Brandalism believes it is in dialogue with advertising agencies. Are they listening?
The anti-advertising activist group’s guerilla outdoor artwork casts the advertising industry in an unfavorable light. For our out-of-home deep dive, we ask if it might entice agencies into a conversation.
The two weeks leading up to Black Friday, Amazon’s holiday sales event, are busy for marketers. As brands struggle to stand out among their peers, staff often work long hours, late into the night, in the run-up to Thanksgiving.
In Brussels, the protest group Brandalism experienced a different kind of holiday crush. Members teamed up with the Zone Anti-Publicité (Zap) in the Belgian capital to take part in two weeks of “games” – coordinated subversion and satire aimed at advertising units outside the home.
“There were about 50 acts or so, and a lot of media here and there,” says Tona Merriman, a spokesperson for the group. “It was great. And we had a great time with a big party on Saturday night – a big hard techno rave in the basement on a squat. It was a nice bonus.”
Brandalism and Zone Anti-Publicité are not the only activists who have tried to turn advertising to their own ends in recent years. British readers will be familiar with Led by Donkeys, the activists who in 2018 began pasting over billboards with messages exposing the hypocrisy of pro-Brexit politicians and projecting political messages onto national landmarks (the group now buys billboard space directly from OOH providers).
Subversion and situationism
In recent years, the groups have revived the use of advertising channels as a medium for alternative political speech. And by using the same tactics as PR firms and creative agencies to amplify the reach of specific OOH activations with social media, they have been able to exert an outsized impact on political discourse.
But Brandalism’s effort in that arena is a bit more visceral than Led by Donkeys’ digital-first approach. For the past 10 years, members have donned vests and carried torches to hide in plain sight while destroying, replacing and otherwise altering existing ads. In particular, it seeks to highlight the role of consumer brands in promoting the climate crisis, of ad agencies’ work to polish their image and to spark public debate about over-the-line advertising in public spaces. Advertisers themselves aren’t the only entities drawing fire, with several of Brandalism’s pieces targeting the agencies behind the original brand marketing.
This summer, the group estimates they have “hacked” over 500 billboards across the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Belgium and France. It appeared in Aberdeen, a hub for the North Sea oil industry, to swap bus stop posters and billboards for “unauthorised art installations” criticizing energy companies Shell and BP. Elsewhere, the group hijacked a series of billboards and panels outside homes with satirical ads targeting airlines for their impact on the climate. In one spot it read “At Lufthansa we distract you with pictures of trees while we roast the planet,” with additional copy pointing the finger at the airline’s agency, DDB.
Merriman explains that Brandalism’s protests are a continuation of a decades-old art practice known as subvertising, which dates back to the work of Guy Debord and the Situationists.
“The practice of messing around with advertising is almost as old as advertising itself. The idea of détournement, coined by the Situationist International in the 50s, was one of the principles behind subvertising as it came to be known. Then in the 90s you had Adbusters. Before them, the Billboard Liberation Front in San Francisco and BUGAUP [Billboard Utilizing Graffitists Against Unhealthy Promotions] in Australia. They all intervened in advertising spaces in different ways. The arsonism continues where they left off.”
Subvertising, or ‘culture jamming’, was one of the reasons Merriman got involved with Brandalism in the first place. “I was interested in how we can use subvertising to talk back to the one-way communication of advertising. I was also interested in the creativity of it. It’s not just signing a petition or writing a letter to the member of parliament, it’s direct action, and it is creative and fun.”
Central to the group’s criticism of the industry is the use of manipulated images in advertisements and wider marketing of products that harm the environment, from cars to airlines and fast food to fossil fuels. “We wanted to take action and speak back. And that’s the question of how much advertising we should allow in our public spaces.”
Brandalism’s numbers vary with each new act, but it says it averages around 80 to 90 members. Some are former advertising agency workers, people who have left the industry because of the work for fossil fuel producers; at the 21st edition of the COP in 2016, the group distributed printed booklets written by former agency staff urging others to “switch sides” and use their skills elsewhere.
Dialogue with the industry
If the activists feel good and learn about subversion, Merriman says, every action is worth it. The biggest impact of their protests is the wedge Brandalism is able to drive into industry debates. “Has it affected? Did it create brand danger? How much impact did it get in the press and on social media?”
Merriman says the group’s actions put it in dialogue with ad agencies. “The advertising industry is in dialogue with itself at the moment about its role in climate change and climate collapse. We are an external force that pulls them up and hopefully makes them think twice about their role in pushing advertising for big polluters or socially harmful advertising.”
But the advertising agencies have so far chosen to ignore the group’s provocations. DDB Munchen, VCCP, Dentsu Creative and Uncommon – the companies Brandalism targeted in its protests in September – both declined to respond. And of the four lobby groups we contacted for this story, only the Advertising Association (AA) responded with a statement.
A spokesperson for the organization said: “We agree with the urgent need to tackle climate change. There are different views within and outside our industry about how it can best be done. Change comes from listening to all voices on an issue and engaging positively, to encourage swift and above all effective action across the advertising ecosystem.
“However, legitimate businesses cannot engage in or condone criminal activity, and this type of action does not contribute to a constructive, informed debate. At best it is peripheral, and at worst it costs jobs and undermines livelihoods. It is illegal to remove or vandalize legal advertising from businesses that must be free to exercise their right to commercial freedom of expression. All advertising in all media must comply with the ASA’s strict guidelines for environmental and sustainability requirements and recent judgments show how strict the enforcement of these is.
“Out-of-home advertising is vital to funding public infrastructure and transport, helping to keep ticket prices down for travelers up and down the UK. This is particularly important when considering the critical role of public transport in reducing carbon emissions from the tourism sector. Harming something that helps fund a more sustainable solution for people goes against the goals of the protest.”
The group’s position in the “periphery” has not yet dissuaded it. Merriman tells us that future Brandalism spectacles — it’s already planning protests for the New Year — will target ad agencies even more strenuously than before.
“More and more, we’re trying to name-check the agencies that work for these clients,” he says. “Many of these agencies have escaped public scrutiny for too long and they are the ones who make sure we all know who these big brands are. They are the ones who provide greenwashing services to these companies. So bringing their brand name into the public spotlight is a worthy endeavour.”
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