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Spray That Again. How evil is advertising?

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Since an art director colleague introduced me to Banksy many years ago, I’ve enjoyed his stuff enormously. In that time he has painted throughout the world, from Sydney to Camden, LA to Palestine. The art critics bemoan him - too obvious, too glib. But surely the accessible nature of his pieces is the point. It’s intended to be art for everyone. His stencils are executed with wit and precision, and he’s managed to drag graffiti away from the dumb, unwelcome ‘tagging’ baseline.

Anyway, you may have noticed the unseen artist has been in the news lately. Following a campaign in which advertising posters were painted over, Banksy released a statement. Here it is:

“People are taking the piss out of you every day. They butt into your life, take a cheap shot at you and then disappear. They leer at you from tall buildings and make you feel small. They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and that all the fun is happening somewhere else. They are on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it. They are The Advertisers and they are laughing at you. You, however, are forbidden to touch them. Trademarks, intellectual property rights and copyright law mean advertisers can say what they like wherever they like with total impunity. F**K THAT. Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head. You owe the companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They owe you. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs. Banksy”

It’s no secret that Banksy’s ideas come from the political left. He’s notoriously unenthusiastic about military adventurism, the police, government, surveillance and all things establishment. That obviously includes advertising.

'Do people have the right to deface advertising hoardings?'

As well as writing these columns, I earn a crust from writing and advising on advertising and marketing campaigns. So you might be surprised to know that, with some caveats, I agree with the message above. Some advertising does make people feel bad about their appearance, many advertisements are flippant. As are many movies, music videos, magazines and TV shows. So do people have the right to deface advertising hoardings? Legally, they don’t. It’s criminal damage. But morally, I think they probably do. As Banksy says, the advertisers and their agencies have placed their messaging in the public space to encourage a reaction. If that reaction is more along the lines of adjusting or obliterating that message, rather than rushing to buy a product or service, then so be it. Advertising is a conversation, conversations sometimes turn into arguments.  It is, of course, more powerful to amend an advertisement and counter its proposition with sarcasm or spoof, but if you just want to slosh emulsion across it, that’s your choice – albeit one that may attract your arrest.

However, here’s where Banksy and I part company. In this open letter he covers the entirety of advertising with his angry spray can. ‘Advertisers’ he says, ‘are laughing at you’. In truth, most advertisers are more likely to be begging you, but I think he’s suggesting  there is something inherently evil or oppressive in all advertisements.

Maybe. But would he include the campaigns run by The Red Cross following dreadful disasters, or Save The Children at times of famine? Is he content for his ire to touch local display ads for a self-employed plumber, or an exhibition at a local library? How about an intriguing, low-budget, underground movie called ‘Exit Through The Gift Shop’?

‘Exit Through The Gift Shop' was released in 2010. As with most films, it was promoted through a press and poster campaign, flashed with positive reviews. Advertisements, you might call them. It was created and directed by Banksy.

Like his forerunners, the 'Situationists', Banksy is a provocateur. He makes his works bold and loud, placing them in prominent public places. Interpretation and discussion is then left to the observer. Some see his pieces as vital social commentary, some as a bit of fun; others perceive nothing more than a commercial opportunity, or even a reprehensible act of vandalism. Whatever your position, this is when the artist is at his most effective, leaving room for debate, intrigue and mystique. Most of that evaporates in this Coke bottle press release, and that’s to Banksy’s disadvantage. He’s made it too easy to pick apart his argument and find its flaws.

I like Banksy; I find his creativity and subversion very appealing. Nevertheless, he’s a much better artist than he is an orator, and far more exciting in the realm of images than text. I want to see Banksy murals, not diatribes. In fact, I would be very content for his actions to speak louder than his words.

Magnus Shaw is a blogger, copywriter and consultant

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