Ad creeps

by Rob Horning

1 February 2007


As was widely reported, a stealth/guerilla ad campaign for the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim went “haywire” in Boston. (Boston Globe’s Brainiac blog has lots of interesting coverage.) People mistook the ads—which look like Lite-Brites with a cartoon character giving the finger—for bombs, as they were placed in semi-surreptitious manner on bridges, overpasses and subway stations. This seems like a pretty bad idea, and you might wonder what the ad agency, the aptly named Interference Inc., was thinking, though arresting ad henchmen over it seems extreme. They may as well throw those clowns who talk loudly about products on the subway in the klink. I guess I might feel differently if I had been sitting in a traffic jam in Boston, but then again when am I ever driving in Boston and not in a traffic jam? 
But it seems like this is the inevitable destination of “ad creep”—ads seeking new places to garner attention as targets learn to filter out their omnipresence elsewhere. What could garner more attention than something that looks like a suspicious package? It’s not called guerilla marketing for nothing. In the video showing how these boxes were installed, it seems like they were taking their revolutionary marketing practices pretty seriously, as though it was something truly subversive. (Fitting, as adults who watch cartoons seem to suspect their is soemthing radical in their praxis.) And their surrealist bantering with the media after being released on bail reinforces that impression: “Outside, they met reporters and television cameras and launched into a nonsensical discussion of hair styles of the 1970s. ‘What we really want to talk about today — it’s kind of important to some people — it’s haircuts of the 1970s,’ Berdovsky said.” Ha, ha ha. Is there anything these irreverent zanies won’t do in their quest to liberate us from staid boredom?

These pseudosubversive practices certainly seem to undermine the political potential of DeBordian detournement strategies and other similar cultural “interventions”—what’s so dastardly about advertising is that it’s an industry organized to systematically co-opt any interesting, innovative, or aresting way to communicate, such that now all forms of rhetoric seem diseased with inauthenticity, even the most radical forms of anti-social activity can now seem staged and phony. The very act of getting someone’s attention has itself become suspect; it tends always to feel like a hoax.

In my early-morning fugue state I seem to recall hearing on NPR a discussion of whether this hullaballoo over a terror scare constitutes success for the ad campaign. If the goal is to attract attention with no heed for the comfort or willingness of individuals to see it, then it seems to have been pretty successful to me. Perhaps Interference Inc. can come up with ads embedded in buildings’ fire alarms or in the sirens of ambulances. Perhaps they can kidnap people from in front of ATM machines and make them listen to speeches about proprietary fruit juices. The act of stealing someone’s attention has been decriminalized and to a large extent normalized (this is perhaps why people in cities besides Boston paid no mind to these boxes) and now there’s no obvious limit beyond which advertisers should not go.

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