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Humane Billboards

Let them eat subvertising (and make it themselves)

Ever pass through a city and feel punched in the face by adverts? Descending into London’s tube network it can seem like I’m the product, one unit among thousands dropping down a human conveyor belt. Here I am presented to corporation after corporation, then a break, and the government barges its way into my internal dialogue. The conveyor belt moves slowly and my fellow passengers and I are each force-fed every flashy, flat-screen image. On the platform, the rolling advertising boards run more smoothly than the trains. Back at the surface, my gaze falls on more giant billboards than trees. 

The corporate narrative is repeated, rebranded, and repeated the world over. Londoners get an average dose of 3,500 commercial messages per day. A forty-five-minute tube journey is replete with 130 adverts for eighty products. Tube etiquette means that the occupied spaces are where you will stare when avoiding eye contact. Submersed by images, it is easy to think “advertising shits in your head.” I have, and in November that was the slogan of a campaign of anti-advertising posters. Now it’s the title of an anonymously-authored book on advertising, PR, and an opposing cultural force: subvertising. Published in January, the book is as brash and bold as its title, and offers a how-to guide for attacking the advertising industry on its own turf.

The reader-writer relationship is consensual (glad you’re still here). In contrast, there is nowhere to hide from public corporate messaging. So subvertisers like Special Patrol Group are not the first to argue public ads are “psychological pollution” that forces its way into your mind, gives you desires you did not have in the first place, and feeds insecurities. The substantial psychological and sociological research discussed in the book—from Sut Jahally, Professor of Communications at the University of Massachusetts, to the President of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, Rory Sutherland—shows how advertising makes people sleep less and work more, increases unhappiness, drives personal debt, and makes us more self-centered, working on the emotional subconscious (rather than intellectual conscious) regions of our brains. In other words, advertising turns concerned citizens into frustrated consumers.

The book marks a new move toward mass involvement, giving the public a role beyond mere spectatorship.

One of the first big projects of Edward Bernays, the sordid inventor of PR, was marketing cigarettes to women—he branded them “Torches of Freedom,” suggesting it was empowering for women to smoke. It is no coincidence that when subvertisers arrived on the scene in 1973, they chose to lay into tobacco corporations. Advertising Shits in Your Head traces subvertising’s roots back to collectives like the Billboard Liberation Front (and, later, Adbusters) who put up counter-images. Rather than riding the American dream of freedom on his horse, Marlboro Man was six feet under, and mourned for in the graveyard by his loyal steed. The models you would expect to see glamorizing smoking were superimposed with the straight tagline “If it wasn’t for cigarettes, I wouldn’t have cancer.” From the late 1980s, even cartoon characters encouraged children to light up. In 1991 a study showed six-year-olds were as familiar with “Joe Camel” as Mickey Mouse. Research from the same year found that Camel’s market share increased from 0.5 percent to 32.8 percent of high-school smokers. Today across the world tobacco advertising is questioned, and often illegal. But children’s minds are still drawn toward adult-only consumption: a 2015 study in England and Scotland found half of children associated their national soccer teams with the beer that sponsors them.

Following in the hoof trails of earlier spoofed ads, today’s subvertisers take aim at big corporations. In 2015, the Brandalism collective hit the Paris Climate talks with six hundred pieces (one of the subverts looked like it was from VW, apologizing for manipulating its carbon emission testing), spread across the Paris bus network. The COP 21 Brandalism campaign drew global media attention, pushing the message that the carbon-intense industries sponsoring the talks were engaging in devious greenwash. Subvertisers are increasingly targeting climate change as a theme, as Advertising Shits in Your Head explains: “advertising is fuel for the capitalist system, a system of exponential growth and ever-increasing consumption on a finite planet.” 

Importantly the book tells of a new ethic within subvertising—targeting state oppression. UK subvertisers Special Patrol Group showcase this development: their first campaign in late 2014 was called Total Propaganda, sending up a police PR campaign named Total Policing (which tried to raise public confidence in a force that has deemed itself institutionally racist), with unanswered questions about its unlawful killings. Reacting to cuts to women’s services earlier this year, feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut replaced tube adverts, adding subvertising to their toolbox of occupations and obstructed roads. The tag lines included: “YOU BLOCK OUR BRIDGES. WE BLOCK YOURS.” Smaller print read, “Theresa May is blocking migrant domestic violence survivors’ bridges to safety.”

But while Advertising Shits in Your Head pays homage to the original Adbusters-style subvertisers, it also highlights a shift. Essentially, the book argues that there is a problem if only a few small groups in the public hijack these corporate advertising spaces. The “weapons” need to be passed around. To achieve this, the book gives specific how-to information, and provides case studies of subvertising that actively tries to increase involvement, including through workshops and swapping the physical keys that unlock advertising boards from LA to London. American subvertiser and artist Jordan Seiler, from the Public Ad Campaign, has made it his mission to copy these keys and send them to anyone around the world, in a project collated under the internet hashtag #yeahwegotkeysforthat. Last year, the Public Ad Campaign swapped commercials for artwork, in cities including Philadelphia. By offering anyone, anywhere the tools to participate, the book marks a new move toward mass involvement, giving the public a role beyond mere spectatorship. With the keys, everyone is invited in from the cold passivity of consumption.

Of course, another proposal that runs through the subvertising movement is that our cities should ban public advertising, as we deserve not to have our minds infiltrated by the corporate bullshit avalanche. São Paulo in Brazil has actually followed through, moving this principle into law in 2007. Then-mayor and civil engineer Gilberto Kassab described advertising as a form of “visual pollution.” Banning advertising transformed the city, which, as the headquarters of much of Brazil’s advertising agencies, was especially covered in billboards. Removing them revealed its rich architectural heritage. And what else? Well, another consequence of clearing 15,000 billboards was the uncovering of favelas, where poverty had been, for years, literally hidden by advertising.