Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Our right to reply

Fed up of the colonisation of public space by corporations? Try a little subvertising...

September 27, 2010
5 min read

460x293-subvert
When groups like the Billboard Liberation Front and Billboard Utilising Graffitists Against Unhealthy Promotions (BUGA UP) emerged in the 1970s, their handiwork took cigarette and alcohol promoters to task. Their subtle adjustments caused passersby to pause: ‘Marlbore Man’? It was the beginning of a tactic since developed by environmentalists, feminists and anti-capitalists: the subversion of advertising to remind us that we are being lied to.

Today advertising is everywhere and ad-free space is continuing to shrink. Fortunately, it doesn’t take much to challenge the corporations and politicians creating this visual pollution. Parody is our weapon. Paper is our tool. We have a right to reply.

1 Select your target

The motivation to subvertise is generally straightforward: to challenge the promotion of mass-consumerism plastered before us. With so many misguided messages to be corrected, you need to decide where to start. The unethical behaviour of a particular brand? The negative impact of a whole industry? The casual misogyny in so many ads? Mass consumerism itself?

460x280-fuel_poverty_action_subvertising_photo_3-medium2 Choose your approach

Deciding this will help you choose your approach. Classic subvertisements seek to reply to or answer an advert’s message through subtle alteration. If there is no text to improve, you might want to reply directly by adding something entirely new. This might be a one-off, targeting a specific poster, or you might consider a more versatile approach, open to repeat application and forming part of a broader campaign. In the latter case, consider using a motif. Co-opt a logo or slogan and turn it on its head, or create your own.

3 Find the right words

Subvertisements should cause people to double-take, then think. They stick in the memory better if they are funny. Look for easy targets, as with McDonald’s ‘I’m loving it’, which transforms readily into ‘I’m sick of it’. Obscuring letters and parts of letters also works: ‘Starbucks Coffee’, anyone?

You don’t have to be subtle or high-tech, though. A spray-painted response can work wonders, while ‘Ad-Free Zone’ is a clear stamp of public opinion. Pick the approach that matches your aim.

460x256-billboard
4 Make overlays

Overlays are easy to make and paste onto ads. Try to match fonts and background colours and print out the letters you need. Don’t worry about looking perfect for small changes. Use a photocopier to enlarge the overlays, cutting the original into tiles first and reassembling the larger copies afterwards. Attach with wallpaper paste and a paint brush or broom for higher targets. Add PVA glues to the mix for quick setting and waterproofing.

New technologies are making it easier to replicate lettering or skilfully create whole pastiche posters. Some ads can be found online but photographing the target is another way to make matches – just don’t attract attention to yourself when doing it. For more intricate changes, put a high-res image in Photoshop or build a copy from scratch.

Stickers are another option, particularly for ongoing campaigns. Prepare a batch for quick hits on multiple street level targets. Blank speech bubble shapes are a perfect canvas for random advert improvement artists, bringing silent models to life whenever the inspiration hits them. Use a thick pen and beware of spelling and grammatical errors, which undermine even the wittiest effort. The same goes for spray can enhancers.

5 Be prepared

Safety and security are your main considerations, whatever size the target. Think about your approach and escape routes, and the number of people needed for the job. For larger ads/longer jobs, a lookout is vital. Never attempt climbs alone. Plan communication signals in advance. Keep yourself clean and don’t leave anything behind. Use cheap materials and test spray cans for duds.

While the cover of darkness is sometimes useful, it can also be dangerous. Look the part and you’ll get away with daylight work: put on some overalls, grab a ladder and look out for billboard maintenance vans as well as police.

460x251-subvertImage from www.billboardliberation.com

6 Aim higher

Document and share your work, under your group name or personal pseudonym. Send photos to online communities for a wide audience, and celebrate what other artists and liberators are doing.

Remember that billboards are just one avenue for questionable promotions. Product placement, branding, sponsorships and giveaways allow consumerism to infiltrate our waking lives. In our branded clothing we become walking adverts for the things we are compelled to buy. We are the capitalists’ dream.

Turn their tools against them, however, and it’s a nightmare. Movements across the world are getting imaginative, creating parody events and promotional stunts. Fake newspapers, flyers and websites are tweaking brands’ styles and slogans into something far more honest. Over-enthusiastic company supporters are turning promotional events into embarrassing spectacles. Join in, and culture jam wherever you can.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero


174