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Portland Tribune article about billboard alterations

repost from the tribune
'Jammers' take their message to streets
Altered ads shed light on societal issues -- and anger advertisers
By MATT KISH Issue date: Tue, Dec 23, 2003
The Tribune
A curious billboard greeted commuters waiting for the No. 14 bus at the corner of Southeast 11th Avenue and Madison Street this fall.
Originally an advertisement for Altoids, the company's "curiously strong peppermint" message had been altered to read, "The curiously strong drugs." The names Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil appeared below the script in an apparent condemnation of the pharmaceutical industry.
A menacing version of a prescription drug bottle and the transformation of the billboard owner's name from Clear Channel to "Clearly Evil" completed the alteration.
"Vandalism," remarks David Olson, cleaning windows at the nearby Madison Grill.
The majority of onlookers at the bus stop agree.
"Companies pay a lot of money for billboards," says Kevin Koerwitz, 27, a student at Portland State University. "Now somebody's going to have to fix it."
While some Portlanders decry such defacings, not everyone disapproved of the tactic.
"It's a great idea," says Eliza Jones, 26, a student at Portland State University. "If you don't have money, how else are you going to get a message across?"
Clear Channel Communications, the billboard's owner, quickly got to work restoring the ad and denounced the change as a criminal act.
"It's not condoned in any way, shape or form" by Clear Channel, says company spokesman Leonard Bergstein. "It will be pursued as vandalism."
One who takes a different view is Ryan Griffis, a former Portlander who teaches courses on new media at Southwest Missouri State University. He uses the term "culture jamming," rather than vandalism, to describe the alterations.
"Culture jamming is an interventionist culture," says Griffis, who has studied the intersection of art and activism. "It takes something that's already in existence and alters it. It brings up issues that are below the surface and not immediately apparent."
Griffis traces the phenomenon's artistic lineage to Dadaism. The early 20th century art movement rejected the social organization of the time and claimed anarchy as a guiding principle. Dadaism found a home in Europe; culture jamming is finding a home on the West Coast.
Two weeks before the Altoids advertisement got an extreme makeover, a Washington Mutual billboard in Southeast Portland with the message "Reject fake free checking" had encouraged the public to "reject fake freedom." On a lesser scale, thanks to a stencil of the word "war," stop signs at Ladd's Circle in Southeast Portland encouraged pacifism.
In a highly publicized incident in the summer of 2002, a number of Coors Light billboards in Portland featuring buxom blondes and the message "Here's to twins" were altered to suggest: "Here's to sexism."
"Freedom of speech and expression is what this country was founded on," says Hilary Martin, a spokeswoman for Coors, "but when groups have a blatant disregard for the law and destroy property, whether commercial or personal, it sends a terrible message."
No arrests have been made for the Portland billboard acts. If the perpetrators are caught, however, they could face felony charges of criminal mischief that might result in jail time.
Despite its lawbreaking past, a new chapter in culture jamming is reportedly about to unfold -- one that doesn't involve risking time behind bars. This winter, the Vancouver, British Columbia, magazine Adbusters plans to bring a culture jamming campaign to Phil Knight's back yard.
Billing itself on its Web site (www.adbusters.org) as "Culture Jammers Headquarters," Adbusters lost money for a decade after its first issue hit newsstands in 1989. Then came the World Trade Organization protests of 1999 -- the action that became known as "the battle in Seattle."
Adbusters co-founder Kalle Lasn, a former market researcher and documentary film producer, says that after the smoke cleared, "activism became cool again."
And profitable.
He defended the people responsible for altering the Altoids billboard, saying, "It sends a message that there are people out there who don't like what's going on."
He plans to put bigger fish in the pan.
"If you really want to twist a few heads around," he says, "you need to do more than clever little billboards."
Newly flush with cash, Adbusters is in the process of signing a contract with a union shoe factory. The factory will stitch together a simple black sneaker and call attention to what Lasn and other activists perceive as poor labor practices by Nike Inc.
Adbusters plans to promote the shoe as the "unswoosher" in hopes of "uncooling the nuclear glow" around the Nike brand.
Billboards advertising the shoes, also known as blackSpot sneakers, will be placed around the Nike campus. (Lasn laughed when asked what he'd do if someone vandalized the blackSpot billboards, saying they were unlikely targets.)
A full-page ad in The New York Times is expected to kick off the campaign.
Nike shrugs off the action.
"Nike's invested a significant amount in its corporate responsibility program," says Caitlin Morris, a senior manager of global issues management for Nike.
She cites the shoemaker's participation in the Fair Labor Association, an independent labor monitoring organization, as evidence of Nike's commitment to workers' rights. She challenged Adbusters to join the association.
Lasn, however, believes the unswoosher campaign stands a chance of altering how the public views Nike. He points to culture jamming campaigns against tobacco companies to illustrate his point. A series of advertisements on Adbusters' Web site, for example, feature a parody of Joe Camel, the pitchman for Camel cigarettes. The ads rename him Joe Chemo and show him frail and weak in a hospital bed.
"They were the seminal force that finally turned the tide," Lasn says. "For almost two or three generations, governments and all of these institutions that are supposed to protect our health were not doing anything. It took a grass-roots campaign to catalyze this turnaround."
Many, however, credit massive efforts by the American Cancer Society and other organizations for thousands of Americans quitting smoking.
The first Joe Chemo ad ran in Adbusters' winter 1996 issue. The ads are the creation of Scott Plous, a psychology professor at Wesleyan University. The ads have been mentioned by mainstream media outlets including The Associated Press, Time, Newsweek, the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Business Week, AdWeek, ABC and NBC television news and PBS.
Lasn hopes the unswoosher campaign accomplishes what he sees as a similar end.
Critics doubt that a few clever ads can start a sweeping cultural change. And they suggest that when culture jammers start branding themselves -- selling magazines and shoes -- they're taking desperate measures to stay relevant.
Lasn, however, doesn't see any problem with "commodifying ourselves." He is the author of the 1999 book "Culture Jam."
Whether he buys it or not, Lasn still faces a tough crowd in Portland.
Of the dozen people interviewed for responses to the Altoids billboard, only one agreed with the motives of the vandals.
The others agreed with Portland city employee Sue Sloan, who says, "It's vandalism, and it's not fair to the company."
idiot responds 23.Dec.2003 13:15


"Companies pay a lot of money for billboards," says Kevin Koerwitz, 27, a student at Portland State University. "Now somebody's going to have to fix it."

Waaaa . . .

Wow! What an IDIOT!!! He's probably a business major, getting ready for his job as a corporate cog, the wife, the three kids, the pension . . . oh wait, that's all gone now . . . uh, getting ready to take his anthrax shot after he gets drafted, or volunteers, like a good dog.

et al. 23.Dec.2003 14:43


So, maybe we could find someone to "improve" those fu***ng bright boards throughout the city, esp. on the Morrison Bridge. ARRGH!

Companies DO pay a lot of money for those billboards 23.Dec.2003 15:50


And the strange thing is, the companies that don't actively fuck up our urban sprawl, flood our airwaves with propoganda and poison us seem to have billboards that go unaltered. So it would seem the only companies that are complaining are the bad guys then, hm?

I see no problems here.

someone once told me 23.Dec.2003 16:24


someone once told me that paint-filled balloons make a negative impact on those bright video billboards. not that i would advocate such a thing.

Ross island alteration 23.Dec.2003 16:31


Anyone notice how a couple of months ago there was a billboard underneath the Ross Island Bridge that got altered?
It was something inane about direct deposit banking and someone wrote "Wake Up Bush is the Real Hero" (this was around the time of the start of the invasion). I swear it was up for about 2 weeks. Someone then changed "Hero" to "Terrorist" and the billboard was torn down within a matter of hours. I guess they just don't like the message. In all fairness, though, this other billboard has been altered for a long time now:  http://portland.indymedia.org/en/2003/12/276015.shtml

I'm reading Benjamin Barber's "Jihad vs McWorld" (highly recommended). It _is_ really interesting that we in the US look upon the former soviet union or china's having giant posters of their leaders in public places as a form of oppression/cult of personality/hero worship/sign of a dictatorship. Or how we disapprove of the taliban dominating/controlling daily life of their citizens. Hello! How are giant billboards, TV/Radio commercials, spam, junk mail etc screaming 'shop, consume, shop, consume' any different? I'm not sure we're the "land of the free" until we can find some way to free ourselves from the non-stop barrage of advertising. How a billboard would be considered "holy" and it'd be a crime for a citizen to react in any way except passive acquiescence is beyond me.

An early return 23.Dec.2003 16:55


As a seasonal gift to the site I was going to shut up for a few days. But this is so good I can't. So I'm returning the gift of silence.

reposter, Another thing not to do is use a spud-gun to launch beer cans full of paint they would travel farther and splat wider.

reader, "Companies pay a lot of money for billboards," says Kevin Koerwitz, 27, a student at Portland State University. "Now somebody's going to have to fix it."

Do you have something against working toward full employment?

Once free speech, the equal ability to communicate is established interdicting this propaganda can be reviewed.

11 out of 12 portlanders support their oppressor 23.Dec.2003 18:00

ed harley

informal poll contained in last paragraph of trib article confirms: 11 out of 12 portlanders support their oppressor.

Chewed moldy balogne spit into newspaper print on a hot summer day 23.Dec.2003 18:08

Aunt Sam

"...whether commercial or personal, it sends a terrible message."
Hilary Martin, a spokeswoman for Coors speaking about billboards

"activism became cool again."
And profitable.

The author of this article obviously had their gut ripped out by satisfying their advertisers. The way they place words into Lasn's mouth. Go to the adbusters site. There is actually nothing profitable by this campaign. Yea you see a lot of millionaire activists these days. Yup, got the house in Malibu and the penthouse in New York all becuase I spend my vacations and week-ends protesting, building community support groups, and getting thrown in jail stopping the illegal war against laborers around the world. A brilliant concept by the independently wealthy journalist who freelances in their free time for this corporate rag because they got tired of drinking mint julips and beating minorities with an arsenal of police gear. hell, if they can lie, we can too.

This articel was degenerative, ended groveling for more corporate sponsership, and involved more masturbation than investigative journalism.

HELLO 23.Dec.2003 18:15


Sue Sloan, who says, "It's vandalism, and it's not fair to the company." Seems to acknowledge it is an effective tactic. So does that mean she was against the broadcast of Radio Free America and the jamming of radio frequencies in Eastern Europe? Would she ask people to be quiet so ve could hear da fuehrer?

um... 24.Dec.2003 13:39


the coors lady says its wrong to destroy property etc. but is the billboard really destroyed? theyre still everywhere. all that is destroyed is a message that someone in the community is sick of seeing. i hate the billboard on division near natures. its on someones lawn! and further up theres one thats blocked by an apt. building and they still put ads on it. you can only see the edge of it from the street. i wonder if some poor schmuck has to see it every time he opens his curtains...