Advertising Shits in your Head
As city-dwellers, we see approximately 5000 adverts each day, compared with 2000 thirty years ago, according to a study by Yankelovich. Cities globally have begun to tackle ceaseless invasion of conscious and unconscious thought by introducing outdoor advertising bans which replace billboards and bus-stop adverts with artwork, community noticeboards, clocks, or blank spaces. The most recent example of this is in Grenoble where 326 billboards have been replaced with community noticeboards and trees.
This seems like a logical way to decrease exposure to adverts and to reclaim public space, but arguably it is counterproductive, stimulating marketers to find other platforms for advertising which can be more invasive as they employ more discrete ways of accessing private space. Think of cookies in your phone browser, adverts in your apps, unwanted spam mail in your inbox each morning, or the chance to win something plastered across your juice carton: although advertising bans present small utopias of unclogged thought and cities where consumers can begin to escape ideology of constant consumption, they force marketers to penetrate the consumer’s private space, governing consumption from within.
All adverts promulgate ideology of mass consumption, telling us to strive towards an ideal subjectivity which not only is unachievable but which also requires constant consumption of products. With an input of 5000 adverts daily, only one side of the argument is visible to the consumer: there is silence surrounding the counter-argument that we do not need to consume more. With the counter-argument to the dominant hegemonic belief silenced by persistent advertisement, this regime is rarely questioned, creating an obsessively commercial society.
In a climate in which advertisers constantly devise new ways of reaching and expanding clientele such that consumers are almost unaware and neutralised to the invasion of their mind, it is essential to provide counter-ideologies which allow consumers to reflect on messages they receive. Without this counterargument, consumers live in a one-party regime with no alternative to the ultimate goal of economic growth. Perpetual economic growth is not only unsustainable in that consumption requires exploitation of Earth’s finite resources, but it is propounded to benefit all in capitalist society when it unequivocally privileges the wealthy above the rest. If it were not for this normalisation of omnipresent advertisement, it may be possible to open a conversation surrounding doctrine of constant consumption.
Ad-hackers and brandalists target this doctrine on a global scale, presenting the public with a counter-argument, the anti-consumerist message, by switching adverts in bus stops and billboards for artwork. Brandalists aim to reveal truth behind specific brands such as Nike, Shell, or so-called ‘free-range’ eggs; ad-hackers are more ideological, often conveying environmental or anti-consumerist messages. The annual Subvert the City festival organised by Subvertisers International, this year 23d-25th March, encourages small groups worldwide to ‘subvert’ their city and makes these projects seem accessible and achievable. The organisation provides groups with encouragement, inspiration, ideas, instructions, and a general help service to mobilise activists and to try to subvert as many cities as possible. Afterwards, the Subvertisers website is flooded with photos of this global grassroots movement, collectively imagining “a world beyond consumer-capitalism”.
Six friends and I were inspired by Subvert the City. Motivated by examples of ad-hacks and brandalism on the site and by messages we had seen previously, we began to group and to plan ad-hacks in Amsterdam, a city almost excluded from this bubbling online community who share and discuss the frequent ad-hacks in other cities such as Bristol, Paris, and Hamburg.
On the first night that we set out to change the bus stop JCDecaux posters, we were struggling to fit our poster into the tram stop at Muiderpoort - it was much harder than anticipated - when a friendly driver terminated at the stop. Curious about our ‘art project’, he pondered the question posed by the poster, “wat wil ik nog meer?” (what more do I want?), and told us that some more money was what he wanted, mainly to raise his kids and to have a better house. For me, this almost automatic response reflected how deeply our economic-growth-orientated ideology has affected society, taking precedence over all other ideologies, despite most people never benefitting from this trickle-down economy. After chatting to us and wondering what he would do with the money, he concluded: “maar geld maak me niet gelukkig” (but money won’t make me happy). Although we eventually left that bus stop empty after a much stricter driver arrived and questioned us, the encounter was motivating. We realised that this simple question has potential to unveil the counter-argument to consumerism, holding power to provoke thought as people traverse the city, commuting on their financially-motivated quest through life. As our messages enter the public realm, we hope that they may stimulate thought and stir the public from neutralised invasion of their mind.
Ad-hacking is an achievable and accessible form of protest, but mobilisation in Amsterdam is either hidden or limited. Like other cities around the world, we should have a vibrant and active ad-hacking scene which constantly challenges the city’s over-normalised hegemony. As an action, it is not complicated:
• You need keys for the bus stops which can either be 3D-printed, or you can contact other ad-hackers online who may point you towards somebody who can post you a key.
• You need abris-size paper for the bus stops, or money to print abris-size posters if you are making art digitally.
• You must practise in a quiet area where you cannot be caught so that when you go into busy streets, you are efficient and professional.
• It is is perhaps less risky to ad-hack during the day (possibly in the morning when it is less busy) wearing hi-vis vests to look professional, despite this seeming more obvious.
• We worked best with two or three people to change posters and found it useful to have two extra people in plain-clothes watching for police, so that those changing posters were undistracted.
• When you remove your first advert, you will notice that its top is folded over by half a centimetre. It will make your ad-hack easier if you fold your posters like this before you begin.
• Take scissors or a penknife with you as the adverts may be tied in with plastic.
Activists of Amsterdam, come out, subvert the city, and stay safe. Let’s pull down the Chanel adverts that hyper-sexualise women’s bodies; let’s remove the KFC adverts that mask the horrors of battery-farmed chicken; let’s rip up adverts for the latest Apple iPhone, stained by blood but claiming to provide optimum enjoyment of life: let’s divert our city from its unachievable ultimate goal of economic growth and challenge hegemony that is constantly imposed upon us.