Advertising Sh!ts In Your Head: Special Patrol Group Vs The Ad Industry

Reclaiming London with the activist group subverting adverts around the capital..

Advertising Sh!ts In Your Head: Special Patrol Group Vs The Ad Industry

Reclaiming London with the activist group subverting adverts around the capital..

SO. If you had the inimitable pleasure of taking the tube in London last week, you may have seen one of the hilarious adverts up above... 

After a bit of fishing around, we discovered that they were the work of a prankster-ish activist outfit called Special Patrol Group, an anti-capitalist collective with serious design skills and a love of subverting the everyday.. It turns out that SPG have spent the last couple of year developing their own action plan and manifesto for challenging the ubiquitous advertising swamping London, which all comes back to one succinct central premise; advertising shits in your head. We decided to track down a (anonymous for obvious reasons) spokesperson from Special Patrol Group to find out what’s going on with the action campaigns. It turns out they've got a petition to remove outdoor advertising from London, and a forthcoming book explaining how you to can reclaim from corporate visual gunk.

The book, Advertising Shits In Your Head, is getting crowdfunded HERE -- Whilst the petition is HERE

Here's what they had to say on the project...

R$N: Who or what is Special Patrol Group?

Special Patrol Group is about 2 years old. We did our first actions in 2014. If you look at our facebook you can see the history of our actions, as our bio says we’re a shadowy subvertising organisation. Subvertising is a portmanteau of subversion and advertising. It can be traced back to the practices of Situationist International. They were an anti-capitalist organisation and we are also. I think some people will think what we did last week was purely an anti-advertising action, but that’s just kinda one of the symptoms of capitalism we wanted to target. Over the years we’ve had many different members of SPG, it’s an umbrella name for actions, and we help other people. The action last Monday had about 40 people involved – it’s organised in quite a horizontal way, you don’t have a membership card.

So tell us about this recent action?

We created an ad-hack manifesto It’s a four point manifesto about outdoor advertising, because that’s the focus of most subvertising practice. The reason for this is that outdoor advertising is the form of advertising that no one has any control over whether they see it or not. With print you can turn over the page, with television you can switch the channel, with the internet you can install an ad-blocker. But outdoor advertising is sold on the fact that it’s inescapable. That’s how ad companies sell it, people can’t get away from it, everyone has to see it if they pass through a particular space.

So the four points of the manifesto are, first, that advertising shits in your head. It’s a form of visual and psychological pollution. Kind of linking to this, we are featured in a book that’s about to be released called Advertising Shits in Your Head. That book is split into two parts – the first is about the various objections to the harms that advertising causes, and the second half of the book is strategies for resistance, guides to how to get involved that looks at us, Public Ad Campaign who are a New York group, and Brandalism who are based in Manchester.

Image from SPG's bus hacking guidelines

Anyway, back to the manifesto, the second point of the anti-advertising manifesto is that removing and replacing advertising (with what we would class as subvertising) is not vandalism, it’s an act of tidying up that is both legally and morally defensible. Legally might be a bit of a stretch – let’s say that at the moment, at best it’s a bit of a grey area. If you got caught by police they might want to charge you for criminal damage or they might give you a slap on the wrist. But we see it as a form of direct action, and if lots and lots of people are doing a particular form of direct action it becomes less likely to be criminally charged, and that’s kind of part of how the law changes and progress is made.

The third point is that advertising can and should be challenged. I was on BBC Radio London last night and the guy who was interviewing me said, ‘oh come on, don’t be ridiculous, we’ve all grown up with it and it’s not going to change’ and it does feel like that because it’s literally everywhere- it feels like it’s this juggernaut we can’t do anything about. But Sao Paulo in 2007 banned all billboard advertising under a clean city law. Sao Paulo is bigger than London and they were able to do that. If you look at pictures before and after that law was passed, it’s quite a stark contrast

What was the logic behind that decision in Sao Paulo?

They define it as visual pollution. Lots of people have lots of different obejections to advertising – for some people it’s an aesthetic thing, it’s that its an eyesore. For Sao Paulo they felt like there was just too much of it. More recently, in 2015 Grenoble in France banned outdoor advertising. The mayor of Grenoble described it as visual pollution, and he replaced all the advertising hording with trees and citizens messaging boards. Rather than big corporations controlling the landscape, the citizens who lived there were able to control what they looked at.

The final part of the manifesto is that the visual realm is a public realm, so no one should be able to own it. It’s not true that anyone can put up their information, it’s inherently monopolistic, the people who can afford to get there messages out there –you don’t get lots of small and medium businesses getting their messages on billboards. It’s generally the enormous global corporations –so there’s even a capitalist argument for banning outdoor advertising. That’s not my argument, but you could make it. We’re saying that the situation currently is that whoever has got the most money can literally go out and write their name across the city, and that shouldn’t be the case. When I say adverts, I’m talking specifically about commercial messaging as opposed to people passing on information.

Recent work from Dr D, who also features in the Advertising Shits in Your Head book 

But look, the advertising industry is increasingly pernicious and increasingly sophisticated. To a degree, outdoor advertising is probably the most honest form of advertising – billboards announce themselves as a massive advert. Once you’ve removed that, there’ll be a whole budget that is now free to be spent on other ways to get the same message into your head, possibly with far more sly techniques.

You’re right, that is a concern. We’re trying to make a deeper point about consumerism and capitalism – it’s more than just an aesthetic objection. All of advertising is propaganda for capitalist systems, and that’s our objection – it’s not that we want less outdoor advertising and more pernicious internet and phone advertising, we want less of all of it. It’s funny that advertising is now so pernicious that people see outdoor advertising as more honest-

It’s true though…

It’s more honest maybe. But the way advertising works is by tricking people. There’s a really famous quote by the former president of the advertiser’s international association. He said ‘I’d rather be thought of as evil than useless’. What he’s saying is that outdoor advertising works – people might think they can ignore it – someone did a study that said something like 96% of adverts you couldn’t recall – that’s because it works subconsciously. The reason that I want outdoor advertising banned is not because I think other people are stupid and they fall for it’s false promises, it’s because I think it works and it gets into your head. You take in all data. Advertising makes you desire something, often something you might not need, and you can’t desire something without first feeling like you lack something. So it makes you feel like you lack something – if you can’t attain the thing that you feel you lack because advertising has told you that you lack it, you will feel unhappiness. I think it’s probably not a coincidence that we’ve seen a massive upswing in mental health issues at the same time we’ve seen a massive upswing in advertising, both outdoor and all the other modern technological forms.

There are facets here that are a bit tricky though, The only way to enforce what you’re talking about is state control – if, say, someone wanted to flog the side of their house as advertising space, you’re advocating a situation where the state is telling them, well you’re not allowed to do that. How does that sit with you?

I want the state to have as little control over people’s lives as possible, the reason for that being that I don’t think the state is a proper democratic institution. But even less democratic than the state are corporations and companies. I’d rather there’d be some control over that, even if it means the state is the controller. In my personal utopian, anarchist world we’re all run on syndicalist, cooperative models, but in that world you wouldn’t have advertising ever.

That world may be some of the way round the corner to be honest-

Hah- true.

Looking at the hacks themselves, there’s a lot of wit there, and someone amongst you has clearly got a great handle on design-they all look on point. It makes me wonder if there’s a sneaking admiration for some of the designs themselves?

You’re right I think. The adverts look slick, and what you might call professional. Another way of putting that would be that they look good. It’s interesting that we associate things that are slick and professional with corporations. Obviously we’ve put up a subverted design of the tfl branding – that’s always been an idea of the process, taking an existing brand and subverting it. But also, people on the left seem to think that something’s not leftist unless it looks it – it has to be a shit, stapled together ‘zine, or it has to be a hand written poster. I’ve got all the time in the world for that stuff, but I think the left generally has a problem with being desired. I think the fact that the subvertising looks good is not a problem.

And with it looking so similar could people easily look at your stuff and not even be aware of what they were seeing?

 Will that’s true of all adverts and that’s certainly a valid criticism of subvertising – that people ignore it or it gets subsumed. The trick is you want people to think that’s it’s just the normal thing and then suddenly have this moment of oh! It’s not the normal thing! and that hopefully sparks off this chain of cognitive dissonance that changes the way people think.

Have you made anyone angry with the work?

One of the nice things about putting up posters is that you can’t chose who sees them, or facebook’s algorithms can’t choose who sees them. Peter Gennard, who was a famous leftist political poster maker has talked about how, if you’re having a march, don’t just advertise it on facebook so that everyone sees it. I’ve worked in left wing activist circles and you put something out there and (faux happy voice) everyone agrees with it! – there’s less of that with this. But, the response I’ve seen has been overwhelmingly positive. Weirdly after I was on the BBC, they called in a PR guru to talk about the campaign, and he really liked it – he thinks that there’s too much outdoor advertising – advertisers are after people’s brain time, so if the city is totally saturated with advertising each advert gets less attention. SO the reason he would like to see less outdoor advertising is so that the more sophisticated advertising he does online gets more funding and more attention.

Is there a concern that the ad industry may look at what you’re doing and take some inspiration from it? There never shy of repurposing things; I mean who knew there would one day be Sex Pistols credit cards…? 

Once you’ve put an idea into the world you’ve got no control of it. Good ideas can tend to get co-opted. Capitalism is very good at co-opting anti-capitalist ideas, hence the Che Guevara t shirts, hence Russell Brand, all sorts of stuff like that. It’s hard, but you’d end up not doing anything if you were always wondering how your enemy was going to use it. We’re not going to ever go and work for the advertising industry, and we’re not going to sell our content in that way. We’re definitely not going to get rich off it.

Do you have any favourite of the ads you’ve done?

 The first thing that we did was a campaign called Total Propaganda – the police in London had spent, I think half a million pounds in two weeks, on a poster campaign talking about how good the police were. Obviously they didn’t talk about the bad things they were doing, and arguably they were using PR or propaganda to cover up the bad things they were doing. We did two rounds of posters on that, it got a lot of press and went viral, and the police don’t do those sorts of poster campaigns anymore- I can’t help but feel that a small part of the decision not to spend a half a million quid on pointless posters was influenced by our actions.

On the first day back to work in 2016 we did a thing on bullshit jobs, that was to try and get people to read this article by a guy called David Graeber; On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs. Again a lot of people went and read the article on the basis of that action – David’s now going to write a book on bullshit jobs on the back of that article, which is a nice thing to happen.

In terms of other people’s work, I really like Jordan Seiler of Public Ad Campaign. His pieces are black and white geometric shapes – he’s done that deliberately, if you put up a poster that was completely black it would look like an empty space, the same if it was completely white. What he’s trying to do is make something that looks as little like an advert as possible, but is still there. The stuff he does is really beautiful. He also does this thing called Public Access Keys – he makes keys to bus stop advertising cabinets, then he sells them, they’re available on his website. If there’s a bus stop near you that you can’t get into because he hasn’t made a key for it, you can take a picture, send it to him and he’ll try and make a key for you. He makes them globally available online, and he’s got a map of which keys he’s got for which cities. It’s really impressive.

Thinking about the keys, we also have something called an ad-space hack pack – it’s got three tools in it so you can open up bus stops yourself and do your own subvertising. One of the interesting things about the subvertising movement is the way it spreads itself. Unlike traditional art forms there’s no gain from holding the monopoly on the form – you don’t want to be the only person doing it. Jordan Seiler isn’t anonymous, and he’s not anonymous because even though he’s doing something that might be illegal he thinks it’s important to claim your actions.

Jordan Sieler / Re+Public mural

I feel like I need to point out that essentially you guys have got a book coming out and you’ve launched a viral ad campaign to promote it– is there a problem with that?

Well, it’s not our book, it’s being put out by Dog Section press, but I do take you’re point, the book features our manifesto. The difference between our campaign and other people’s is that Dog Section press is a not for profit publisher – I know for a fact that the editor lives in poverty. We personally stumped up to pay for the adverts that we did this week, we think we’re doing a positive thing. There’s no imperative to purchase with our thing, we don’t use pernicious ideas like ‘if you don’t buy this you won’t be happy, if you don’t look this way you could buy our product and you’ll be happy’ though I can see how it looks from the outside.

I’ve got to ask, because you’ve just said the editor of Dog Section lives in poverty, is there any virtuous way of living in wealth?

Erhhh.. ha.. that’s a really big question. We would believe in a cooperative economy rather than a capitalist one. There’s an interesting theory about fully automated luxury communism, that essentially we live in a world of plenty and the problem we have is sharing it about – the problem is distribution more than anything else. I would say, for me, I’d find it very difficult to live in a big fancy house and drive around in a BMW while there are people starving in the world.

That’s true, but having lived in quite shitty poverty and been stuck sofa surfing when I was younger, poverty is not something I ever want to go back to...

Yeah, of course – I’m not saying people should be poor because it’s virtuous, I just think there’s plenty to go about. Wealth isn’t also only about how much money you have – Japan measures it’s GDP on the happiness of its citizens as well as money, so there’s other things that can count as wealth. But don’t make me sound like a Marxist nutter! I think somebody once said to me that socialists are the most anti-social people they’d ever met hahaha.. But, yeah our utopian world wouldn’t be a grim existence of everyone living in poverty. There’s a famous anarchist, Emma Goldman who said, ‘if there’s not dancing, it’s not my revolution’...