If there's one inevitability about living in a city, it's that you're going to be bombarded with advertising. In 2005, the average commuter was exposed to more than 130 adverts featuring more than 80 different products in a 45-minute London Underground journey; this rose to 3,500 commercial messages over the course of a day.
Over a decade later, and the proliferation of ads aggressively competing for our eyeballs has only increased. Doesn't it all just make you wish you could walk through life with an Ad Blocker permanently installed? Well, hold that thought — because some city-dwellers are so fed up with the daily flood of commercials they’ve joined an ever-growing global movement to replace public ads with public art. We met Special Patrol Group (SPG) and Protest Stencil to find out what it's like to hack the city.
"Subvertising is a portmanteau of subversion and advertising... Generally speaking, subverts target the original adverts or the sites of outdoor advertising (or both)." — Advertising Shits In Your Head
As the overground train pulls into Stratford station on an over-warm Monday night, Charlie, a member of SPG slings a black bag full of rolled up, rectangular posters over his shoulder and nervously tugs at the hood of his jacket before boarding. He is tall and bearded. He mentions The Specials and Smiley Culture as cultural reference points, echoing the anti-Met sentiments embedded in SPG's origins. (The group's first action took place outside New Scotland Yard back in 2014).
As the train fills up, my heart rate quickens. The carriages are busy for 10pm on a Monday, so we decide to move to the end, away from the nattering school kids, and worse, their teachers.
But we needn't have worried. As Charlie sets off through the train, effortlessly sliding the super meta 'How to Hack this ad space' posters over ads for apps and hair loss shampoos people barely bat an eyelid — after all, it's practically tube etiquette to keep your eyes glued to your phone. "Generally, the weirder something is the less likely the public are to engage with it, which is good," Charlie says. "At this stage, we want as little interaction as possible."
It's risky business. Subvertisers are dipping their design skills into the murky waters of vandalism and the charge. if you're caught, is criminal damage (the repercussions are worse for digital hacks). Having just twisted my ankle at Lovebox my chances of running away from the official high vis brigade are slim.
A subverts lifecycle is limited — some last hours, some manage to stick it out until the original ad is replaced. So why do subvertisers risk arrest for a poster that might not last until the morning's first commuters? For Charlie, it's a 'rights to the city' type argument: "The current situation is people with the most money get to determine the aesthetic of our city." Besides, he says, you just have to look at the claims on the advertising company websites to understand the reach (JCDecaux's hashtag is #onebillioneyeballs FYI).
The Guardian recently published a map of London's pseudo-public space, revealing the extent of the spaces we think are public, which are actually owned by private corporations. "That's what we want to question — the ownership of public space". Charlie says.
How many brands can you actually recall from your evening commute? Probably Zilch. However, that doesn't mean their messages won't reach you on a subconscious level. "I think people are a bit blind to it and that's the way ads work, it's kind of subliminal. We know it's there but we don't notice it," says Ben, a 'subvertiser' operating under the name Protest Stencil, who has been pounding the streets of London armed with a high vis jacket and a bunch of bus-stop sized posters for the last year or so.
"Advertising may be exceptionally adept at creating needs, but it is singularly bad at meeting them, at making good on its promises."— ASIYH
"My objection [to public advertising] is a lot of it is inherently sexist," says Ben. "It excludes people and it presents images of lives that are basically unattainable for most of us, creating envy, greed and angst." But it's not just our emotions the ads are wreaking havoc with. Research suggests exposure to TV advertising increases the tendency in people to save less, spend more and tumble into debt in the process. Then there's the environmental impact to consider. Can a finite planet really go on supporting a capitalist system of rapid growth and ever increasing consumption?
Imagine, instead, if London's bus stops were art galleries, if tube station adverts became community message boards and roadside billboards were replaced with trees. It might sound fanciful but this is the reality in Grenoble, which in 2015 became the first European city to ban outdoor advertising in order to "develop areas for public expression".
Just last year, a group of locals and artists known as Adblock Bristol began helping residents put a stop to planning applications for new ad sites, and started a dialogue with Bristol City Council on the subject. Subvertisers International launched in March this year, with a week-long mass take over of 40 cities in 16 countries.
What the subvertisers are doing is nothing new. In 1960s France it was known as detournement; in modern America, culture jamming. The founder of Brandalism, and appropriately-named Bill Posters tells us, "I think the latest evolution is our use of digital networks and social media to mobilise artists around the world."
Here in the capital people collectively shoved two fingers up at advertisers when they crowd funded for ads at Clapham station to be taken over by photos of cats who needed rehoming. That wasn't just a cute selfie-opp, it was part of a growing trend to reclaim public space from private organisations. Now ASA (the Advertising Standards Agency) has pricked its ears up to what we can only imagine are years of consumer complaints about sexist ads, and recently announced a ban on gender stereotyping in British adverts.
"London will never be an ad free space. Advertising is too deeply embedded in our capitalist culture. But that doesn't mean we should we should just accept it and ignore the social and environmental consequences." — Bill Posters
We put it to Charlie that advertising provides an important source of revenue for cash-strapped councils and keeps our tube fares, ahem, low-ish... doesn't it? He thinks not. "The idea that advertising is tolerated because it makes the tube cheaper is only justifiable on the basis that advertising is benign and doesn't cause any harm. We're trying to point out that advertising does cause harm — to the individual and society at large. "Besides," he adds, "rather than our fares supposedly being subsided by Google and Apple's advertising, those companies could just pay their tax." We have to nod in agreement here.
When we join Ben and Samia, a 29-year-old Migration student on a bus stop ad-hack, the main obstacle they encounter isn't from suspicious bobbies on the beat, but from people like you and me associating a fluorescent jacket with authority. Immediately they are asked for directions.
Undeterred, Ben says the aim is to tell a story through the location of the posters. His 10 hand-stenciled designs call out charities who work with the UK government to detain and deport homeless migrants. The posters are hoisted up near the charities offices and where immigration raids have taken place. Crisis has since released a statement on the issue.
But is it enough? And could London ever follow in the footsteps of Sao Paulo, which in 2007 introduced the Clean City Law, thus designating outdoor adverts as a form of visual pollution?
Posters has been mobilising street artists around the world ever since the 2011 UK riots, when disenchanted, disaffected youth looted designer goods. He sees art as a way to wrestle these kids back from the angst caused by the commercialisation of culture. Yet he doesn't think we, as a city, can kick the ad-habit that easy.
"London will never be an ad free space. Advertising is too deeply embedded in our capitalist culture. But that doesn't mean we should we should just accept it and ignore the social and environmental consequences.
"We are all inherently creative, so let's find ways to help people express themselves in the city's public spaces. We need to reclaim our right to the city, and subvertising is one way of doing that."
Some names have been changed to protect the individuals' identity.