How many advertisements have you seen today? If you live in London, it could be a lot. During a 45-minute commute in 2005, Londoners saw around 130 advertisements. The number now could be even more: one advertising agency suggests that people spend around three minutes on the platform “engaging with cross track adverts” and around thirteen “absorbing adverts inside the tube carriages”.
It all adds up to a huge amount of visual noise, and it’s one of the things Special Patrol Group have set out to counter. Their posters, such as the recent series highlighting alleged police abuse and this past weekend’s arms fair advertising, deliberately replicate the look and feel of state design. Their minor variations make them eye-catching: used to absorbing the “regular” posters, the relatively small differences force commuters to look more closely at the content.
When I spoke to Bill of Special Patrol Group (Bill is the group’s Luther Blisset), he told me they resent the notion what they’re doing is an act of vandalism. He refers to a STRIKE! magazine article from February this year, which details the damaging affect advertising can have on the public and sets out strategies to “reclaim public space”. The article follows previous studies such as a 2010 report in the Journal of Consumer Research in which Melanie Dempsey and Andrew A Mitchell reported that ads can create “negative or positive” feelings about a brand, even when consumers don’t remember seeing them.
Advertisements, Bill says, are a psychological assault: what they’ve actually done is “an act of cleaning up”. In that spirit, Special Patrol Group have been showing visitors to the Bansky-organised theme park Dismaland how to hack into ad spaces. They’re supported by fellow exhibitor Gavin Grindon, whose Cruel Designs seeks to remind guests that objects used to control and dominate the public – from anti-homeless spikes to tear gas – had to be invented by someone. He describes the recent DSEI (Defense Security and Equipment International) posters as an “extension of the show” into the real world.
“The last exhibition in the show was about DSEI, displaying some of the objects used inside the fair to advertise arms companies, including Chemring tear gas branded breath mints and EADS drone-shaped sweeties.”
“These posters were another way of extending the curation out into political organising by exhibiting in the real world. They have a particular power because the arms fair wants to operate in secret and they exhibit and expose it.”
Bill from SPG says the same. Wryly, he tells me that the arms fair doesn’t do their own public advertising – “they’re not even on the Excel centre website” – so the group decided to help them out.
For Grindon and SPG, letting the public know about the arms fair is a duty. Grindon cites a recent Amnesty report which shows that, not only has the London Arms Fair showcased arms to governments with a known record of human rights abuse, but they’ve also advertised illegal equipment: “At some [of the fairs] we found cluster bombs, at others it’s been leg irons, electric shock batons and stun guns – tools used to touture people.” Amnesty have launched their own poster campaign and taken out advertising space in the Metro to let commuters what’s going on.
“It’s up to more responsible people to protest, blockade and shut the arms fair down,” says Grindon.
It’s a call people seem to be taking up. At Dismaland, STRIKE! are selling a £6 kit which allows its user to open up the cases which hold poster advertising. Bill tells me that they’ve sold over 2,000 of the kits, which can open around a third of ad poster cases worldwide.
So how do people put them up? Bill says that, like the recent #ACAB campaign, activists have simply gone in hi-vis vests or other uniform-style clothing. Looking officious, they’ve avoided any challenge. (A SPG video on YouTube shows various people walking past as members of the group put up posters).
“Nobody in our group has ever been caught because it is absurdly difficult to get caught doing something that is usually someone’s job – even when you’re putting up posters about deaths in custody, bearing the ACAB slogan, outside the HQ of the British Police Force (twice).”
And what if someone is stopped? Putting up the posters is technically vandalism, and thus illegal.
“We know someone who got caught and argued the defence of necessity. He went to court and presented psychological studies to show that outdoor advertising is harmful for people and that he was preventing a ‘greater harm’ from happening; magistrates had no choice but to find him not guilty.
“Which begs the question: why is outdoor advertising allowed when it’s harmful for people?”
TfL have been contacted for comment.