It all started when…
about 8 years ago when I cancelled my direct debit to church and put it towards a dream I was having. That one day all the advertising space in the UK would have nothing in them but a picture of the sky or a quote that inspired something other than shopping, something that didn’t tax the mind or pocket.
Vincent J Miller argues in his book Consuming Religion that we have switched our gazing for heaven-on-earth - for a heaven for ourselves as offered by brands. But it isn’t an easy fight, our vision is being blinkered by corporate market values.
Anne Cronin, an advertising and cities expert at the University of Lancaster points out that:
“Outdoor advertising has become part of people’s day-to-day urban wallpaper… and connect everyday ways of thinking to commercial imperatives.”
And it’s this consumer urgency that creates the myth of scarcity and status anxiety - Who doesn’t want to show off their new gear? The fear of having nothing that equates to being nothing. Such is the dominance of the industry that we don’t even question it’s existence:
Clear Channel boast:
“When brands advertise on our street structures, they become part of the public social space, entering people’s thoughts and conversations.”
And so Consumerism relies upon the corruption AND narrowing of our imagination. And mainly to get us to part with hard earned cash for things we don’t need to impress people we don’t really like, as the saying goes.
Mark Twain once wrote :
You can't depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus!
But if every single advertising spot we see - from billboards to bus shelters, and magazines to internet pop-ups were blank, for a week, what free space would our hearts and minds have! What could we imagine instead?
And what if all that space spoke of something wholesome, something true, noble, pure, lovely and admirable, something praiseworthy, what about Brave Hospitality, Sabbath Rest or inter-dependence?
How could that effect the day- to-day wellbeing of the good people of our towns and cities?
I began buying advertising space with my tithe, putting my hard earned tips where my dream was. Starting with 100 fly posters for 2 weeks, every couple of months for two to three years, then later with billboards and stickers and plaques and beer mats which I’ll show you just before I end.
To stand in contrast and to truly give something back they had to have no logo, no tag, link or signature, they could ask for nothing in return in order to avoid any resemblance to the mechanics of advertising.
I’d counter all those advertising slogans with lines like:
‘A cheerful look brings joy to the heart’ from Proverbs,
‘Enough is as good as a feast’ from Mary Poppins and
‘It’s better to help people than garden gnomes’ from Amilie.
After all Wisdom is wisdom where ever it’s found, I soon started to write my own and you can see a few of those in a moment.
Jumping all the way back to 1928, George Washington Hill, the president of the American Tobacco Company, realised the potential market if women started to smoke - He said
“It will be like opening a gold mine right in our front garden.”
So, he approached Edward Bernays, Now, Edward Bernays, was the nephew of psycho-analyst Sigmund Freud - He had moved to America and used his uncles methods in his own work - He’s now known as the God Father of PR
He described the masses as:
‘irrational and subject to herd instinct’
He outlined how skilled practitioners could use crowd psychology and psycho-analysis to control them in desirable ways’.
So the American Tobacco Company asked Edward Bernays to find a way get women smoking - Bernays hired A.A. BRILL - one of the first psycho-analysts in America to find out what Cigarettes meant to women and so they hatched a plan.
They’d send out a group of debutantes at the ‘annual’ New York Easter parade with cigarets to be lit on Bernays’ command. He had called the press in advance telling them there were a bunch of suffragettes who would light ‘Torches of Freedom’ next to the ‘Statue of Liberty’ in a protest to stand equal with men.
And thus - if you believed in equality then you’d need to smoke!
Paul Maser of Lehman Brothers who also hired Bernays said:
“We must shift America from a ‘Needs’ to a ‘Desires’ culture, people must be trained to desire, mans desire must overshadow his needs.”
Back to the 90’s -
I studied Graphic Design & Advertising for 4 years then did a degree in Visual Art and Culture - as it happens my art teacher said I was too graphicy and my graphics teacher said I was too arty! And still, almost 20 years on, I straddle the two disciplines working on branding and book design, artist commissions and curating outdoor billboard galleries.
Around 1995 - while I was getting into Radiohead and watching MTV, television was being introduced to the island of Fiji for the very first time! And within just three years Fiji saw their very first reports of anorexia and bulimia.
The natives there had traditionally celebrated a fuller figure, but now were aiming for the physic of those in Beverly Hills 90210 as was exposed in the New York Times and The Guardian
Today as I walk around the city centre with my children, age 2, 5, 8 & 10 I’m so aware of the visual messages that contaminate their developing minds.
Visual stimulus is a really powerful thing, so if it is to be done it should be done with integrity, an honest tone of voice - human to human, potentially using intrigue and drawing on peoples sense of collective responsibility, not duping them into another act.
When I do turn my gaze from the commuter advertising and ponder on life around - what I see is people, and beauty, how they smile, and embrace - it warms the heart and it’s happening all around.
A year ago last month I drove into the city centre - quite early - around 6:30am - there was an eerie strangeness to the roads - I passed the Manchester Arena just 8hrs after the suicide attack that took 22 lives. A somber day. A year later and I was asked to design a commemorative book based on the paintings by Ghislaine Howard, on the courageous act of a young Muslim Man.
It was a just few of days after the attack that Bako had the vision and spontaneity to do something quite remarkable - He stood in the city centre blindfolded with a sign saying -
“I’m Muslim, I trust you enough for a hug - Do you trust me?”
He stood there with his arms wide open, waiting for the first response. Would it be a hug? or a punch?
Slowly people began to embrace him, offering words of kindness, support and gratitude. It was a brave and spontaneous thing he did. Within minutes he had a queue of people lined up to acknowledge him with this loving connection as they ushered in a moment of healing and heaven.
Walter Bruggerman says that poetic imagination is the last way left in which to challenge the dominant culture. He says:
“The task of the artist is to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness which is alternative to the dominant culture”.
Advertising agencies have account planners - a department dedicated to gaining insight into the target audience which they feed to the creative team in order to tailor their designs.
Advertising has account planners, but activism has art.