The activist group aims to “correct” traditional marketing messages and replace them with a political twist.
We have met the enemy and it’s on San Francisco bus shelters. In a series of altered ads that criticize the U.S. drone program, the secretive activist group California Corrections Department has launched its latest foray in the long-running protest movement attempting to raise public awareness of the drone program.
The “subvertisements” are a riff on a Samsung commercial and feature a smartphone with the image of a Predator drone firing a missile on its screen. The word Pakistan replaces the phone’s brand name, with the slogan “The Next Big War Is Already Here.” The ads appeared a week after Pakistani survivors of U.S. drone strikes testified before Congress in October. The California Corrections Department’s action aims to “correct” traditional marketing messages and replace them with a political twist.
“The CDC is a private correctional facility that protects the public through the secure management, discipline, and rehabilitation of California’s advertising,” states the organization’s tongue-in-cheek manifesto. “The department was initiated by individuals who felt that public correctional facilities were insufficiently managing the state’s most criminal elements.”
The group has nothing to do with the California government department of the same name that runs the state’s prison system, which has been forced to Tweet to that it’s not responsible for the ads.
For now, the anti-drone ads are “at liberty and seem to have successfully readjusted to public life,” notes the CDC. “However, these advertisements will remain under surveillance by department staff to prevent recidivism and any potential lapse into prior criminal behavior.” Because the CDC hasn’t paid for the ads, the message morphers could face charges for vandalism or theft if apprehended. The CDC communicated with Mint only through email to protect identities.
Last year, a similar campaign during Occupy Wall Street featured a Predator firing on a fleeing family in ads appearing on several Manhattan bus shelters. It appeared to be sponsored by the New York Police Department and was marked with a convincing NYPD logo and badge images.
“Drones: Protection when you least expect it,” read the posters in the striking blue of a city police cruiser. The ads were quickly removed by city cops, and artist Essam Attia, a veteran who has served two tours of duty in Iraq, was arrested. He was hit with 56 criminal counts, including charges for grand larceny and possession of stolen property. He told Mint he “imagines” the charges were particularly stiff because his spoof involved the NYPD.
A year after charges were filed, his attorney is still trying to work out a plea deal with the city’s district attorney, and Attia remains out on bail. He’s reluctant to discuss any recent political activity before his case is settled, but he believes messages like his anti-drone ads can often have a far more powerful impact on the public than more traditional protests, because the “cognitive dissonance” they create can more effectively spur new thought and action, and “can profoundly affect an understanding of the world.”
Protest marches are “valuable but they really involve and speak to people already committed to an issue,” he added. “These kind of messages are more likely to awaken a new awareness.”
Attia and the CDC share the philosophy of one the granddaddies of the movement, Adbusters, the first organizer of the Occupy movement and part of a global network of “culture jammers” that manipulate the way “meaning is produced in our society,” according to its mission.
Adbusters was founded in 1989 in Vancouver, Canada, by documentary filmmakers Kalle Lasn and Bill Schmalz, who were incensed at the positive spin put on logging in a timber company commercial. Bored by what they saw at the time as stale, obvious “old lefty” rejoinders, they sought a more complex, sophisticated, often humorous twist on messages that clutter public space. They set out to “launch a war of ideas against the commercial capitalist world we’re all caught in that’s taking us into the dark ages,” explained Lasn.
Adbusters employs a kind of mental judo in its approach, leveraging the muscle of corporate and traditional politics against itself by twisting existing ads to stimulate the public. As the CDC notes: “Billboards and bus shelters that have undergone specialized care, treatment and rehabilitation by department staff have been provided by advertisers based upon pre-existing campaigns.”
Lasn agrees with Attia that manipulated messages can be a particularly effective form of protest, but he prefers the least obvious messages, and believes even the anti-drone ads risk alienating those who aren’t already members of “the choir.”
It’s “talking to the converted,” he said. “Those who aren’t yet convinced will dismiss these kind of ads because they’re an obvious political message. You need something that stops people in their tracks, and they say, ‘Oh yeah.'”
He prefers the kind of message in an altered McDonald’s ad he cited that posted a simple recipe at its center. “It subtly confronts our approach to food and how we eat and cook, and makes people think,” he said.
Lasn is a huge fan of the hacktivist collective Anonymous and believes the Internet has democratized access to the media and a sea of messages. Everyone can easily be an adbuster manipulating messages with memes on the Internet. But the web is so ubiquitous, he also fears, that it has trivialized messages.
“It’s an increasingly powerful force, but it has become such a polluted mental space with everyone and their dog in on the game that we don’t take it all that seriously,” he said.
He compares it to television that was once seen as a technology tool that would “bring us all together” until it was “hijacked as a marketing tool.” He still believes messages in the “real world” have the biggest impact. “There’s nothing like walking down the street and hearing the birds and smelling the smells” and “coming face-to-face with a culture jamming message,” he noted. “It has a certain gravitas.”
Adbusters is part of an international movement, with activity throughout the world. Activists in France have won some legal protections for altered messages as a legitimate form of protest, according to Lasn. The movement is most active in the U.S. in New York City, closely followed by San Francisco, where the Bay Area’s Billboard Liberation Front has created some “really exquisite works,” in Lasn’s view. The movement is also active in Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Ore. and Austin, Texas.
“Mainstream society” isn’t happy about it, Lasn said. “Advertisements are a trillion-dollar-a-year business and corporations don’t want others in on the action.”
Lasn isn’t optimistic about the world’s immediate future. “I worry this experiment of 7 billion is headed for some kind of climate-change armageddon,” he said. “We’re on a train watching ourselves headed to a train wreck.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s too late. “We must start winning the meme war, but it may take even harder times to wake people up,” he said. “We may need a few more whacks around the head.”