Not-for-profit publisher Dog Section Press describes itself as a distributor of rebellious literature, and its latest title isn’t shy about it. Advertising Shits in your Head explores the history and significance of the subvertising movement, featuring contributions from prominent members of the “graphic resistance” including Public Ad Campaign, Brandalism, Special Patrol Group and Dr. D. Here, we publish an exclusive extract.
Subvertising is a portmanteau of subversion and advertising. It is a relatively modern term, but can be defined as any type of action that is taken to subvert advertising. This may range from improvised graffiti-style interventions, to the more co-ordinated campaigns of the modern era. Generally speaking, subverts either target the original adverts or the sites of outdoor advertising (or both).
Though it is difficult to say when exactly subvertising emerged as a form, the history of organised outdoor advertising subversion dates back to at least the 1970s. In Australia, the B.U.G.A U.P. (Billboard-Utilising Graffitists Against Unhealthy Promotions) collective started taking direct action against tobacco advertising in 1973 (because, in their words, “someone had to do something about it!”) and claim their work is one of the earliest forms of subvertising the world has seen. Not long after, in 1977, the Billboard Liberation Front (BLF) was formed in San Francisco, and began setting about making what they termed “improvements” to outdoor advertising, as well as encouraging others to do the same. Both of these organisations still have websites that reflect on their history and give advice to potential practitioners.
The motivations for subvertising have traditionally been wide-ranging, from objections to individual products, to aesthetic considerations, to simple mischief. Though the strategies of altering, removing or reversing outdoor advertising may remain largely the same, today’s subvertisers are a more co-ordinated movement, with a more connected vision:
“Today, the practice of subvertising is reaching novel heights. Collectives are starting to connect globally to form an ever-increasing force of resistance against the visual and mental implications of advertising. Initiatives such as Brandalism, Brigade Antipub and Plane Stupid are beginning to specifically address the connections between advertising, fossil fuels and climate change. Intervening into advertising spaces that usually celebrate consumption, they divert messages towards ones of anti-consumption.” – Thomas Dekeyser
“The method is the most interesting part of Brandalism, since it’s specifically designed to confuse the viewer a little. This is why the posters are usually playful, typically mimicking established designs. They are, I think, motivated by 1960s French Situationism – people who believed the culture, the “spectacle” of modern society needed to be attacked, and done in such a way that would wind up, rile, mimic, anger, confuse.” – Jamie Bartlett, The Telegraph
Subvertising is a distinct form of culture jamming, which can be seen as an attempt to “intervene in the visual landscape that shapes how we think”; as such, it has a direct link to the work of the Situationist International (SI). In particular, subvertising can be conceptualised as a form of “detournement” – a rerouting or hijacking – a strategy that was pioneered by the SI. This is true both in terms of the re-imagining of individual brands or adverts, but also in the hijacking of advertising spaces or “take-overs”.
One way that subvertisers claim this form of detournement may work is by intervening in the visual landscape and puncturing the “existing regime of truth”. Outdoor advertising is seen as untouchable: by both intervening in the physical space containing the advert and altering the message to create a “displacement of an already-established disposition”, subvertising can disrupt our habitual ways of thinking.
Against liberal pranksters
A criticism of subvertising is that over-emphasising its potential effect may be naïve. As academic Richard Gilman-Opalsky points out: “Debord was well aware, in the 1950s and 60s, that something like sporadic ‘subvertising’ could never jam a culture of constant accumulation. Subvertising at its best is like a skip on a record that the needle passes over with a minor interruption.”
It’s possible that subverts may just be ignored, or subsumed into habitual ways of thinking; it’s also true that just as advertising works on an emotional level and in a cumulative way, so must subvertising, which means it is likely to be most effective as part of a sustained campaign.
Neither can subvertising be about reform if it is to be truly considered detournement, in the Debordian sense. Academic and author Catherine Flood claims that Adbusters “shifted the focus of graphic resistance from creating radical alternatives to mainstream design and advertising to exposing and attempting to reform its practices.” But the modern subvertising movement has moved beyond this position by returning to the original Debordian critique of the spectacle, which is suspicious of attempts at reforming the outdoor advertising industry:
“One must not introduce reformist illusions about the spectacle, as if it could be eventually improved from within, ameliorated by its own specialists under the supposed control of a better-informed public opinion.”
Where Adbusters took aim at individual brands and campaigns, even if this could be seen as part of a more systemic critique, it took aim from a relatively elevated position, and didn’t attempt to pass the weapons around; those who aren’t able to take part in the fight are necessarily relegated to the position of spectator. This is why subvertisers attempt to spread the form.