‘Brandalism’ and ‘subvertising’: what’s behind the new rebellion against advertising?

Political advertising boards are increasingly being targetted by 'subvertising' activists.

According to the Urban Dictionary, the word ‘subvertising’ refers to the practice of making spoofs or parodies of corporate and political advertisements in order to make a statement

Anyone paying close attention to their surroundings in recent weeks may have noticed an upsurge in subvertising campaigns across the UK. First there was the continued and varied targeting of UKIP election campaign billboards, including a bold effort by Bill Drummond who painted one entirely grey. He explains the reasons behind his act of subversion for the Guardian here. Something to do with them being racist was one reason mentioned.

Then last weekend saw the biggest advertising takeover in world history, as over two days teams of artists took over 365 corporate spaces in 10 UK cities under the umbrella of a campaign called Brandalism‘. Their website says:

“Brandalism is a revolt against corporate control of the visual realm. It is the biggest anti-advertising campaign in world history and it’s getting bigger. Starting in July 2012 with a small team in a van, Brandalism has grown tenfold. Following on in the guerilla art traditions of the 20th Century and taking inspiration from Agitprop, Situationist and Street Art movements, the Brandalism project sees artists from around the world collaborate to challenge the authority and legitimacy of commercial images within public space and within our culture.”

Following this, members of the provocative Plane Stupid environmental group hijacked 200 Gatwick airport posters on the tube network this week in opposition to a recent Gatwick advertising campaign called Gatwick Obviously which is desperately trying to make the case for expansion of Gatwick Airport. Barry Jones, 27, a Plane Stupid activist who took part in the protest, said:

“Airport expansion is not the right answer in a time of climate crisis; at Gatwick, Heathrow or anywhere else. What the aviation industry has managed to do, partly through its excessive spending on advertising, is to hijack the debate to make it appear that the only thing up for debate is where a new runway will go, when actually the facts show that we cannot have any airport expansion if we want to meet our climate change reduction targets at the same time. When you add in the noise problems, air pollution and community blight caused by airport expansion then the case for expansion falls apart.”

What this quote highlights is how clever subvertising can be when it is tied to a very real current political issue or a related campaign. What I like most about subvertising is that it’s very low-risk and is something anyone can do with very little preparation, but which has a real impact on reclaiming public space.

For the first time ever, it is predicted that in 2015 our total spend as a country on advertising will hit the £20 billion mark. The impact of such advertising on our physical and mental psyche is unknown, but with an average Londoner seeing 3,500 marketing messages a day the impact is clearly great.

Whether you like it or not, advertising in the modern world dominates our public spaces. The effect is a nation of people who feel like they are constantly lacking something as the accumulation of countless small messages fed to us every day enters our brain – whether it’s through the newest clothes, the latest gadget or a new face moisturiser.

In 2011 during the riots, this accumulation of small messages drove kids from poor backgrounds to smash their way to products seen in advertising that they were unable to buy.

Beyond this, there is nothing stopping companies that can afford it from taking out advertising space to push their own agenda. From the example already mentioned, airports can easily sway the public debate through large advertisement campaigns that push their growth agenda. The recent adverts taken out in various newspapers by London Underground to diminish support for tube strikes were arguably another attempt to squash resistance to planned ticket office closures.

The advertising industry is huge, and without it we would have no newspapers and very different media organisations.

Advertising isn’t all bad of course, but we must start having a conversation about limits before we’re all desperately fighting each other over the latest Nivea cream. Oh hang on, we are already.

Joseph Blake is a freelance journalist, co-founder of Transition Heathrow and campaigner with Plane Stupid, SQUASH (Squatters Action For Secure Homes) and The People’s Parliament

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