Subvertising: billboard ads for the public interest

| 10th May 2011
Action Aid
ActionAid's tax justice beermat campaign
As public spaces become blighted by the £18 billion global outdoors advertising industry, community groups are fighting back to reclaim both ad-free areas or use billboards in a socially beneficial way

We live in a world where children find it easy to identify brand names but difficult to identify native plants. This cultural phenomenon is highlighted by American Artist Heidi Cody's brand alphabet installations.

The online sphere is alive with blog posts arguing that advertising is wrong, unethical and even 'evil'.

In 2010 the UN warned that climate change and a culture of consumerism were the greatest threats to the civilisation's future wellbeing and prosperity - and there is no doubt that advertising drives consumerism..

Emeritus professor of philosophy, Kate Soper, says 'Advertising as as ethical as the capitalist system that it serves.' However, Soper thinks that given the context of a market economy, there is a spectrum of advertisers from the 'okay' to 'not very ethical'.

'On one end you have perfectly honest providers just trying to communicate with the public about what is on offer and on the other end you have manipulative and aggressive strategies geared at persuading the vulnerable like children to buy what they probably don't really need and have to be persuaded that they want,' she says.

For example, MacDonald's advertising their unhealthy kids' meals or Walmart's website encouraging children to pick out Christmas presents to create a list to send to parents.

The epidemic of advertising is particularly concerning in the outdoor advertising sphere, where individuals do not have a choice about seeing ads. Soper says she would rather see more artwork replacing advertising on public transport and on billboards. One group, called Public Ad Campaign, is paving the way forwards by hijacking public advertising spaces with art and poetry in Madrid, Toronto and New York.

Visual pollution

Outdoors advertising, an industry worth £18 billion globally, has been banned in some parts of the world. Most famously, the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo banned outdoors advertising in 2007 to combat the prolific 'visual pollution' in the world's fourth-largest metropolis. The campaign was spearheaded by its mayor, Gilberto Kassab, who pushed through the radical Clean City Law with a 70 per cent public backing.

There are also location-specific billboard bans in Maine, Hawaii, Vermont and Alaska. The key group in campaigning to promote a more pleasant and relaxing landscape in the US is Scenic America.

Tim Kasser, Professor of psychology at Knox College in Illinois, US, is strongly for advertising bans. He says 'Public advertising on places like billboards and in subways contributes to social norms suggesting the consumerism is a good thing and also serves as a stimulus in the environment that can momentarily activate materialistic, self-enhancing values.' Both of these effects are associated with worse ecological attitudes and behaviours.

Holding a bad attitude towards the environment and prioritising materialistic values makes us less happy. Kasser adds: 'Much advertising relies on creating a discrepancy in people's minds between where they are and where the beautiful, successful, highly loved people in the advertisement are; such discrepancies are known to create negative emotional states.'

There is an additional problem identified by environmental psychologist Katherine Irvine, a researcher at the DeMontford University Institute of Energy and Sustainable Development. She explains that according to Attention Restoration Theory, which suggests that some natural settings are restorative to the mind, advertising in urban or rural settings could affect our levels of attention.

'Advertising is filled with stimuli that involuntarily draw our attention.' she says. 'For example, if one takes a walk in a natural setting to go bird watching, watch the kids while they play or think through a particularly vexing problem at work, the presence of advertising could be distracting from what one intended to focus on.'

But what if adverts were used to display community or environmental campaign messages rather than soul-deadening corporate marketing slogans?

Crowdfunded ads

Amnesty International and 38 Degrees have both successfully used advertising in the press to further their environmental campaigns.

In May 2010, Amnesty used advertising for the first time, to put pressure on Shell's shareholders just prior to Shell's AGM over the issue of pollution in the Niger Delta. The ads appeared in the Evening Standard, the Metro and a billboard van circled the Barbican in London where the UK AGM was taking place.

'We had a target to raise £20,000 for the adverts but due to contributions from over 2,000 people we broke that target and were able to get the ads into two publications rather than the planned one,' says Naomi McAuliffe, poverty and human rights campaigner at Amnesty International. 'The individuals who financially supported this campaign were hugely enthusiastic about it as they could see exactly where their money was going and understood the rationale for advertising in this way.'

38 Degrees also crowdfunded adverts for its Save the Forests campaign. They raised about £60,000 and the adverts were in The Times, The Independent, The Mirror and The Daily Mail.

David Babbs, director of 38 Degrees, says: 'I think the adverts were powerful because they proved that actually we were all prepared to put our money where our mouth was. They reached millions of people on the day of a crunch vote in Parliament - including the MPs who were making their minds up to vote. And finally, they generated more media coverage - the adverts were an excuse to journalists to write more stories.'

Inspired by crowdfunding models such as the popular journalism funding platform, there is now a new advertising specialist crowdfunding platform called Advert Activist. The site already carries a crowdfunding campaign from Action Aid, and its founder Jon Simpkin, hopes that this is only the beginning. 'My vision is to have about 10 really strong campaigns with inspiring and positive messages on environmental and social inequality that can raise 20 grand a year or more each.' he says.

Subvertising branding

'I think environmental and social movements have been getting a lot smarter about how we campaign against corporate abuse and we can use a company's PR channels and branding against itself in creative ways,' says McAuliffe. There are many vivid examples: Climate Rush added a ‘2' to Tesco signs so it read ‘Tesco2' in protest of their emissions, and Greenpeace ran a competition to alter BP's logo .

Adbusters are a counter-corporate movement that have been spoofing ads for years, and the public love it. Advertising is one way of displaying these clever subversions of corporate branding. 'I'm a realist,' says Jon Simpkin, 'I would like to live in a world where outdoor advertising was banned, but I don't think it will happen in the UK. So it's best to use it for positive purposes.'


Christine Ottery is a freelance journalist


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