BRANDWASHING, ART AND ACTIVISM

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It is known that, considering all the media (television, radio, Internet, street signs), an average North American would be subjected to the visual and auditory presence of at least 3,000 ads per day. In Europe, we would be harassed every day by some 1200 to 2200 ads according to the most timid studies, and up to 5000 according to other estimates. The issue of reclaiming advertising space is therefore far from being a superficial one.

In addition to the billboards we are already used to, screens are taking up more and more space in cities. Our gaze, which used to be lost in the tiled patterns of the subway station walls or in the eyes of the passengers on the opposite train, is now absorbed by the screens. Millions of pixels simultaneously encourage us to salivate for the latest hamburger from a junk food chain, to go into debt for the latest smart phone, to desire to drive an ever more powerful car, to ogle bouncing breasts wrapped in lace, when it is not to go on vacation on the moon or to join the army… Advertisements are everywhere, it has become impossible to ignore them, they assault us.

The reappropriation of advertising space is not new, but has become more than relevant today. All over the world, since the 50’s, numerous collectives have been mobilizing against the commodification of public space and the colonization of our imaginary. One thinks of the Situationists, who created fake posters using puns as a political weapon, or the Billboard Liberation Front collective who modified the slogans on billboards in San Francisco, or more recently the French collective Les Déboulonneurs who daubed against the gigantism of advertisements. In 2014, during the Olympic Games in London and the COP21 in Paris, the English collective Brandalism(1) has reappropriated hundreds of billboards, substituting them with creative works. Their action inspired our Brandwashing collective. Born in Brussels, our group was formed through actions against free trade treaties in 2016 (CETA, TTIP, TISA…). A hundred posters were hijacked during our first action last November in the capital; more than 150 during our last action on March 23 in Brussels, Liege and Ghent. This action follows the call of Subvertisers International(2) which is an international grouping of several anti-advertising collectives in the world. This movement, formed by local and national groups of activists, artists, and non-profit organizations, invites everyone to take part in creative actions against advertising and consumerism. The actions carried out during the week of March 23 took place in more than 50 cities, including Buenos Aires, London, Mexico City, New York, Paris, Sydney, Tehran…

WHY FIGHT AGAINST ADVERTISING?

In the city, wherever we look, advertisements capture our attention to slip in emotions, desires, names, shapes, slogans. And this, of course, in the name of the many happinesses to come, because, it would seem, we exist through what we buy, and we define ourselves through the brands we wear, acquiescing to the postulate of storytelling, the idea that we are what we consume. The era of conspicuous consumption has arrived. Thus, to boost sales, marketing companies apply themselves to develop strong and fertile imaginations around the products they market, so that people compare themselves to them and identify with the stories they tell. The consumed products define by shaping the ideas and the behaviors, by formatting the minds, even by producing individuals without any other role than that of being consumers.

Economic growth being the fundamental goal around which our societies have developed and are organized, we should produce more and more and consume more. « Growth », « production », « purchasing power », « consumption », ensure the maintenance of the elites at the expense of the rest of the world’s population. Advertising is an integral part of this system of accumulation and expansion, it is the fuel of the liberal and industrial economy. At the expense of the planet, it is the ferment (with programmed obsolescence and consumer credit) of an intensification of consumption necessary for an incessant growth of production. Very often, the consumer does not know the history of the product he is buying; he only vaguely knows its origin, how it was made, by whom and at what cost. Advertising is one of the cogs in the wheel of the plundering of raw materials from economically poor countries by economically rich countries. It is the extension of an artificialization of the world, that is, of a technocratic management of the Earth, considered as a simple reservoir of natural resources. Through this apparent state of stability that it exalts, through this illusion of omnipotence that it glorifies, advertising conceals the destruction and devastation necessary to our Western ways of life, that is to say the plundering of one part of humanity at the expense of another, by the means of big industry. From then on, advertising overshadows the climatic and warlike consequences of the capitalist system, persuading us moreover that we can only be spectators.

Far from meeting needs, the sole purpose of advertising is to create new desires, new lusts. As Apple CEO Tim Cook says, « We’re in the business of giving you something you didn’t know you wanted and can’t live without once you have it. It is well known that even the most innocuous advertising messages contain strong political meanings. By highlighting the codes of the most privileged social class, advertising accentuates the relationships of power and domination; the products it promotes hierarchize individuals, always benefiting the haves more than the have-nots. From these bourgeois norms emerges a cultural grammar (3) which, little by little, is set up as a motto, masking the power that lurks there. These norms, once internalized, give the lifestyle of the wealthier class the intangible character of a natural fact. Like a silent process, it organizes, « naturally », a sociological, political and aesthetic ordering. By mimicry, the majority wants what initially only a wealthy minority can afford. In other words, advertising shapes adhesion, manufactures consent, and legitimizes the consumerist and bourgeois way of life.

World Advertising Awareness Day is held every March 25. On March 25, 2013, the French collective Les Déboulonneurs was acquitted of charges of defacing billboards in a symbolic act of civil disobedience. At the trial, they argued that their « right to receive » advertising had been violated by the advertising assault in the public space. The judge who followed this plea found that the action was protected by « freedom of speech » and « necessity. »

Yet it is from us that advertising gets its power. We who are accustomed to receiving these advertising messages, despite ourselves. The mercantile invasion becomes « inevitable ». Advertising agencies are constantly looking for new ways to get the attention of potential customers, whose brains are becoming accustomed to intrusions. What is « new » is what is good. The repeated messages are inscribed in us, become obvious, limpid so to speak. They become the replacement of reflection by reflex. At the moment of choosing, a faceless voice precedes us, instead of being the choice, we are its unfolding. The automatisms double the thought. Advertising functions as a watchword; its ideological and excessive presence is a confiscation of speech. Today, advertisers are less interested in images than in the reactions they provoke. They plan reactions based on our emotions, on our sensations, rather than on our thinking. The message must be as broad as possible to reach as many people as possible. This illusion of reality, retouched, deploys invisible, sensitive borders, outside of which it becomes difficult, even impossible, to think. Under the constant gaze of the advertising image, we incorporate its mechanisms and representations.

The public space is this set of spaces of passage, of gathering, for the use of all. While it does not belong to anyone in theory, it is most often subject to state legislation. However, this « public » space does not belong to everyone. The public-private partnership, or « PPP », whereby a public authority calls on private service providers to finance and manage a facility (in the case of advertising: bus stops, benches, bicycles, etc.) that provides or contributes to a public service, is becoming more common. In this space, which is supposed to be used by everyone, those who have money can communicate massively and permanently. Thus, the large groups have a monopoly on expression. And when an object is « free », it is always because the consumer is the product (4) Not to mention that, on the Internet, advertising also feeds on our personal data, this « nothing to hide » which is worth gold for the digital multinationals. Interests, gender, age, profession… all this information allows us to present ads to which the Internet user is most likely to react. These profiling methods, based on our searches, the content of our emails, the sites we visit, are called « behavioral targeting ». By monopolizing our personal data, by centralizing them, through online services and social networks, all « free », the digital multinationals (these companies that claim to be the source of human progress) are taking us hostage (5). Our personal data no longer belong to us, as the servers of multinationals are often located in other jurisdictions, on other continents. The processing of our data also allows the Internet giants to tailor our search results to our « interests ». For an identical search, two people with different profiles will not have the same results. This tends to confirm an Internet user in his life habits, his convictions, his beliefs. Finally, Internet service providers are legally obliged to keep connection logs for at least one year, in order to respond to possible legal requests.

HOW TO ACT AGAINST ADVERTISING?

 

We believe it is essential to broaden the range of resistance to advertising aggression, the only limit being our imagination. Alone or in groups, from action to protest, there are many ways to act: from non-violent civil disobedience strategies to advocacy and information campaigns, including workshops and training aimed at reclaiming public space, everyone can act in their own way. Inspired by the Brandalism collective in Belgium, we use, among other things, the existing structures, i.e. the windows of multinationals: we replace the existing posters in the advertising panels by artistic visuals created for the occasion. During the replacement of these posters, we wear handmade silk-screened chasubles with the effigy of the targeted companies; the goal being to go unnoticed. To open these panels, we use specialized keys, which can be found on the web with a little research. In Belgium, the Allen wrenches used are mainly the « T30 » and « H60 » models (6), as well as the « JCD GEAR » tube wrench (7), which is more difficult to find, but relatively simple to manufacture. The size of the bus shelter posters is 120x175cm (8). Other groups stick stickers on the cameras of the video panels, cover the panels of the bus stops with cardboard, opaque plastic film, « stop pub » posters, make passers-by sign petitions(9). Currently, in Liege, the collective Liege Without Ads is fighting to prevent the city from renewing its contract with JC Decaux until 2032, the current contract ending next November.

 

« Our role is to give you something you didn’t know you wanted and that you can’t live without once you have it. Tim Cook, Apple CEO

As we know, the capitalist system has become a master in the art of incorporating into its showcase the challenges it raises. From then on, a certain type of con- sumption, brandished as an emancipatory, even rebellious practice, neutralizes any aspiration for change. Green capitalism, this ecological scarecrow, in contradiction with the respect of the planet’s limits, is a glaring example. And if we live in a society of « he who says nothing consents », in a society in which women suffer from their duty of seduction, men from their imperative of virility… we do not accept it. By hijacking billboards, we seek to reappropriate the communication channels of power. It is a question of diverting the existing structures, of jostling them and of questioning them unceasingly, of establishing margins of maneuver to create an effect of distance compared to the dominant standards whose apparent neutrality makes us hate. We believe that the role of art is not to show society but to transform it. This is why activist art can play a key role in the societal changes we aspire to (10). In other words, it is not enough to put forward ideas, we believe it is essential to transform them into concrete, inventive and continuous actions. We use advertising structures to show the creative potential of people, as a whole, to expose its refusal… often in a poetic way (11). Finally, we choose anonymity for protection and because we refuse the spectacle of celebrity, one of the main mechanisms of advertising. Faced with the indecency of the system, people need to react, to mark their disagreement, to make use of their right not to be received. Is it up to us to follow the rules or the rules to follow us?

The Brandwashing collective

brandwashingbelgium.blogspot.be

brandwashing@riseup.net

Notes et références
  1.    http://brandalism.ch/ (voir notamment la page “Take Action”).
  2.    http://subvertisers-international.net
  3.    « Manuel de communication-guérilla », Autonome A.F.R.I.K.A. GRUPPE et Luther Blisset.
  4.    « La prolifération de [cette] fausse gratuité, payée par la publicité, et dans laquelle l’objet de la transaction est le lecteur ou le spectateur lui-même », cache ce qu’elle est réellement en évacuant la transaction pécuniaire directe, autrement dit l’acte d’achat. « Derrière l’apparence, il y a une transaction marchande classique, avec client, fournisseur et marchandise. Le client est un annonceur publicitaire, le fournisseur un diffuseur de programmes – ou d’informations –, et la marchandise, un téléspectateur – ou un lecteur. Ce que le client achète au fournisseur, c’est du « temps de cerveau humain disponible (…) Le contenu est gratuit, et c’est bien normal, parce que le contenu, c’est l’asticot. Le pêcheur n’exige pas de la tanche qu’elle finance l’asticot. Gratuit pour la tanche, mais financé par le pêcheur, puis par l’amateur de tanche qui lui achète sa prise. Transaction 100 % marchande. Zéro gratuité ». Vraie et fausse gratuité, Jean-Louis Sagot-Duvauroux – Manière de Voir, décembre 2007- janvier 2008
  5.    Listes de bons outils à utiliser en ligne (pour mobile, BSD, Windows, macOS, GNU/Linux) : https://prism-break.org/en/ (dont le add-on ublock Origin, indispensable contre la pub en ligne).
  6.    Détails des clés à utiliser : https://www.youtube. com/watch?v=wjCdqA-qtWc et https://www. youtube.com/watch?v=oZDHs6-8cSE
  7.    Clé «JCD GEAR» http://www.publicadcampaign.com/ PublicAccess/Index.html (cliquer sur la ville de Bruxelles).
  8.    Guide d’explication « in the streets » pour se réapproprier les espaces publicitaires (en anglais) http://brandalism.ch/ wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Brandalism-Guide1.pdf
  9.    Pétition « Pour le retrait des écrans vidéos dans l’espace public à Bruxelles » du collectif bruxellois Espace
Sans Pub http://www.sans-pub.org/petitionbxl/
  10.      Pour cette question du lien entre art et lutte, voir http:// www.kairospresse.be/article/collectif-artivist
  11.      Exemples artistiques de réappropriation des espaces publicitaires : http://brandalism.ch/gallery/ voir par exemple les travaux de Jordan Seiler, Vermibus…
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