Anti-Advertising Agency is using creativity to shake up complacent attitudes toward marketing
Escaping the pervasive influence of marketing is a fool's errand. Even those who can't stand the ubiquity of flashy billboards and catchy slogans admit that there's no getting away from it completely. In urban America, it is simply part of the landscape.
But activists who see the omnipresence of advertising as a global sickness have figured out how to make their point without running away from the perceived problem. Through art, lean organization, and - yes - a bit of clever grassroots marketing, one such group is grabbing increasing attention among consumers and marketers alike.
The Anti-Advertising Agency (AAA) is the brainchild of Steve Lambert, a bearded art school graduate who founded the group in San Francisco in 2004 after becoming frustrated that ads seemed to have taken over the public spaces in his neighborhood - spaces that would be better used, he thought, for art. The philosophy of the group, he says, is to "de-normalize out-of-home advertising."
"It's strange that all of our public spaces have become commercialized," says Lambert. "Our number one goal is to remind people that this isn't how things need to be."
Armed with enough grant money from an arts philanthropy to fund a handful of artists, along with a core group of collaborators, AAA set out to use art to fight back against traditional perceptions of marketing. For the first project, the group distributed blank mock-ups of billboards to anyone who wanted one and let them design their own sign - which AAA members then went out and posted in public spaces. The messages ranged from strident political slogans to gentle reminders to "Share a Little Hug."
More projects, such as the "Ad Lib" poster campaign, followed in quick succession, most based on the West Coast. The group recorded audio interviews with citizens discussing their feelings about advertising and then strategically mounted boxes in public places that would replay recordings of the interviews when people walked by. AAA wrapped a series of public benches in "anti-advertisements" mocking many of the usual conventions of advertising. And Lambert created a set of stickers (that he sends out free of charge) with the slogan "You Don't Need It" and an arrow, designed to be stuck next to particularly offensive public ads.
But it was the AAA's most recent project, titled "Light Criticism," that has attracted the most attention of all. Late last year, the group teamed up with the Graffiti Research Lab to create a set of laser-cut stencils with messages like "Graffiti = Advertising" and "NYC's True Graffiti Problem." Then, group members placed the stencils over illuminated advertisements around New York City, turning them into flickering messages of anti-marketing sentiments.
A video of the project was posted on AAA's Web site and on YouTube. That garnered more than 15,000 views in less than a week, on top of the countless pedestrians who puzzled over the installations.
"Part of the reason I put stuff in public space is because... within a few hours, hundreds or thousands of people have seen it," Lambert says. He admits, though, "We have the same problem everyone else does, which is competing for people's attention."
Some of AAA's biggest fans, ironically, are professional marketers. Lambert says he gets supportive calls and fan mail regularly from ad agency employees. But is AAA, which seeks to "co-opt the tools and structures used by the advertising and PR industries," at risk of being co-opted itself?
Russell Belk, who holds the Kraft Foods Canada Chair in Marketing at York University, notes, "Just as marketing and advertising co-opt cool, they may be able to undermine such [anti-advertising] efforts."
The AAA and similar high-profile groups like Adbusters and the Church of Stop Shopping, "certainly introduce such notions into academic discourse," Belk says, "but I think it will take a crisis even larger than the current attention being paid to global warming to get consumers to really care."
Indeed, consumerism is a tough opponent for even the savviest anti-marketers. "Because of their modest size and funding, compared with the vast deep-pocketed transnational commercial interests they oppose, it seems doomed to be little more than pissing into the wind," says Richard Pollay, University of British Columbia marketing professor, via e-mail.
Not all observers, though, are as pessimistic. Susan Smulyan, a Brown University professor who studies cultural critiques of advertising, says that activist groups like the AAA are not trying to "change governmental policy or marketing strategy, but to interrupt the normal relationship between consumers and advertising."
"We may not be able to change the culture," Smulyan says, "but we can get people thinking about it and their relationship to it in a deeper way."
That quest to shake the public's passive acceptance of marketing is at the heart of AAA's quest.
"The act of responding - creating a dialogue with what is usually a monologue - once people do that once," says Lambert, "they are changed."
At a glance
The Anti-Advertising Agency
New York and San Francisco
Approximately $15,000 per year, via grants
Key trade titles:
Good Magazine, Make Magazine, Advertising & Society Review
Graffiti Research Lab, Eyebeam OpenLab, and San Francisco Print Collective