Please don't mess with this sign

by Matt Nippert / 17 July, 2004
The unlikely symbiosis between advertisers and those who hijack their campaigns.

So you haven't seen the billboards with those black and orange slogans taking the piss to the masses? Yeah right. Whether you drink the beer or not, the ubiquitous Tui billboards have become part of public imagination, advertising folklore and, strangely enough, political expression. Slogans concocted by marketers at Dominion Breweries are being blanked out in the dead of night, replaced by messages protesting everything from sexism to military misadventure.

The war on terror has provided much inspiration, seeing military euphemism skewered: "Surgical bombing"; Orwell resurrected in billboard form: "War will bring peace"; and one woman, offended by "I hardly noticed her moustache", retaliated by spray painting: "I hardly noticed his small dick." Yeah right.

When planes soared over West Auckland, spraying controversy and chemical death to the painted apple moth, one group went to town. Printing an overlay with an alternate message, copy-perfect for font and size, "The spray is safe" greeted westies. Auckland City Harbour News reported: "Many motorists thought the advert was real, while others saw the irony, with one female driver laughing so much she almost crashed her car."

Surprisingly, it isn't just commuters appreciating unauthorised messages. "Some of those guys," admits DB head of marketing Mark Davidson, "produce stuff that's really funny, we wish we had thought of [it] ourselves." Guffawing in admiration at "The spray is safe", he says it was "topical and clearly played to consumer concern". The modified slogan remained up for two weeks - effectively being incorporated into the official advertising campaign.

Davidson see this interaction with his advertising as being "reflective of the strength of the brand, it shows consumer involvement". (Another unstated benefit of such activity is bonus media coverage - such as this article.)

Of course, most billboard hackers take umbrage at being labelled consumers. Most don't even drink Tui. Paul Earnshaw, a graphic design student, is a self-described "subvertiser", whose motivation stems from having "no say over the visual pollution you see every day". Gordan Frykberg, head of Oggi, the largest locally owned outdoor advertising firm, says there are 1500 sites around New Zealand, generating $40m in annual revenue. And the market continues to grow.

This "visual pollution", according to Earnshaw, is using public space to advertise "unreal lifestyle products". He recalls a quote from American economist John Kenneth Galbraith: "It is not necessary to advertise food to hungry people, fuel to cold people or houses to the homeless." Subvertising attempts to modify unreal messages, bringing "real" issues to the passing public.

Davidson says the success of the Tui campaign makes it an obvious target for subvertisers: "The format is quite provocative. They can piggyback on the strength of the campaign." The better known a brand, the more recognisable a satirical take on it will be. Kelle Lasn, the author of influential subvertising tract Culture Jam, puts it slightly more combatively: "In a simple deft move, you slap the giant on its back. We use the momentum of the enemy."

A long-term subvertiser, who prefers to remain anonymous, says the buzz of subterfuge and illegality has its attractions. She talks of placing notes in library books for others to check out, and gatherings of strangers at 4.00am. "It's real cloak and dagger stuff," she says, "but without the knives."

Although there's a charge of wilful damage in the offing for anyone who vandalises billboards, there have been no prosecutions for damage caused to Tui signs. And although perhaps it is difficult to catch the offenders, sometimes both advertisers and subvertisers are happy with the outcome. Where can vandalism and marketing co-exist?

Earnshaw says success is dependent on several factors. "Professionalism and no damage to the original." Professionalism in this case is the use of subtlety. Simple tagging gets dismissed, but modifications that look part of the original ad cause people to "do a double take". Laughter is the best medicine for a sick society, he says. "If you make it funny, you're onto a winner."

Davidson has slightly different criteria, saying that there's a line DB will not, and cannot, cross. Advertisers are answerable to the Advertising Standards Authority, and liquor ads face strong vetting. "The moment they cross the line, it becomes crude or offensive, and we need to act." As an example of what constitutes offence, he cites, "I hardly noticed his small dick." Davidson says, "Within two hours we had the board sprayed." (Although not quick enough to prevent the Evening Post putting it on its front page.)

Along with Lasn, who co-founded seminal counter-culture magazine AdBusters, the Billboard Liberation Front (BLF) has blazed a global trail by cunningly altering billboards that flank the busy Los Angeles-San Francisco highway. They prefer to call their actions "billboard improvements" rather than vandalism.

In a state where three felony convictions will land you a life sentence, the BLF uses easily removable stickers, reducing potential conviction to a less severe misdemeanour. They also leave presents to compensate the clean-up crew. "Imported," says BLF spokesperson Jack Napier of the six-packs left at the scenes of their crimes, "not the cheap stuff."

The Tui brand, although well-known here, has nothing on international brand behemoths. Hype for Lord of the Rings, fuelled by a marketing budget approaching $250m, gave Greenpeace an unmissable opportunity for brand hijacking. Wellington's Embassy theatre, dressed up last year for the premiere of The Two Towers, featured a large replica of Gollum greedily reaching out for his precious. With John Howard visiting the city, antiwar campaigners saw an opportunity too good to miss. They enlisted a professional prop designer and a team of abseillers and overnight the cinematic spectacle was transformed into an impressive piece of political installation art. A red, white and blue hat was affixed to Gollum's head, and a John Howard marionette hung off his hand. The symbolism was clear: Howard the puppet is having his strings pulled by a deranged and paranoid Bush administration.

The resulting image made the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald inter--national section, and was reprinted in several Japanese dailies. The replica was checked by Weta designers, who concluded that no damage had been caused. No one involved faced criminal charges.

And local Greenpeace activists aren't the only ones hijacking Peter Jackson's opus. The New York Times (June 13) reports the Ring of Power is to be barbecued in September during the Republican Convention. Bicycle courier Luke Kuhn has inscribed "Bush Uber Alles" on a brass ring and, with a little help from a DIY hairdryer-powered forge, plans to dramatically render the band to slag. Khun says the ring "makes a point that Bush is a dark lord. Therefore it must be destroyed."

The alliance between political campaigners and advertisers isn't always informal. Fiona Jack, now a scholarship student at the prestigious California Institute of the Arts, used to engage in various subvertising in New Zealand. In 1997, she teamed with Oggi's Frykberg ("a big business tycoon, but a good man") to blur the lines between art and advertising. Twenty-seven billboards, paid for by an advertising industry body, bearing a range of innocuous images were put up around Auckland. They all bore the simple slogan: Nothing™. Jack says that her aim was to create a parody of advertising, to get people thinking about the power it exerts over us. With a two-month media embargo in place, the public were unaware that they were being exposed to a fictitious brand.

Frykberg, who backed the campaign, says it was intended to show the impact of outdoor advertising by creating media buzz out of, er, nothing. "Her motivation, as it turned out," remarks Frykberg wryly of Jack, "wasn't totally parallel with ours ... she was taking the piss out of advertising in its totality." Still, he isn't complaining, the Nothing™ campaign gained considerable media coverage. "To a certain degree, we were both successful."

As for his billboards being defaced by savvy activists, Frykberg says, "It certainly happens, but it's not endemic, and one would hope it would not get to that stage."

The likely response from subvertisers and DB alike? Yeah right.

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