Battle of the image

Subvertising - Alexander Barley on how Berlusconi's big head gets the better of him

Subvertising is an attempt to turn the iconography of the advertisers into a noose around their neck. If images can create a brand, they can also destroy one. A subvert is a satirical version or the defacing of an existing advert, a detournement, an inversion designed to make us forget consumerism and consider instead social or political issues. It also reclaims graphic design for non-commercial purposes.

Subvertising is not a new idea - the Billboard Liberation Front, which started in San Francisco in 1977, is one milestone - but the battle between advertisers and subvertisers has intensified with the internet and the current craze for viral marketing. So how does subvertising continue to have an impact, when the endlessly self-reflexive ad agencies co-opt the tactics that have been used against them?

Subvertising is a reaction against a culture where the individual, rather than being politically engaged, is cast as a spectator in a parade of passive symbols. Ironically, the most potently subversive advertising images have been those created by Oliviero Toscani for Benetton. The campaign dealt with tough political issues such as the death penalty and Aids. Making the leap in the other direction is New York-based Paul Ritter, who once worked for Time Warner and now runs the subvertising magazine Whatever. Subvertising, as Ritter puts it, should be "a mosquito on the mainstream's ass".

Silvio Berlusconi's successful election campaign in Italy has been a prime example of this battle of the image. Berlusconi's face appeared on billboards and banners in every town square and on every street corner. He printed and distributed 12 million lavishly illustrated magazine copies of his autobiography. His ownership of a multimedia conglomerate (including Italy's largest advertising agency) has, in view of his political ambitions, made him notorious. Berlusconi is the ultimate postmodern politician, using his media to create a populist image that draws on commonly known figures from myth, fairy tale and legend. As the academic Stefan Krempl has written, he is David battling Goliath, King Midas and Casanova all at once. He is the successful entrepreneur, the restless manager, the king of the airwaves, and the caring father and husband. But because his manipulation of his own image has been more important in his success than any political stance, his image is peculiarly vulnerable to being punctured.

His banner adverts have been subverted by social centre activists armed with computer graphics programs. Young Italians have traded hundreds of spoof Berlusconi banner adverts - or manifesti - by e-mail, or have posted them on websites. Typically, the toothpaste-grin photo of Berlusconi from his campaign posters is segued into that of a famous figure. Thus "il Cavaliere" becomes David Copperfield, Spock from Star Trek, a Klansman, a muscleman, Hitler, Mussolini, a clown and even Dick Dastardly. The altered banner caption has him making a "concrete promise" of dope or sex, rather than lower tax and less crime. These banners were collected together in a book - www.cavalieremiconsenta - by Mark Bernardini, which promptly sold out.

This craze is a good example of how difficult it is for corporations and politicians to deal with any art that appropriates the imagery of their advertisements. Similarly, in 1991, the vodka company Absolut threatened Adbusters magazine with legal action over its Absolut Impotence subverts. Adbusters called Absolut's bluff, and it dropped the case the following year. Berlusconi's response has been rather cleverer - he collected the banners together on the Forza Italia website and ran a competition to find who could create the best one. By doing this, he tried to reduce the manifesti to the status of a flippant joke.

More widely, advertising agencies have tried to disarm subvertising by adopting its tactics, making adverts that look as if they have been graffitied, that are self-deprecating, or that try to outflank detractors by claiming the company being advertised is equally concerned with social and political justice.

But the real battle is taking place not on billboards and TV, nor in magazines. Subvertisers and advertisers alike are battling to create "memes", nugget-sized ideas that spread rapidly and take root in the public consciousness. This mode of dissemination is perfectly suited to the internet. The manifesti subverts operated in similar fashion to an earlier internet craze, "All Your Base Are Belong To Us", which involved that slogan (from the badly translated text of an old console game) being skilfully inserted into almost any picture. The phrase was a hammer that made everything look like a nail, and was deployed humorously to debunk powerful individuals and institutions, as well as to joke about popular culture.

This leads us to what really removes the potency of a subvert - not appropriation by the ad agencies, but overfamiliarity. As do conventional advertisers, the subvertisers have to remain restlessly inventive and creative to continue to make political or social points, or simply to make us laugh.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A spin too far