600 Fake Outdoor Ads in Paris Blast Corporate Sponsors of the COP21 Climate Talks

Brandalism stunt targets brands' hypocrisy

Headshot of Angela Natividad

Couldn't make it to Dismaland before its rapid shut-down? That's OK. There's always Paris.

Just in time for the COP21 Climate Conference, an organization called Brandalism has hijacked over 600 outdoor ad spaces in the city, replacing them with climate change-related art … and what, at first glance, look like ordinary ads for brands like Total, Air France, Dow Chemicals, GDF Suez and Volkswagen.

The difference is, these ads reveal unpleasant truths.

All the targeted brands are corporate sponsors of COP21. (The art also appears in ad space owned by outdoor ad firm JC Decaux, itself an official sponsor.) The objective is to highlight the hypocrisy inherent in those companies associating themselves with an event that their actions suggest they don't really care about. 

The Volkswagen piece below, created by street artist Barnbrook, appropriates the look and feel of classic VW ads but reads, "We're sorry that we got caught. Now that we've been caught, we're trying to make you think we care about the environment. But we're not the only ones. #redlines #D12 #ClimateGames"

The #ClimateGames hashtag refers to what Brandalism calls "the world's largest disobedient adventure game." The ads also include calls to protest the Solutions 21 conference, a corporate expo at Paris' Grand Palais during the COP21; and the hashtag #redlines refers to the minimum changes necessary for a just and inhabitable planet. 

"By sponsoring the climate talks, major polluters such as Air France and GDF-Suez-Engie can promote themselves as part of the solution—when actually they are part of the problem," Joe Elan of Brandalism says.

Other targets of the art include heads of state like François Hollande, David Cameron, Angela Merkel, Barack Obama and Shinzo Abi.

Brandalism, a cross between "brand" and "vandalism," positions itself as "a revolt against corporate control of the visual realm." It launched in 2012 with the goal of seizing public space back from advertisers. In May 2014, the organization replaced over 360 corporate ad spaces with handmade art from 40 international artists.

For the COP21, 80 artists from 19 countries tossed their hats into the ring, including Banksy collaborator Paul Insect, Neta Harari and Jimmy Cauty. Many worked on Dismaland, Banksy's 36-day "bemusement park," which appropriated familiar icons like Disneyland characters and placed them in less charming contexts.

The piece below is a clear echo of that project.

"We are taking their spaces back because we want to challenge the role advertising plays in promoting unsustainable consumerism," says one participating artist. "Because the advertising industry force feeds our desires for products created from fossil fuels, they are intimately connected to causing climate change. As is the case with the climate talks and their corporate sponsored events, outdoor advertising ensures that those with the most amount of money are able to ensure that their voices get heard above all else."

The ads went up on Black Friday, notable for inspiring consumer stampedes (and resulting deaths), but also because residents here in Paris were forbidden from gathering in public for security reasons this weekend, a result of the terrorist events of Nov. 13.

"The government has chosen to ban the big civil society mobilizations—but big business events can continue," says Brandalism's Bill Posters. "The multinationals responsible for climate change can keep greenwashing their destructive business models, but the communities directly impacted by them are silenced." 

One result of the Parisian lockdown against big gatherings was the cancellation of a planned climate-related demonstration, slated for Sunday. In response, hundreds of Parisians spent the weekend placing shoes in front of, and around, the Place de la République, the public square where most such demonstrations take place.

The effort was meant to be a gesture of silent condemnation, with shoes representing those who would have marched on Sunday. Despite this, thousands of demonstrators still gathered to protest in person, creating a human chain along the route of the planned march, leading to a violent clash with police that involved projectiles, baton blows and tear gas. Many chanted, "A state of emergency is a police state."

Some 174 people were jailed and 26 placed under house arrest, owing to individual histories of violence. 

The objective of the protest was to urge leaders to agree to deep emissions cuts, and to help poor countries better manage global warming. In total, some 570,000 people across 175 countries marched on Sunday, says climate change rally organizer Avaaz. 

World leaders representing 196 different countries are gathering in Paris for the COP21 discussions, including Obama, Hollande and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. But while the effort looks sincere, the act is perhaps as empty as the event's sponsorship roster. 

Secretary of State John Kerry, for example, said this month that the COP21 would not result in "legally binding reduction targets"—meaning that even if agreements are made among all parties, it isn't likely they can be enforced. 

"It's now more important than ever to call out their lies and speak truth to power," Posters concludes. "We call on people to take to the streets during the COP21 to confront the fossil fuel industry. We cannot leave the climate talks in the hands of politicians and corporate lobbyists who created this mess in the first place."

See other provocations below. More art is available at the Brandalism gallery.

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@luckthelady angela.natividad@gmail.com Angela Natividad is a frequent contributor to Adweek's creativity blog, AdFreak. She is also the author of Generation Creation and co-founder of Hurrah, an esports agency. She lives in Paris and when she isn't writing, she can be found picking food off your plate.