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13 September 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 9:04am

When is a cat not just a cat? When it’s on a tube billboard

Replacing adverts on the tube with images of cats might sound like a joke but it's part of a wider campaign to challenge the presence of advertising in public spaces.

By Jon Alexander

For the next fortnight, all the advertising sites at Clapham Common station, on London Underground’s Northern Line, will be replaced by pictures of cats.  This is the result of a Kickstarter-powered crowdfunding effort to which over 700 people have contributed. Another instance of the internet fulfilling its enormous potential for facile distraction? Many will think so. But despite appearances, I think there’s at least the potential here for something deeply important. This feline takeover might just signal the beginning of a conversation our society badly needs to have: the conversation about where and when we might draw limits on the presence of advertising in our lives.

I began my career in the advertising industry straight out of university, and over a period of almost a decade worked as a planner at some of London’s biggest agencies, like Abbott Mead Vickers and Fallon, on some of adland’s biggest clients, Sainsbury’s and Sony among them. My first boss described my role to me in these words: “What you have to understand is that the average consumer sees something like 3000 advertisements a day. Your job is to cut through that: to figure out how to get our clients’ message through to their consumers amid all that noise.”  For quite a few years, I found stimulation in the challenge, both intellectually and creatively. I was surrounded by some of the smartest and most inventive people I will ever meet, and we were good at what we did.  I didn’t, at least at first, question the terms of engagement.

Over time, though, a seed of doubt took root. I didn’t think of myself as a consumer, so who were all these people we referred to in the third person?  Was I one of “them”? Nagging concern became obsession, particularly as I studied my craft and understood more about how advertising works, influencing our behaviour and choices more at an unconscious than a conscious level.  What, I began to question, are we doing to ourselves when we tell ourselves we’re consumers 3000 times a day?  

In 2012, I saw evidence. A series of studies led by Northwestern University Professor Galen Bodenhausen, published under the title “Cuing the Consumer”, showed that even the lightest psychological primes (or cues) – even just reading the word “consumer” – could trigger people to respond to situations more selfishly, to care less about wider issues like the state of the environment, and even to be less happy.  

The simple fact is this: as a society, we need space from this idea, to remember who we really are and to express a humanity beyond consumption preferences. But the prevailing trends are going in exactly the opposite direction. Advertising is becoming more ubiquitous, not less. In the digital age, everything is a medium; and advertising – just ask the journalists – is the only business model in town.  

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Such a world would appal the greats of advertising history, and is killing the industry.  Advertising has far overstepped its mark in people’s lives, going from uninvited-but-welcome guest, to annoyingly persistent interruptor, to invisible-but-destructive interloper. Such advertising as still deserves a good name – and there is plenty of it – is losing the war, as quantity and invasiveness trump quality and respect. The best young people are looking elsewhere for their careers, the clients no longer need their adpeople at the top table, and most of the finest creative ideas now end up staying in the bottom drawer, as budgets go on data instead of drama. As the recent “Reclaiming Agency” report by the Comms Lab called out, we have reached a point where to draw lines around where advertising can be in our lives would not just be good for the world, but great for the industry.  

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Where exactly we draw those lines is a matter for debate. I’m not calling for some kind of utopian all-out ban. I co-authored a report in which we proposed a principle of a kind of implicit social contract, whereby we should only be exposed to advertising if it is clear that there is a clear bargain we enter into. This approach would happily endorse magazine advertising as a clear and direct subsidy of the cover price; but would seriously question advertising to children, for example, and all advertising in public space.

That is only one approach, and may well not be the best. It wouldn’t create a world filled with Clapham cats, since after all there is a relatively clear bargain that advertising sales go some way to subsidise London travel. At any rate, the people behind the Clapham cats do not have such lofty ambitions; they just wanted to create a little oasis, and give a few Londoners a hint of what it might feel like simply to be given something to smile about for once, not something to buy, on our way to and from work.

But the way I see it, from 10 years in advertising and almost as many questioning its impact on society, those cats are not just cats, and the people who will see them are not just consumers.  This might just be the moment when we all begin to realise we can be an awful lot more than we keep telling ourselves.

Jon Alexander is the founder of the New Citizenship Project and a former advertising executive.