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Brandalism believes it’s in dialogue with ad agencies. Are they listening?

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By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

December 16, 2022 | 10 min read

The anti-advertising activist group’s guerrilla outdoor artworks are casting the ad industry in an unfavorable light. For our Out-of-Home Deep Dive, we ask if it can bait agencies into a conversation.

Two people wearing masks dismantle a bus stop advertising panel in the dark

Activists altering ads at the ZAP Games, an organized anti-advertising protest that took place in November / ZAP

The two weeks preceding Black Friday, the Amazon holiday sales event, are busy ones for marketers. As brands struggle to stand out among 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 crunch. Its members joined up with Zone Anti-Publicité (Zap) in the Belgian capital to attend two weeks of ‘games’ – coordinated subversion and satire targeting out-of-home advertising units.

“There were about 50 actions 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 good time with a big party on the Saturday night – a big hard techno rave in the basement of a squat. That was a nice bonus.”

Brandalism and Zone Anti-Publicité aren’t the only activists to have tried to turn advertising to their own ends in recent years. British readers will be familiar with Led by Donkeys, the activists that in 2018 began pasting over billboard spaces with messages exposing the hypocrisy of pro-Brexit politicians and projecting political messages on to national landmarks (the group now buys out billboard space directly from OOH providers).

Subvertising and situationism

In recent years, the groups have revived the use of advertising channels as a medium for alternative political speech. And using the same tactics as PR companies and creative agencies to amplify the reach of specific OOH activations with social media, they’ve been able to exert an outsized impact on political discourse.

But Brandalism’s efforts in that arena are a little more visceral than Led by Donkeys’ digital-first approach. For the last 10 years, its members have donned high-vis vests and carried torches to hide in plain sight as they deface, replace and otherwise alter existing ads. In particular, it seeks to highlight the role of consumer brands in fuelling the climate emergency, of ad agencies’ work burnishing their image and to spark debate about the pervasiveness of above-the-line advertising in public spaces. Advertisers themselves aren’t the only entities to draw fire, with several of Brandalism’s pieces targeting the agencies behind the original brand marketing.

This summer, the group estimates it “hacked” over 500 billboards across the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Belgium and France. It popped up in Aberdeen, a hub of the North Sea oil industry, to exchange bus stop posters and billboards for “unauthorized art installations” criticizing energy firms Shell and BP. Elsewhere, the group hijacked a series of billboards and out-of-home panels with satirical ads targeting airlines for their impact on the climate. One spot read ‘At Lufthansa, we distract you with pictures of trees while we fry 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, which the Situationist International put together 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 were all intervening in advertising spaces in different ways. Brandalism picks up 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 interested in the creativity of it as well. It’s not just signing a petition or writing a letter to your MP, it’s direct action, and it’s creative and fun.”

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Central to the group’s critique of the industry is the use of manipulated images in ads and the broader promotion of products that harm the environment, from automobiles to airlines and fast food to fossil fuels. “We wanted to take action and speak back. And there is the issue of how much advertising we should allow in our public spaces.”

Brandalism’s numbers fluctuate with each new action, but it says it averages around 80 to 90 members. Some are former ad agency staff, people who’ve left the industry because of its work for fossil fuel producers; at the 21st edition of COP in 2016, the group distributed printed pamphlets authored by ex-agency staff urging others to ‘switch sides’ and apply their skills elsewhere.

Dialogue with the industry

If its activists are having a good time and learning the trade of subvertisement, Merriman says, each action is worth it. The bigger impact of their protests is the wedge Brandalism is able to shunt into industry debates. “Did it make an impact? Did it create brand jeopardy? How much traction did it gain 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 around its role in climate change and climate breakdown. We’re an outside force, pulling them up and hopefully causing them to think twice about their role in pushing big polluter advertising or socially harmful advertising.”

But ad agencies have chosen so far to ignore the group’s provocations. DDB Munchen, VCCP, Dentsu Creative and Uncommon – the companies targeted by Brandalism in its September protests – each declined to respond. And of the four industry lobbying 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 on how best to do that. Change comes from listening to all voices on an issue and engaging positively, to encourage fast and above all effective action across the advertising ecosystem.

”However, legitimate businesses cannot engage with or condone criminal activity and this type of action doesn’t contribute to a constructive, informed debate. It is peripheral at best, and at worst costs jobs and undermines livelihoods. It is illegal to remove or vandalize legitimate advertising from businesses that must be free to exercise their right to commercial freedom of speech. All advertising in all media must conform to the ASA’s strict guidelines on environmental and sustainability claims and recent judgments show how rigorous the enforcement of these is.

”Out-of-home advertising is critical in funding public infrastructure and transport, helping to keep ticket prices down for travelers up and down the UK. This is particularly important when you consider the critical role of public transport in reducing carbon emissions from the travel sector. Damaging something that helps to fund a more sustainable solution for people runs counter to the aims of the protest.”

The group’s position on the ’periphery’ hasn’t 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 namecheck the agencies working for these clients,” he says. “A lot of these agencies have escaped public scrutiny for too long and they are the ones making sure we all know who these big brands are. They’re the ones providing greenwashing services to those companies. So, to bring their brand name into the public spotlight is a worthwhile endeavor.”

From the wow factor of 3D billboards to ads that grab people at the right time and in literally the right place, innovation in out-of-home is soaring. Find out more in our latest Deep Dive.

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