The anti-advertising movement known as “brandalism” employs artistic activism and subvertising to challenge corporate advertising by replacing it with parodies or spoofs.
Since 2012, the activist organization Brandalism (a portmanteau of ‘brand’ and ‘vandalism’) is a form of anti-advertising and has used a style of guerilla campaigning known as “subvertising” to make brands answer for their actions in an effort to start a conversation about the integrity of outdoor advertising.
Parody or spoof advertisements are created as a kind of artistic activism that subtly alters and critiques corporate advertising. Common themes in this artwork include environmental concerns and political critiques of consumer culture. Brandalism posters are silk-screened works of art that parody or create new versions of well-known images, icons, and logos. Advertisements are often stuck to billboards, etc.
Brandalism is influenced by the ‘détournement’ strategy used by the worldwide group of avant-garde artists known as the Situationist International in the 1950s. The French word détournement describes the process of reusing elements of popular culture to question and reveal their original intent.
Parodying brand ads and undermining brand vows, Brandalism challenges corporate power, greed, and corruption by forcing onlookers to question if a company’s words and actions match up.
As ubiquitous as billboards have become, the concept of actively defying them has been around for a long time. The British street artist Banksy has been engaging in this kind of artistic civil disobedience for years, but the practice goes back far further.
Beginning as an art project, it urged creatives to address the overlapping problems caused by advertising, such as adverse effects on self-esteem, financial strain, cultural norms, the natural world, and the proliferation of visual clutter. Named “The 48 Sheet”, it alludes to big-format billboards, and the project included the installation of artworks promoting diverse businesses at 36 locations throughout five cities in the United Kingdom. It targeted brands such as Lego, Nike etc.
They don’t bother to get permission before placing their ads there. They just placed their ads!
Since then, Brandalism has staged a number of ad space revolts. Crossing the English Channel in December 2015, the group collaborated with over a thousand Parisians and eighty artists to place 600 subvertisements criticising the role of corporations in climate change at the Paris Climate Conference.
The organization makes sure to keep its plans secret so as to maintain an element of surprise throughout its operations. If the outdoor advertising firm doesn’t see the artworks for a while, they might remain there for weeks.
Brandalism is unafraid of big corporations. They find inspiration in campaigns that have gone up against large corporations in the past, such as the McLibel case in 1990.
When Helen Steel and David Morris, two English environmental campaigners, wrote a leaflet together titled “What’s wrong with McDonald’s: everything they don’t want you to know,” McDonald’s initiated a lawsuit against them. The fast food company sued the two after they disseminated a few hundred copies around London, leading to nearly decade-long litigation that ended with a verdict in favour of the environmentalists.
It was a classic instance of David vs Goliath, and the outcome was disastrous for McDonald’s public relations. After spending a tonne of money trying to win a legal battle, McDonald’s’ strategy backfired.
It’s hard to put a number on the effect of its takeovers, but you can see whether the audience remembers and responds to the visuals by how often they’re spoken about afterwards. An additional goal is to expand the discussion regarding the legality of commercial advertising in public areas by demonstrating alternative uses for the space that do not entail pervasive commercial messages.