<body> Public Ad Campaign: An Email Conversation with Brian Sterling - Part2
This blog is a resource for ad takeover artists and information about contemporary advertising issues in public space. If you have content you would like to share, please send us an email.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

An Email Conversation with Brian Sterling - Part2

This post is the second in a series of email conversations I am having with Brian Sterling, a New Yorker working in the OOH business. Brian has been kind enough to engage the PublicAdCampaign project on a critical level and our conversation is a step in the right direction to illuminating the variety of oppinions surrounding advertising in public space. Please see the first converstation [HERE] if you have not already done so.

Brian's Response:


I don't think anyone can argue that the overall goal of advertising is to drive consumption, thereby increasing wealth of the corporations and people who create and sell products and services. I do, however, strongly object to the lines you draw between advertising as a medium and the social, environmental and human rights issues that plague this planet. I reject the cause and effect relationship between Apple's advertising campaigns and the human rights violations at places like Foxxcon. If you want to get to the roots of these extraordinarily entrenched and complex issues, I think you need to dig a lot deeper than marketing and advertising tactics. It has been the policy of every major industrialized country in the world since the dawn of modern economic systems to grow their economies and output, which in turn has fueled innovation in virtually all areas of life and has created the modern societies which we all enjoy. I could go on for hours listing benefits of consumption and economic growth, things that you take for granted in focusing on the negative aspects of "the desire for wealth and power". Ever think how the pay phones you speak of below came into existence?

While you're correct in noting that OOH is physically unavoidable, the message is in fact totally avoidable. If you don't like or agree with the message plastered over that big billboard, then don't pay any attention.

Finally, the notion that the walls of a privately owned building are public space is nonsense. Real property laws have been in existence long before the 21st century, and without them we would be living in a lawless and chaotic society. If a landlord want's to monetize the walls of his building he not only has the right to do so, he pays more property and income tax which in turn goes back into the community. (if a landlord has the means/motivation of putting up signage on his building, it is almost always the case that the building and surrounding property will be in better shape than one whose owner does the bare minimum to keep his property up to cod) Also, advertising essentially rebuilt Times Square into the tourist mecca it is today; without the proliferation of OOH, it would more than likely still be the drug infested, porn infested shit hole it was 30 years ago before I was born. Now the area is a vital artery in this city we both love so much. I think if you asked most people, they would rather walk with their kids past a Coca-Cola wallscape than a prostitute and drug dealer.

Bottom line: while we share the concerns that our word faces social, environmental and human rights issues, I truly believe that it is a cop out to sit around blaming OOH advertising in New York City, linking OOH with abstract and opaque lines about overcompensation and the "desire for wealth and power" when in fact the causal/effect just isn't there. Further, your notion of everything visible outside ones own home being our shared backyard is borderline delusional. Property owners have the right to do as they please and should not feel ostracized or guilty for doing so.

PS- I just looked at your website and noticed that you go around and cover ads with your own? Do you think that is OK?

My response to Brian:


You are right to say that these are extraordinarily entrenched and incredibly complex issues we are speaking of and I do not want you to misconstrue my earnest attempts to investigate an issue which is often overlooked or outright ignored by a major portion of our society, with the notion that I have this all worked out. Indeed I am an artist and citizen who finds that a deeper understanding of this issue might result in altered policies about how we use and share our public spaces that might ultimately benefit society as a whole. The premise upon which my entire project is predicated is illumination of an un illuminated issue and not a personal determination. I hope my project makes us think harder about these issues, something I am comfortable saying it has accomplished and will continue to pursue in the years to come.

That said, you are right that economic growth has fueled our pursuit of knowledge and ultimately brought about innovations which are unparalleled in societies that lack those economic foundations. Growth can be attributed to consumption in many ways but the specifics of that consumption might be worth investigating. What types of consumption does the advertising business promote? Does the promotion of that consumption have real and lasting affects on our society and our social psychology. Indeed this is a broad question but one which the advertising industry should be tasked with answering. Like any business, one must be accountable for the quality and affect of your product on the health of those consuming it and research has given us a good amount of evidence to suggest that we are ignoring the affects of advertising on our culture in an effort to appease growth above all without consideration of the consequences. While you might not think that the pursuit of "wealth and power" is as detrimental a result of advertising repetition as I do, I would imagine that the direct relationship between increased advertising consumption and our willingness to work longer hours, save less, and spend ourselves into debt in the pursuit of increased consumption does represent a problem to you. Economic growth is important but not at the cost of our implicit happiness. Advertising consumption increases our desire and therefore causes us to ignore our personal happiness in the pursuit of those products which we feel will fulfill the happiness. I see this as a major problem.

Brian, can you in good conscience tell us that advertising in public is unavoidable and that the solution should be to simply avoid it, or ignore it in your words? Would you tell your clients that yes its true, people who dont care about your product simply ignore the ads? or would you suggest to them that even those attempting to extradite themselves from the increased amount of advertising the industry is forcing them to consume, have a hard time doing so and will likely be aware of your advertisement and product despite their best efforts. The ad industry and those who use OOH are well aware of our inability to ignore those messages and that is what makes OOH so affective in our current climate of ad blockers and alternative content sources. On that note, do you think that overwhelming public space with messages which we must actively avoid is a good way to operate public space? I would imagine that the more citizens can engage public space, the people, the architecture, the images, the more invested they become. By attempting to actively ignore large portions of public space, advertising is causing a serious problem for our interaction with and in public spaces in general.

The private property issue is obviously a very contentious one in America where private property is at the heart of our liberty and our pursuit of happiness. It is true that within our current understanding of private property rights, landlords do have the right to adorn their buildings however they see fit given they operate within the law of the city. I am not arguing this, but with the PublicAdCampaign project would like to interrogate this assumption about private property and see if there might be alternative ways to think about private property that serve everyone and not just the landowners. Within social theories like the Right to the City movement, strict notions of private property bend to the will of the city inhabitant, and your individual say in how space is used is not predicated on your wealth or property ownership. These are pretty alternative theories in the face of our strict understanding of property ownership at this time, but I would ask you to entertain this example. If I live next to a coal plant, billowing toxic chemicals into the surrounding environment, affecting an area that is not within the coal plants strict private property boundaries, do you feel I should have a say in how that coal plant uses its private property? We expect that the use of private property does not do harm to the surrounding area and in much the same way I would argue that we should take a long look at the negative social affects of surrounding ourselves with images of consumption as a form of visual pollution worthwhile curbing in an effort to create a more healthy living environment. How we negotiate private property laws to accommodate such a belief is alternative yes, but potentially a step we must take as we move to increase our societies general health.

While I cannot argue that advertising did play an important role in the redevelopment of Times Square, does this mean that it is the best answer for the reinvigoration of neighborhoods and the removal of blight from our streets? I dont think so. In fact there is some pretty sound research that private property values go down in areas with a dense OOH presence. This might be best exemplified by Houston Tx, whose high property values are in large part attributed to the quality of life sustained through zoning laws which curb OOH advertising and allow the city to control its streets and ultimately its image. 

Delusional indeed and proud of it Brian. I am not looking for a simple answer but systemic change in how we use and operate public space. As a society we are always striving for a better life and the pursuit of a more utopic environment. What I am investigating is the ideal. I do not have all of the answers but would like to continue to pose questions which hold us all accountable for how public space is used instead of accepting current norms and simply chalking it all up to "thats just the way things are". I have no interest in making private property owners feel guilty or ostracized for making the choice to hang advertising on the side of their building. Instead I would like us to seriously weigh the benefits and costs of using our public spaces in this way and if the decision is made by the larger population that private property owners should not be allowed to use their property to perpetuate potentially harming consumptive norms then we should remove that burden from their conscious and enact policy which prevents them from dealing with that moral conundrum in the first place.

And last, the inevitable question of why on earth I think my "art" is a viable response to the proliferation of consumer messages. First, my singular voice and the small amount of OOH space I take with my civil disobedience project is a very small intrusion on the business as a whole. The benefit of my actions is the PublicAdCampaign project and the forum which it provides to talk about these issues. I think there is value in my small transgressions despite the "harm" they might cause the OOH industry in general. Second, I do everything in my power to make sure that my imagery is not an advertisement for myself. I do this by not signing my work, including weblinks or in any way promoting my project through my takeover work. The imagery itself changes with each project in an attempt to avoid the stylistic similarities which would allow viewers to recognize a piece as being made by me. My interest with taking over advertising locations is to draw viewers into the questions I have without forcing thier response. I am not criticizing the advertising content but rather the use of public space for advertising messages in general. In doing so I make simple work which I hope is enough to snap viewers out of their complacency and afford them to look at the OOH venues with a renewed critical eye. I hope that viewers of my work do not see it as another advertisement but rather a detournment that begs the question why did someone do that? do I like what they have done better? should that advetisement be there in the first place and if so do I like the new use of this space better. Unlike advertising, I would like viewers to come away not with a single thought about product purchase but with a critical response to that space which asks them to become active curators of the space that they live in.

I think the discord between our responses to this issue is in large part due to the fact that as a society we have not come to any firm conclusions about the questions posed. Engaging a dialogue about the issues is the first step in determining our future direction and if for no other reason our email conversation is an important step in the right direction. I hope we can continue this conversation further over the coming months.

Thank you Jordan Seiler

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home

      Sharon Zukin
      The Cultures of Cities

      Miriam Greenberg
      Branding New York

      Naomi Klein
      No Logo

      Kalle Lasn
      Culture Jam

      Stuart Ewen
      Captains of Consciousness

      Stuart Ewen
      All Consuming Images

      Stuart & Elizabeth Ewen
      Channels of Desire

      Jeff Ferrell
      Crimes of Style

      Jeff Ferrell
      Tearing Down the Streets

      John Berger
      Ways of Seeing

      Joe Austin
      Taking the Train

      Rosalyn Deutsche
      Evictions art + spatial politics

      Jane Jacobs
      Death+Life of American Cities