NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND
It takes a brave agency to convince a client that its new advertising should feature a conservative extremist demanding that people boycott the brand. Wells BDDP tested three sets of campaigns before telling Heineken USA that ads developed for Amstel beers would exhort consumers to “Avoid all three Amstels at all cost!”
Heineken was “curious to see if the strategy would work,” says associate creative director John Pearson, art director on the campaign, choosing his words carefully. “Misgivings? Sure. We raised them ourselves. Look, this is risky, but we [tested] and we proved it to ourselves first. It’s high risk, high reward.”
The premise of Wells’ Amstel campaign revolves around Garrison Boyd and his fictional efforts to keep the Dutch beer out of the U.S. The New York agency ran an initial set of straight posters for two weeks before a Boyd sticker was placed over them, as if the ad had been defaced. After that, the ads were replaced by Boyd’s warnings of “impending doom.”
It’s not just the humor that makes these ads successful, it’s the sneering tone and the disdain they show for the self-importance of branding. A number of agencies appear to have discovered that advertising can be critical of the medium itself-or at least spoof it-and still be good advertising. In doing so, agencies have used techniques previously harbored by small “anti-advertising” groups across North America, which are dedicated to “culture jamming”: subverting brand messages, altering billboards and publishing satirical ads.
Amstel is just one campaign that relies on an implicit criticism of the process of advertising for its effect. The “Obey your thirst” campaign for Sprite, by Lowe & Partners/SMS in New York, is perhaps the most obvious example. One TV spot, “Jooky,” starts as a generic soft-drink commercial, employing all the clichƒs of the genre: youngsters having fun at the beach or a chorus of young women in swimsuits, all having the time of their lives because they are drinking Jooky. But the action cuts to two boys watching the commercial at home who pop open their Jooky sodas. It takes a moment before they realize that the “party in a can” isn’t going to materialize. “Oh man, mine’s busted,” concludes one, before the voiceover intones, “Obey your thirst.”
“Consumers are jaded by advertising,” says Lee Garfinkel, co-chairman and chief creative officer at Lowe. “In order to reach certain people, advertising that doesn’t take advertising too seriously is appreciated by the consumer.”
Earlier this year, Palmer Jarvis Communications in Vancouver, B.C., broke a parody campaign targeting the six largest Canadian banks. Attempting to deflate the marketing efforts of an entire category, the ads tout the fictitious “Humungous Bank,” carrying taglines such as: “We built this bank one service charge at a time” and “We’re not just interested in money. We’re interested in people with money.” Only in the fine print below the theme “Your money is our money” does the logo for the real client, credit union Richmond Savings, appear. The campaign, complemented by a Humungous Bank Web site that heaps scorn on the obscene salaries earned by bank CEOs, drew complaints from the Canadian Bankers Association. Richmond refused to withdraw the ads and has seen its client base double, says Rachel MacKenzie, a company representative.
“We looked at [advertising in] the financial-services category-everything was bland pablum,” says Chris Staples, Palmer Jarvis creative director. “[Consumers] already hate the big banks, so we hit on using humor very early.”
In the U.S., the anti-advertising movement got its start in San Francisco, home of the 20-year-old Billboard Liberation Front. The BLF’s most sophisticated action in its longtime war against dull advertising was the illegal “enhancement” of a huge, neon-lit Camel billboard on Bayshore Boulevard in January 1995.
Normally, the group’s members confine themselves to spray painting messages on billboards or adding extra panels with matching typefaces. This time, however, they added customized neon lettering. The billboard that once read “Camel-Genuine taste” became “Am I dead yet?” with Joe Camel’s head a skull.
In 1994, the BLF noticed that agencies had been taking note of its cheeky style. A Bozell Worldwide outdoor campaign for a Plymouth Neon dealership showed the familiar head-on shot of a Neon with the tag “Hi” next to it. On some boards, the agency added extra panels to make it appear that a spray-can vandal had drawn a Mohawk haircut on the car’s roof and that “Hi” had been changed to “Hip.” The BLF took umbrage-its art form had been stolen by the agency. In a countermove, the BLF turned “Hip” into “Hype” and placed a skull on the car’s grill.
Today, the best known anti-ad group is Vancouver’s Media Foundation, publisher of Adbusters, an amusing quarterly journal on marketing excesses filled with polished ad spoofs. Less well-known groups include Guerrilla Media, also in Vancouver; Cicada Corps of Artists in Jersey City, N.J.; and the McInformation Network, an international group that operates the McSpotlight Web site, boasting “the most-read anti-McDonald’s extravaganza the world has ever seen.”
The anti-advertisers direct their ire at the obvious villains-tobacco and alcohol-but marketers in any industry in which the level of hype starts to “pollute the mental environment” are fair game. Thus, Nike, McDonald’s and Calvin Klein are their latest targets. Some corporations have tried to fight back, but the increased media attention often plays into anti-advertisers’ hands. Absolut Vodka, for instance, threatened to sue Adbusters after the magazine published a spoof titled “Absolute Nonsense.” The threats were never carried out, emboldening Adbusters to print a series of Absolut parodies showing the bottle icon in a number of negative scenarios, such as a noose (“Absolute Hangover”) and a chalk outline at a drunken-driving accident scene (“Absolute End”). Adbusters’ circ is 35,000-“all the big shops” are on its subscriber list-and, says campaigns manager Alan MacDonald, the Web site receives 2,500 hits a day.
What sets the Media Foundation apart from most leftist organizations is that it hopes to sell out: The group, under the name Powershift, is doing ad projects on a small scale. The Washington State Department of Health recently bought 10,000 copies of Adbusters’ “Joe Chemo” anti-smoking poster, which shows a bald, sickly Joe Camel in bed being fed through an IV drip, the victim of cancer. The project was preceded by a TV spot for Greenpeace and work for the Canadian Students Federation.
“We want to get our ads on the air,” says MacDonald. A current Adbusters’ goal is to persuade a major broadcast network to air its anti-TV spots. Powershift is willing to pay the going rate for the slot, but, since the ads seek to convince viewers to hit the “off” button, it has been rejected.
The “underground” Guerrilla Media has also taken on commercial work for Vancouver’s Hospital Employees Union (in response to a doctor’s group that attacked a local socialized medicine plan), says an official identifying himself as Noam de Pl†m. De Pl†m sees anti-advertising as a way of promoting unconventional political ideas. “We’re not expecting people to go down to the little anarchist bookstore [to see our messages]; we’re on the streets, in the bus shelters, on the Net,” he says.
While creative executives at almost all the agencies contacted say they had heard of anti-advertising and had read Adbusters, all denied it had any influence. Even one of the
creators of “Dick,” a campaign in the anti-advertising pantheon, says so. For instance, the first TV spot in Fallon McElligott’s much-talked-about work for Miller Lite announces that “Dick” thinks it does not matter what happens in a spot as long as it has a Miller Time start and ending. “You can look at [Dick] like that [as a criticism of advertising], but you can also look at it as being honest. It’s not spoofy,” says copywriter Linus Karlsson with a straight face. “It’s straightforward. This is Dick; this is what he does.”
Bruce Dundore, creative director at Asher/Gould Advertising, did say he “admired” Adbusters’ “Joe Chemo” billboard. The Los Angeles agency is responsible for a clever outdoor ad targeting Marlboro on behalf of the California Department of Health Services. The board appears to be a regular Marlboro ad featuring two cowboys on horseback. This time, the familiar type reads, “Bob, I’ve got emphysema.” The outdoor ad is accompanied by a set of TV spots, which also borrow Marlboro’s imagery.
Like the BLF, Asher/Gould is “taking on tobacco; we’re using their brand for our message,” Dundore says. “If you pull down Marlboro, you pull down tobacco because that’s the quintessential brand.” The campaign has been good for business: The agency was recently awarded another anti-tobacco account from Los Angeles County.
Dundore believes the subversion of brand imagery in ads has more to do with the general prevalence of cultural referencing than any specific cynicism toward the marketing process generated by anti-advertising. “Right now, you have a movie culture that borrows dialogue from other movies and a TV culture [in which] characters visit characters on other shows. You’re breaking the timelines, and now advertising is using other ads as subject matter.”
Further, the worlds of advertising and anti-advertising are beginning to blur. Both Adbusters and the BLF claim their activists include many people who work regular agency jobs.
Simple Shoes, a small, hip maker of fashion footwear, has taken the anti-ad approach to its logical conclusion. A typical Simple print ad carries the headline, “Ad for a new target market.” After a black-and-white picture of a shoe, it continues: “Here’s where the copy about the product goes. It should go on about how cool the product is. Key slang words should be used to impart hipness. End with catchy phrase that gets repeated all season.” The ad neglects to name the shoe being advertised.
The result: Simple has increased its net sales from $2 million in 1993 to $36 million in 1996 thanks to ads like these, which are mainly targeted at the extreme-sports lifestyle crowd. While these figures are peanuts compared to the profits of big-name shoe brands, Simple has earned, in six years, the kind of brand equity most advertisers dream about.
Every Simple ad is created by the company’s founder, Eric Meyer, a former Vision Street Wear designer. Meyer started advertising Simple in 1991. “Shoe advertising and shoe design at that time-still today, for that matter-had reached a point where people were inventing and marketing ridiculous technologies that had zero benefit,” he says.
Meyer, though, has a warning for anyone thinking of injecting anti-ad themes into an existing campaign. He believes that the younger, more cynical consumers most likely to respond are “hip to the ads which feature cynicism, such that if you weren’t there before the definition, you better not go there now. An honest tone is not enough-the underlying essence of the ad has to actually be true to the brand.”
To capture the sardonic timbre of anti-advertising, agencies must get the production details right. “As a technician, it’s a real difficult execution. Unless you get just the right tone, it’s not going to work,” says Robert Goldman, co-author of Sign Wars, the Cluttered Landscape of Advertising and a sociology and anthropology professor at Lewis & Clark College. “To pull down other advertisers by saying ‘We’re exempt’ is a dangerous game. Instead of making viewers less cynical, it creates massive distrust.”
Where will anti-advertising go from here?
Myra Stark, director of knowledge management at Saatchi & Saatchi in New York, says younger consumers’ savvy attitudes will endure. “It’s not going to go away. They’re going to carry this into their 30s, 40s and 50s,” she says.
Others disagree. “More and more advertisers are going to move away from this as diminishing returns set in,” Goldman says. Adds Adbuster publisher Kalle Lasn: “In the short run, a few ad agencies will borrow this technique successfully. But in the long run, there will be a greater price to pay.”
Simple Shoes is now moving toward more traditional branding. “I’m sick of anti-advertising, unless it [offers] a brand-new twist,” Meyer says. “Our campaign is feeling played out to me, and I’m having trouble deciding where to go. The future of advertising lies in something that does not yet exist. By the time the major ad agencies [figure it out], it will be too late.”
ENTER STAGE LEFT
A sampler of anti-advertising Web sites. Can you say “subversive”?
Adbusters’ Culture Jammer Headquarters: www.adbusters.org
The Billboard Liberation Front: The BLF does not maintain a Web site, but an article with photos of its work can be found at www.jetpack.com/01/sabotage/lsd/index.html
Cicada Corps of Artists: www.escape.com/~cicada
Garrison Boyd’s Home Page of Decency: www.g-boyd.com
Guerrilla Media: members.tripod.com/~gmedia
Palmer Jarvis’ Humungous Bank campaign: www.humungous.com
The Gallery of Advertising Parody: www.dnai.com/~sharrow/parody.html