Subvertisers, like Adbusters, appropriate advertising's forms and tropes and parodise advertising, revealing the concealed obscenities that lurk beneath polished brand surfaces. But inasmuch as the subvertisers themselves have often worked as advertising professionals, we can also see subvertising as a dialogue conducted within advertising practice. Advertising too has its own subversive element with many agencies defined by a productive tension that exists between creative and account planning divisions. Moreover, often the most effective ads directly engage with subversive symbolism.
|An example of Adbusters|
An example of advertising that engages with subversion is the ill-fated Levis 2011 ad that drew from Bukowski’s Laughing Heart and depicted wild sexuality and urban rioting. This ad reproduces three aspects of subversive advertising. First, it beckons the consumer to imagine himself/herself as a ‘free spirit’ by advocating authentic and bohemian ways of being. Second, such ads are post-political; they channel the consumer’s radicality away from direct political action towards lifestyle solutions by consuming products, like denim jeans. Third, advertising negates itself, or renders itself invisible, by adopting the voice of its antagonist. Often marketing techniques, like advertising or the corporate formation of so-called ‘online communities’ re-organise consumer behaviour so to encourage participants to identify their behaviour as organic manifestations of self-organising autonomy. Here we witness marketing’s desire to conceal itself and hide behind its own shadow.
Such techniques are not new. The Austrian pioneer of PR and modern marketing, Edward Bernays (nephew of Freud) conflated advertising and proto-feminist movements by convincing women marchers to smoke Lucky Strike as ‘Torches of Freedom’ that would materialise their commitment to challenging the patriarchy in 1929. Again, we see the product imagined as a technology for radical subjectivisation –they promise that women will radically achieve autonomy by smoking cigarettes. Second we see the post-political implication as female empowerment is re-routed into consumer decision-making. Third, we note the concealment of advertising as the branding was kept subtle during the march. As authors like Thomas Frank (in his book Conquest of Cool) or Douglas Holt (in How Brands Become Icons) further demonstrate, in seminal advertising campaigns like Bill Bernbach’s Lemon ads for Volkswagen or Coca-Cola’s I’d Like To Buy theWorld a Coke, we see advertising inscribe itself subtly as interventions in solidarity with radical positions.
|Torches of Freedom|
As such we can talk about subversive advertising as riding a line between the symbolic universe and the real. Such advertising can only be parasitic of subversion, it must never valorise actual subversion, only flirt with symbolic aspects. Yet as advertising rides this line, risk is produced. The cancellation of the Levis ad in 2011 is an example; before the ad was launched, the London riots erupted and suddenly the depiction of rioting appeared too close to the bone. In hindsight, it is bizarre that Levis ever thought it should celebrate rioting, yet according to subvertising’s post-political logic, we speculate that they believed that there could not be a riot, that politics was over and all that was left was the symbolic imagery of rioting that they could casually harvest. In short, they depicted rioting because they could not imagine that a riot might actually take place.
The term that we give to this unpleasant sensation of a collision between the real and the supposedly divested symbolic realm is the uncanny. For Freud, the uncanny is what occurs when that which we believed had been surmounted and dispelled returns unexpectedly, like the dead coming back to life. Inasmuch as subvertising must draw from the cutting edge of consumer culture, it looks to our future, an emissary who tells us what we will soon have dispelled. At such moments, advertising is at its greatest risk of exposing itself in the act of organising our symbolic universe and the affect is uncanny.