Portland Tribune article about billboard alterations
'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
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."
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."
add a comment on this article
add a comment on this article