Un-shit Your Head

Advertising is fuel for our capitalist economy based on consumption and exponential growth, which obviously is non-sustainable. That can't help but cause problems for the environment—and is arguably also responsible for resource wars and widening inequality.

Transcribed from the 28 January 2017 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:

Propaganda is not inherently good or bad. It’s what you do with it that counts.

Chuck Mertz: Advertising will be the doom of us all. It’s destroying democracy, devastating the planet, and it’s conquered every inch of what used to be called public space. But there’s a group of people fighting back. Here to tell us why advertising is so evil and how you, too, can fight back, Vyvian Raoul is the editor of Dog Section Press, which published the book Advertising Shits in Your Head. It’s a book that is written anonymously in the anarchist tradition.

Welcome to This is Hell!, Vyvian.

Vyvian Raoul: Hi, Chuck.

CM: Great to have you on the show. The book starts with a quote that I want to read, from Sut Jhally, professor of communications at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, whose work focuses on cultural studies, advertising, media, and consumption. He says, “Twentieth century advertising is the most powerful and sustained system of propaganda in human history, and its cumulative cultural effect—unless quickly checked—will be responsible for destroying the world as we know it. As it achieves this, it will be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of non-Western peoples, and will prevent the peoples of the world from achieving true happiness. Simply stated, our survival as a species is dependent upon minimizing the threat from advertising and the commercial culture that has spawned it.”

Here in the States, there’s been all this talk of fake news, completely made-up stories without any evidence backing them, that is meant to mislead and manipulate an audience. Of course the fake news works best on those who are predisposed to believe the fake news, and thus less likely to question the story or look into any supporting evidence offered.

How much do you think advertising primes our minds for that kind of fake news?

VR: I think the fake news issue is an interesting one in itself. Hasn’t the news, generally speaking, always been fake? We have traditionally been fed news that most people would agree doesn’t match up to the reality of what’s happening in the world. And there is a parallel with that in advertising. Advertising is about creating false promises, and creating desires in people based on these false promises. So it could well prime people to be more gullible and less questioning.

CM: Does advertising make us worse consumers of the media? Does advertising make it so we cannot be the successful media critics that we should be? Considering we consume so much media, you’d think we’d be good at it.

VR: More than anything, it serves to distract us from the real information that we should be concerned about. It distracts us by focusing our attention on buying products and being consumers.

Another way that it distracts us is that it works by appealing to our values. We all hold, globally and across all cultures, various values, and those values can be split into intrinsic and extrinsic values. Your intrinsic values are things like your concern for the community, concern for the environment, that sort of thing. Extrinsic values are to do with your concern for your status and your social standing. It’s not surprising, probably, that advertising is designed to appeal to extrinsic values. It makes us greedy, it makes us chase after these false promises. That’s another way that it distracts us from the real issues that we should be concerned about.

CM: The book shows how sociologist Joseph Schwartz identified a number of values that occur consistently, and as you were saying, you break them down into extrinsic and intrinsic: “Extrinsic values that advertising promotes include things like conformity, image, financial success, achievement, and power, while the intrinsic values advertising suppresses include affiliation, self-acceptance, community feeling, benevolence, and unrealism. Values drive our behaviors, and studies have shown that placing greater importance on extrinsic values is associated with higher levels of prejudice, less concern about the environment, and weak concern about human rights. Advertisers place the emphasis on extrinsic values. Subvertisers want to pull the balance back towards the intrinsic.”

Do you believe the intent of advertising is to undo our intrinsic values? Or is this an unintended consequence of a company merely trying to sell a product?

VR: It’s hard to say, not being an advertiser myself. Either way, the result is the same, whether advertising companies sit down and look at the psychological research and say yes, we are definitely going to try to appeal to extrinsic rather than intrinsic values—that might be how they’re doing it, but it might just be an accident. The way that you sell things, the way that you make people desirous, is by appealing to extrinsic values. Either way the result is the same.

It’s important to note that everybody holds these values. It’s just to differing degrees. Advertisers claim that they’re not sending society in a particular direction, they’re just holding a mirror up to the world. And that’s true in one sense, that these values are all innate. But it’s the emphasis that’s placed on certain values over others that’s important. Repeatedly activating those values serves to strengthen them. That’s how it works.

CM: How is advertising destroying the world as we know it, causing death, and keeping us from achieving real happiness?

VR: In lots of very different ways. It is fuel for our capitalist economy, for an economy that’s based on consumption and exponential growth, which obviously is non-sustainable. That can’t help but cause problems for the environment—but is arguably also responsible for resource wars and widening inequality.

CM: The book states that “the modern subvertising movement has consumerism as its target. Many practitioners present their work as explicitly anti-capitalist, and almost all object to outdoor advertising as a form of propaganda.”

We have stickers here for This is Hell! that are like comic-strip speech bubbles that say “this is hell” inside of them, and they’re meant for listeners to put up on advertising, so that somebody within the ad will appear to be saying “this is hell.” That’s all the sticker says, not mentioning a radio show, a website, a podcast, nothing.

I didn’t know that was called subvertising, or that there was even a movement behind that kind of tactic. But is our subvertising not really subvertising? Because we’re still advertising our brand.

VR: It’s important to define what’s meant by the word advertising. The type that shits in your head is the type that promotes a commercial discourse, that tries to extract profit from people by appealing to extrinsic values. Ultimately all you’re doing, and what subvertisers are doing as well, is spreading information that would probably be considered a form of propaganda. But propaganda is not inherently good or bad. It’s what you do with it that counts.

Spreading information about your radio station is a good thing, arguably, because more people will listen to it and get the real as opposed to the fake news, and that’s the intent of subvertising as well. That’s the intent of the book, to spread that information.

It uses the tricks of psychology to do that, to be appealing, to appeal to people, but the difference is, it’s not doing that in order to exploit people, to extract profit from them.

The people who can go out and decide what our cities look like are literally the people with the most money. There is no democratic control over the aesthetics of our cities.

CM: How much is advertising protected by law? Is subvertising against the law? Are there cases of subvertising leading to arrest?

VR: Subvertising itself is not against the law as such. Subvertising is a form of détournement, which is a French Situationist practice, a rerouting or a hijacking of capitalist messaging. That might involve subverting the brand’s design and sharing it online—you might run up against some copyright issues, potentially, although actually there’s a trend within the law which is quite positive, affording people a bit more leeway over their commentary and parody.

What could get you into trouble with the law is that subvertising also quite often hijacks or takes over the sites of advertising, specifically outdoor advertising, what the industry terms “out-of-home” advertising. And there might be, let’s say, criminal implications for accessing those spaces. Also, if you remove some advertising there might be a criminal damage charge and that kind of thing.

Yeah, people do occasionally get into trouble for that. It’s fairly hard to get caught in the act of doing it, because putting up adverts in the first place is something that’s somebody’s job. So if you go about wearing a hi-vis jacket and that kind of thing, you look as if you’re just doing a job. You’re unlikely to get caught.

Still, a lot of subvertisers do it anonymously for that reason, to avoid prosecution. But there are people who like to claim their actions. They think that’s important. An example of a person who does that is Jordan Seiler, who runs the Public Ad Campaign in New York. He’s done mass subvertising takeovers with as many as a hundred people involved. The first one they did was in New York, and they went out and whitewashed advertising, and then artists came along and put in artwork instead of the advertising. I think nine people got arrested while they were doing that. But he sees it—and I think this would be true for most subvertisers—as a form of civil disobedience.

CM: And Seiler is quoted in the book, saying, “Our acceptance of advertising is testament to how much advertising in general has actually infused itself into our lives, and we consider it to be a medium that is inescapable and just inherently a part of the capitalist system.”

Can we escape advertising? And what would you say to somebody who argues that the advertiser is simply exercising their freedom of speech?

VR: Part of the objection to advertising is that it’s inescapable. Particularly for the subvertising movement, it’s the outdoor or “out-of-home” advertising that is the problem. Advertising companies sell advertising on the basis of its being inescapable. It’s ubiquitous; if you pass through the city, you have no choice over it, you have to see advertising.

Subvertisers have imagined cities where there is democratic control over the advertising spaces, so maybe the citizens of a particular neighborhood get to decide what goes in those advertising spaces. Maybe it’s art. There might be different uses for them.

The advertisers are using their right to free speech, I suppose, but the irony is that it’s not free. Not everybody has equal access to those spaces. In fact, the people with the most money are literally the ones who can go out and decide what our cities look like. There is no democratic control over the aesthetics of our cities.

CM: What would you say to somebody who argues that instead of subvertising, instead of subverting these other ads, what people should do is raise their own money and pay for the space and have their message put up on a billboard? Should you do the same thing you’re doing but “work within the system?”

VR: I guess that depends on your view of the system. If you think that the system is something positive to work inside of, you might want to work inside of it. Most subvertisers, as you mentioned, are anti-capitalist, so they wouldn’t want to work within the system.

There’s a neat example of people who have raised funds in that way. In the UK a few months ago, there was a big campaign by a group called CATS, the Citizens Advertising Takeover Service, and they raised over 20,000 pounds to replace all of the advert spaces in a London Underground station with pictures of cats. In one way, that was quite an interesting comment. It’s taken out all of the commercial messaging, all those imperatives to buy. It generated a lot of joy, a lot of happiness. The people who were seeing cats instead of a message that told them they are too fat or too ugly or not good enough in some way—the week that those cats were up, those people had a bit more mental breathing space.

However, they’ve taken that 20,000 pounds and given it to an outdoor advertising company who are then increasing their profits, and then they can do more advertising elsewhere.

Another example that I saw just a couple of weeks ago was that some people were unhappy about Brexit and what Brexit is going to mean for the UK, so through crowdfunding they raised 20,000 pounds to put up a billboard messaging campaign about Brexit, which to me seems a bit like “We don’t like capitalism! Let’s raise 20,000 pounds so we can give it to some capitalists!” And that seems like maybe not the best use of capital, if you’re trying to take down capitalism.

CM: Let’s expand on the point of being anti-capitalist and being critical of the capitalist system. The book argues that advertising “is the system of propaganda that promotes capitalism.” But propaganda is defined as “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.”

To what degree is capitalism more than an economic system, but a political point of view? I know this is a bigger-picture question. But I bet if you were to ask most people what the political system is in the US, they’d say democracy, and if you asked them what the economic system is, they would say capitalism.

How important is it for subvertisers that people realize the system that they live in, the capitalist system, isn’t just an economic system but it’s more than that?

VR: Of course it’s very important. The two are very intimately linked. I’m not your classic liberal at all, but democracy is a good idea, isn’t it? It’s just that how we’re doing it at the moment doesn’t seem very democratic. That’s one of the things that subvertising aims to critique, and it does that with a right-to-the-city argument. This is an argument by geographer David Harvey which claims that we should all have the democratic right to make and remake ourselves and our urban environments, which we obviously don’t have at the moment. That’s one of the things that subvertising is trying to do. It starts from the aesthetic as a symbolic demand for complete control.

Advertising works on an emotional level. You can view an advert and consciously understand that it’s not truthful or is just trying to sell you something, but it can still appeal to your emotions. It can still appeal to your values. That’s the really insidious part of how it works, which is why subvertisers don’t want it to be a part of our urban setting.

CM: How would advertising and public relations appear differently if we saw it not as advertising or public relations, but as propaganda? Why is it so important to see public relations and advertising as propaganda?

VR: There’s a really interesting history of propaganda that the book goes into. The first chapter is called “PRopaganda.” People might know this, perhaps: the inventor of the modern public relations industry was a guy called Edward Bernays. He was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, and he was the first person to start using psychoanalysis in marketing to appeal to people’s desires rather than just merely give them information about a product. The entire public relations industry literally used to just be called propaganda, and you’ve mentioned the definition of propaganda. At some point, propaganda got a bad name, because of its wartime usage, because the Nazis did propaganda, but Edward Bernays was an adviser to the US government on propaganda. He did a bit of PR trickery on the name propaganda, and came up with the term public relations. This system that we’re all a part of, which we euphemistically refer to as “public relations,” is just propaganda. It’s exactly the same thing.

It’s important for people to realize that, because people have an understanding of what propaganda is, and how it is used to influence people’s lives, people’s decisions, and what they think, whereas public relations sounds more fluffy, like, “We’re just relating to the public, that’s all we’re doing. We’re not trying to force a system of consumption capitalism onto people.”

Before Bernays changed the name, gave it a PR spin from propaganda to public relations, he wrote a book entitled Propaganda, and you might think that it’s about wartime propaganda or how the Nazis used propaganda, but it’s literally just an introduction to public relations and how public relations are used.

CM: There’s a quote from Bill Posters, of Brandalism, another one of the subvertising groups, and he says, “Advertising shits all over and dominates our culture. It is a visceral, powerful form of pollution that not only affects our public and cultural spaces but also our deeply private, intimate spaces. Advertisers want your braintime, to shit in your head without your knowledge. We want to stop them.”

To what extent do you think the public is aware of the intense impact that advertising has on them?

VR: It’s difficult to say, and it’s difficult to talk about “the public,” but generally, most subvertising seems to be well-received. A lot of people are probably aware. People don’t really like being advertised to. They see it as a necessary evil, perhaps, or perhaps they think that it makes the public transport cheaper, so they put up with having advertising everywhere. But most people don’t like being sold to, on some level.

Still, although there is a general awareness (but acceptance) of advertising, I think there is probably a bit of ignorance, too. Lots of people say, “Advertising doesn’t work on me. I just ignore it.” But that’s impossible. This is the point. I’ve just edited a book called Advertising Shits in Your Head, and I know all of the arguments, but advertising works on me. It works on everybody.

Advertising works on an emotional level. You can view an advert and consciously understand that it’s not truthful or is just trying to sell you something, but it can still appeal to your emotions. It can still appeal to your values. That’s the really insidious part of how it works, which is why subvertisers don’t want it to be a part of our urban setting.

CM: To what extent, then, can we protect ourselves from advertising through the liberal tenets of logic and reason?

VR: I don’t think you can. You can try to avoid it. But advertising wouldn’t be produced if it didn’t work. And it has a target. With outdoor advertising particularly, you’re the target. There’s not a group of people who can’t be advertised to. Some people within the subvertising movement and beyond are calling for bans on outdoor advertising—outdoor advertising in particular because it’s seen as undemocratic, you don’t have any control over it. If something’s in print media, you can at least turn the page—although it still, in that instant, is having an effect on you.

So some people would like to see bans on outdoor advertising in cities, and there is a precedent for that—a couple of precedents, actually. Sao Paulo, in 2007, enacted the “clean city” law, designating outdoor advertising a form of “visual pollution.” As a way to “clean up the city,” they banned billboards. Grenoble, more recently, also banned all outdoor advertising—they removed 300 outdoor advertising spaces, and they replaced them, interestingly, either with trees or spaces for citizen messaging. The mayor of Grenoble is quite progressive, and so in an active nod to people’s right to the city, he put up all these spaces where citizens can go and put up their own messages. They have equal access to those spaces.

Advertising appeals to extrinsic values, which are values around your own personal status. It makes you less concerned for the community, for communitarian ideas. And fascism is just corporate state control, isn’t it? So the two things go hand in hand with dividing and conquering people.

CM: You were mentioning the undemocratic nature of advertising. How much does advertising and its result, consumption, lead to less political participation? When we hear of so-called apathetic voters—although many are simply disenfranchised, disillusioned, or not given a choice that represents their political beliefs—how much is their apathy fueled by consumption and advertising?

VR: Again, it’s kind of hard to quantify it, but one of the things that is quantifiable is that an increase in advertising spending also leads to an increase in hours worked. Some researchers from the Universities of Warwick and Nottingham found that there’s a direct link between total advertising spending and the hours that people work. And if people are working more hours, they probably have less time to think about political action and that kind of thing.

We only have so much attention that we can give to things. If advertising and commercial imperatives and capitalist discourse is taking all of that space in our minds, it becomes much harder to think about alternatives. It’s a form of capitalist realism, the idea that nothing else is imaginable. All you can think about all day long is advertising and buying things.

CM: The book explains, “Our cultural narrative is told in many ways and through many mediums, it is the sum of all of these parts that tells our collective story. One of our most important spaces for telling that story, the public space, is increasingly becoming privately owned and dominated by private interests.”

How much is our current cultural narrative controlled by advertising? To what extent is our culture today just our ads?

VR: It dominates. I’m sure it’s the same in the States, but in London, where I am at the moment, it dominates everything. People can’t imagine how things would work without advertising. All of our sports stadiums are no longer the names of the place they used to be—I won’t say the brand names, actually. But they’re named after advertisers. Or music venues. I can’t go to the Kentish Town Forum anymore, I have to go to the X Advertiser Name Forum to see my music.

Advertisers have done this really clever trick where they’re like, “You’re going to have to see this advertising, but don’t worry, it’s going to make things cheaper for you.” But generally speaking, advertising has the effect of increasing the cost of things. When you go to the stadium or the music venue that’s named after a sponsor, you can’t get cheap drinks anymore; the food is really expensive.

Advertisers advertise for different audiences. So if your company is buying outdoor advertising, it costs more in wealthy areas than it does in less-wealthy areas, because it’s a prime a audience. People who are more likely to have more spare cash are more likely to buy your product. So it’s in the advertisers’ interest that there are more wealthy people at the venues and the sites where they advertise—and they could probably do that by increasing the costs. It’s one of these upward spirals: the more advertising there is, the more expensive things become.

The traditional argument for advertising being acceptable is that it helps to fund public transport infrastructure. A group called the Special Patrol Group in London recently did a big London Underground advertising campaign, and they put up the four points of their “Adhack Manifesto.” They came up with a manifesto about subvertising and not advertising. Lots of people objected to it, and said if there’s no advertising it will make their journey more expensive. But the London Underground is already really expensive. It’s not cheap. It’s not like it’s a subsidized service. It’s not getting any cheaper, either. Nobody can ever quite say, “this is exactly how much cheaper your journey is because of advertising,” and I think that’s probably because it’s not really true.

CM: Again, the book quotes Jordan Seiler of the Public Ad Campaign in New York pointing out that “the stories told by those advertising interests are rarely, if ever, some of our more interesting goals for ourselves as a society, like community, taking care of our children correctly, and education.”

On our show last week, Henry Giroux, our correspondent on all things authoritarian, said that one of the aspects of what he calls neofascism that is taking hold in the US is radical individualism. To what degree do you think advertising either promotes or creates the conditions for fascism?

VR: That is a good question—although a fairly easy question to answer in that it’s not necessarily even that controversial. It appeals to extrinsic values which are values around your own personal status, it makes you less concerned for the community, for communitarian ideas. I don’t think that’s at all controversial. And fascism is just corporate state control, isn’t it? So the two things go hand in hand with dividing and conquering people. That’s what neoliberalism has done. We all live in little boxes and don’t talk to each other—other than through Facebook, where we’re just being sold stuff anyway. So yeah, I think that’s true.

CM: Vyvian, a pleasure having you on the show.

VR: Thanks so much, Chuck.

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