Adbuster's Occupy Wall Street "meme" (Courtesy of Adbusters)

The anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters has been a big supporter of the Occupy Wall Street movement. So much so, that it could be said that they were the first people to truly capitalize on the movement. In fact, it was Adbusters, who came up with the hash-tag #OCCUPYWALLSTREET, along with the visual (left) on June 13th, roughly three months before the movement started.

An article in Sunday’s New York Times, entitled “The Branding of the Occupy Movement”, focused on Kalle Lasn, the 69 year-old in charge of Adbusters.

“This is what Adbusters has done for the past 20 years, to come up with these memes and to propagate them,” he said, in the article. “That’s what it’s all about: may the best memes win.”

Memes, popular in internet slang, originated from Biologist Richard Dawkins who coined the term in his book The Selfish Gene (it is a portmanteau of the Greek word mimēma, meaning “that which is imitated,” and gene). Online, memes are content that deals with imitation, something that plays off one cultural idea, and spreads through the Internet.

One of the first online memes, "All your base are belong to us" (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

The interesting part is how Lasn is using these memes. For the most part, memes are jokey, irreverent media created for the sole purpose of amusement (see right). However, what Lasn is suggesting, is that memes have the potential to serve a political purpose.

Subverting the message of multi-billion dollar corporations, has been Lasn’s goal from the get-go. Adbusters specializes in “subvertising”, which essentially comments on the state of advertising, by parodying current ad campaigns. One of the more well-known examples was a parody of Camel Cigarettes’ “Joe Camel” ads, which derisively featured a cartoon named “Joe Chemo”, as in chemotherapy, usually hooked up to an IV or something similar.

Of course, how successful this current advertising project will be remains to be seen. The “Joe Camel” character was discontinued after 1997, after a popular 10 year run. He became so well-known among children, that in 1991, the Journal of the American Medical Assoociation claimed that “Old Joe Camel cartoon advertisements are far more successful at marketing Camel cigarettes to children than to adults.” They linked the cartoon to a rise in Camel’s share of the illegal children’s cigarette market segment, which it claimed increased from 0.5% to 32.8%, which amounted to an estimated $476 million per year. Taking on the richest 1% of Americans, however, might be a larger undertaking.

Nevertheless, Lasn remains undeterred, maintaining that, “if you’re able to come up with a very sexy sounding hash tag like we did for Occupy Wall Street, and you come up with a very magical looking poster that seems to have something very profound about it, these devices push these memes, these meta memes, into the public imagination in a very powerful way.”

An example of Adbusters' "subvertising" (Courtesy of Adbusters)