For Adbusters, Parody Pays Off

Abusters magazine critiques images and image-makers for their willingness to manipulate the public’s conscious and unconscious behavior. It is a worthy mission. However, in terms of design, the past four of its fifty-three covers have been stuck in a muddle somewhere between polemical profundity and graphic coolness. It might well be described as punk meets modernism—the convergence of dirty and clean, young and old, shocking and ho hum. But one thing is certain; the design (fig. 2) is excessively self-conscious.

Ever since Adbusters adopted some of the graphic tropes it had been founded in part to critique, it has sacrificed much of its critical authority. This is not meant to suggest the magazine has lost its zeal, but, for me, it started sinking into the sea of pseudo-grungy youth cult codes that currently interferes with its message.

Yet redemption in the magazine business can often occur with a single issue, and such is the case with Adbusters Number 53 (May/June 2004)(fig.1). As magazine design consumers we are often piqued by the more exceptional covers. Yet, during any given weekly or monthly newsstand cycle, there are precious few that raise an eyebrow. Even the most enticing covers for art and design magazines (those where cover lines do not obstruct a good image) also tend to blend into the forest of over-designed consumer magazines. But the most recent Adbusters cover is so beguiling—and jarringly understated—it will turn heads.

For those familiar with the genre of books commemorating sesquicentennials for universities, banks, armies, or governments, this spot-on send up will have additional appeal. This Adbusters cover is a perfect replica with its a redish-brown faux leather cover, gold-leaf embossed typography, and gold de-bossed 3-dimensional central image—an American eagle holding an olive branch in its beak and grabbing a bomb in its talons, under which in slightly scratched-out type reads “Hope and Memory. ” The bombardier eagle is not an original idea, but here the anti-war commentary is brilliantly deadpan (and totally consistent with the coats of arms on the actual books). The issue is Adbusters’ unique, if skewed, history of the United States’ critical events—a string of historical facts from the pilgrim’s landing to the invasion of Iraq. Designed to be a real collector’s item and reference, the blurbs and short essays address imperial ambitions like The Monroe Doctrine and pro-Contra dirty war. Although I cannot vouch for its complete accuracy, this overview provides some sobering facts.

Of course, a smart parody cannot help but grab attention. Viewers of the parodied image are preconditioned to accept the familiarity endemic to the form, and the more nuanced gags are often the most engaging. Graphic commentators have long mined Norman Rockwell’s best known paintings (such as the Four Freedoms) for acerbic twists of content, but other icons, including James Montgomery Flagg’s “Uncle Sam Wants You” and Grant Wood’s “American Gothic, ” have been parodied countless times to the point of cliche. The National Lampoon’s 1970s parody of a typical high school yearbook (from Dacron, Ohio) so precisely replicated the original it fooled most readers. And although Adbusters’ cover probably will not cause anyone to think they are holding a real commemorative volume, I guarantee that few will realize it is Adbusters, either. I was taken off guard, and this sly subterfuge is its real strength.

I accused Adbusters of adopting a cool veneer that undermines the magazine’s content. Yet, for this one issue at least, Adbusters rejects self-conscious cool. Instead, it smartly frames its polemic messages and so stands apart from every other magazine on the newsstand, including itself.

About the Author: Steven Heller, co-chair of the Designer as Author MFA and co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism at School of Visual Arts, is the author of Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon Press), Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State (Phaidon Press) and most recently Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned (Allworth Press). He is also the co-author of New Vintage Type (Thames & Hudson), Becoming a Digital Designer (John Wiley & Co.), Teaching Motion Design (Allworth Press) and more.