To understand Brandalism — a movement that illegally replaces outdoor ads from billboards and bus stops with art — you need to look back to the UK summer riots of 2011.
For five days that August, thousands of Britons demonstrated their frustration at the establishment by rampaging through city-centres, looting or destroying whatever consumer trinkets stood in their way. Overall, across the country, the rioters caused around £100 million ($142 million) of damage.
One of the people who participated wrote in The Guardian that the riots resulted from a number of frustrations: at the politicians for their greed with expenses, at the media for hacking phones, at the government for bailing out the banks, and at the police for abusing its powers to stop-and-search black and ethnic minority citizens. And, of course, there were simply some opportunists who simply wanted to join in to be part of the moment or to steal goods.
However, Brandalism founder Robert Marcuse says that the advertisement and marketing industries were also partially to blame.
Marcuse told Business Insider: “Advertising tells us we want and need these goods. Mixed with Britain’s class structure, social inequality, and financial exclusion, the riots became an opportunity … so it’s not as simple as to say ‘Oh, advertising caused the riots,’ but it’s one of the factors,” he added.
Out of this anger, Marcuse and a group of his artist friends spawned Brandalism: a movement dedicated to reclaiming the outdoor, visual realm from corporate control.
According to Marcuse, it's not very hard to 'brandalize.' All you need is a high-visibility jacket, a 'H60' allen key, and a correctly-sized piece of artwork. Brandalism's first major project came in 2012, in an effort to undermine the 'brand mania' surrounding the London Olympic Games.
'By and large, we've been able to use globalization and standardization to our advantage in that all the models in the advertising cabinets are largely the same,' Marcuse said.
But why outdoor advertising in particular? Marcuse explained that when buying a magazine, or watching a particular TV channel, the consumer is to some extent consenting to being shown ads. By contrast, in the outdoor space, there's often no choice.
Marcuse said: 'It's part of the rebellion against corporate control of the visual realm, meaning those with the most amount of money can put their messages in front of everyone, without our permission. This particularly applies to outdoor advertising, so the bus stop, and road-side billboards.'
Brandalism takes inspiration from Sao Paolo, Brazil, which banned outdoor advertising in 2007.
'They deemed it visual pollution, just like exhaust fumes polluting our airwaves or industrial pollution in our rivers,' Marcuse said.
Marcuse admitted that Brandalism's work is 'sporadic,' rather than regular. The last major event happened in Paris, ahead of the COP21 talks in December 2015. Here, 80 artists came together to produce more than 600 pieces of art to replace ads in the city.
Brandalism's stated purpose at the talks was to expose 'corporate green-washing' during talks about climate change.
At the time, Bill Posters, an aptly named member of Brandalism, said: 'We call on people to take to the streets during the COP21 to confront the fossil fuel industry. We cannot leave the climate talks in the hands of politicians and corporate lobbyists who created this mess in the first place.'
According to Marcuse, there were no arrests during the massive operation in Paris. However, inevitably, there were some 'close shaves.'
Marcuse remembered:'Some french JCDecaux (a billboard company) workers actually approached one of the teams we had out there and said 'Ah are you new to the job? Because that's not how you do it.''
The JCDecaux workers were completely unaware of the identity of the brandalists. Assuming they were badly trained, or new, workers, the JCDecaux workers taught them the best technique.
Before leaving, they said: 'Here, look, keep this tool. Good luck on your first day of the job,' according to Marcuse.
Marcuse said the team were very appreciative and have kept hold of the tool to this day.
More recently than Paris, on a smaller project in March 2016, Brandalism decided to put up advertisements around the major ad firms in London, asking workers to 'Switch Sides' and leave their jobs in advertising to join Brandalism.
The posters were asking ad agency workers to consider their moral responsibilities were put up on bus stops surrounding Ogilvy, BBDO, and J. Walter Thompson, among other offices in London. The campaign resulted in more than 100 responses from dissatisfied workers in the creative industry, according to Brandalism.
'We were pleasantly overwhelmed and inundated with responses to the 'Switch Sides' campaign a few weeks ago. It's actually motivating and exciting and interesting, but a lot of it is quite sad, because it actually sort of struck a nerve with a lot of people ... All you creative people, you brilliant, wonderful minds, are putting in this artistic effort and, at the moment, under our current economic and political system, the best output, that pays something, is to sell people stuff.'
However, Brandalism cannot offer a whole solution to disaffected ad execs. Switching sides to Brandalism means being happy to work on a volunteer basis, which most people cannot afford to do. Marcuse admitted that this was a 'fair point.'
He said, 'Living in london's housing market is not forgiving and people need to pay their extortionate rents, people have mortgages to pay, and children to feed. we're fully aware of those multiple complications in the subject matter we've risen, but nonetheless we think the conversation we've raised is worth having.'
Marcuse explained that he is directing respondents from the 'Switch Sides' campaign to 'social change organisations,' where they can volunteer their skills on a part-time basis to issues they feel passionate about. Some ad agency workers have already been recruited to work for Brandalism, while others will get involved in campaigns to help soothe the refugee crisis, or to encourage society to take notice of climate change, he said.
So how do brands react to their expensive posters being pulled down by the self-defining vandals of the Brandalism movement?
'Nike set the precedent for the industry responses to Brandalism,' Marcuse said. 'We put up a piece of artwork that relates Nike's sports stuff to knife crime and high sports clothing prices. Nike said: 'We're aware of this campaign but we don't want to give it the oxygen of publicity.''
There has even been an article produced in the Journal of Intellectually Property Law and Practice, which considers how best to deal with Brandalism. The academics conclude that the best action to take is, like Nike suggested, to stay quiet.
Perhaps surprisingly, Marcuse seemed open to the possibility of a good ad. He said that he was initially 'really impressed' by the Dove Campaign For Real Beauty: 'I was like 'Ah, at last the breaking of these bloody airbrushed stereotypes that makes everyone feel insecure about their bodies.''
However, when he researched Dove a little more, he realised that it was owned by parent company Unilever -- which he described as the same company that 'does the most incredibly crass 'spray more, get more'' ads for Lynx deodorant (marketed as Axe in the US.)
'We'll sell this type of Dove soap to politically-conscious women who are p----- off about stereotypical beauty representations and we'll sell this product to teenage boys who are trying to get laid. Brilliant. As long as our profits keep rising, we don't really give a s---,' he said.
In January, Unilever announced a substantial global repositioning for the Unilever/Axe brand that will see it focus on a more modern take on masculinity.
Marcuse said he was confident about Brandalism's growth as a movement, as the chaotic riots of 2011 fade further into London's distant memory. He already has plans for the next big Brandlism event, though of course, for now, the location remains a secret.
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