You might think they creep around in the dead of night, dressed head-to-toe in black, but most of them operate in broad daylight, disguised in high-vis jackets that make them look official.
The really committed ones have even ironed on an outdoor company’s logo that they’ve downloaded from an online manual, which is also where they learn how to ‘hack’ bus stops and other outdoor sites.
They are ‘subvertisers’, ‘brandalists’ – an ‘international collective of artists’ – and they believe it is their duty to revolt against, and challenge, the corporate control of culture and space, aka advertising.
The latest target of their corporate warfare is Shell, in protest against its ‘Make The Future’ earlier this month – an annual effort to promote the oil company’s renewable energy technologies to millennials and convince the world it is a progressive and ethical business.
Unsurprisingly, this hasn’t gone down well with everyone. And so people have been hijacking bus stops and replacing ads around the UK, as well as putting up subverted ads outside Shell’s HQ in London, accusing the oil and gas giant of ‘greenwashing’, ‘crass artwashing’ and ‘chatting gas’ – pointing out its continued fossil fuel extraction and historic denial of climate change, and accusing it of human rights abuses and causing earthquakes in the Netherlands.
Meanwhile, ‘Tescum’ (Tesco), ‘Dumpland’ (Iceland), ‘Wasterose’ (Waitrose) and ‘Skipway’ (Subway) are also making cameo appearances on the London Underground and at bus stops as part of a subvertising campaign highlighting food waste.
In another campaign, one tube poster reads: ‘I wonder how much the women and children who make them get paid’ on an ad for women’s fashion label Pretty Little Thing.
The mission to reveal a different side of a brand – often the side the company wants to keep quiet – is something activists have been doing for years. The question is, in 2018, when even the smallest act can be massively amplified online, what impact does this have on brands and should they be concerned?
Let’s face it: global businesses such as Shell, which are sitting on billions of pounds, are probably not going to lose sleep over what they most likely perceive to be a few silly bus stop ads.
But even the smallest snowballs can cause avalanches.
We are now more connected, informed, engaged and switched on than ever. We can find anything out almost instantaneously thanks to mobile internet access, while social media allows us to communicate with one another from all corners of the globe – and turn fringe groups into global collectives.
A tweet or Facebook post can go viral in a matter of hours; a single poster has the power to spark conversations and make people question things they might not have done before. Which makes it much harder for brands to get away with things that they might have been able to in the past.
It’s a double-edged sword: people care about issues and want businesses to play a part in effecting positive change, but not everybody wants or needs a business to have ‘purpose’ or be ‘culturally relevant’. And when that purpose is at odds with something else that business is doing, it’s not going to go unnoticed. If anything, it draws more attention to the bad than good.
So what should brands that fall victim to the vigilant eye and artistic flair of the subvertiser do?
Shell thinks being honest is the answer. “We want to work to help solve the world’s energy challenges, and that includes working with those who disagree with us,” it says. “We will always be open to and indeed welcome honest and constructive discussion and debate.”
Indeed, honesty and authenticity are especially important traits for brands to have in this day and age – particularly for those wishing to engage increasingly socially and ethically conscious millennials.
And in a world where published platforms have been democratised by social media, being able to have a two-way conversation with your critics – whether they take to Twitter or the Tube – will be invaluable in building longer-term trust in brands.
People care about issues and want businesses to play a part in effecting positive change, but not everybody wants or needs a business to have ‘purpose’ or be ‘culturally relevant’
People have always had a voice. The difference now is that there are so many ways to be heard, to call things out and shoot them down (or deface bus stop ads). In the past it would have taken a big newspaper to unpick hypocrisy; now, it can be done by anyone, anywhere, and pick up speed very quickly.
It can only be seen as a good thing that brands want to have a positive impact on the world – be that socially, environmentally or politically. But this means marketers will need to work harder to make sure they formulate campaigns that are much more bulletproof, otherwise they leave themselves open to attack.
It might only seem like a silly tube ad, but if brands try and pull the wool over people’s eyes, the voice of the critic will only get louder.