It’s 8 p.m. on a Saturday evening along a long, dark road pointing towards the imposing buildings of London’s banking district. A truck thunders past a fast food place with a solitary diner inside, eating a Turkish kebab from a small plate. The skyline glitters above; capitalism ever-present above the drab reality below.
I’m with some activist street artists who call themselves “subvertisers.” As part of an ongoing revolt against the outdoor advertising industry, they’re out to remove corporate ads and replace them with their own work. The group approaches a bus stop in their high-viz jackets, all branded with the logo of a well-known advertising agency. One artist approaches the ad board, next to a few oblivious people waiting for the number 100 bus. He pulls a tool out of his pocket and starts opening the case, removing an ad for Visa.
Four minutes later, two ads have been replaced with his artwork, a poster of hand-drawn, geometric psychedelia. “It’s a surrealist technique called the cut-up,” says the artist, who calls himself Illustre Feccia. “I printed the pieces 100 times and cut it plenty more times. It’s about repeating and randomly reassembling, breaking the boundaries and the rules of rationalist art. I’ve readapted what was advertising and channeled it into something totally different. I’m taking back this space and turning it into my own exhibition in the street.”
We pass a second bus stop, and it’s the same routine. An ad is replaced with an adaptation of an ad for potatoes; the same pictures of the food, but with all the advertising copy and branding totally removed. The piece has been slashed with a Stanley Knife to allow the lights behind it to shine through in certain parts.
“We should just tear it all down,” one of the artists said jokingly, gesticulating towards the golden arches of a nearby McDonald’s. The lock on the third billboard had rusted and wouldn’t open, but they got into the base and turned off the illuminating lights. Sometimes they just take ads down, but if their actions prevent people from seeing outdoor ads, they think “it’s worth it.”
For the past six years, this collective of neo-situationist urban street artists have been creating and installing guerrilla protest advertisements across Europe. Sometimes the designs of “Brandalists,” as the group calls itself, are based on corporate advertising campaigns, with the key messaging and slogans subverted to reveal an anti-capitalist, anti-corporate message. Comprised of hundreds of street artists and backed by a loyal contingent of activists, it’s common to see their work dotted around major cities in Europe.
Drawing attention to issues such as climate change, corporate greed, and corruption, they have taken aim at high-profile brands like Nike, VW, Air France, Mobil, and Shell. One campaign linked Nike’s high-priced sportswear to knife crime, swapping the “i” in the Nike branding for a blade and depicting blood running from the trademark swoop. Another was in response to a Shell PR campaign trying to talk up the company’s attempts to address the burning of fossil fuels. The reappropriated message explicitly stated the ways in which the company was continuing to contribute to the issue, and embossed the firm’s logo with flames.
Comprised of hundreds of street artists and backed by a loyal contingent of activists, it’s common to see Brandalists’ work dotted around major cities in Europe.
When London’s Metropolitan Police Service (the Met) placed ads looking for volunteers, a group of subvertisers calling themselves the “Special Patrol Group” replaced them with ads outing the force as a racist and violent institution. On Black Friday, they targeted fast fashion and overconsumption, highlighting the effects on the developing countries that have to deal with our waste. One of the installations, placed outside an electronics store in Manchester, England, was a photomontage of young people stuck in one of the biggest electronic waste landfills in Ghana, Africa. Globally, an estimated 15 million people make a living mining old laptops and phones for raw materials.
The work of the Brandalists has not gone unnoticed, and not just by the general public. They have provoked serious responses from the Met (who once bizarrely cordoned off the scene of one of their actions) as well as multinational corporations. In 2015, a legal paper advised brands on what to do if they were targeted by Brandalists, explaining how the group was using social media to highlight its work.
One activist claims he was recently challenged by workers from JCDecaux, the French multinational corporation that installs outdoor ads on billboards. “We do the work and you’re just taking it down,” the workers complained. The confrontation became heated, and the subvertisers retreated after claiming they were doing it for a college project. JCDecaux did not want to comment for this story.
But interactions can be more surprising. Bill Posters, a pseudonym for the co-founder of Brandalism, told me about a run-in one group of women artists recently had with another billboard worker. “He said, ‘Are you supposed to be doing this?’ The artists who were installing the work said, ‘of course.’ ‘Well, look, you’re not doing it properly.’ He gave them advice and another tool from his van. They had the uniform on, they had the keys. He was thinking that they must be legit. The women said that it was quite empowering for them to hold their ground, blag them, and say we have a right to do this.”
In our cities, the Brandalists believe, we are bombarded by the psychological pollution of advertising, ambushed by billboards, by apps, by smartphones tracking our behavior on the streets and in our homes. We are perpetually being sold something, even if we don’t want or need it.
Research from the University of Southern California found that in the U.S., people see roughly 5,000 ads per day, up from an estimated 500 per day in the 1970s. One U.S.-based marketing blogger claimed that he counted more than 400 ads before he finished his breakfast.
Does this have an impact on our mental health? Our attention is a valuable commodity, which is duly sold to the highest bidder. But could it be true that, when the marketing industry places outdoor ads, it’s simply monetizing anxiety, insecurity, body dysmorphia, and general unhappiness? Multiple studies have found links between advertising and poor well-being, particularly in the context of social media and young adults.
There is now a so-called Social Media Disorder, which is the direct result of advertisers and content creators attempting to catch people’s attention for as long as possible. None of us consent to being advertised at, including children and people with existing mental health issues.
Our attention is a valuable commodity, which is duly sold to the highest bidder.
Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School, examined the culture of advertising in his 2016 book The Attention Merchants. “In nearly every moment of our waking lives,” he says, “we face a barrage of messaging, advertising enticements, branding, sponsored social media, and other efforts to harvest our attention.”
Wu believes this is having a negative effect on our ability to focus. “It is no coincidence that ours is a time afflicted by a widespread sense of attentional crisis,” he says. “One captured by the phrase homo distractus — a species of ever shorter attention span known for compulsively checking his devices.”
As people become more aware of how much advertisements affect their day-to-day lives, a simmering resentment against the industry has developed. The backlash began in 2013, with AdBlock allowing users to block ads, causing a revenue-blocking headache for publishers and everyone else reliant on advertising. By 2015, cities like São Paulo in Brazil and Grenoble in France had banned billboard advertising; movements to limit outdoor ads have since sprouted up in other cities, such as Tehran, Paris, and New York. By 2018, we witnessed full-blown political panic over shady data mining firms, like Cambridge Analytica, using data, propaganda, and ads to undermine our democratic process.
On the eve of the 2015 UN COP21 Climate Conference, more than 700,000 people in 175 countries took part in peaceful protests. The Brandalists were nervously hunkered down in an industrial squat in the Parisian suburbs, as months of preparation came to a head. In a convulsion of sheer creativity, dogged determination, and militaristic organization, they lurched forward with a plan to totally hack the corporate advertising surrounding the event.
A “studio’s worth of equipment” was shipped to this temporary HQ. Legions of artists and volunteers were recruited for the mission. More than 80 artists submitted around 140 artworks. Everyone involved assembled in the squat for a gruelling eight-hour debate on which ones to include. Detailed training and screen-printed uniforms were provided for the volunteers who would install the pieces.
Eventually, 45 teams of two people installed more than 600 pieces of subvertising across Paris, resulting in global press coverage. “Whilst the teams had just set off, there was about one hundred armed riot police with military vehicles,” Posters recalls. “They had actually sealed off three blocks around the squat. They came in through the roof and through the door with riot shields and guns drawn.”
Faced with the reality of being busted, the team started frantically stashing hard drives around the squat, and when the police arrived, the artists spent 30 minutes facedown on the floor while sniffer dogs trawled the place. And then they realized this wasn’t about their work, but because the city was still in a state of emergency after a devastating series of coordinated terrorist attacks almost brought Paris to its knees.
After that terrifying hiccup, the activists succeeded in peppering the whole city with over 600 fake advertisements. They set up two teams (a French one and an English one) to speak to the press in a room in their squat, but it was the rapid spread of their actions on social media that made the biggest impact.
The subvertisers are wary of social media. When the Cambridge Analytica incident took place, Facebook took out a bunch of ads reading, “Data misuse is not our friend…” Those ad were targeted and replaced with messages that read, “Data misuse is not our friend, it’s our business model.” The proliferation of smartphones and social media is what makes these activists such a potent threat to the advertising companies. Twenty years ago, JCDecaux would just have reinstalled its billboard; now, it’s all over social media and out of the company’s control.
The Brandalists have been up to these tricks for a while. If advertising is having a detrimental influence on people’s well-being, maybe their actions will force brands to reconsider what and how they advertise. Maybe a discourse that could provoke a PR disaster is the only language that big corporations will understand.