition to records documenting the University and its community, SFU Archives acquires records from private individuals and organizations that support teaching and research interests at SFU and in the broader community, including records relating to social justice and activism. In 2020, we acquired Adbusters’ archives, documenting all of the organization’s activities and campaigns over the past three plus decades. For instance, there are posters, marketing materials, memes, and social media posts and responses for Buy Nothing Day going back to the 1990s; photographs and marketing materials for Occupy Wall Street and subsequent campaigns like 2018’s Occupy Silicon Valley; and the business records of Adbusters magazine.

Examples of Adbusters' "Spoof Ads" created to spoof and subvert popular advertising campaigns

When we first visited the Adbusters office, the staff told us that they didn't have many archival records -- being an anarchist organization, they tended to throw things away once they had served their purpose. However, it very quickly became apparent that Adbusters had indeed documented many of its activities well, just not always in the traditional sense of paper files and filing cabinets. As is increasingly the case with many organizations, most of their records were in digital format.

The Adbusters' accession is significant in that it represents SFU Archives' first large transfer of born-digital records from a non-SFU organization. Graphics and images make up about half of the total files, but the transfer also includes textual records (pdfs, Word docs), spreadsheets, audio, and video files. Correspondence from about eight gmail accounts associated with the organization were transferred in the Archives' first acquisition of non-SFU email. 

In total, we received just over 70 different file formats in ca. 130 format versions. This diversity points to one of the challenges of digital archiving, as we wrangle with the sheer variety of file formats that are constantly changing and become obsolete over time. Our digital preservation system always retains a file in its original format, but it also "normalizes" (converts) files to a smaller number of stable formats designated for long-term preservation and access. It was great working with the always enthusiastic Adbusters' team to test and refine our digital transfer processes, which are still in the early days of development.

Blackspot sneakers: original design (on right) and v. 2.0
John Fluevog design for the original Blackspot sneaker, 2004

Despite being substantially digital, the donation includes a significant amount of analogue material, including the records documenting the legal battle with the networks, campaign posters, spoof ads, calendars, speaking notes, magazine mock-ups, and even two pairs of Blackspot sneakers. Created to take a cut of the market away from the big corporations, these shoes made out of recycled car tires and hemp were first designed by John Fluevog in 2004. In 2006, Adbusters released version 2.0, the Blackspot Unswoosher; to date, over 25,000 pairs of these shoes have been sold worldwide.

We are excited to begin processing the records to make them accessible for research. As we've only really begun to work out how exactly we arrange and describe and provide access to born-digital records, there are a number of issues to tackle as we move from our traditional paper-based practices to the digital realm. This fonds will give us a chance to really jump in and get to work on these.

Once it is fully processed and accessible, the archives will support research and teaching in many areas, including political science, economics, history, publishing, communications, and much more. In broader terms, Lasn hopes that the Adbusters fonds will show those who use it -- now and in the future -- “how one idea can launch a Buy Nothing Day or one perfectly timed spark like Occupy Wall Street can suddenly launch…, or be, a world revolution.” He says “It gives people hope, you know, that you can change the world at a time that the world so desperately needs to be changed.”

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1 Hardbattle, Melanie. Interview with Kalle Lasn, September 2, 2020.

2 Encyclopedia Britannica Online,  "Buy Nothing Day," accessed November 20, 2021, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Buy-Nothing-Day.

3 Adbusters, "About Us," accessed November 23, 2021, https://www.adbusters.org/about-us.