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Ad Watch | Arts | Media

April 19, 2008

I'm Hatin' It

Guerrilla artist Steve Lambert declares war on advertising.

Adam Rosen

In one of the greatest Simpsons episodes ever—yes, I said it—the town of Springfield finds itself literally besieged by an army of advertising character-zombies. The marauders in "Attack of the 50-foot Eyesores" are but barely disguised caricatures of formerly ubiquitous ad mascots (the Big Boy from Bob's Big Boy becomes "Lard Lad;" the Pep Boys, "Zip Boys"). As the walking, anthropomorphic product pitches close in, Lisa finally figures out that the way to defeat them is for the townsfolk to turn their backs on the monsters and refuse to look at them. Lard Lad, along with all of the other boardroom-created Frankensteins, ultimately suffocates from lack of attention.

Despite the scarcity of Bob's Big Boy and Pep Boys in the modern retail landscape, it'd be wrong to dismiss this episode—a sketch in 1995's installment of the annual "Treehouse of Horror" special—as dated. In place of the aforementioned icons, just insert a sassy, Cockney-accented reptile or a giant, yellow smiley face. We've failed to heed the parable of Lard Lad.

Steve Lambert
"You can't have that radar on all the time. If you were to try to actively filter out every advertising message you got every day, you'd be exhausted."

Steve Lambert

Steve Lambert is trying his damnedest to make us look away. A guerrilla artist and senior fellow at the Eyebeam Art & Technology Center, a cutting-edge art collective in Chelsea, Lambert is also the founder of the Anti-Advertising Agency, a group whose mission is to "co-opt the tools and structures used by the advertising and public relations industries…to call into question the purpose and effects of advertising in public space."

Lambert's projects include refashioning the large LCD displays attached to New York City subway exits; "shopdropping," or placing provocative messages atop store-bought goods; and a grab bag of do-it-yourself campaigns that aim to reinvigorate a population long beaten down by the relentless blitzkrieg of advertising. Gelf caught up with Lambert at Eyebeam, where he riffed on the practical uses for art, why he's never been arrested, and his nonchalance about Chuck Palahniuk books. This interview has been edited for clarity. (You can hear Lambert, prankster Alan Abel, and agit-pop artist Ron English talk about their work at Gelf's free Non-Motivational Speaker Series event on Thursday, April 24, in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: What spurred you to start the Anti-Advertising Agency?

Steve Lambert: I lived in San Francisco in this neighborhood, the Mission, a couple blocks away from industrial areas. Whenever I'd walk my dog there were billboards facing the neighborhood. It was 1999, and there was a lot of construction, and they'd put up these plywood retaining walls to protect the sites. Advertisers would go and put posters on those, which is illegal in NYC, and I'm pretty sure it's illegal in San Francisco. In the meantime, I knew all these muralists that were like, "Man, if I could just find a space to put this thing." For me it was just putting one and one together; so there's all this space that's being taken up illegally, or otherwise, for commercials, and this is the neighborhood we live in. Why can't it be something we want?
So I started looking at [the situation] a lot closer. It took about five more years to get [the Anti-Advertising Agency] funded. It wasn't a typical art project, but eventually we got funded. I realized if I was going to do this—the [advertising] industry is a billion-dollar industry with some of the most talented people in the world—I'd need a little bit of money. We got a grant for $34,000, and I could start paying people to help me, which I thought was fair. And pay for the materials.

GM: So where is the office now? On your site it shows an authentic-looking workplace.

SL: That office was in a gallery in San Francisco. They offered us a show, and I wondered what we'd use the gallery space for. And then I realized whenever we meet we always meet in the back room of a bar, and it would be really great to actually have a place to work. So we set up this whole fake office. All the stuff in there I bought and then resold from Craig's List. We have cubicle walls, desks; we actually worked in there, and people would come into the gallery, and we turned it into this huge workspace. We even had a conference room. Then the show ended, and we sold all the office equipment. Now we run it out of back rooms of bars again. [Laughs]

When ads are attacked.

GM: What do you think your most effective project has been?

SL: I think it's the Light Criticism video, where I worked with the Graffiti Research Lab and we took these foam-core boards and put them up. It was the first time I made a video with one of the projects, and within the week the video had been seen by 40,000 people. It broke 100,000 a little bit after that. So, I could actually see the numbers of the people that were encountering it. The whole reason I worked in the street was because that's where lots of people are. If you're in a gallery, 100 people might come in a day and that would be incredibly successful. If you're on the street, a 100 people can pass in 10 minutes. I think [Light Criticism] is still what we're best known for.

GM: Has anyone involved with the AAA been prosecuted or sued for Light Criticism, PeopleProducts123, or any other similar, guerrilla-style projects?

SL: Well, I'm very paranoid and cautious and scared [laughs]. So there's a lot of planning that goes into it. Light Criticism was all put up with tape, so if I'm caught doing it, it's like, "Well, OK, it can all be undone, no harm no foul." If you got the wrong cop, yeah, you'd be in trouble, but it's pretty harmless.

GM: Is it you who's actually putting everything up, or an operative?

SL: It's the three of us. I don't know that there's a crime, or it's not a very clear one. With the shopdropping stuff, where we're taking things and putting them in the stores, there's no damage to the products; you're not shoplifting (you're basically just leaving a piece of paper in the store). I try to do things that push those kind of boundaries, but at the same time if I was in front of a judge I wouldn't be uncomfortable being like, "Hey, I did that. I put paper on a shelf in a store, and if you want to put me in jail, fine. Go for it." But to date I've never been arrested.

GM: Is there any form of advertising that, if you don't condone, you at least find acceptable?

SL: The phonebook. Right? I'm going there because I want information, and I'm seeking it out. If I don't like it, I don't have to look at it. Whereas a billboard, I don't have a choice in whether or not I see it. I can't turn the page, put the book away, or change the channel. I have to see it.

GM: In utopia, what does the advertising look like?

SL: I mean, do we need it? If a good product exists, we'll know about it. That's supposedly the thing about capitalism: You make a better product and it rises to the top. What I think is interesting is that advertising sort of messes with that, so the thing doesn't make it on its merits. The product doesn't make it on its merits, it makes it because of its campaign. If you or I were to make a better iPod, how would people find out about that if we can't compete with [Apple's] advertising?

GM: As a corollary—shouldn't educated, sophisticated New York-types be able to see through a manufactured corporate pitch?

SL: Yeah, absolutely. There's even evidence that seeing an ad for smoking hasn't made anyone smoke. The rate of people who start smoking after age 21 is in the single percentage, if not lower or less than one percent. Rational adult people who can make decisions don't choose to do that, yet there's advertising all over the place. What the advertising does is make smoking seem normal to people who still do it. It's not this lethal and disgusting habit—it's part of playing sports, or the seduction process, or whatever. [The advertising] is just there to make it seem normal in our culture.
And then there's another part, too. You can be like, "Yeah we're smart people, educated New Yorkers or whatever," but you can't have that radar on all the time. Stuff just makes its way in. If you were to try to actively filter out every advertising message you got every day, you'd be exhausted.

GM: To what extent can art be utilized as a tool for reform? Do you think the artistic approach would succeed outside of major metropolitan centers?

SL: I think you'd have to do it differently. We are speaking to a certain audience, right? Maybe leaning towards cities, although I get emails and letters from people all over. A message coming through art has a lot more integrity, because there's no ulterior motive. I don't make money doing this; I lose money. So the place the message is coming from is much more genuine. We're not trying to trick you into buying a product, I'm not trying to sell you anything.
Also, we can do things that reach people in different ways, both in the way the message is transmitted and the medium we use. That's one of the roles of art—to present you with another perspective, whether it's futurism or impressionism. You see another way of looking at a bale of hay; or you see another way of looking at the world and consider that. As far as reform, one of the things we've done is helped get out the message that a lot of the advertising you see is illegal. The stuff you probably find most annoying—all the wheat-pasted posters, all over NYC, on every construction site, or destruction site.

You don't need it

An advertisement adorned with a sticker from Lambert's Anti-Advertising Agency. (Courtesy antiadvertisingagency.com)

GM: So could I rip it down with total impunity?

SL: Yeah. I mean, there are thugs that run that stuff. The guys who put it up probably aren't the most polite, so you might want to look over your shoulder before you do it. I'd be more worried about them than the cops. But if you see a guy doing it, that's basically a graffiti crime—you could call 911, and say, "Someone is vandalizing the city." I would say it's just as much a blight [as graffiti], the posters, wallscapes, the vinyl that stretches across the sides of buildings, buildings that don't conform to code. But the taggers go to jail, and the advertisers make money.
The other thing people seem to reel at is advertising isn't taxed. So when the Super Bowl comes up, and a 30-second ad costs $2 million, those companies write that off. If we were just to tax advertising, we'd have so much money for the government.

GM: Do you think it's possible an American city could go the route of Sao Paolo, and ban all outdoor advertising?

SL: States have. Hawaii, Maine, Vermont, and another one. My wife's family is from Hawaii, so I've been there more than anywhere else. There are no billboards there. You don't really notice it, in a way; it's just sort of this relief. They know that more valuable to them is the natural landscape—same with Vermont. Imagining Hawaii with billboards would just be a disaster.
The reason it happened in Sao Paolo is that the outdoor companies who were putting stuff up were flagrantly breaking the law. The mayor asked them to follow the regulations, and they'd put up stuff everywhere: billboards on top of billboards. They just wouldn't conform with the law, which is the same thing happening in New York, but nobody knows it. So eventually the mayor was like, "You can't play by the rules? Then you can't play the game." And he kicks them all out of the city. That could happen here, but there's a series of steps we need to go through. I'm pushing.

GM: Is your issue more with advertising itself, or its byproducts, such as unbridled consumerism?

SL: I think unbridled consumerism is obviously a bad thing. And you could argue that's the root of the advertising/marketing thing. There's a lot of stuff I try to work on, and I have other parts of my artistic practice that fall under this, such as social control, and what we think it's OK to do with public space, and those don't directly relate to advertising. The thing about advertising and marketing, it's the mouthpiece of all that; it's the way those messages are conveyed more than anything, and it's a popular language that people understand.

GM: I bet you're a fan of [Fight Club author] Chuck Palahniuk.

SL: Not especially, no. I've never read his books. (As an aside, one of the few things I know about him is that he was involved in this Werner Erhard EST-based scam/cult called Landmark—which is odd.) I am a fan of George Saunders, though. I'm midway through In Persuasion Nation right now.

Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.







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Article by Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.

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