Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Opting Out of Advertising Blight

You know how when you sign up for a new online service, they often have a check box (which is usually checked by default) that you need to uncheck to avoid receiving an avalanche of email from their sponsors or whatever they call the other companies they sell your information to? Unchecking that box is called "opting out" in e-marketing terms. I'm not sure it's a legal obligation in any jurisdiction to offer you the choice, but it saves on unpleasant phone calls later should you wish to stop receiving such email: "But Mr. Winkleman, we offered you the choice to opt out and you didn't uncheck the box." See how that works? I'm made to feel stupid for not taking such a simple and obvious step to prevent the bombardment.

I've often wished there was a way to opt out of being bombarded with advertising in other contexts. Take the subway, for example. Advertisers are permitted to paste all manner of intensely dull, aesthetically pathogenic, and otherwise obnoxious posters up and down the platforms where millions are forced to wait each day. Yes, you can avert your eyes from them, but the dulling effect of so much dreck eventually wears you down to where you find yourself dutifully scanning on a daily basis to see which ones are new and which among those offer anything you might care about. It's actually a bit soul-crushing and would be criminal in any society that didn't celebrate commercialism above all else.

In this context, it's never once been a mystery to me why certain citizens would eventually take it upon themselves to comment on this never-ending assault on commuters' ability to choose what they think about while waiting for their train. A while back I noted how much I appreciated the work of Poster Boy, who officials eventually caught. His hysterical collages of subway ads not only brilliantly skewered the banality of the ads we're subjected to, but often also made poignant comments on life in general. And while I don't endorse destroying other peoples' property under any circumstances, I wouldn't have felt compelled at all to turn him in had I known who he was. He fell into this gray area for me...sort of Robin Hood-ish. Outlaw yes, but within a system that grotesquely favors one class (the advertisers) over the common commuter. Let the authorities catch him if they can. And well...they did, so the powerful people in advertising and the sheep they sell to can all sleep more soundly now.

Of course, I probably wouldn't have felt the same way if Poster Boy hadn't been so good at what he did, or if his collages had been offensive to me in some way, so I recognize my own hypocritical-ness here. More than that, though, I wouldn't have felt the same way if the original ads Poster Boy was defacing had been of a higher quality, more compelling, more interesting than their edited versions were. I'm sure it's intentional actually. The original ads' unyielding ability to cater to mediocrity serves as some form of civil lithium.

And so, after Poster Boy had had his knuckles whacked by the law, there was a dry patch of underground creativity until Moustache Man came along. His was a simple and yet, somehow, like the Three Stooges, infinitely funny intervention. He drew the word "Moustache" in curly letter above the lips on the faces of people on the ads:

It was charming, silly, and the perfect antidote to the constant drumbeat of conformity that unifies the subway messages. It too, though, was illegal and like Poster Boy, Moustache Man has been caught:
For street artists, sometimes acclaim can be the worst enemy. Case in point: Moustache Man (aka Moustache, aka the Moustache Bandit) beloved by New York City subway riders for his simple but witty trick of using a felt-tip marker to write the word "moustache" (always with the European 'u') in curly cursive script on the upper lip of people in various advertisements. He had successfully eluded the police for more than a year, but authorities announced that they managed to track down the rogue artist last week based on his "Internet bragging," the Daily News Reports, arresting him near his place of work, Gray Line Tours.

So who is the Moustache Man? Turns out he is Joseph Waldo, a 26-year-old who now faces charges of felony mischief, misdemeanor criminal mischief, graffiti, and "possession of a graffiti instrument," according to the cops. His quirky mustache graffiti is alleged to have caused more than $1,500 in damage to New York Transit property. Waldo was released without bail after his arraignment, and is due back in court September 15.

And why did he do it? The impetus behind the Moustache Man's art was to "raise awareness for the tens of people in the world who are born with the horrible, unsightly condition where your moustache grows into the word moustache," Waldo joked to the Subway Art Blog in May. On a more serious note, he situated his practice within the broader tradition of "subverting advertisements," claiming to be inspired by Banksy, as well as such lesser-known lights of the NYC street art scene as Elle, Judith Supine, Primo, Quel Beast, QRST, Shin Shin, and Specter. He also said that he engaged in a separate above-ground — as in not in the subway — street art practice that was stencil-based and closer in spirit to Banksy or Faile ("nothing like the moustaches.")
Again, I can't in good conscience endorse the destruction of other peoples' property (I certainly wouldn't appreciate people tagging the gallery walls or windows). So I simply sigh at the news that, once again, someone who brightened the otherwise dark and mind-numbing void of creativity that Madison Avenue and the MTA apparently insist we endure while we commute, has been silenced.

It all does make me wish they could develop some system whereby you have a choice. A blind on each poster or something you push a button to raise if you wish to be sold to. An opting out option for the rest of us.

Labels: advertising, street art


Anonymous Gam said...

time will catch up with you Ed, soon you can get a stealth cell phone so that all the targeted digital ads will be for whatever you wish instead of what your brwoser history dictates.

which might allow for mass "sponsorship" where you the "audience" can make a micropayment for a group "ad" message of your choice: say "the Winkleman selected art piece of the week" so when you walk by that digital ad beamed your way, it is of an image your "group" has subscribed and micro paid for/to. Corporations may need to compete with their proper markets for that digital space.

Still haven't figured out why corporations don't sponsor urban green peace spaces.

that moustache is fun!

6/28/2011 12:48:00 PM  
Blogger joy said...



6/28/2011 04:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

MTA advertising contributes funds to the operation of a transportation system that you find convenient enough to endure its myriad indignities on a regular basis. Moustache Man was reducing the value of that advertising to the advertisers. I'm sure you see the implications. One opts out of Madison Avenue's "dark and mind-numbing void of creativity" by refusing to buy the promoted products until it comes up with something more clever.

Heather MacDonald has been busy this year exposing the culture of hypocrisy, entitlement, and inchoate radical politics behind graffiti. See this, this, and this.

6/28/2011 04:11:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

MTA advertising contributes funds to the operation of a transportation system

the other factors that contribute funds to it are choices though...do I buy a monthly pass or individual rides? Do I vote for politicians who promise to make them spend tax dollars more wisely.

The advertising is forced on the public without any choice. It's also got nothing to do with safety, convenience, timeliness or any of the other serious considerations I make when weighing how to value their service. It's a parasitic funding effort, and I resent it.

6/28/2011 05:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Gabrielle Nouveau said...

Not everyone bends over backwards to accommodate advertisers and their almighty dollar, or in this case Euro. "LARGE, imposing advertising billboards are to be banned from the centre of Paris under a new plan by the city council to cut the size of ad hoardings by a third in the next two years."


6/29/2011 02:48:00 PM  
Anonymous A Blade of Grass said...

Moustache watchers are a whole new audience. Eyes are eyes. And it's not like he Moustached anything that isn't an ad, like a seat or a subway window.

What if Moustache Bandit and his creative colleagues were getting paid by the advertisers as independent contractors? I don't know how such a thing would ever work, but it would be awesome if creative people could get a venue and a paycheck, cops could get to bust people, we'd get inventive graffiti on the subways and advertisers would be increasing the visibility of their ads in a way that's "genuine" and has "street cred," and that's far too complicated and risky to be done to death.

--Deborah Fisher

6/30/2011 02:29:00 PM  

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