Today’s Solutions: February 03, 2023

Guerrilla campaigns turn the power of advertising on its head.

Tijn Touber | September 2004 issue
Ever looked absent-mindedly out the window of a train or bus and realised that an irritating advertising jingle has been running through your head for the past 15 minutes? In High Times (May/June 2004), the monthly that talks about a lot more than just soft drugs, René George Vasicek says it bothers him so much he’s considering taking companies to court for “unjustly taking up space in his brain.”
Is he joking? No, Vasicek is dead serious. And he’s not alone. Vasicek’s stance makes him one of a growing group of ‘culture jammers’ who have had enough endless bombardment from jingles, slogans, posters and other unsolicited advertising. It’s more than simply a personal aversion to the ‘commercialisation of public space’. Culture jammers are concerned about the as yet unknown effects of all the advertising that now saturates our culture. They fear for the mental well being of their fellow citizens.
In Playboy (January 2004), American author Norman Mailer argued that television is the crux of many kids’ learning problems. “There used to be a time in childhood when one could develop one’s power of concentration (which may be the most vital element in the ability to learn) by following a sustained narrative—by reading, for example. Now a commercial interrupts nearly all TV presentations every seven to 12 minutes. The majority of our children have lost any expectation that concentration will not be broken into.” In other words: children’s brains are being programmed to take a commercial break every 10 minutes.
Vasicek realises banning advertisements altogether would violate freedom of speech. His solution: if companies insist on claiming space in our brains, they should have to pay for it. Thus, his idea of filing suit against heavy advertisers.. It sounds absurd, but the idea of suing tobacco companies for health damages was similarly outrageous not so many years ago. Vasicek and his sympathisers believe there is a good chance a similar case can be made against pollution in our minds.
You can switch off the television and stop reading newspapers and magazines to block out ads, but billboards are more difficult to avoid. Which is why more and more people around the world are protesting against them. Last November members of the French Brigade AntiPub (“pub” stands for “publicité”, the French word for advertising) were arrested after some 1,000 culture jammers rose up in a simultaneous protest: students and artists, but also engineers and housewives from the wealthier districts of Paris. Billboards of scantily clad women eating desserts were converted into horrifying monsters. The ‘brigade’ that launched this successful guerrilla action has no address or telephone number, but it does have a website: Protest actions are announced on
The Parisian campaign is the largest to date, but certainly not the first. Billboards in the United States have been modified by guerrilla anti-ad groups since at least 1977. Late that year a new cigarette brand called Fact was introduced in San Francisco. Large posters portrayed a middle-aged gentleman praising the cigarettes as follows: ‘I’m realistic, I only smoke Facts.’ But on six billboards the text suddenly read: ‘I’m real sick, I only smoke Facts’.
That early form of culture jamming was done by activists calling themselves the Billboard Liberation Front (BLF). The network’s—somewhat playful—“ultimate goal is nothing short of a personal and singular Billboard for each citizen. Until that glorious day for global communications when every man, woman and child can scream at or sing to the world in 100 Pt. type from their very own rooftop; until that day we will continue to do all in our power to encourage the masses to use any means possible to commandeer the existing media and to alter it to their own design.” Under a section entitled The Art and Science of Billboard Improvement their website ( includes practical instructions to carry out your own billboard “improvements”. The best method: photograph the billboard, blow up the photo to its actual size, cut out the necessary letters and paste them over the real billboard using rubber cement.
BLF’s main beef is with the “advertisation” of society. Everything—even arts, literature and spirituality—are being reshaped into bite-sized consumer goods and sold like soap. Artists are no longer judged on their talents or vision, but on their skill in drawing attention to themselves.
But resistance to the billboard society is growing, according to Kalle Lasn, founder of the Vancouver collective Adbusters. Lasn, who popularized the phrase ‘culture jamming,’ knows what he’s talking about. Adbusters magazine, published by the collective, has been parodying existing advertising campaigns for years and now has 120,000 subscribers. Another key figure responsible for the growing campaigns against advertising is another Canadian, author Naomi Klein. In her popular book No Logo she made the tactic of culture jamming accessible to the wider public.
Some large companies targeted by the activists, a few are re-adjusting their advertising campaigns to the changing times. Hewlett-Packard, for example, now uses young, hip graffiti artists to help sell their printers in the paradoxical hope they will reach the obstinate anti-advertising movement.
But the culture jammers also appear to be changing. Adbusters has launched an alternative sports shoe via its own website This blackSpotsneaker is a direct protest against Nike, which underpays its workers in the developing world but has enough money for massive advertising campaigns. The shoe is acclaimed as an “anti-brand”, but it does have a kind of logo: a red dot on the tip of the sneaker, meant to give Philip Knight, the chairman of Nike, a kick in the ass.

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